How to Eat Cheap (Under $1 a Day!)
I was born frugal and I’ll die frugal.
It’s just who I am.
I grew up in one of the most frugal homes on the planet: wearing hand-me-down’s, sweating through the summers and freezing through the winters, washing my hair with dish soap (not by choice!) and I always ate every last bite on my plate, because in my Dad’s household we did not waste food.
My Dad may have taken frugality a little far in that we ate pasta, rice or potatoes every night of the week.
Cheap fillers just aren’t nutritionally dense. It’s never wise to ruin your health to save a buck!
But I did admire that he was able to pay off the mortgage in under 10 years and retire early, and he’s been able to give generously and help so many people.
Go ahead and eat frugally, but never skimp on nutrition. Luckily, you don’t have to. I can tell you how to eat cheap without skimping on nutrition, because I’ve fed my family of ten for about $300 a month, not including toiletries or household supplies. Funny thing, the reason I don’t include toiletries or household supplies in the grocery category of my budget is because of diapers. Diapers for two (or even occasionally three) little people wrecked my budget. I felt so rich when my youngest was finally potty-trained!
We eat mainly organic produce, grass-fed beef, whole grains and legumes (and plenty of homemade treats and ice cream) and still stay within our meager grocery budget, so it can be done. I figure the more I save on food, the more I can spend on travel!
Travel is my biggest motivator for staying on budget now, but as young parents the hubs and I were both students, and we had, no joking, only $30 a month for food for our family of 4. Good thing I grew up in such a frugal home and had learned some skills, or we would have starved! Obviously, we’re just fine, and could even stand to lose a few pounds.
Is This For Real?
You’re probably thinking, “What do these people eat?! It’s crazy to think you can eat for under $1 a day!” I assure you, it is completely legit. But it’s a mindset — a way of thinking. You don’t get there overnight.
There is a lot of information here. It’s practically a book. I debated splitting it up over multiple posts, but I really wanted to keep all of this information together for people who really want to change their habits and their mindsets. People who want to learn how to eat cheap so that they can pay off debt, start investing, and using their money toward building wealth instead of just subsisting.
In each section, I highlighted the tips that I think could be overlooked, but shouldn’t. Pay special attention to those tips as well as the list of tips at the bottom! You might need to read this more than once to really internalize these concepts, but that shouldn’t be a problem. It’s not like this information will disappear at midnight.
Without further ado, let’s talk about how you, too, can eat for under $1 a day!
How to Eat Cheap
In order to eat for under $1 a day, you need to know how to shop well, how to cook frugally (basically from scratch) and you need an arsenal of inexpensive recipes. Let’s start with some frugal grocery shopping skills.
How to Shop Frugally so You Can Eat Cheap
Learning to grocery shop strategically will help you to save money and stress. It takes a bit of work, especially if you’re used to just buying whatever sounds good, but it pays big dividends.
First, you have to plan:
The first step to being a frugal shopper is planning well. Honestly, it takes me less than ten minutes every two weeks (I only shop twice a month) so it’s a great ROI. Now, I don’t plan our menu based on what I dream of eating.
The hubs would choose thick sirloin steaks three times a week, and I want fresh pineapple and strawberries and asparagus, even in the dead of winter, when they cost a fortune. As you’ll see, our menus are determined by what happens to be on sale, last weeks leftovers, or produce currently in season.
1. Know what is a good price and what isn’t. Spend some time creating a spreadsheet of good, better and best prices for the items you purchase most frequently. Include the item sizes so you can make accurate comparisons. Mine is a sheet in my Google Drive so I can pull it up on my phone. You don’t need to spend a lot of time on it — it’s just for your reference. I shop so frequently, I don’t usually need it anymore, but it looks like this, in case you need inspiration:
A standard sale tactic is to put something ‘on sale’ at its regular price point. If you know what you usually pay for things, you’ll know if a sale price is crazy good, like time-to-stock-up good. And you’ll know when the big SALE sign is just hokey.
2. Plan your meals around sales. How does meal planning save you money? For the same reason budgeting saves you money. Spending intentionally and with a plan helps you to be more frugal.
When you know what you’ll be eating, you know what to buy (and what not to buy). When you only buy what you need, you waste less. You’ll probably eat better, too.
One of my best shopping strategies is to sit down with the mailers from all of the local grocery stores and plan our menu based on the sale items. I can usually think up multiple meals for most of them. For example, when chicken breasts are on sale for $1.49 per pound or less, you can bet we’ll be eating chicken alfredo, chicken enchiladas, chicken stir fry, bbq chicken, and chicken pot pie.
That’s a weeks worth of meals right there. This strategy is an easy way to save a significant amount of money as compared to traditional meal planning, where you plan the menu then shop for ingredients. Use your meal plan to create a grocery list.
3. Check your pantry, fridge and freezer first. As you’re menu planning, check your kitchen for leftovers and perishables. You don’t want to purchase ingredients that you already have but may have forgotten about. This will reduce your waste, while you eat cheap.
4. Get creative with the food you have on hand. Create your meal plans around ingredients you already have on hand. Maybe you were planning to make beef stew for dinner one night, but you already have a big sack of potatoes in your pantry. You can make potato soup instead and save yourself the cost of the stew meat. This is also a great way to reduce waste and thus, eat for cheap.
While the hubs and I were in college (living off less than $10k a year as a family of four) this strategy saved our bacon! There was so little money for groceries that probably five nights a week I’d scrounge through our cupboards looking for something with which to create a meal.
I still do this regularly in order to cut the grocery bill so I can divert the saved funds toward traveling. A few cups of beans will make a soup. A few cups of flour and some oil will make pancakes.
5. Know how your local stores work in order to eat cheap. If any of your local stores price match or if they double coupons, make sure you know when these days are and take advantage of them. Know how to get the best sale prices at each store, how their loyalty programs work, and how they deal with day-old bakery items or other groceries near their expiration dates.
One of my local stores has amazing produce deals every Friday, so I make it a point to run errands on Friday mornings and I always stop by. It doesn’t matter what, specifically, is on sale, I make sure to buy as much as we can use.
One week we’ll have lots of apples, the next we’ll have lots of oranges or pears — no big deal. It always gets used and my family is happy to have variety from week to week rather than day to day.
6. Make your list. And stick to your list while shopping. I keep a running list of things I’m out of on my phone so it’s always handy and to help me remember. It saves me from having to make extra trips to the grocery store for little things. We all know how hard it is to ONLY purchase the things on our list and how just staying out of the store saves us money.
At the grocery store:
1. Purchase staples (minimally processed foods) instead of convenience items. You can buy dried legumes for less than half of the price of cooked, canned legumes. Of course, it makes sense to buy some convenience items, like bread, pasta and tortillas, that would otherwise take hours to make. Homemade foods are actually yummier and more nutritious as well as cheaper.
2. Generic items are often exactly the same as their name brand counterparts. In fact, I’ve read that none of the Great Value products (Walmart’s store brand) are actually produced by Walmart. They’re all manufactured at name brand food facilities, but packaged with the Great Value label and sold at deep discounts. So unless you have a really good reason for paying more for a national brand as opposed to a store brand, you’re probably just wasting money.
3. Stock up on great deals. Meats and shredded cheese freeze well. So do berries and most fruits. I even stock up on bananas and freeze them in chunks to add to smoothies. Grains and legumes store practically indefinitely if you store them in a cool, dry, dark place. Canned and dried goods will last a year or more.
When things you use frequently are on sale, stock up as much as you can for the future. Just be careful to not buy things you won’t use, just because they’re on sale. Nothing does a grocery budget in like wasting food!
4. Purchase produce in season. Where I live, watermelon is cheaper during the summer and oranges are cheaper during the winter. I buy loads of strawberries on sale in the summer and I slice and freeze them for use during the winter. I can applesauce during the fall when all of my neighbors are giving away their abundance for free. You have to be willing to eat in season, but it honestly doesn’t feel like a sacrifice to me. It just makes each season feel a little more special.
5. Find the cheapest places to shop. Be sure to check around and see if you have discount or outlet stores near you. We have a big ‘scratch and dent’ store that sells grocery items that are close-dated or been damaged, but are still perfectly edible. Membership warehouses don’t always have the best deals, but sometimes they do. The dollar store often has the best prices on seasonal candy and toiletries. Just keep your price list from #1 above handy so you can take note of where you find the best prices and so you’ll know if it is actually a good price.
I don’t have room for all of my best tips for how to eat cheap in this post (it’s already huge!) so you’ll want to click over to my other posts on this topic. Here are a bunch more of my very best tips for saving money on groceries:
>>> How to Save Money on Groceries! <<<
How to Cook Frugally so You Can Eat Cheap
You can’t afford to eat food that isn’t nutritious. Your medical bills will far outpace and possible grocery savings. So be sure to make good nutrition a priority. Fortunately, you don’t have to choose between nutrition and well-priced groceries. I’ve found staples (non-processed ingredients) to be both more nutritious and less expensive.
1. Cook from scratch. We’ve already talked about how purchasing staple ingredients and cooking from scratch is both cheaper and more nutritious. Right now I have a huge crockpot of chili con carne simmering away. I made a huge pot that will feed my entire family at least two meals for about $12, including high quality, grass-fed, ground beef. I soaked and cooked dried beans, diced onions and peppers, but I used canned tomatoes.
I figure if I had used already cooked, canned beans (I mixed pinto, kidney and black beans) it would have cost about $16. If I had purchased the same quantity of ready-made, canned chili con carne, it would have cost $26 and been far lower quality. If my family had eaten these two meals at a restaurant, it would have cost about $200. See what I mean?
2. Keep the basics stocked. We always keep basic items — staples — stocked in our kitchen. All of these staples are inexpensive and can be used interchangeably to create multiple meals. When I run out of something, I immediately add it to my grocery list in my phone, so that I don’t forget to replace it. Keeping these things stocked makes meals much easier, because you can make so many meals with just these basics. Here are some of the basic items we always make sure we have on hand:
- Basic pantry items
Bread, flour, sugar, leavening, seasonings, coconut oil, olive oil, lard, peanut butter and jam, homemade granola, cornmeal, oats, whole wheat, rice, dried beans, lentils and split peas, several varieties of pasta, pasta sauce, home canned tomatoes, fruits and vegetables.
- Basic produce
Potatoes, onions, carrots, bananas, garden produce, and whatever fruit is in season. We grow bunches of winter squash, cabbage, carrots and potatoes, all of which store well in our basement all winter long. We can fruit from our trees and process lots of apples into applesauce.
- Basic dairy
Milk, cheddar cheese, mozarella cheese and yogurt. We have dairy cows (I still include the cost of our milk and beef in our grocery total — our milk actually costs more than what you pay at the grocery store) so I make most of our cheese, yogurt and other dairy items.
*I take advantage of caselot sales and seasonal sales to stock up on basics. I often find pasta, canned goods and grains for less than half of the normal price, so I’ll buy enough to last my family until the next caselot sale. That way, I’m never paying full price for the things I use most frequently.
3. Don’t waste food. When you throw food out, you might as well have just ripped up your money and flushed it down the toilet. What does not wasting food have to do with cooking frugally?
When there is extra pot roast after Sunday dinner, I’ll dice it up with some potatoes, onions and carrots (because these are staples I always have on hand) to make beef stew. When there is leftover chili, we use it for taco salad. I make chicken enchiladas with the leftover roast chicken. Leftover rice gets fried up with a couple of eggs and a bag of frozen veggies.
You can practically consider leftovers FREE ingredients for subsequent meals, which can really cut down your grocery costs. Also, as you menu plan and shop and prepare meals, try to arrange the meals with the most perishable ingredients early in the week so your produce doesn’t go bad and have to be thrown out.
4. Actually cook. Duh, I know. This entire section is devoted to cooking frugally. But I just want to reiterate how much money you can save on your food bill by actually cooking and eating at home. I’m not exaggerating when I tell you that restaurant meals will cost you at least ten times what a home-cooked meal will cost you.
5. Think ahead. I just want to throw up my hands and cry when 5pm rolls around on days that I’ve neglected to start dinner in advance. I try to have a few freezer meals on hand for emergencies, but I really try to always prep dinner in the morning and either get something going in the crockpot, or a salad in the fridge, or a casserole ready to pop in the oven.
Cooking from scratch means that I have to soak beans overnight and then cook them half the day, or I have to put yogurt in my Instant Pot overnight for breakfast the next morning. These are things that only take a minute or two, but really pay off. Just look ahead on your meal plan and make sure you have what you need ready.
6. Eat simply. You probably noticed that I don’t stock lobster and caviar. Since our menus are governed by what’s on sale, what we already have in the kitchen, and basic staples, our meals are usually pretty simple. (We do eat steak frequently because we have dairy cows and we butcher the males.) That doesn’t mean you can’t have lobster and caviar, if you enjoy them infrequently and eat frugally in between more extravagant meals. As simply as we eat, I honestly never feel deprived, and neither do my kids. In fact, both the hubs and I could stand to lose a few pounds! Eating simply gives us lots of time and money to do more important things.
7. Stretch your meals (and your pennies) by eating leftovers. You wouldn’t believe how doing this one thing will stretch your pennies. I mentioned in tip #3 that wasting food is like tearing up your money and flushing it down the toilet. It is! You bought that food — don’t just throw it out.
I mean, if your milk has gone bad, for sure don’t drink it and make yourself sick, lol. Instead, going forward don’t buy more than you need, and use what you have before it goes bad. It’s something you’ll have to practice until it becomes a habit. Back to eating leftovers. Let’s talk about how it’s like getting a free meal.
If I make a pot of chili that costs $12 and feed my family of 10 two meals, that’s about 60 cents per meal. If we try to keep costs equal, each meal should cost about 33 cents, so that meal of chili is almost twice what it should cost. But how often does your family scrape the pot clean?
Mine never does. I hate for there to be too little food, so I always make too much. I can almost always get a third meal out of a dish meant for two meals. That takes the cost down to 40 cents per meal instead of 60. A bowl of steel-cut oats with milk for breakfast (18 cents per serving), a homemade burrito for lunch (12 cents per serving) and a couple of homemade muffins as a snack (less than 10 cents per muffin) and we’re well under the $1 threshold for the day.
That homemade burrito could even have been leftover from a previous meal. When we have leftovers, I frequently freeze them in individual portions to pull out another time. See what I mean?
You can even reuse some of the components of your meals. I use bones to make stock. Ham bones make delicious split pea soup, turkey and chicken bones make hearty, nutritious chicken soup, and beef bones make the stock I use in almost everything. I just throw used bones into my crockpot, cover them with water and about 3 Tbsp. vinegar, add vegetable peelings if we have any, and turn them on high overnight. In the morning I have delicious, free stock.
Further, using leftovers saves you TIME.
Who wants to cook every day? Not me!
Cooking less frequently saves cleanup time, too.
If I make double batches of things 4 times a week, that’s enough to cover the entire week, including lunches. We like to eat real, hot lunches (mainly leftovers) most of the time instead of sandwiches. We don’t typically eat the same thing for several meals in a row, though. Instead, I’ll remake a roast chicken from one night into enchiladas another night, and then half of the enchiladas end up in the freezer for the following week.
What do we actually eat?
When my oldest was getting ready to leave home for college, we sat down and created a budget for her. She had scholarships to cover tuition, books and housing, but she needed help figuring up a budget for the rest of her living expenses. Her phone plan and insurance and such were all fixed costs, so food was the one category that could be controlled.
I already knew it was completely possible for her to eat for around $1 a day, but I needed to show my daughter how. We started by making a list of meals that would be nourishing, simple to prepare, and ultimately cost as little as possible.
All of the recipes linked below are inexpensive and we use them on a daily basis. You’ll see from each individual post that the cost per serving of each of these meals is under $1. That’s great, but we’re trying to average 33 cents or under per meal so we can keep the entire days food under $1. That’s not too difficult if you combine these recipes with the frugal techniques above.
*You’ll notice that many of those recipes are more like basic guidelines. That’s how I cook. If I have leftover rice and meat and vegetables in the fridge, I’m going to whip up a stir fry. It will change from week to week depending on whether I have beef, chicken or pork and what vegetables I have. But that’s what keeps my costs down. I’m always looking for delicious ways to use up leftovers.
Be sure to pin all of those recipes so you can find them later! You’ll notice that there is some overlap, but I’m sure you’ll be able to find a couple of months worth of meals your family likes, so you can create a meal rotation using primarily inexpensive recipes.
Go ahead and enjoy lobster and caviar, or whatever you enjoy occasionally. We always have ice cream in our freezer. I consider it a staple, because my kids are very motivated by ice cream. You can have your favorite treats and your budget will be fine as long as you eat frugally 80% of the time.
My Final Thoughts On How to Eat Cheap
So now you know how we eat for super cheap — far less each day than the cost of a single cup of Starbucks coffee! I’ll admit we’re weird. But we’re weird in a way that is allowing us to pay off our mortgage and retire early, so I wear it like a badge of honor.
If you’re just learning how to eat cheap, all of this might seem overwhelming. I get it! You could start in one are, like learning to shop frugally, and then branch out. Even just a few of these tips will help you to save a significant amount of money on your groceries.
Before you know it, you’ll be eating for under $1 a day, too!
Top Frugal Eating Tips:
- Eat at home. You’ll spend ten times or more for a lesser quality meal at a restaurant what you would on that meal, homecooked.
- Drink water. We only purchase soda for special occasions, and we never drink coffee (gasp!) or alcohol.
- Learn skills. All of those old-fashioned skills your granny practiced can save you a wad of cash.
- Practice contentment. Nothing will get you into financial trouble like trying to keep up with those dadgum Joneses.
- Pack your snacks. I never leave the house without a water bottle and other snacks. No matter what. I can’t stand my kids’ whining and I don’t like to waste money on fast food. I even take food in my carry-on, because airport food is so pricey.
- Grow and preserve your own food. And there’s nothing like a sun-ripened tomato or a tree-ripened peach.
- Use cheap fillers to satiate large appetites. My teenage boys will eat three heaping plates full of whatever we’re eating for dinner, so I always serve rice, potatoes, bread or another cheap filler with meals.
- Shop As Infrequently As Possible To Save Money On Groceries. Grocery stores conduct extensive research into how to get people to buy things they don’t need, so the less time you spend in the store, the more money you’ll save.
- Never shop hungry. That goes without saying. Never shop with hungry kids, either!
Pin these ‘how to eat cheap’ tips for later!
How do you make efforts to eat cheap in your family? Please share your suggestions in the comments!