Really Broke but Really Hungry (AKA How to Still Eat Well When Money is Tight)

Photo by Most of you reading this probably shop on a budget. You probably spend a good amount of time trying to shrink that budget as much as possible and stretch the money you do spend as far as you can.

Various periods of my life have left me with very little money and lots of people to feed, usually unexpectedly. And while I build up my home “stockpile” every week, little by little, there have been times where I didn’t have the luxury of a full pantry to ride me through these unexpected hungry stomachs.

I want to start by saying that the biggest thing you can do to save money on food is to spend more time – more time planning, shopping, prepping and cooking.

Here’s a sample meal plan from when I was really broke. My husband and I ate off $100/month. I cooked all of our food from scratch while working full time. But the most important part? We still ate healthy food.

Another thing I want to say when you need to stretch your budget. Stretch your meals with cheap carbohydrates – double the pasta in a recipe, serve bread on the side, add stewed beans to everything you can stomach, double your serving of rice, etc. Then stretch them even further with cheap vegetables and fruit – anything under $1/pound will work. Right now for me that’s bananas, Fuji apples, watermelon, lettuce heads, bell pepper, cucumber, cabbage, carrots, potatoes, onions, radishes and zucchini. To succesfully stretch, serve small amounts of everything. If you want seconds, you get more side dishes rather than the main entree.

To give your budget an even bigger boost, drink water and cut all other beverages out of your diet. If you desperately need a caffeine fix, black tea is cheaper than coffee. Don’t eat dessert – look at it like a fitness challenge instead of a budget.

We did not use coupons because the cheapest foods never even get them – fresh produce, whole grains, meat, etc. When things were tight, and we qualified, however there is no shame in taking advantage of Fresh Food programs (they get donations from grocery stores of items that would otherwise be thrown away), food banks, church relief programs and other services as you can find them. Check with your local DHS for a list of services and programs. Also, depending on your area, you can forage. I once got 15 lbs. of plums off a tree in front of a laundromat. Dandelion greens are good – just make sure you don’t get anything sprayed. And when in absolute desperation, just eat rice, beans and Top Ramen. I know, it’s not healthy, but sometimes it comes down to just getting the calories you need.

To save as much time as possible, make it less stressful, and to help you stick to the meal plan you should also meal prep as much as possible. Slice your cucumbers, peppers, carrots, etc. as soon as you get home from the market/store. Cook your ground beef on Sunday and freeze it. Roast and shred your chicken, beef and pork, too. Soak and cook your beans. Bake your bread, fry tortillas, cook rice, boil eggs, soak the oats. Do it all in advance when you can. Then store properly and pull out what you need, when you need it.

The $100/Month Meal Plan

This will feed two people for a month at $100.

Week One:

Breakfast – 2 fried eggs, 2 slices of homemade bread, 1 banana.
Lunch – PB & banana sandwich with watermelon and cucumber slices.
Dinner – Roasted chicken and carrots with bread, rice, and stewed beans; Southwest chicken and rice bowls with corn, roasted peppers, black beans and homemade tortillas on the side; White chicken chili with tortillas; Leftovers; Roast beef sandwiches with salad; Beef stew with bread and salad.
Snacks – Popcorn, bread and butter, sliced veggies, apples, bananas.

Week Two:

Breakfast – Oatmeal with sugar and milk, 2 slices of homemade bread.
Lunch – Chili macaroni with apples.
Dinner – Beef pot pie with bread and salad; Leftovers; Pork pot roast with bread and salad; BBQ pork sandwiches with roasted peppers, onions, baked beans and rice; Pozole with homemade tortillas, rice, and re-fried beans; Leftovers; Roast chicken with potatoes, carrots, onion and zucchini.
Snacks – Popcorn, bread and butter, sliced veggies, apples, bananas.

Week Three:

Breakfast – Pancakes from scratch with peanut butter and 1 banana.
Lunch – Grilled cheese with roasted onions and peppers.
Dinner – Garlic chicken pasta with bread and salad; Chicken and rice soup with bread and salad; Leftovers; Carne Asada with tortillas, rice, re-fried beans, roasted peppers and onions; Shredded beef sandwiches with mashed potatoes, gravy, caramelized onions, and baked beans; Beef and barley soup with bread and salad; Leftovers; Pork and vegetable stir fry over rice with stewed beans.
Snacks – Popcorn, bread and butter, sliced veggies, apples, bananas.

Week Four:

Breakfast – Rice pudding with bread.
Lunch – Egg salad sandwiches with sliced watermelon and cucumber.
Dinner – Shredded pork burritos with beans, rice, homemade tortillas, roasted peppers and onions; Pork and potato stew with bread and salad; Leftovers; Roasted chicken with rice, stewed beans, and roasted zucchini; Chicken spaghetti with garlic bread and salad; Lemon chicken over rice; Leftovers.
Snacks – Popcorn, bread and butter, sliced veggies, apples, bananas.

How have you survived a tight budget?

50% Project: November Review and December Planning

I’m doing the 50% Project. It starts today, with my most recent paycheck. And the goal is simple – save 50% of every penny that enters my wallet. Don’t let my expenses exceed my means.

So how will the project work? If you want to join in, here’s what I’m doing:

  1. Put away 50% of all income, whether it’s from work, gifts or tax returns.
  2. Make it as difficult as possible to spend the money you’re saving, so you’re less likely to spend it. This can be putting it in a locked savings account, or just giving it to a more responsible spouse to keep safe. Safety deposit boxes work well, and old fashioned piggy banks are good too.
  3. Keep track of how much money is coming in, how much is going out, and where it’s going.
  4. Every once in awhile I’ll post an update here on the blog of what I’ve managed to save, a glance at where my money went, and any suggestions I have or lessons I’ve learned.
  5. Doing Christmas for as little money as I can possibly manage. This year we didn’t have time to make gifts, so we set very low budgets and will be doing birth announcements for our Christmas cards. We will spend less than $300 for the entire holiday.
  6. Staying accountable – I promised my husband that I’m going to stick to this, and now I’m promising you.
  7. Stay positive – if I mess up, I’m not going to beat myself up. I’m going to keep moving forward, and so should you. Reflecting on mistakes helps me make better choices but ruminating on regrets is unproductive.

What do I hope to accomplish with this project?

  1. Move into our own apartment.
  2. Credit scores over 600.
  3. Trade in our current car for a safer one.
  4. Have an emergency savings of $1000
  5. Pay off our debt.
  6. Develop self-discipline and better money-managing skills.
  7. Learn to live minimally.
  8. Be financially independent of others (not needing to rely on help from family or welfare).

But it’s Christmas.

I am very aware that it’s December, the hardest month for almost anyone to save. But I also believe that it’s the perfect time to test this, to try and stretch the limits of our self-control and practice delayed-gratification. For more information on a minimalist Christmas, I highly suggest this post over at Zen Habits. Christmas doesn’t have to cost you.

I wish all of you luck with your own financial journeys; thanks for sticking around to read about mine.

I’m going to be straight up here, partially to help dispel a lot of the misperceptions and stigma surrounding poverty, but also because I believe by being honest about my husband and I’s journey I can help you and learn myself.

We’re poor. Like, we would have starved to death years ago without public assistance, poor. So while other bloggers might do the “SNAP Project” – that’s been our life. And it’s actually how we both grew up, too. But we have no intentions of staying this way – we’ve bounced on and off the system as our life circumstances have changed. But the goal has always been stability. Self-sufficiency. We could definitely be in worse situations, too.

So whether you’re trying to escape poverty, survive a family disaster such as job loss or illness, or just want to save money so you can do awesome shit with your life, this project might help you. Please feel free to share any suggestions you might have.

We are starting out fresh again this month, just in time for Christmas. My husband just landed a new job after being unemployed for almost two months. I’m 39 weeks pregnant. We have an older, high-needs dog. We don’t use our credit card – we’re trying to pay it off. We currently stay for free in the bedroom of my husband’s uncle’s house, with their family of four people and four fur babies. We’ve been homeless for over a year, off and on unemployed for various reasons for 18 months, and our credit reports look pretty bad.

Every family’s needs are different. Every lifestyle is different. The transparency here is meant to serve as inspiration and encouragement.

Budget

(In order of priority)

$400 – Groceries/Food

$100 – Work uniform for new job PAID

$85 – Storage Shed (This has all our belongings and all of my husband’s mother’s belongings) PAID

$196 – Phone bill

$160 – Gasoline

$289 – Car Payment PAID

$100 – Auto Insurance Premium PAID

$31 – Credit Card Minimum

$15 – Web Hosting Service

$100 – Household expenses/Personal Care/Baby needs

$40 – Oil Change (Required by our loan agreement)

$150 – Christmas

$50 – My birthday

$25 – Date night

$400 – Brakes

$7 – Crunchyroll subscription

$35 – Birth certificate (the hospital no longer provides these – we have to order it from the state)

Expected Income

$588 – Cash Assistance for November and December RECEIVED

$357 – SNAP (Can only be spent on food) RECEIVED

$275 – Daycare Wages for November

$250 – Toys R Us Wages for December (Joseph’s new job – we don’t actually know how much to expect so we’ll see)

Account Remainders

$87.99 – Checking Account

$682 – Fall Term FAFSA

$120 – Cash

Frugal Accomplishments for November

  • My husband finally quit smoking!! This was something he promised me he would do before our son was born, and I’m so grateful he was able to do it. He started smoking when he was 10 and he didn’t want our son to go down the same path.
  • Pre-Baby Meal Prepping: Stocked our freezer with 11 dinners, which is enough to feed us for a month (we share cooking duties with the house) and stocked our cupboards with a week of easy foods for after baby. And saved $50!!
  • Ibotta rebates earned – $23.50
  • Started couponing again.
  • Packed lunches from home for the majority of the school days.
  • Under spent gas budget – saved $30 by the end of the month.
  • We budgeted $13 for most of the people on our Christmas list – and only spent about $8 on most of them but still got awesome gifts.
  • Took the city bus or carpooled multiple times.
  • Bought Halloween candy the first of November, on discount, with coupons. Over $100 worth of candy for less than $40.
  • Switched to making my coffee at home.
  • Moved in with family – this saved us $800+ a month in camping fees from staying in our trailer.
  • Almost all the baby things we needed were either acquired for free or as gifts. We spent less than $150 on baby items – and most of that was on the Co-Sleeper Pack n Play and the diaper pail.

Lessons Learned

  • Went back to the cash envelope system because the debit cards were getting overdrawn too easily and the credit card that we aren’t supposed to be using got taken out a few too many times.
  • Black Friday is a giant scam. I’m glad I didn’t actually do any in-store shopping – I did it all on online and it saved me from impulse purchases and overspending on the items I was intending to purchase.

Savings Account Balance:

$5.00

$50 Meal Plan #2

*UPDATE: This was originally posted in January on the old blog*

A meal plan, if it’s going to work, isn’t broken down into weekly measured portions and their associated costs. It’s a mix of this week’s purchases, what’s in your pantry, gifts and ground-scores.

So, following this format, I’m pitching in my budget. I spend $50-$75 a week on me and my husband (plus the weekly family dinner of 6 people, my younger siblings’ weekly visit, and all of the friends that come and devour my muffins. Every. Freaking. Day.)

But we have no other sources of food beyond our budget. No garden, herbs in the window sill – nothing. I use coupons sparingly – the store ad for wherever I’m shopping and coupons.com. Nothing complex. About 10 minutes a week and I save about $5 each shopping trip.

This hasn’t been the healthiest week for us. I’ve been working late nights so when I come home dinner is the last thing I want to do, and I can’t prep it in the morning because I’m doing homework in the mornings.

 

This week we bought:

Boneless skinless chicken breast (4 lbs.), ground turkey (2lbs.), mushroom-chicken sausage (1lbs.), beef ramen, coffee creamer, kale, lettuce, green onions, asparagus, bananas, 3lbs. bag of onions, yogurt, 2 boxes of cereal, and 1 jar of pasta sauce.

Meal-share Benefits with Family: 1 whole turkey and 3 goose eggs. My husband’s boss cleaned out his freezer.

From the Garden (and some Foraging): Morel mushrooms(!!) and dandelion greens from our yard (because I know they weren’t sprayed).

 

Breakfast Options:

Yogurt and granola

Frogs in a Hole

Oatmeal

 

Lunch Options:

Vegan Chili Verde

Cornbread

Turkey wraps

Sausage pasta with spinach (sausage+pasta+spinach+milk)

Leftovers

 

Snack Options:

Crackers

Granola bars

Fresh fruit

Crunchy roasted chickpeas

Quesadillas

Green salad

Pickled eggs (just throw boiled eggs in an empty pickle jar with leftover juice. One batch per pickle jar – refrigerate please)

French bread (homemade) and butter

Peanut butter edible cookie dough

Tea

Hot Cocoa

 

Dinner Menu:

Thursday  – Chicken curry with brown rice

Friday – Enchiladas

Saturday – Turkey and kale soup

Sunday – Ground beef ramen (ground beef+ramen+green onions) and salad

Monday – Turkey gravy over potatoes

Tuesday – Steak, garlic creamed pasta and asparagus

Wednesday – Turkey meatballs with marinara and fresh bread

 

Meal Prepping I did this week:

These foods were prepared over the course of the weekend. Some was stashed away for later and some was consumed this week.

  • 3 loaves of french bread
  • Turkey meatballs
  • 2 cups brown rice

This week’s total spent: $46.00 

 

How do you spend your grocery budget?

$50 Meal Plan: Week One

This week we’re eating…

Dinner:
Monday – Chicken-pesto pasta.
Tuesday – Oven roasted chicken with stuffing and peas.
Wednesday – Baked sausage dogs with sauerkraut and baked asparagus.
Thursday – Dairy-free bacon and onion fritatta (easier/quicker than a quiche).
Friday – Grilled ham sandwiches on rye with caramelized onions and baked carrot fries (mine will be dairy-free).
Saturday – Zupa Toscana soup (just like olive gardens; so freaking amazing).

Lunch: Burritos, ham sandwiches, and baked potatoes. Yum.

Breakfast: Muffins and apples; yogurt and bananas; cereal.

Snacks: Crackers, peaches, bananas, mandarin oranges, carrots, cucumber slices, pickles, yogurt and granola, juice, coffee and tea.

I bought over two week’s worth of groceries this time at an awesome new discount store I hadn’t been to and over-shopped a little. I spent ~$109 (without any coupons!).

Items Purchased: Tortillas (40 ct.), 3 boxes of crackers, 1 whole chicken, red wine vinegar, 2 lbs. Of butter, garlic salt, dairy-free chocolate muffins, cranberry juice, apple juice, granola bars (48 ct), olive oil, spam, 3 jars of peaches, 3 lbs. Of organic yams, dairy-free non-hydrogenated butter spread, 2 lbs of bratwurst, 1 lbs. Of sliced ham, 2 boxes of organic pasta, 1 32 oz jar of mini pickles, sauerkraut in a jar, hot dog buns, 3 lbs. Of mini avocados, 1 lbs. Of baby spinach, 1 lbs. Of chopped kale, 1 lbs. Raw sunflower seeds, half gallon cashew milk, 1 lbs. Of Italian sausage, 2 lbs. Smoked sausages, almond yogurt (dairy free), 2 dairy-free almond coffee creamers, 1 cucumber, 1 bundle of asparagus, 1 lbs. Brown rice, 1 bottle watermelon juice, 3 lbs. Mandarin oranges, 3 lbs. Bananas, 4 lbs. Unbleached cane sugar, 5 lbs. Carrots.

Meal Prep

I ventured way out of my comfort zone with meal prep this week. But I’m really enjoying what I did.

I have 6 days of breakfast – 6 dairy-free chocolate muffins and 6 baggies of apple slices.

6 days of lunch – 4 sweet potato chipotle burritos (vegan), 1 sweet potato bowl with asparagus, and I’ve got a random ham sandwich – because meal prep doesn’t have to be perfect 🙂

On that ham sandwich is homemade sprouted lentils! These were so exciting. A little more time consuming, because I had to rinse them every day (and actually remember they existed) but they were so worth it. Sprouted lentils are like a nutritional bomb, and it cost me $0.15 to make 2 cups worth (about $3 at the grocery store).

Joseph doesn’t work this week so he gets to eat leftovers and ramen (his own choice, mind you).

I would have packed more except I had to throw out most of my Tupperware. So I’ve got like 2 jars and a bento box to my name right now. I bought some jarred peaches though so my jar collection will swing back up quite nicely here shortly.

On a side note, I’m proud to announce I’ve started transitioning to dairy-free. My husband, Joseph, will still have milk with his cereal. But everything else is leaving, unfortunately even the butter for now. I’m hoping to bring it back but I’m slowly eliminating things as I figure out all of my food allergies.

I have really severe eczema and so to isolate the causes of these rashes every two week’s I’m eliminating one potential irritant. I’ve eliminated soda already – which I must say I feel wonderful now and my skin improved within 3 DAYS. But I still have a full rash on my face. Dairy is going to take me at least two week’s before it’s even out of my house, because I refuse to throw food away and I can’t afford to give it away. So next up in May I will be removing soy products (which includes vegetable oil).

I’m also trying to get pregnant so any potential environmental dangers are slowly being removed. As I do my research and eliminate things I’ll post about this as well.

Oh, it’s going to be an adventure.

How are you making your meals healthier?