Eating On a Tight Budget: Challenge #1 Mother Hubbard

Over the holidays I spent more than the usual amount of time on Pinterest.  I find it a great resource for a brain jog.  On this particular evening, I'd been looking for inexpensive meals one might make.  I stumbled upon this list on which listed 35 foods to purchase when you're broke.  I think the list a very good one and a frugal one but I couldn't help but think back to my Food for Thought post.  What if I had no pantry, no freezer filled with food, and a very limited budget?  How well could I manage?

I went online and read hundreds of posts about various food budget amounts ($27, $37, $50, $75) for a week's worth of groceries.  I read posts to see what was purchased, how it was meted out, what menus were used, etc. 

Well, here's my take away: a great many of those posting didn't adhere to a hard and fast  "this is all we have and no more" budget.  They freely drew from a pantry, cabinet, fridge and just supplemented with items that fit their assumed budget for that week.  Some had gardens, and a few suggested foraging which is a good way to stretch a thin budget as I well know.  My current foraging would be limited to the wild green onions that grow here and yes, you can use them.  John isn't keen but I should think the green tops would be rather nice.

Many bloggers didn't plan a real week of food.  They planned dinners.  Some planned dinners and breakfasts but lunches were assumed to be had at school or one was instructed that if lunch was needed to just make more of the dinner entrée and eat the leftovers.  BUT they failed to realize that making more food meant a higher cost per meal and required MORE money to purchase the extra needed.

Many lists were filled with items that I know full well can be achieved in a far more frugal way.  Boneless Skinless Chicken breasts?  Why not a cheaper bone in cut?  Why not go for the leg quarters which are half or more of the cost of boneless skinless breasts?  Why not a whole chicken?  Why not chunk cheese shredded at home instead of the bag of shredded cheese which usually (not always but usually) costs more per pound?  Why frozen waffles when flour and milk and egg make pancakes a plenty and offers still more possibilities beyond those?

Failure to plan sank the ship...or at least caused it to spring a major leak before leaving harbor.  One blogger planned her menus and then went shopping.  Planning to have rice and beans on the day she went to the grocery to purchase those items didn't allow enough time to cook that meal.  Another blogger forgot all about lunches for two planned off days from school.  Another had snow days just as she settled down to start her challenge.  The contingency plans cost MORE than the planned meals.  I noted this failure on at least three blogs. 

I was duly impressed by one blogger's shopping list and read through her blog at least twice before I realized that what she listed on her menu didn't add up to what she'd purchased.  I went back through the blog post again and found a tiny little note that she'd used some things she already had on hand.  I was less impressed with the budget allowance.

The very lowest amount I saw any blogger post about using was $20.  Three different bloggers used that amount and came in slightly under $20.  One was single, one was a vegan and alone for the week, and one bought two weeks worth of food for $40.  She was quite right that it cost just $20/week BUT what if a person had only the $20? And do you realize how much greater your food choices can be even for two or three persons if you have $40 to spend?  

Still, I am determined to practice my skill in this area.  I talked it over with John and he's on board for the most part.  Fortunately we do have a pantry and snacks on hand and I assured him if he was dissatisfied or felt he was being stretched too hard he at least could have any 'extra' he wanted if he'd just agree to eat what I prepared otherwise.  He told me he would give it a try but assured me he was good only for a one week trial.  That's fine with me.  One week is all I mean to push this through.

Years ago, we were seven in our home and my budget during our most difficult and toughest years was a mere $40/week...IF I got child support.  If I didn't, we had to get by on even less than that.  I was feeding 7 at the time and that budget was all inclusive: pet food, people food, diapers, formula to supplement WIC portions and for a short time, baby food.  It was damned hard and I mean that most sincerely.  I nearly developed an ulcer as I shopped.  I can remember hanging over the meat case praying for a markdown on hamburger or a sale on chicken and then the agonizing choice of which one I could stretch the hardest.

It meant, at one point, that we had to place locks on cabinet and refrigerator doors because one of the children was sneaking food.  I remember the great kerfuffle when I found the two chicken thighs I'd come to put away after putting baby Katie to bed had been scarfed down by a hungry teen as he cleared the kitchen.  Not a great tragedy overall but at the time it meant we were down by one meal and I was hard pressed to figure out how to make up for that loss.  It might sound harsh and I assure you it WAS.  It was hard for all of us.  There is a thin line between not enough and nothing at all sometimes.    But we managed. 

Obviously we are not that hard up any longer.  In fact, I have a decent grocery budget.  BUT...

I want to keep practiced in my former frugal ways.  I want to work my way through various budget scenarios and determine where we might actually cut the budget a bit deeper.  I want to know what others might be facing and perhaps be a help to them in showing how I managed a low budget.

So here is my attempt to show how one might manage.  I'll share my plan, my proposed spending, my actual spending and my actual meals.  I'll tell you the pitfalls I ran into and share my successes. I will not purchase all the foods listed because I have some of them on hand  BUT I have been to the store to price several items already and I am including them at the cost at present in the stores.  In my scenario, I have $20 to feed the two of us for one week.  I have neither pantry nor items in my cupboards or freezer.  Consider me Mother Hubbard...

My budget includes food and food only.  No pet food or personal care items or cleaning products.

Prices listed here are based on either the price at the store today or upon my most recent receipt:
What I have on hand:
4 ounce can of mushrooms    $.49
16 oz. Whl Wht Spag             $.75
15 oz diced tomatoes              $.50
1 doz. eggs                              $.59
1 pound carrots                        $.60
1 bag of celery                         $.99
onion (from a 3#bag@$.79)    $.16
1 box salt                                 $.81
1 pound black beans              $1.29
1 pound brown rice               $1.00


Items I plan to purchase and proposed costs
1 gal of Milk  $1.79/Aldi
1 loaf of Bread  $.99/bread outlet
3#s chicken breasts (bone in on sale this week) $.96/pound.  $3.00
8 ounces cheddar $1.49
15 oz. jar peanut butter $1.89
12 oz. jar jelly, strawberry $1.70
6 oz cup plain yogurt $.50
total here: $11.36
1 tub of oatmeal (unknown cost at this time) I have $1.46 left of this budget that I might put towards this item.

These items should total about $20.  I  do realize that I might have to adjust some of these figures as I'll gather prices at Aldi on Tuesday when I shop.  You'll note there's no seasonings listed here. I can't afford pepper or soy sauce or garlic.  I can't buy fruits.  I do not, at this time, even have room for a package of margarine.  There will be no mayo or other condiments, nor coffee or tea.  Yes, it's a stringent plan. 

What I also have is a few coupons for FREE items from Kroger and I mean to use those this week: 1 16 oz. bottle of ranch dressing and 1 package of cookies.  I'm sure the Ranch dressing is in the store.  The cookies are an iffy thing.

Here are my proposed menu plans:

Breakfast will be Oatmeal x 5
John works two days and I will serve him toast and eggs those two mornings.  He can have jelly or peanut butter on his toast.  

This will mean I have 8 eggs left.  I plan to use three to make an omelet and boil four.  I will use the last egg in a pasta cheese dish.

I plan to make yogurt with half the gallon of milk using the 6 ounce cup as my starter.  This should make 3 pints if I remember my yogurt making days correctly.  I'll use strawberry preserves to make some of it strawberry flavored and will leave some plain.

I think I should get three chicken breasts for the proposed amount.  Fingers crossed.  I plan to use the smallest one as two meals: Fried rice, using some of the cooked rice and some chopped vegetables along with half the breast chopped. Soy sauce would be nice but I don't think that is going to fit the budget.  For fat to cook this dish, I'm hoping for some fat I can pull from the chicken breasts.  The other dish will be Spaghetti ala Diable which will use half the box of pasta, 2/3 of the  can of tomatoes, some of the onion, and the can of mushroom slices. This casserole is topped with grated cheddar.  I plan to use 1 1/2 ounces at most.  The recipe also calls for garlic and cayenne pepper but salt will have to suffice this week.  I'll also cook the black beans with a little onion and add the remaining tomatoes.  I'll serve that over rice.  I'll also make chicken rice soup with a little of the onion, carrot, celery leaves and rice.  I expect to use 1 whole breast in this dish.

Snacks will be yogurt, cookies if I can get them, carrot and celery sticks with ranch dressing

So here's my proposed menu plan:

Oatmeal x 5 (served with milk and some of the preserves to sweeten)
Eggs and toast x2 for John and I will have yogurt and toast both those mornings.  I may have to limit toast to 1 slice each.

We eat our big meal midday:

Spaghetti Diable x2 We always have enough leftovers of this to serve us a second meal
Carrot and Celery sticks with Ranch

Black Beans and Rice x 2 with tomato, onion and plain yogurt to top

Chicken and Rice Soup x 2 (I'll cook both breasts and make plenty of broth with them.  I'll set aside at least half the broth. I'll use the tips and tops of the carrots, the root end of the celery, and the top and ends and first outer layer of the onion to season the broth.) 

Spaghetti and Cheese (I'll make a custard of sorts with egg, milk and 4 ounces of cheese)

Carrot and Celery sticks with ranch Dressing
Celery sticks filled with peanut butter

Peanut Butter Jelly Sandwiches x2 *8 slices bread

Toasted Cheese Sandwich  (1 ounce cheese each) *4 slices bread

2 Boiled Eggs, 1 ounce of cheese, Carrot and Celery Sticks, Yogurt
 w toasted oatmeal

Cheese Omelet with Toast *1 ounce cheese/3 eggs
Carrot and Celery Sticks/Ranch Dressing

Leftovers Soup: every scrap left and the saved broth.  If I haven't used the end pieces of the loaf of bread I'll try to make croutons for the soup with them.

I won't be able to shop until Tuesday so this plan may alter once I actually do my shopping.  I will do a follow up post with any changes that were necessary.   But this post will hopefully give you food for thought...This challenge has certainly made me think long and hard!


Anonymous said...

have you decided to use adds on your blog. Don't know if it is my computer. I know we can't afford a senior cruise.

Lynn said...

I am fascinated by your attention to "putting outfits together" do you make it a point to dress up everyday even when you're staying in for the day? Aren't you just tempted to throw on a pair of jeans and a tshirt most days?

Angela said...

I am excited about your challenge! Even when I can spend more I like to do this occasionally to see I can and the extra money is always welcome for projects and plans. I think it is good too because you never know what the future holds and it is good to be prepared.

Kathy said...

I love this! Thanks for your research, and challenge. I have wondered what I would buy if funds were severely limited, and I didn't have anything in the pantry or freezer.

Sew Blessed Maw [Judy] said...

Whew...Terri, this seems really hard. I think you do an excellent job on your budget. Plus, you do 3 meals a day, most days.. I think the people who are getting by on these tiny budgets,They don't eat all there meals at home??

We [only 2 of us] allot $250 a month. This is for foods, cleaning supplies, and paper products. I do a lot of wal mart price matching. My daughter went to a coupon class and shared the info with me..Sale prices come around every 5-6 weeks.Then they repeat. I have found this to be true. So, I buy enough of what ever is on sale to last my family for 6 weeks /thus never having to buy it for full price. This is not only meats, but can veggies/and things too.This really helps keep me from having to run to the store in between grocery shopping.

I have heard from Wal mart employees, that they are fixing to stop the price matching. They have already cut it out in some of our areas [but not my store yet??] However, if they should stop it ... I will take a day to go from store to store to buy what is on sale. I will still buy whatever is on sale to last for 6 weeks. Thus I will not be paying full price .. I know that by not getting to comparison shop at wal mart, I will have to spend more.. So, I am anxious to see how this will affect our budget?? Bty... hubby and I are both retired, we don't go out to eat a whole lot.. and we don't eat 3 meals a day.. Usually 2 meals a day..

My goal in 2017 [going to try this], to cut my budget to $200.. Will let you know, how it works???? Just a trial , as John

Wish you two the very best with your new budget plans.. thank you so much for sharing all the info you find.. You have really helped me, since finding this blog.. hugs, Judy

Anonymous said...

Hi Terri,

Very interesting ... in my past, I, too, had a very limited food budget, which caused me to think long and hard about meals and what I could feed myself and two children. It was anxiety-producing to be sure! One of the things that helped was that I knew how to cook, had cooked under varying circumstances, and had knowledge about I could put together. I think some people today don't have cooking skills, so lack of money is compounded by lack of what to do inexpensively. One thing I think you might want to explore is the bulk aisle. I use the bulk aisle a great deal. Oatmeal per ounce is cheaper in bulk than in a container and you can purchase only what you need. I can also purchase small amounts of very specific ingredients for recipes and not be left with excess I won't use. Plus, this is basically where I get my spices. They're so much less expensive and I can buy just enough and not have an issue with it going stale. I've been surprised by what all is in the bulk aisle and what I could possibly do with the items. Good luck with this! Chris

Anonymous said...

Just a comment. I am grateful you take the time to bring us so much information and companionship on this blog. What you do as far s adding ads and such is totally ok with me. It has nothing to do with me actually. This blog is yours. :)) I love having an Amazon button to click on and have used ones on other blogs before when we go to order from Amazon. Why not give someone a bit of change as you click through their Amazon widget to shop? That always sounded sound to me.

I read a book..about a women who only got minimum wage and tried to use that only with totally no pantry to eat on. Not easy!! I remember the first month of marriage. Trying to get those basics in the kitchen. :)) You forget things like salt and pepper! It took a long time to even gather the few basic spices and such..everything seemed to cost so much. We would buy one kitchen utensil each month. A knife or a measuring cup etc. Most of them we still have almost 50 years later. Too bad spices and herbs don't last as long!! !!! I remember er Taste Of Home magazines at least used to have cheap meals in one section of each issue. I am not sure I could cook without my pantry any more. Cooking with nothing on that is a tuffie! I look forward to reading and studying why you have learned. It is a subject dear to my heart.

Your gathering more in your pantry now before retirement is a good practice session. You have always had a pantry but the change to more and the things it will entail will again be a learning experience. My dream house would include a room or large pantry to easily store food and the extra things like canning pot and jars and such related to cooking. I know though my little house even minus a pantry is a dream to many a homemaker. Many of us are so blessed to own our own homes of any size.

I am also doing 'use it up' right now. I have some home canned things also to use up as all too soon the garden will go in again and the cycle starts all over again! :) The reason I dry so many things is to save space. Remember too that the things you can are in glass jars and need to be stored so they cannot fall off shelfs. Also home canned things should b stored with the ring off. If something goes bad the ring tightly down will not let gases escape and warn you that it is bad. Also they say to not stack one canning jar on top of another to store. That too holds down the lid. If you want to store them on top of each other put a piece of cardboard on top of jar on bottom. Or store them in boxes with tops one box on top of the other. That will make the weight more even. Many places have canning and other methods of home preserving classes through the county extension department. You can watch them do it and ask tons of questions at each class and get handouts of all the recipes they do and sample the foods too. They will tell you the latest on how to do it all. There are web sites through universities on canning too that are good. I can't think of the sites now though.
As time goes on they learn what is and what is not now safe. They say you do not need now to put the flats in hot water when using the newer flats. Yet many have less problems with not sealing when they still do it. These classes bring lots of new and experienced food preservers together to learn together. I never go away without learning something. Sarah

Veronika said...


This challenge sounds extremely interesting and extremely interesting at the same time.
I wish you a lot of luck!

Tammy said...

This will be interesting to see how your budget and menus all work out.
When I was a kid, my sister and I used to shop at the grocery store on Saturday mornings (Mom had to work). We walked to the store, then used the pay phone to call Dad to come pick us up when were done. We had a blank signed check to pay, but our budget for 7 people was $50/week, and we did not dare go over. We pretty much bought the same things each week and relied heavily on ground beef. I wonder now how much per pound that cost. I'm sure it was mere cents. We did eat school lunches, but Mom and Dad took theirs, using leftovers usually.
I am doing a freezer/pantry challenge this month, using what we have and only purchasing fresh produce and dairy. By the end of the month we get pretty creative.

beckyathome said...

This fascinates me. In fact, some years ago, I also looked on several blogs to find low-cost budget menus. I also noticed they were assuming you had some things. However, if you didn't, the first week would be torture, but then a person could begin to build the pantry. Each week would become easier once you had your salt and pepper, etc.

I have definitely had to contend with a low food budget. But, by the time we were married in September over 34 years ago, we had already purchased a chest freezer and stocked it with frozen garden vegetables from my parents' garden. I also had a large canning cupboard full of fruit and green beans ready to go. I think it's because I come from a farming family and I new no other way. So, where it wasn't always preferred food, there was always plenty of food.

I well remember when my husband, Rob, decided to go to college after we had been married for a while, we were hard up. One winter, I purchased 1 bunch of bananas, and 1 small bag of oranges and no other fresh fruit for the entire winter. We ate our canned peaches, pears, applesauce, etc. and made out fine. We ate home-canned green beans so many times it became a family joke, but we still love them. I walked to a grocery store so that I absolutely could not buy too many groceries:) because I would have to carry them home. We never, ever, went hungry, and in fact, ate very well. All the while, I was slowly building the pantry as I could.

So, I would think that, for me at least, the goal would be to get my pantry re-built if I even had to go down to zero for some horrible reason. Great food for thought!

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