How to Eat When You’re Dead Broke

 

When we moved down to Texas from Chicago, we were newly married, and like most young people, dead broke.

For the first year we lived hand to mouth because Greg was the only one working. Texas is BIG, and there was no way to get around unless you had a car. At the time I didn’t even know how to drive, let alone afford a second car.

Luckily, even at a young age, I was a natural organizer and budgeting expert. I made meals stretch like you wouldn’t believe.  Pasta was a staple. A single chicken had to last all week. Ground beef was on the menu only when it was on sale.

I got good at being creative with food. We were really broke, living from paycheck to paycheck. Unlike today, we didn’t have internet, computers, cell phones, or streaming video.

We had a 9 inch black and white tv and a whopping three channels of programming. We had a stereo from our single days, but that was pretty much it for entertainment. We read a lot, but only books from the library.

I’m telling you all this so that you’ll understand that even though it was tough to make ends meet, we still ate well. This, despite the fact that with our then hyper metabolism we could eat a water buffalo under the table.

You can actually do a lot with a few ingredients. It won’t be shrimp scampi and rib roast, but it’ll keep body and soul together.

If you’re cash-poor, concentrate on staples. Your prices may vary but these are the prices I found last week at my local grocery store.

Eggs: $1 a dozen. (Interesting: Organic eggs run $4 to $6 per dozen.)
Milk: $2.40  (Can be cheaper. This goes on sale a lot.)
Butter: $3 (for 1 pound, generic)
Beans, bagged: $3 (for 4 pounds)
Cheese: $4.50 (1 pound block, brand name)
Cabbage: $1 (2 pounds in weight)
Potatoes: $3.50 (for 5 pounds)
Pasta: $1 ( for 1 pound)
Rice: $3.40 (for 5 pounds)
Flour:  $2.50 (for 5 pounds)
Oatmeal: $2 (18 oz canister)
Peanut butter:  $5 (for 40 oz)
Bread: $2 (This is for a name brand. Generic brands are nearly half the price.)

Ground beef: $3 a pound though sales usually run them for $2.50 a pound.
Chicken: $5 for an average sized whole bird.

The total for all these items is $38.90. Let’s be generous and raise the total to an even $50 by adding a few more things like spaghetti sauce, tortillas, and a couple more pounds of ground beef.

Depending on who you’re feeding, this amount of food will easily feed the two of us for two weeks. That comes to $25 a week for TWO people.

If you buy in bulk, the unit pricing will be lower. If you buy on sale, the total goes down again.  For example, if I were to buy pasta, I’d wait until summer when my grocery store slashes the price to about 48 cents for that same one pound bag.

Stores run flour, butter, oil, cheese, and turkeys as loss leaders the week before Thanksgiving. You bet I stock up then. Beans and rice are cheaper if bought loose by the pound. Ethnic stores prices are generally less than regular stores for staples. If you can ride along with a friend to your local Costco or Sams, the price drops again for bulk items. If you have an Aldi grocery store nearby, your prices drop again. They have the best prices on produce.

Me being me, I don’t buy a 5 pound sack of flour. I buy it in 25 pound bags. I don’t just buy my meat on sale, I buy it in bulk when they are loss leaders in the grocery flyer, or better yet when they had gone on clearance for a third of the price.

Back when we were cash-poor we visited bread store outlets that sold day-old bread for 75% off. I’d freeze the bread and thaw it out as needed.

When vegetables are starting to turn I can get a whole bag of assorted veggies for $1 at my local Kroger. That makes a big batch of vegetable soup.

I can feed two people well at the regular prices you see above, but I can expand this list so much farther just by using the tricks I’ve used all my life.

What can you make from the ingredients above?

Breakfast
• Oatmeal
• Muffins
• French toast
• Omelettes
• Biscuits and gravy
• Potato pancakes
• Pancakes

Lunches/Dinners
• Stir-fried rice
• Chicken stir fry
• Chicken soup
• Chicken salad
• Chicken fajitas
• Roast chicken
• Taco salad
• Tacos
• Burgers
• Egg salad
• Pasta
• Buttered noodles
• Grilled cheese sandwiches
• Peanut butter sandwiches
• Beans and rice
• Bean burritos
• Bean soup
• Bean chili
• Pizza (you make the dough)
• Rice bowl with shredded cabbage, chicken (or beef)
• Loaded baked potato
• Mac and cheese

This is very much the way we ate when times were hard. None of this is fancy, and sometimes it got downright boring, but that’s life. Maybe we can’t afford bacon on a $25 a week budget, but right now my local store has pork butt for 97 cents a pound, far cheaper than hamburger.

Eating cheaply without sacrificing quality is doable. I can’t promise you organic chicken, or cherries out of season, but when every penny counts, I can feed you from staples alone.

When you’re cash-poor you have to think outside the box. The first year was the hardest on us, but we lived this way for almost three years. And before anyone says this is a miserable way to live, I can tell you with complete sincerity that this was probably the happiest time in my life. We were poor, but we had each other. We had purpose and the will to make things better. We knew if we kept to good money habits, life would get easier, and it did.

Maybe because we were young we were too dumb to fail. All we knew is that this was all we had and it was up to us to make the best of it.

Can you suggest any other meals to make from the ingredients above?

 

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23 Comments

  1. Oh, I remember those days, but then it was my daughter and I, and the dog. Back then, frozen tubes of turkey burger were cheaper than ground beef, so I bought those. Canned tuna was cheap. Offbrand mac & cheese. Offbrand everything, actually. (Okay, cheap American cheese is just gross, but it’s better than no cheese.) Anyway, browned burger or tuna in mac & cheese or with Ramen noodles is always a hearty meal. Add in some mushrooms, if you can find them cheap, or onions or veggies and you’re good to go.

    The dog ate whatever kibbles were on sale. ;o)

  2. When my husband and I were first together, working and in school, we basically lived on pasta and jarred sauce. Once in awhile we made it “fancy” by putting in frozen meatballs we bought from Sam’s Club. Those lasted forever!

    Then, we got all our books from the library and garage sales. Now, I’m able to buy books from bookstores, but I still use our library a lot. 🙂

  3. When I was little and my parents were “dirt-poor” my mom made a big pot of macaroni, tomatoes, and hamburger (in a watery but flavorful juice) on Monday and we ate it for dinner every evening that week. We just called it “dinner”. There was usually bread (from the day-old rack) to soak up the juice. I guess it was repetitive but I never remember being hungry.

  4. While in the Army, the rec center would occasionally have a BBQ (hamburger, hot dogs, etc). Free to the military. We NEVER passed that up. When we asked our friends (who had kids, even), why they didn’t go, they didn’t want free “hand outs.” When money is tight, you take the free meals. At least we did. Heck, we still do! 🙂

    As for cooking… Well, you know how I am about that now. I did cook, though, because…cheaper! Loved my spaghetti. Used ground turkey, though. Cheaper and less fat.

  5. I was so poor in my twenties I used to go test drive cars on the weekend to get the free hot dogs and hamburgers the dealers would give out. I’d take the bus and walk from dealer to dealer down this long road where all the dealerships were. Sometimes they gave out bottled sodas, which was an extra treat. All the food went in plastic bags in my oversized purse (later at home I froze them), and I saved any sodas they gave me for my little sister. I also got a part-time job working nights at a concession stand, and I would ask the owner to give me the leftover food he was going to throw out before he closed. He thought I was feeding the scraps to my dogs. I didn’t have any dogs back then.

    From your list you can make the chicken, cabbage and beans plus a little tomato paste into a simple cassoulet; that always tastes better the second day. Potatoes, milk and cheese make easy cream of potato soup or scalloped potatoes. Heat the milk, thicken it with flour, add a little cheese and pepper and you have a simple alfredo sauce, which would work nicely with chicken and pasta. Combine the ground beef and uncooked rice to make porcupine meatballs, which you can simmer in a can of beef broth, then add a little flour to thicken the broth into a gravy. Stuff the cabbage leaves with cooked ground beef and rice, bake with some stewed tomatoes poured over them. You can make pie pastry from the flour, eggs and milk, then fill with chicken, cheese, and scrambled eggs to make a quiche. The only limits you have with food is your imagination.

    • Lynn: That’s using your noggin. There weren’t many opportunities for free food in our area.

      re: concession stand
      I wonder what he would’ve thought had he known.

      re: recipes
      I hadn’t thought of potato soup. That’s a great idea! I might have to try that myself. 🙂

      I had an old cookbook, which was already old 40 years ago. It was the only one I had and I’d study it front to back trying to figure out what I could make with what was in the house at the moment.

      I still have that book and every so often I try one of those recipes.

  6. I was so poor in my twenties I used to go test drive cars on the weekend to get the free hot dogs and hamburgers the dealers would give out. I’d take the bus and walk from dealer to dealer down this long road where all the dealerships were. Sometimes they gave out bottled sodas, which was an extra treat. All the food went in plastic bags in my oversized purse (later at home I froze them), and I saved any sodas they gave me for my little sister. I also got a part-time job working nights at a concession stand, and I would ask the owner to give me the leftover food he was going to throw out before he closed. He thought I was feeding the scraps to my dogs. I didn’t have any dogs back then.

    From your list you can make the chicken, cabbage and beans plus a little tomato paste into a simple cassoulet; that always tastes better the second day. Potatoes, milk and cheese make easy cream of potato soup or scalloped potatoes. Heat the milk, thicken it with flour, add a little cheese and pepper and you have a simple alfredo sauce, which would work nicely with chicken and pasta. Combine the ground beef and uncooked rice to make porcupine meatballs, which you can simmer in a can of beef broth, then add a little flour to thicken the broth into a gravy. Stuff the cabbage leaves with cooked ground beef and rice, bake with some stewed tomatoes poured over them. You can make pie pastry from the flour, eggs and milk, then fill with chicken, cheese, and scrambled eggs to make a quiche. The only limit you have with food is your imagination.

  7. All great things you listed here to stretch the food budget. Money was tight when I was growing up. My mom would scour the ads from the stores and base her meals on what was on sale. Some weeks we ate a lot o chicken based recipes, LOL, but we never went away from the table hungry. I was able to incorporate what she taught us back then when hubby left his job to help his parents and was then unemployed for 4 years. You can really eat “good” on a small budget if you are careful with how you spend the money available to you.

    betty

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