I subscribe to the “kitchen sink” style of frugal cooking.
With a few staple meals in my back pocket, I can throw together whatever I have in my fridge with a few spices and know that I’ll have a meal that’s both healthy and tasty. It’s easy, it’s quick, and it’s frugal as hell. And considering my ridiculously low budget for groceries, it’s critical that I keep my frugal grocery game strong.
With only $100 to spend each month, making sure I get what I need and only what I need is important. And after years of practice and challenging myself to make more with less, I think I’ve got it down.
So, as promised, I want to share my secrets with you. Granted, they’re not really secrets. A quick google search will turn up most of these tactics which smart shoppers have been using for years. The difference is I’m going to give you a pretty easy road map to follow. (You don’t get too many of those these days, do you?!)
First, we’ll start with the basics.
10 Laws of Frugal Shopping
1. Always shop on a full stomach.
Shopping hungry always causes trouble. You head to the store, feel that urge to nibble and end up with twice as much as you ever planned on buying. Budget busted.
2. Make a list and stick to it.
For beginner frugal shoppers, a list is critical. It helps you remember to get everything you need and keeps you honest about your purchases. These days, I can make a quick trip to the store without a list but only because I’ve got my basics down. Still, for big trips, I always bring a list. Otherwise, I just know I’ll forget something important. Or worse, I’ll fill my cart with a bunch of things I don’t need that will only go to waste.
3. Review your cart before checkout.
Sometimes your wants and desires get the best of you as you’re strolling through the aisles. It’s happens, we’re all human. The best way to combat this is to once you’re finished shopping, find a quiet spot to review what’s in your cart before checking out. Ask yourself if you need each item in the basket. Those cookies that you needed five minutes ago? Maybe not so much. This has kept me from making so many foolish purchases. Definitely a key part of my shopping routine.
4. Shop Sales!
This one seems obvious, but it’s important to remember that you only save money if it’s a sale on something you were already going to buy. That being said, the key thing to look for sales on in-season produce and meat. Personally, I don’t find the processed food sales to ever be good enough to justify a purchase.
5. One trip per week, MAX.
The more you go, the more you spend. Limit yourself to one super prepared trip and you’ll ensure that you only get what you need. This changes based on how you want to break up your budget, too. I like to only go to the store twice a month so I try to keep my trips under $50 each. If I go over, I know I’ll have to eat down my kitchen before my next trip out.
6. Always Check the Price Per Oz.
Grocery stores usually have a little bubble on the price listing that says what the price per oz is for each item. This helps you not only choose between brands but also can tell you what size is the best bang for your buck. Rice for example — you may think you’re getting a good deal by grabbing the larger bag, but compare the price per oz to the smaller bags and sometimes you’ll find that it’s more economical to buy two small bags instead. Don’t get seduced by packaging!
7. DIY Whenever You Can.
Making things yourself will almost always be cheaper than buying ready-made. Things like sandwich bread or chicken broth are simple and easy, and will save you tons of money in the long run in exchange for just a little bit of your time. Check below for my favorite DIY recipes.
8. Know When to Buy Bulk.
Some things are always going to be cheaper by the dozen. These are the trips that can bust a budget, but will save you in the long run. I buy a giant bag of almonds and a big container of olive oil maybe once every few months. It saves me from having to purchase the smaller, more expensive sizes more often, and thus, saves me money! But be warned: some things don’t keep long enough to justify buying in bulk, especially if you’re only cooking for one. Have a big family to cook for? Then bulk is your best friend.
9. Use What You Buy.
This seems like an obvious tip, but the amount of money I’ve thrown out over the years because I let something go to waste is horrifying. Try to finish off your perishables first, learn to store leftovers, and buy things that can be easily stored. And most of all, don’t get suckered in by ambition purchases. I keep telling myself to eat more kale, but every time I buy it, it rots in my fridge—a total waste—so I stopped trying.
This is also a big reason for why I frequently opt for frozen veggies over fresh or learn to salvage things that are about to go to waste. Banana bread from mushy bananas or ice cubes of veggie purees for smoothies from my greens about to go bad — tons of ways to get the most out of what you buy.
10. Make Meals Last.
This is always my biggest hurdle because I just freaking love food. Often times, because I’m cooking for one, I’ll make a big meal and then just keep absentmindedly going back for second and thirds helpings. But by making big meals and immediately separating them into storage contains, you can ensure that your meals will last making the price per meal go down. Breaking the meal up into equal servings keeps you fed and your fridge stocked. Plus, it’s a double bonus that you’ll have a ready-made homemade lunch for tomorrow.
Stocking the Kitchen
Remember when I mentioned buying bulk? This is the perfect place for it. Having a well-stocked kitchen full of basics keeps you from having to purchase big ticket items too often. Sure, this first trip will be a pricey one, but it saves you a ton in the long run! And when it comes to spices, if you’re serious about saving money and cooking every meal at home, you’ll definitely use them up before they go bad.
Not sure what you need? I suggest:
- Sea salt
- Black pepper
- Onion powder
- Garlic powder
- Curry powder
- Red chili powder
- Crushed red pepper
- Cayenne pepper
- Olive oil
- Soy sauce
- Balsamic vinegar
- Rice wine vinegar
The key here is to buy to your personal tastes. Don’t like spicy food? Then you won’t need the cayenne pepper or crushed red peppers. Don’t care for curry? Then you won’t need that either.
There is no reason to buy something you won’t use just to have it in your kitchen.
How to Keep Your Weekly Costs Low
Now that you’ve got a basic kitchen stocked, here are my personal tips for keeping your maintenance trips to the store as affordable as possible.
First, pick a few basic, core meals that you can throw together quickly. They shouldn’t require too much thought, but still cover all the necessary food groups: protein, fruits/veggies, and carbohydrates.
My go-to meals are stir fry, curry, and soup. The key is choosing dishes that can constantly be changed. A stir fry is easy enough to make and I can toss in whatever veggies, protein, and carbs I have on hand. Same with soup! And as long as I have those three boxes checked to make sure I have a balanced meal, I can switch up my ingredients and flavors with the seasonings. Despite making the same few meals over and over, I have something different pretty much every day.
Of course, I don’t limit myself to just these few options. I also make a lot of sandwiches and smoothies. It’s about finding the easiest things for you to make and then streamlining the process to add as much variety as possible.
Next, you’ll want to put together your shopping list. This process can change depending on how you cook your meals. Back when I planned my meals in advance, I would choose my recipes ahead of time (Budget Bytes is a fantastic resource) and then build my list around what I was missing.
But now, since I have my go-to meals, I just shop by food groups.
I usually break things down into categories, and then purchase the cheapest, frugal foods in each. I’ve listed what I usually go for on my shopping trips below. (Not every time, mind you! It varies by season and what I’m craving that week.)
- Proteins: Chicken thighs, eggs, lentils, beans, rotisserie chicken, discount/sale meats, canned tuna.
- Veggies: Peppers, onions, squash, cabbage, spinach, mushrooms, brussels sprouts, asparagus, etc.
- Carbohydrates: Rice, potatoes, pasta
- Snacks: Fruit! (apples, bananas, berries, peaches, cherries—whatever’s in season.)
- Other: Canned tomatoes, Lite Coconut Milk, bullion, active dry yeast, coffee, etc.
Buy to your tastes — the key is finding what you like and just sort of sticking to that. Remember, we’re being frugal, not creative.
An important note about veggies: Remember, sometimes fresh isn’t the best option. Not only does fresh produce go bad more quickly, but it’s not always as ripe and nutritious as you’d hope. This is why I always make sure to have a collection of frozen veggies in my freezer. They keep (pretty much) forever and you’re significantly more likely to use them in their entirety rather than waste them when they go bad. It’s a great backup for when you haven’t made it to the store and it’s more economical in the long run.
You’ll also notice how pretty much nothing on those lists is processed. That stuff is expensive! Still, there will always be a few things that aren’t in the produce aisle that will need to make an appearance in your kitchen (for me, it’s the canned tomatoes and coconut milk.) And if you can’t buy it bulk, then you need to work it into your weekly budget.
Your Must-Have DIY Recipes
I find a lot of joy in cooking at home and making my food from scratch. Not only does it save me money, but I find it really fun! This might not be the case for everyone, in which case, you have to decide what you value more: your time or your money. It’s an easy decision for me, but you’ll have to decide for yourself what is worth it to you.
Remember that rotisserie chicken? Pick off the meat and set it aside for other meals, but rather than throwing the carcass away, toss it in a pot with some water and let it simmer for 2-4 hours on low. Strain and you’ve got yourself some (basically) free chicken broth! Perfect for boiling pasta, a base for soup or making rice.
(I encourage to, if nothing else, make your chicken broth at home. It’s the biggest bang for your buck on the list!)
Can you tell I love Budget Bytes? No, but seriously, it changed my life. You’d be surprised what you can make at home. Experiment and see what works for you.
Follow these steps and I can assure you, your waistline and your wallet will thank you!
Need recipes? Tips? Ideas? Leave a comment! I’m happy to share more details about the meals I make and I’d love to hear some of your frugal tips as well! After all, if frugality were a game, I’m always looking for another edge.