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Ask the Readers: Help me stretch our $200 per month grocery budget!

Today’s question is from Kari:

My husband and I recently started the Dave Ramsey program and we are halfway through baby step #2 (the debt snowball). I’m having a hard time with how much I should budget for grocery — and making that stretch for the whole month.

Can any of your readers share some ideas and/or cheap recipes for a family of 4 (our boys are 3 and 5) with a $200 monthly budget? I am doing a lot of freezer cooking, making a lot of rice meals, and using my bread machine like crazy, but I am having trouble with wanting to use meat but just cant afford it. We are already doing some meatless meals and I am buying my flour in bulk at Sam’s Club. -Kari

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  • MrsWJAA says:

    We had a $200 budget for the two of us per month (however, when I cooked, I usually made enough for 4+ servings so..), what I did to make our budget work was this: at the beginning of the budget period I would sit down with a paper, pencil, and hubby and we would discuss what our favorite meals were/what we’d been wanting to try, and I would jot them down as we went. I tried to aim for about 15-20 or so different main dishes (because we always just threw together some veggies from the freezer or some type of potato dish as a side). I would then sort them into categories by which meat was the main ingredient (if there was meat in it).. i.e. chicken, ground beef, stew meat, etc.. After that, I’d figure out how many pounds of each type of meat was needed per recipe/per month (note: When a recipe called for 1 pound of meat, I would use aprx 1/2 pound instead.. or, in the case of chicken… instead of one whole breast per person, we would either use one tender or 1/2 breast to save on meat and we never missed it. Also, for us, it was cheaper to buy the frozen chicken breasts/tenders when on sale rather than the whole chicken because we could never eat a whole chicken.. one cornish hen lasted 2+ meals for us). Once I knew that I needed aprx. 4lb ground beef, etc.. I could shop the bulk meat section for better savings and then just put everything away in recipe size packages once I got home…. We also found better savings by purchasing bulk bags of frozen veggies because we could then use half a cup or whatever when we needed it rather than open a whole can that we didn’t need at the time.. plus, we only allowed for one ‘splurge’ item per month.

  • Nichole says:

    Wow – these responses are amazing! I’m trying to be better at budgeting (right now we’re kind of do what feels right and hope it works out) now that we have a 15 month old and another on the way plus trying to get down debt (student loans and mortgage).

    I always feel discouraged about meal prepping and saving money and realize it’s all about planning it out and taking the time to really think it through. We’re vegans so I feel like we should be able to make a decent dent in groceries if ya’ll can do it while still buying meat! Thanks for the inspiration fellow readers – I’m taking your advice and cracking down on our budget now!

  • Niki says:

    Buy a whole turkey. It’s a lot of work but if you buy a whole turkey you can have turkey and potatoes one night, turkey skillets with rice and bean and veggies another, turkey pot pie (very cheap and filling and Easy!), turkey salad, turkey chili…and of course when you run out of meat you can make soup from the bones. Also, most of the dishes freeze really well.

    Another way to use very little meat but get the flavor is using bacon, if your family eats it. I buy 8 pounds when it is bogo free and freeze them. Adding a few slices to pasta dishes, soups or quesadillas or salads or just about anything gives a nice flavor for just a few dollars.

  • Here is one of my favorite meatless options, it only has 6 main ingredients. I typically use only about 1/2 as much cheese as they suggest. You can omit the cheese for budgeting reasons and you will be at only 5 main ingredients.

    Also, check out Eating Well on $1 a Day blog. It’s bit outdated, but he give some amazing tips on eating well with less. Even if decide not to use coupons the way he does, I’m sure you will be able to take away plenty of helpful tips.

    Good luck and happy eating!

  • Amy says:

    My husband typically thinks it’s not a meal if we don’t have meat. We cook whole chickens freqently (around $5 each) and can typically get 3 dinners and a few lunches out of them. The first day we’ll have roast chicken; rice and veggies; day 2 I’ll make, chicken fried rice or chicken pot pie; day 3 I’ll make chicken stock and chicken and rice or chicken noodle soup.

    Whole bone-in pork loins are much cheaper than buying roasts or chops, and they’re easy to cut apart yourself. We got them onsale for around $1.00/lb and then cut them into roasts, chops and even a rack of ribs.

    For beef we buy 1/3 cow per year. I don’t know how much we save (because I don’t check beef prices at the store) but the meat is better!

  • Suzanne H says:

    If you haven’t already, watch the sales for a couple of months and figure out what the cheapest prices are for your area – only buy when items go on sale @ that price and stock up as much as you can. Set aside some of your budget (even just a couple of $s) for when that happens so you have some extra $ to stock up with. As everyone has said on here, stretch your meat out as much as possible. I bought a ham before Easter last week for $0.99/lb (CHEAP for where I live). We had ham for Easter, we had leftovers for ham sandwiches, I cubed some up and made a ham braid, I made a frittata with some of the cheap eggs I got @ Easter and we’ve been making ham and eggs for breakfast. We still have a little bit of ham left and the ham bone which I will use to make bean soup in the next week or so. So that $9 ham has made many, many meals. Also, use cheap meats – cheap cuts of beef cooked in the crock pot for a long time become tender and delicious. Add in a few potatoes and carrots and some seasoning and you have a very cheap, delicious meal. I also use tuna A LOT esp. when it goes on sale and I have a coupon. I make tuna noodle casserole. Buy cheap frozen veggies (usually mixed veggies but I’ll also use whatever I can get cheaply), make a roux with butter and flour – mix in milk to make a bechamel sauce then throw in steamed veggies, tuna and cooked noodles (buy when on sale and with a coupon), mix together and bake. You can top with cheese or crackers or bread crumbs (use the heels of bread or stale bread). I know it’s hard right now but if you can try to focus on stocking up when cheap and getting a little stockpile going, it will help so much. Just like Dave Ramsey’s program – your stockpile will snowball and help you stretch your budget further and further. Debt free is WORTH IT so hang in there!

  • allie says:

    My husband and I are meat lovers and do not care for beans. We try to keep our budget around $200.00/ month. Here is what we do. Every sunday after church we hit the grocery store for the meat in the marked down bin. Usually we find great bargains and the meat is always good. When it is in the bin you need to use or freeze that day. With our Seal A Meal we were able to stock up on burger, pork, whole chickens and inexpensive cuts of beef. I freeze them in small packages and stretch with rice, pasta and potatoes. I also use a lot of canned vegetables and stock up when I have coupons. Having a stock pile has been a life saver. Crock Pot vege soup with tiny meatballs is delicious add barley and lots of veges and you have several meals. Roast a whole chicken cut it up and freeze.
    I also do what I call my investment cooking. I spend a day with 3 crock pots and the oven going full steam using all the meat in the freezer to make, meatballs, chili, soup, tacos, meat sauce, stew, roast “beast” hehe, chicken divan, chicken soup, stuffed chops etc. I also fry up fresh peppers and onions to freeze. Freeze whole tomatoes to add to meals. That way all our meals are already cooked, just need warmed up add the potatoes etc. This really helps us not to go out to eat. Hope this helps. Have a Blessed Day All

  • Bethany says:

    I would also like to add, becoming an avid reader of frugal books and websites- such as this one- is a great way to save. My husband and I went from a weekly budget of $70-$80 per week on groceries (food, toiletries, miscellaneous, etc.) to $40-$50 per week, just by picking up a few tips from reading, such as couponing, price matching, meal planning, and buying generic brands. We’ve also have reduced our eating out expenses from $300 to $100- because if you have a good and appetizing meal plan, all the ingredients you need, and a clean kitchen you’ll be a lot less tempted to eat-out. Plus, I’ve found that it makes date nights and going out with friends all the more special.

    I also really enjoy using Dave’s cash/envelope system. It has helped us tremendously in sticking to our budget while shopping. When the envelope is empty at the end of the month or getting low- this can be the most exhilarating time! You either have to roll up your sleeves and get creative, learn to do without it, or wait until next month. 🙂

    Good luck and keep plugging away! Your on the right track! 🙂

  • danielle says:

    If your grocery budget includes baggies, foil and wraps is to reuse those items till they fall apart. If you are spending $6 a month on these items it could be reallocated to 2 gallons of milk instead.
    Good luck, you will be fine with the help of your friends here 🙂

  • Kari says:

    If you have a GFS near you and you’ve never been inside you are missing out a goldmine!! Bulk items without the yearly membership fee like Sam’s and I think the prices are much better! For example, they had spiral hams the week of Easter for $1.49 a lb! We buy their ground beef (very lean-we don’t even have to drain the pan). It comes in 10 lb rolls and equals out to $1.69 per lb. Their boneless skinless chicken breasted are $2.19 a lb which is very good for our area. We get 3 lbs of bacon for under $10 (it’s around $4 a lb here normally.) We love their sweet pancake mix (rumor has it that it’s the same mix inoperable uses!) We also love their biscuit and muffin mixes. Their prices for flour and sugar are great! We can
    get 2 dozen eggs (really good eggs!) For around $2.50. Their prices on frozen fruits and veggies are awesome too! I can’t talk about them enough!

  • cwaltz says:

    The trick is to use meat as supplemental to the other components of the meal not the main event. Remember a serving of meat for an adult is around 3 to 4 ounces. With your littles you probably should only need a half a pound per meal.

    As others pointed out stretch meat for tacos with ranch style beans(chicken or beef). Use half the amount of meat in spaghetti. Add 1/2 pound of chicken to deluxe stir fry veggies and 2 packs of ramen(sans salty noodle seasoning) tossed with 1/8 cup of soy vay teriyaki or soy sauce. Add a can of tuna and a bag of peas or broccoli to Annies mac and cheese(optional add potato chips to top.) Ravioli can also be pretty inexpensive. Add alfredo and broccoli and cheese to a bag of it( optional add a diced up package of Hormel ham.) Most of these ideas are well under $10 for a full meal for 4 and since your littles are still little may provide you with leftovers for lunch.

    Good luck!

  • Karen O'Keeffe says:

    I have set a limit of $1.99 per pound on meat. You just never know what will be on sale for that price. I am selective about quality, but even at this low price I often find chicken, ground beef and roasts.
    Another trick is to use flavor enhancements to your meat dishes, creating more meat flavor, with out using more meat. These enhancements include things like using soy sauce instead of salt, adding Worcestershire sauce, and cooking with stock (that you can make at home). I’ll bet the readers have more great flavor enhancement tricks up their sleeves. I’d love to hear them!

  • Soup for dinner, at least twice a week. You can buy two whole chickens on sale for $.79/lb each, butcher them yourself:

    And make 10 quarts of homemade chicken stock using this method:

    Make cheap soups like Minestrone or Tortilla that don’t require meat (but include nutritious beans), saving your meat for nights where you would enjoy meat (liked baked chicken with rice).

    Each of those batches is enough for us (also a family of four with a 5yr and 3yr) for one entire dinner, plus another if we supplement with half-sandwiches. Do this twice a week (so soup 2x, soup sand 2x for lunches/dinner) and by the end of the month, you’ll not only have eaten meat, but you’ll likely have stayed under budget, if nor freed up room for next month to buy other things you’ll need like butter/milk/eggs etc. You can do it!!

  • Janet says:

    First, congratulations on doing Financial Peace with Dave Ramsey. My husband and I just finished his program and it is SUCH a blessing! Groceries were my main target area of reduction as well. You are going pretty bold with $200, but it might can be done. We are at $400, and so far I have had leftover $ at that amount. Heres what I found…
    1. STOP going to the grocery store. Only go once a week…no matter!
    2. make your own laundry detergent- big savings! I prefer the powder. look on net for recipes
    3. Get Fix, Freeze, & Feast cookbook. Make food in bulk & freeze for whole month. Big time saver and $ saver. Since you’re on a budget, check it out at your local library so you don’t spend $ to buy it. Other freezer meal books at library too.
    4. Ask your local butcher when they usually put their meats out reduced. Meat is good for 5 days after date, usually. Then cart over to the produce dept and ask them when produce goes out reduced. Get to know your grocer… they can be your best friend!
    Those are just a few of my suggestions. You are bold with $200, but with prayer anything can happen.

    • Tasanee says:

      Once a week rule- We have a twice a month rule. One for the big of the bulk trip and one to grab milk and another other small forgotten items. I have learned the less we go the less we spend. (We go to Costco every other month, and we make that one of our twice a month trips). It takes planning but it is worth it.

  • Elizabeth says:

    I love to cook a whole ham or turkey or chicken and see how many meals I can get out of it. For example, I recently baked a eight pound ham; I think I paid around $1.59 per pound for it. Besides the original meal I baked it for, I put three packs of fatty pieces in the freezer to cook with pinto beans later, used the leftovers for sandwiches for lunches, made hot ham and cheese sandwches on buns, diced some of it to add to red beans and rice, fried some with eggs for breakfast, and made ham and potato soup with the last of it. That’s around nine meals for the five of us by adding mostly just inexpensive things like rice, beans, eggs, and potatoes.

    I can get several meals out of a roasted turkey or a couple of roasted chickens (which I stock up on when I find them for 79 cents a pound). Sometimes we do get tired of so much of one kind of meat several days in a row, and if that happens I just put the rest in the freezer and use it another time. Shredded chicken and turkey and diced ham freeze very well in freezer bags.

  • Amber S says:

    Bountiful Baskets has been mentioned- awesome co-op. That’s about the only produce I buy. Phoenix area has Market on the Move- not sure if it’s anywhere else. I got boxes of produce there while visiting for just $10 total. You may want to look into free food in your area- we have three monthly food distributions in our small community that are completely free- one is a variety, one is produce, and one is mainly bakery products. It’s all donated by stores/growers at expiration and needs to be used or it will be thrown away! Food banks sometimes sell food very cheap also. I receive produce free from neighbors who have fruit trees or extra garden produce they won’t use. We share whenever we have extra too. You can get food free by couponing sometimes. I include meat in most of our meals, but it is often an ingredient, not the main meal. I only shop every 3-4 weeks, which saves a lot! If you’re not at the store, you can’t spend money. Besides, we live 45 minutes from a grocery store. I REFUSE to buy anything from a convenience store- I’ll do without it rather than pay exorbitant prices. Same thing with recipes- if it is an expensive ingredient, I will substitute, omit, or not use the recipe. My goal is to waste nothing- if God blesses us with an abundance of zucchini (or anything else), we eat and/or preserve it! I know it depends on your region, but I think your budget is attainable. I feed our family of 6 on $150 a month and we eat very well and very healthfully. One last thing- we don’t buy snacks or processed foods, since they are generally expensive and/or unhealthy. Good luck and may God bless your pursuit!

  • Amanda says:

    Here are another couple of money savers:

    Baked potatoes are a nice side with dinner or with chili. Make extra to dice up for home fries for breakfast or to put into burritos for lunch. Shred them, then form them with oil and spices to make your own tater tots.

    From Azure Standard we buy bulk polenta and make grits for breakfast or polenta as a dinner side. We also buy the creamy rice cereal that my kids love for breakfast.

    Chick peas are great roasted for a crunchy snack or made into hummus for lunch or a snack.

  • Anna says:

    What a coincidence- that’s OUR budget! (We are a family of three though- but a baby is on the way!)

    What I find is couponing is your best bet because you can get SO MUCH for free. Samples work great too- and not just food ones. I signed up for BirchBox for $10/month. I get top quality makeup products and they’re great for traveling as well! (Which comes in handy when you’re having to put more entertainment in bags for bored 6-year-olds!) Keep in mind places that double coupons and offer card discounts as well.

    As for an actual meal plan, I try to get fresh from the farmer’s market. It’s cheapest if you go in the afternoon when you can strike a good bargain. Of course, that’s not open all year-round. For the winter, I stick to Banquet HomeStyle meals. You have to put them together yourself, but they offer a great variety and sizable portions, and are less then $1 per person (where I am in KCMO). Then even have breakfast options for when cereal won’t do!

    Another great thing is Dollar Tree. I cannot stress this enough. Essentials like mouthwash, toothbrushes, body wash, movie-type goodies, hairbrushes… Even kitchen and garden decor/utensils and other home items are perfect here! Not to mention an absolute SAVIOR for birthday parties, (My boy is still raving about his last all-Dollar-Tree birthday!)

    Thrift stores are great for kitchen and other appliances if they let you test them. Mine is very reputable. Bought a Kitchen Aid toaster/egg poacher combo, Brookstone pillow remote, and even a Jack Lelanne juicer! I now make all my boy’s juice verses shelling out cash for boxes at the stores- and mine are ten times healthier!

    I understand how difficult it is living on a very limited budget, I feel for you and your family. Best of luck to you and God bless. 🙂

  • Tracy says:

    I grew up growing a garden & learned to can & freeze vegetables. I highly recommend it. You can grow what your family likes to eat. Also, my husband likes to hunt & fish. We freeze the meat & it has helped reduce oour grocery bill so much.

  • Heather says:

    There have been some great tips on here already. We are a family of 5(one 4 mths old and still on formula/diapers). Our budget for the month is $350(which includes formula and diapers so only about $250 for food). These are the tips I have- look for markdown meats and use cheaper cuts of meat. I rarely buy any meat over $2 pound and aim for $1 pound meats. So we generally eat alot of chicken. I buy whole chicken, which I cook in the crockpot and split into 2-3 meals. I also use the chicken broth for other recipes. I buy chicken drumsticks when they are on sale for $1 pound.This we do have as a meat “stand alone” meal. My husband will grill the chicken legs, or I cook them in the crockpot with bbq sauce. We do meatless meals alot at lunch, my husband is a hard core meat eater and refuses to eat a meal without it!! I usually cut the ground beef in half for things like spaghetti. I do add beans to things like tacos and burritos. We eat alot of potatoes and brown rice as meal stretchers. Also, look for easy recipes on things you can do yourself to save money. I make refried beans in the crockpot, they are super easy to do and saves a lot over buying the cans at the store. I rarely buy canned soups, I make a homemade cream sauce to use in recipes. I also rarely buy deli/lunch meats. I will use meat from a whole chicken to make chicken salad. We also do egg salad and tuna salad at lunch time. Try pairing a meaty sandwich, like chicken salad sandwich, with a really cheap soup, like split pea soup. That way you are getting the meat in, but it is still a very cheap meal. I agree on cutting down on cheese, it is more expensive than meat right now. If you do use it, see if you can cut the amount in half for your recipes. Breakfasts here are oatmeal, cream of wheat, eggs/toast, homemade pancakes, homemade biscuits and gravy, etc… Another easy meal is crockpot baked potato bar. You can cook your potatoes in the slow cooker all day, then top with whatever you have- chili, taco fixins, loaded, white sauce with broccoli, etc… I also suggest using whatver leftovers you have. If you have leftover rice you can make a quiche crust with it, use it for breakfast rice, add it to a soup or stew, use it in fried rice, etc….Try not to let anything get thrown out!! I have 3 boys, and they are still young but are big eaters. I buy lots of bananas and applesauce for healthy, inexpensive sides. Cut out the juice/sodas, if you still buy them. I also make homemade baby food, which is a ton cheaper than buying the small jars at the store. Try using different grains, like barley and quinoa, to make some of your meals more filling. For snacks, we buy popcorn kernels and make it in the microwave, I make granola bars, sometimes I will buy jello for the kids when it is on sale. I also do buy some things like animal crackers which are pretty cheap. I LOVE lentils, you can do so much with them. Lentil rice casserole is so good, and you can make it without cheese or just use 1/2 cup cheese for the topping. Honey lentils are delicious, there is a recipe on Stephanie O’Deas website at 365 days of slow cooking, it is awesome!! You can serve it as a side with brown rice, and then eat the leftovers the next day for lunch. Anytime I cook meat by itself I always make lentils and then the next day I eat them for lunch, since the meat is usually all gone. Anyways, I wish you the best, you can do it!!!

  • Mama Murrey says:

    My best tip is to pray over your budget and your menu. Ask God to help you be creative, to stretch your money, and to provide for you out of Heaven’s resources. Back when money was very tight for us, neighbors would bring over excess from their gardens, our piano students gave us food as thank you gifts, someone from church offered us all the green beans in her garden because her family didn’t like green beans, and friends gave us culls from their turkey farm. I don’t think these people knew we were struggling financially. I think God just moved them to give to us because I’d asked Him for help.

    Ask God to open your eyes to inexpensive or free food. My brother drove past five huge pear trees on his way to work, asked the owner if he’d want the pears at harvest, and the owner was glad to have us haul off what would have been hundreds and hundreds of pounds of wasted fruit. One friend gets lots of geese from hunters every year. I’ve picked berries from fence rows and lots of apples from neighborhood trees. Recently a local cattle trailer accident yielded 12 free steers which my sister and my husband helped to butcher. We now have a freezer full of free hamburger! (This happened a few days after my sister had prayed for cheap meat!)

    Grow mint tea in a garden or pot. It makes wonderful hot or cold tea, and is much cheaper than store-bought drinks.

    Another blog with very practical tips about food is

    Pray for creative ways to use up the free or inexpensive food God will send you. It takes a LOT of creativity for 200 pounds of pears. : )

  • leah says:

    Dave says you should spend 5-15% of your income toward food. This includes food and eating out. As many have said, $200 may not be doable in your area. As a budget coach, I will tell you: Yes, you can coupon, etc. but remember to get a good *value* for the dollar. Hamburger Helper may be cheap, but that 50 cents may be better used on produce! Keep an eye on nutrition, pray for your “daily bread”, and don’t waste! This post may also give you some things to think about:

  • leah says:

    oh, and use cash!

  • Megan Saben says:

    Cabbage is another cheap, nutritious budget stretcher. I make “runza” filling by cooking a pound of ground beef with some onion and garlic, then adding half a head of cabbage, shredded, and some salt and pepper. Then I put some of it in five-inch squares of homemade dough (whatever bread I am making–I often make the filling one day and use it another time when I am making bread), pinch the corners up at the top, let them rise and bake. You can google for specific recipes, but this is the basic method and is also great for other leftovers: lentil sloppy-joes, pizza sauce and toppings, etc. Look for other recipes using cabbage, too!

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