Budgeting for Two: Under $25 a Week!
- Plan, plan, plan! Make a meal plan for the next week with your desired budget in mind. Mine is $20 with a little wiggle room. When I make a plan and a list, I am much less likely to make impulse buys. You can do as I do and plan based on what you have and what you want to eat, or if you live near a good grocery store for sales, you can plan based on the upcoming sales. Unfortunately, I don’t have the frequent sales luxury.
- Instead of making impulse buys, I make a mental note to find a recipe for something I found interesting or to add it to the list for next week. This also keeps those “what am I supposed to do with this?” items out of your pantry and refrigerator.
- Use what you have first. Before I even think about my meal plan, I check my fridge and pantry to see what I already have. I usually base my meals off of those ingredients before planning completely new meals. This helps me avoid wasting food and keeps my grocery total low.
- Pay attention to serving sizes. Almost every food item (minus un-packaged produce) has the servings per container written on it. While some people require more or less, most of us can get by just fine eating the recommended serving amounts. It’s also a great way to prevent giving out too much food, which is then wasted. If you or a family member require more food per meal, take that into account while planning.
- Take leftovers for lunch instead of buying sandwich stuffs or going out. I make many meals that serve 6-8. Yes, you saw right! For two people, 8 servings provides 2 lunches and 2 dinners. It’s actually cheaper to buy the ingredients to make a larger meal than to buy ingredients for multiple smaller meals.
- Make meals that serve 6-8. As I said in the previous bullet, buying the ingredients for a larger meal is actually cheaper than buying ingredients for smaller meals. Here are two reasons why: smaller-sized containers are often more expensive per ounce, and you waste less food by using it all at once. You can also freeze extras for another week if you do not want to eat the leftovers immediately.
- Use coupons, but only use them for items you plan to buy anyway. Coupons are made to tempt you to buy products you might not buy otherwise. If you start buying extra items just because you have a coupon, you’re not really saving any money.
- Give the store brand a try. While there are some name brands I prefer for certain food items, usually the store brand works just fine. If you don’t like it, don’t buy it next time.
- One way I budget for more expensive meals is to fill in the rest of the week with really inexpensive meals. For example, if I really want to have a nice meal one week, such as one with chicken breast or steak, I plan the rest of the meals to be something like breakfast tacos and pasta with tomato sauce. I usually at least try to make the nice meal provide us with a leftovers-lunch the next day.
- Have breakfast for dinner. Many breakfast foods are pretty inexpensive. Eggs, for example, are cheap and provide a great source of protein. I have also found that pancake mix, biscuits, and other breakfast breads are easy to make from scratch if you have a recipe. Making them from scratch saves you money and is often healthier. You can also add fresh or frozen fruit and a little meat if you desire. Sausage is moderately priced and full of flavor.
- Use only one meat a week. As meat is only one source of protein, check out your other options. Beans and eggs are great sources of protein and are much cheaper! If tofu’s your thing, it’s also a good source of protein. If you find a good sale on meat, buy a few packs and freeze them. Just make sure you use them before they get freezer burn. If your family loves meat at every meal, look for less expensive cuts and make the most out of what you have by stretching it throughout the week.
- Substitute ground chuck with breakfast sausage (not the Italian links type.) Sausage is full of flavor and makes a great addition to pasta sauces and soups. It is also about fifty cents to a dollar cheaper per pound! I don’t do this often, however, as sausage is more fatty than ground chuck.
- Stretch your meat. Many of us eat way more meat than we are supposed to because we’ve never learned the proper portion sizes. One chicken breast can feed two people in one meal if plenty of veggies and starches are provided. I hardly ever serve a hunk of meat. It’s usually cut up or shredded for distribution throughout a meal.
In order to stretch some hamburger meat for burgers, I added some smashed black beans I had cooked earlier in the week. They turned out great. One half pound of meat and about a cup or a bit more of cooked, drained black beans, along with egg, seasonings, and bread crumbs, made 4 good-sized burgers.
We recently enjoyed this recipe which used thin beef steaks which I sliced into strips. I seasoned them with salt, pepper, and garlic powder and pan-fried them with just a little oil in the skillet to keep them from sticking. I served them with sliced mushrooms and onions which I cooked after the meat. We added a little cheddar cheese to mimic a type of Philly cheese steak without the bun. It made a hearty 4 servings from just 2 steaks, 8 oz of white mushrooms, and 1/2 an onion! We also ate two veggies with the meal.
- Buy dry beans and cook them yourself. It takes a little more time and effort, but you have more control over the ingredients in your food this way. Also, dried beans are tons cheaper than canned ones.
Give them a pick through and a good rinse before you quick soak your beans. Low boil them in water without salt for an hour, all the time monitoring the water level. (If I am cooking black beans, I usually rinse them and add more water before adding the seasonings due to their black dye, especially if I am adding them to soup.) I add salt and seasonings, and then continue to cook them for 30 minutes. They almost always turn out great. (I’ve been known to burn a batch, so watch your water level! I keep a 15-30 minute timer going to remind me.)
I usually substitute about 1 cup of dried beans for one 15 oz can, which I think is a bit much but it works out well as 1/4 cup of dried beans is one recommended serving size. Also, if you are planning on using the whole bag during the week, cook them all at once at the beginning of the week. They will keep well in the refrigerator for the week.
You may also cook them in a crock pot. They soften better in my experience if they are soaked first (either quick-soak or overnight). I add beans, water about 2 inches above, salt, pepper, and other seasonings. Cook on low for 8-10 hours or on high for 4-5 hours. You’ll still want to watch the water level, but if you add plenty of water, it should be okay.
*Quick Soaking Method: Boil your picked-through and rinsed beans for 2 minutes. Cover and let sit for one hour. Drain and rinse before cooking.
BUDGET (VEGETARIAN) PINTO BEAN SEASONING: Instead of using salty meats to flavor dry pinto beans (and many other dry beans as well), I use one to a few DRY BAY LEAVES. The bay flavor is delicious with beans, and it is much cheaper than bacon or salt pork. I also add salt and pepper. [I guess this makes sense because pintos and bays are also colors of horses. They just go together! :) ]
- Buy rice in bulk. Rice is a great dollar and meal stretcher. One cup of dried rice is the equivalent of 4 servings as it doubles in size during cooking. While I like white and brown rice as is, they are also perfect bases for all sorts of other flavors. I particularly like to cook mine with spices, herbs, and frozen veggies. One way to add extra flavor to white rice is to cook it for a couple of minutes in butter before adding the water and seasonings. I rinse it well before I do this. (It’s also a decent gluten-free substitute for crackers in meatloaf.) I do agree with one reader that rice is not super filling, but ‘beggars can’t be choosers’ sometimes. I have found brown rice to be more filling than white rice.
My Seasoned Rice Go-To Recipe: (4 servings)
I always have these ingredients on hand! It’s a tastier alternative to plain white rice.
Heat 1 tbsp butter in a saucepan on medium heat. Add 1/3 cup of finely diced onion and cook until translucent but not browned (about 5 minutes). Stir in 1 cup of RINSED and DRAINED white rice. Saute the rice until it is ever-so-slightly browned and coated with the butter (about 3-5 minutes). Pour in 2 cups of chicken broth (or 2 cups of water and 2 chicken bullion cubes). Add 1 tbsp dried parsley, 1 tsp garlic powder, and 1/2 tsp salt. Stir in 1/2 cup of frozen peas and carrots. Bring to a simmer. Cover and simmer on medium low for 20 minutes. Make sure the rice is always simmering or it will not cook properly. Fluff with a fork and enjoy!
- Pasta is a great dollar-stretcher as well since it costs around a dollar a box. One box of pasta, if you use the recommended servings, will make 7-8 servings. Whole wheat pasta is packed with nutritional goodness. Semolina is just yummy. Often, I make all the sauce at once and just enough pasta for dinner that night and lunch the next day. For our next pasta meal that week, I cook the pasta fresh and heat up the sauce.
Gluten free pasta is about 2x the price for 2 less servings, but it still isn’t that expensive in the long run. It also has a good flavor. I find that the varieties with corn and rice flour are more like wheat pasta in texture and taste over rice flour-only pasta. If you have a family member who is sensitive to gluten, you could buy both GF and wheat and cook them separately. I wouldn’t recommend this in a household with a member who is allergic to gluten or wheat.
- Another inexpensive and healthy base ingredient is potatoes. At our local store, we can get 5 lbs of Russet potatoes for about $3.50. That’s a lot of potatoes, but they last fairly well in the darkness of our pantry. Some easy ways to cook potatoes are baked, mashed, fried, baked fries, and casseroles. They make a great addition to soups as well. Another favorite potato of mine is the baby red potato. I find I can stretch a bag fairly well over several meals. They are great for roasted herb potato side dishes, and since you don’t have to peel them, they are easy to prepare.
- Don’t forget your veggies! While some vegetables are expensive, inexpensive and very healthy ones exist.
For instance, sweet potatoes are packed with nutrition and pretty cheap. My favorite way to enjoy them is to clean them, rub them down with oil (which helps them release their skins), wrap them in aluminum foil, and bake them at 425 degrees F for about 1 hour and 15 minutes. By then, they are tender, sweet, and delicious! I just add a little butter and salt. No need for marshmallows or brown sugar!
Another tip for veggies is to buy them in season. If they are expensive right now, try looking for the frozen ones (if you are going to cook them). They are just as healthy and, as they are frozen, will keep longer if you don’t need the whole amount that week. Frozen veggies are also reasonably priced. My staples are frozen corn, peas, peas and carrots, and broccoli. They make great additions to just about anything.
Some fresh veggies that are versatile and inexpensive year-round are carrots, onions, potatoes, and whole white mushrooms (aka fungus).
Kale makes a good and not-soggy addition to soups. It isn’t too expensive either and stays a bit crispy, which we like.
I’ve also found that small sweet peppers are often cheaper than bell peppers if I can substitute then. My grocery has them in a hefty bag for about the same price as a couple of bells.
- Buy fruits when they are in season. If you pay attention to prices, you’ll notice that some fruits are more expensive at certain times of year than at others. In winter, your best bets are apples and oranges. In the summer, the prices of peaches, apricots, strawberries, grapes, other berries, plums, and melons drop a little. I can’t help you with bananas as I can’t stand them, but I think they are always a good buy as well. Canned fruits in their own juice (with no added sugar) are also healthy and normally a good buy. Frozen fruits (or frozen by you) can also be good options. Frozen blueberries are particularly good in pancakes.
- Choose inexpensive breakfast foods. Oatmeal is a fantastic dollar-stretcher because it is inexpensive and comes in large containers. You can also use the oats to make cookies or muffins. I buy the quick-cooking kind and have had no trouble using them in recipes. Granola bars are also not bad on a budget for warmer days and on-the-go breakfasts. Just be sure to but ones that are not loaded down with sugar. You can also make your own. Note: My husband does not eat breakfast except on weekends. He just can’t handle it that early.
- Grow a small garden if you can. Although our garden this year did not dramatically reduce our grocery budget, it was fun growing veggies to add to our meals. This year we grew squash, cucumbers, bell peppers, jalapeno peppers, habanero peppers (hubby likes spicy foods), and watermelon. A friend of ours happily received a bunch of our surplus squash and cucumbers. For some, this seriously helps out with their budgets, so it’s worth a try. Herbs and tomatoes can also be grown in pots and brought indoors in the winter. Herbs make good indoor plants as well.
- Be creative! Recipes are great, and I love searching my cookbooks and the internet for new recipes. However, I often find that one recipe will end up maxing out my budget. One way I handle this is to substitute some of the ingredients with cheaper versions or with foods I plan on buying (or already have) and will have a surplus of anyway, such as sweet onions for green onions. I sometimes substitute the type of meat, the vegetables, or the starch ingredients. (I don’t buy green onions because I find them unnecessary. I also don’t buy celery because neither of us care much for it. I just leave it out of all the soups that call for it. It’s okay to leave out or add ingredients.)
- Step out of your comfort zone. Most of us grew up eating a set group of meals. Here in the Southern U.S., many people were raised on meals consisting of a sizable portion of meat, at least 3 vegetables (mac and cheese counts as a vegetable), and a roll or cornbread. This is generally a healthy-style meal for a hard-working man just coming in from the fields. When I go to a “meat and three,” I can’t eat half of what’s on my plate. Anyways, the point is, back then that was inexpensive because most of the food (including the meat) was grown on the farm. Nowadays, it can get pricey. Instead of always sticking to what you are used to, try to branch out and find new cuisines. I often find many Asian and Mexican dishes to be budget-friendly. Also, there’s always pasta from Italy!
- Don’t buy tons of snacks and prepackaged goodies. They are expensive and often do not add any nutrition to your diet. It’s best to keep more nutritional snacks, like almonds and fruit, rather than cookies and chips. I also like to make our meals filling enough that we aren’t constantly searching for snacks. I make all of our cakes, cupcakes, and cookies from scratch when we want or need them. However, sometimes it’s okay to splurge on a bag of corn chips with their salty goodness!
- Cut out desserts (some). You don’t have to have a dessert after every meal. Trust me! If sweets are making you go over budget, cut back on them. It may also be cheaper to make your own. Another alternative is to enjoy a piece of fresh fruit or a square of dark chocolate from time to time. I don’t have a heavy sweet tooth, so this isn’t too hard for me. I do love good dark chocolate though! Yum!