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?
• French toast
• Biscuits and gravy
• Potato pancakes
• Stir-fried rice
• Chicken stir fry
• Chicken soup
• Chicken salad
• Chicken fajitas
• Roast chicken
• Taco salad
• Egg salad
• 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?