Real Food Tips: 12 Ways to Keep it Cheap

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During this time last year our family of four was gearing up for our “100 Days of Real Food on a Budget” pledge. But once the pledge ended (in January 2011) I stopped sticking to our strict food budget of $125/week, and I often wonder how I even managed to do it. Just the other day I was reading some of my old budget blog posts, and on one shopping excursion I somehow left my favorite grocery store (Earth Fare) after only spending $67. If you want to know what I spent at Earth Fare earlier this week….well, just add about $100 – yikes! It is amazing how much more you spend when you don’t have a specific budget in place to help you keep it cheap. The scary thing is though, I sort of was “trying” not to spend a lot the other day. Now my effort didn’t go beyond a conscious thought in my head, but I should know by now that just thinking about being on a budget never really works. :)

As some of you know, my husband and I were fortunate enough to go on a very adventurous – and expensive! – trip to Asia earlier this month. So, for us, there is no better time than now to get back on the food budget bandwagon. I won’t be doing another official budget “pledge,” but since I’ve already proved this could be done I don’t really have any good excuses to convince my husband to let me off the hook (darn!). So for all of us – me included – here are some budget tips that I could never be reminded of enough. And if you have any advice I left out please share in the comments below…

  1. Set a specific budget. This tip may sound basic, but as I just said simply thinking about “not spending a lot of money” DOES NOT work! Here’s how to structure a budget…
    • Pick a realistic budget amount that you will adhere to each week or month. I personally think a weekly budget is easier to follow because you can’t go too far over budget before you realize you are in trouble.
    • Consider using cash in an envelope so going “over budget” isn’t even possible. (For those who’ve heard of Dave Ramsey, yes, we’ve both read his book!) Also, no matter what, make a commitment that if you do for some reason go over budget you will deduct that amount from the following week or month.
    • Define what will and will not be included in the budget. Will it just be for food or for household items too? What about alcohol, entertaining, and going out to eat?
    • Keep track of all your expenses on paper whether you use cash or not. It is important to see where your money goes.
    • Share and discuss the running budget total with the other adults in your household…accountability is what it’s all about!
  2. Be organized and plan out your meals for the week. Last minute purchases that you haven’t put a lot of thought into can add up fast.
  3. Minimize waste by saving all uneaten food instead of throwing anything away.
  4. Know and use what you have on hand especially if it’s perishable. Even consider keeping an inventory list of food on your fridge or freezer so different family members can check off items as they use them. I know my husband is more likely to eat something in the fridge if I leave a note telling him it is there (don’t ask me why)!
  5. Make substitutions in recipes to reduce how many things you have to buy…or even leave out a small ingredient all together.
  6. Maximize “cheap” foods like bananas, beans, and pasta. Here are some of our favorite super cheap recipes:
  7. When making inexpensive meals like soups and pasta dishes double the recipe and freeze the leftovers for when you have one of those days where you just don’t have time to plan out a good dinner.
  8. Make sacrifices like drinking water instead of milk and skipping juice and other flavored beverages all together. If you really have trouble kicking the juice habit at least water it down a little so the juice lasts longer.
  9. Reduce your consumption of meat and desserts. Meat can be a big-ticket item and while dessert is certainly a “nice to have” it is by no means a regular necessity (sorry)! Also experiment with “stretching” your meat dishes by mixing in veggies and/or beans.
  10. Buy produce that’s in-season and if you like to frequent your local farmers’ market try going just before closing time to get some great deals on items the vendors won’t want to haul back to the farm.
  11. If you can’t afford the organic version of everything consult the dirty dozen list.
  12. Check your receipt after you get home to make sure your money was spent wisely (most grocery stores accept returns!).


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175 comments to Real Food Tips: 12 Ways to Keep it Cheap

  • janet

    Hubby and I have kept our enitre fod and grocery bill under $150/m for years. Recently have decided to buy organic produce from the Farmers Market instead of conventionally grown from a local ethnic market. After averaging less than 65 cents a pound for my produce, it is now between $2-3/lb. Yikes! It’s been 2 months and we are now just focused on keeping the food bill at $150 but that doesn’t include cat food or alcohol ( it used to ). Most important is to start with the budget number and meticulously track all expenditures throughout the month. When you are down to the last $20 it is time to make the decision to stop spending. Anyone can do it, it just takes some discipline. Thanks for the great blog!!!!

  • Our family of 8 (granted, two are infants…but the rest are boys) eats a mostly vegetarian/whole foods diet for under $100 a week, including all cleaning products, toiletries, etc. We don’t focus on organic so much as we do local, seasonal, and fresh. Living in south GA, I think it’s pretty easy to eat local foods year around, for pretty inexpensively. I also preserve whatever is in season by freezing or canning, to eat the rest of the year. I am not a big couponer, but I do save a LOT of money by shopping the sales cycle (every item in the store hits its lowest price every 6-8 weeks, so I buy enough when it’s at that price to last until it hits that price again…think olive oil, peanut butter, whole wheat pasta, oatmeal, toilet paper, etc). I think that makes the biggest difference in my grocery budget. I go to the store one time a week, that’s it, as well as shop the farmer’s market once a week. What meat we do eat is venison that my hubby shot, or salmon my father caught on his once a year Alaska fishing trips. I buy almost no canned foods, and very few disposable items (with the exception of trash bags and toilet paper). Anyway, I am enjoying reading everyone’s tips! Always good stuff to learn from everyone.

  • CynthiaT

    I actually don’t meal plan at all. I found it cost me more because I don’t like feeling pinned down. I shop for what I call my staples and stockpile when things are on sale. I buy my beef (100% grassfed) directly from the rancher as needed. I belong to a produce buying co-operative and we buy from the farmer’s market but buying as a collective we get lower prices (sometimes half of normal retail).

    I half a lot of food allergies to contend with as well. I batch cook when I am making a recipe that lends itself to it and put at least one or two extra nights meals in the freezer for another night. I make my own stock, because I’m allergic to onions, and freeze it. I like having my deep freezer stocked and my pantry and fridge well supplied. This way I can cook what I’m in the mood to cook and find I actually run to the store less often. I shop every two weeks and that works well for us.

  • Mellie

    I have a great way to get good (even organic) produce for cheap. Find out where the closest food terminal is to you – the place where all the grocery stores go to pick up their produce. Most cities have at least one or two. They will sell produce to the public, but you have to buy them in big cases.

    So, gather a group of friends (my group has 6, since most of the cases of produce are divisible by 6). We each pitch in a certain amount of money every other week, and one of us goes and picks up several cases of organic food. Then we take it back to a central location and split it up evenly between us.

    I can’t tell you how much money you can save this way. I see heads of cauliflower at the store (organic) for $5 a head, when I can pay $25 for a box of 12. Even better, sometimes they carry “seconds” – bruised, misshaped or overripe vegetables, which they sell at just a dollar or two for an entire case. The overripe things I take home, chop up and freeze (veggies) to use in recipes, or make a jam (fruit).

    I don’t buy any produce at grocery stores anymore, and I always have tons of fresh fruits and vegetables at home.

    Just wanted to share! :)

  • Kec

    To any of you readers who want some more tips to reduce their food and living costs, I would recommend The Tightwad Gazette by Amy Dacyczyn, in whatever form she’s using these days (books, online?).

    I know she used to write books in the 1990′s, she probably still does but I haven’t looked. She’s probably the Queen of stretching your food dollar, or anything-dollar actually. Somehow, she fed her family of 8 on $180/month! In 1998, but wow.

    Food is just one area which she aims to provide low-cost, homemade, or creative options. Although her objective is “frugal living” and “re-using”, not necessarily eliminating processed food, often there’s a big overlap. One cute non-food idea is to melt broken and old crayons in muffin tins in the oven to make “Scribble Cookies”.

    Anyway, about the Slow-cooker Refried Beans recipe from this blog site – got my beans soaking and ready to cook tomorrow. Thanks for the recipe!


    I am a working mom. I really don’t have a lot of time to budget and price match are there any “cheater” websites out there to help with this?

  • [...] are some more delish Recopies here (including a banana smoothie:) LD_AddCustomAttr("AdOpt", "1"); LD_AddCustomAttr("Origin", [...]

  • My husband and I have a little one, and another on the way, and I’m proud to say that we:
    1. live in NYC
    2. spend about $50 or $60 a WEEK on groceries.
    We eat healthy homemade foods and bake from scratch, and NEVER have to use coupons.
    My tips? Besides the obvious, which is bake from scratch, make your own spagetti sauces, pesto sauce (from home grown basil), take advantage of sales in your store, and plan your meal accordingly.
    I make my own granola. For the price of buying granola (here, it’s about $5 for a small box), I can make a HUGE amount to last me a good while.
    Make your own sauces.
    And I don’t really do meal planning, because like another commenter, I too, do not like being pinned down. Rather, I go by the sales in the stores, and I go by what I fancy at the moment.
    Cooking beans, soups, and pastas are always cheaper. And if you make your own spagetti sauces and things, it is even less.
    When you roast a chicken, save the bones and make your own chicken broth! Or make your own vegetable broth, whenever.

  • Shadnee Breeden

    One thing I like to do is buy a Medium sized pot roast, cook it in the crock pot with carrots and potatoes. We have pot roast with postatoes and carrots that night, then I shred the rest and split it up and we’ll have roast tacos, roast quesadillas, roast gyros, and poast pockets (wrapped up with cheese inside crescent rolls). It turns a $10.00 roast into 5 different meals!

  • [...] It doesn’t have to cost an arm and a leg to be able to eat healthful, nonprocessed, or even organic foods.  Many people think that buying healthful and organic foods is an expensive luxury that we cannot afford.  But thanks to a wonderful blog titled “100 Days of Real Food,” we learn that this is not always true. (Visit the blog site HERE.) It offers information on many different topics, from recipes, meal planning, and tips for shopping for nonprocessed foods to how to stop eating processed foods, budgeting ideas, and more. The post I found most beneficial and inspiring was titled “12 Ways to Keep it Cheap” (to see the full blog post, go HERE.) [...]

  • Our weekly grocery budget is $100 for our family of 3. This includes cleaning supplies, toiletries etc. We eat a whole food, plant-based diet. I plan the week’s menu on Sunday and go grocery shopping that day only. I buy our beans in 25 pound bags that last us over 2 months. I don’t have to buy meat or dairy (I make our rice milk – saving us at least $50/month).

  • Jen B

    I include household & personal items in our grocery budget. To keep it manageable, I buy as many of these items that I can at the local $1 store. It really helps!

  • Megan

    This is so encouraging! My poor hubby thinks our budget is too high, but we’re a family of 6 spending $150- $200 a week! Plus, our kids have allergies so we;re dairy-free and mostly gluten free. After reading these comments, I don’t think I’m doing so bad!

  • Amber

    The envelope system has saved my husband and I a lot of money! We started it as soon as we got married, then got weak and slacked off, completely. We then realized we were spending $800 a month on groceries and household products! We immediately went back to the envelope system and now spending $400 a month. I do break this up and allow $100 a month. And we eat majority natural and organic. Of course we are a family of 4 (2 year old and 4 month old). We use the envelope system for eating out, date nights, fun spending per each person, gifts (for birthday parties, teachers, etc), diapers/wipes, and we have a miscellaneous, for things around the house i.e. holiday decor, new pictures, home decor.

  • Lora Reynolds

    I love the cash system because you know how much money you have to last for 2 weeks. When we run out, we do not buy and use what we have. I average $125 week, this includes household items as well. I coupon because I like items like LaraBars and bread from a local bread store that makes it from scratch every morning(I do make my own from time to time). I also go to the Grocery Outlet, where they have a good selection of organic products. We went through Financial Peace with Dave Ramsey and recommend it. Paying in cash (envelope system) is the best advice for keeping on a budget!

  • EFaithW

    Meal planning is the way to go! I am a full time working mom and find that planning every meal is the best way to optimize your food dollars and eliminate the urge to get take-out. Every Sunday, after church, I take my list to Trader Joe’s and the farmer’s market to get everything we need. I spend the rest of the evening writing out our meal calendar and prep cooking. I make 3 days worth of breakfast burritos or sandwiches, bake muffins, cook a whole chicken in the slow cooker, and chop up vegetables for the next two days. Yes, it takes work, but it saves tons of money!
    We are a “real food” family and spend far less on groceries than any of my processed food and take-out junky friends. I love so many of the recipes I’ve tried from this site and my picky eaters do too! Here is my huge question:

    How do I get my husband to go meatless a couple times per week?

    He is a personal trainer who works out a lot. He understands nutrition and fully supports our real food lifestyle, but feels that he needs meat at lunch and dinner every single day. Any ideas to partially ween him from his meat addiction are greatly appreciated!


    • 100 Days of Real Food

      You and your husband should watch Forks over Knives b/c there is a weight-lifter type guy on the movie who is vegan…meaning no animal products at all!

  • Heather

    Another great way to keep track of your spending if you’re using the envelope system (we do!) is the EEBA app for the Droid and iPhone. It’s a real-time electronic envelope system, and it’s FREE!! My husband and I both have it downloaded to our phone and we add our expenditures as soon as we spend money, withdraw money, or deposit money into any of these budget envelopes. It keeps track in real time so if he spends money, I will see it right away and know what we have left in each envelope. It’s a lifesaver!

  • [...] that I just today found this blog! 100 Days of Real Food has quite an interesting history. In 2010 the Leake family went on a 100 day journey to cut out all processed food from their diet. While their original 100 [...]

  • These are great tips! I use most of them. The one I always seem to forget is check your receipt. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve arrived home and looked at my receipt to see I was charged a price different than I expected. I really need to remember to check while still in the store!
    I’ve added a link to this page on one of my resource pages. Thanks for a helpful article.

  • Cherie

    Do you have any weekly menu suggestions for a family of four? If so I would love to give it a try.

  • We used to waste a lot of money by throwing food out. With just the two of us, it is sometimes difficult to eat through everything before it goes bad. So I freeze a TON of stuff now.

    We don’t each much sandwich bread at home, so before we’d buy a loaf at the beginning of the week from the grocery store, sometimes eat through half of it before it started going bad, throw it out and have to buy another loaf, eat half of that….and so on and so on. Now we buy the honey whole wheat from Great Harvest, ask them to slice it, throw it in the freezer and one of those will last us a month sometimes (we reeeaally don’t eat a lot of sandwich bread). With it pre-sliced, we take out a slice at a time, it thaws in minutes, or throw in oven/toaster and none of the $5 loaf ever goes to waste.

    I do the same thing with a lot of veggies. We get produce delivered through a local service once every two weeks. The veggies we know we’ll eat right away in the first few days are fresh when we eat them and we can leave those on counter or in fridge, but what about veggies I’m planning to use next week or near the end of the two weeks before the next delivery? I go ahead and chop those up (broccoli, carrots, onion, celery – that one does not freeze as well, cauliflower, etc. etc.) and just take them out of freezer when I need to cook with them. This way we are able to have one produce delivery last two weeks and none of the produce goes to waste or needs to be tossed.

  • Grier Hock

    Love your tips. We are hardcore Dave fans too! I used to do lots of coupons, not so much now with our food changes. Two things we have done is join a local CSA and bought part of a grass fed cow. Neither were cheap up front, but my freezer is stocked with awesome beef and we get a HUGE bag of produce each week. Both choices ended up being way cheaper than the grocery store! We also have chickens now!

  • Great compilation of tips on how to save money on food! I believe that the most important tips are planning your meals and buying in bulk. It’s also good to check store’s brands which are sometimes as good as more expensive brands. And to keep it clean and healthy, it’s always good to stock up on vegetables and fruits!

  • Thank you so much! An internet acquaintance pointed your site out to me. We started cutting out processed food about two years ago, and after my mom was diagnosed with colon/liver cancer last July, we started cutting out a lot of our red meat too. I have always been a smart shopper, and can feed my family of 5 for $150 a week, that includes $30 that goes for raw milk and butter for the week at our local biodynamic farm (Raw-grass fed-organic milk, oh my gosh, there is no comparison.) And whatever else is needed as far as household items: cleaning supplies, paper products, personal hygiene products. Leaving what ever is left for food for the week. It CAN be done, it just requires a greater investment of time before you head out to the grocery store! So thanks again for such a great website and for showing people that it can be done, even if you’re broke. :)

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