How to Eat Cheap for a Month
With the economy in such a bad shape and so many people out of work or working low wage jobs just to survive, eating cheap can be a necessity for many people, even in the United States.
For most people, they don't need to eat super cheap all the time, but for a few weeks or a month it's pretty common for somebody to have to watch their budget very closely.
Eating inexpensively all the time for the rest of your life would be ideal, but most of the time eating cheap usually means eating unhealthy or unbalanced meals, so this is where it can get tricky and why it's probably not too wise to eat very cheap for durations longer than a month.
If you don't mind eating unhealthily then it should be very easy to find cheap meals but eventually your health will suffer as a result. So the trick is to find a balance between eating cheap and eating healthy.
You shouldn't expect all your cheap meals to include all four food groups and be 100% nutritious, but there's no reason you should also be eating double cheeseburgers from Mcdonalds every day since this can lead to serious health and nutrition problems.
So if you're wondering how to eat cheap for a month, or even for a shorter or longer time period, here's a few tips that may come in handy, not just for meat eaters, but also for a few other types of diets such as vegetarians and pescetarians.
Compare Prices At Different Stores
It's important to be aware of where you're getting your groceries. Some large chain grocery stores are much more expensive than others, although it can vary by which items you're buying. For example, one day I was shopping in Alberton's and the price of a can of tuna there was twice what it normally costs in Target's grocery store.
But on the other hand, Albertson's also had a few items which were much cheaper than Target's. By going to different stores and making a list with prices of the things you're going to buy, you can often cut your spending amount down significantly. I calculated this myself with my own groceries, and if I had only shopped in Albertson's, I would have spent around $220 for the items I was buying for myself in 1 month.
But by comparing prices between them and Target, I ended up spending $170 that month instead. So I actually saved $50 of what I would normally have spent. In my experience, Target and Walmart seem to have cheaper items, in general, than other grocery stores I've been to such as Save Mart, Safeway, Top Valu, and Albertsons.
However, there were a few items that were cheaper at the other stores than they were at Walmart and Target. These two companies have large grocery sections in their super stores, but even their smaller buildings have at least some food items.
Dollar stores like Dollar General can also save you a lot of money on certain items, so check out the grocery sections of these types of stores as well. Of course, if you're driving, you may spend money wasting gas to drive to all these stores to compare prices. So you should be careful about that and see if you're able to walk to each to compare and then only drive if you have to and when you're ready to buy what you need.
Always be on the lookout for sales that are going on. Sometimes stores buy too many of a certain item and they are having a hard time selling them, so they'll try to get rid of them before the food expires. So just about every store has some types of items on sale.
What I do is I go to the stores to compare prices first, and while doing that, I take note of any items that are on sale.
I only buy sale items that I would normally buy, because I'm familiar with their normal price, so I know if it's a good deal or not. For instance, the type of salad dressing that I normally buy is around $3.29-$4.50 at any of the stores I shop at, depending on which one I'm in.
But sometimes this brand is also on sale at Alberton's for around $1.39. So what I do is I wait until that sale happens every two months or so, and then I load up and buy about two month's worth of salad dressing for myself. This way I no longer pay the regular price for it.
It's good to stock up on items that are on sale so you can avoid buying them at regular price next week or next month, but just be careful and read the expiration date to make sure it's not food that will expire soon. If it's something that you can freeze to prolong it's expiration, then that may be the best thing you can do to really save money.
Also, as mentioned already, you should no what the normal prices would be at different stores. Sometimes I see sales at one store, and these sale prices are still more expensive than the item at regular price at a different store.
The store with the sale is just putting it "on sale" to get rid of the item quickly before it expires, but they are still overcharging so they can make a lot of money, and they are hoping people will get excited and buy it when they see the phrase "on sale".
Don't just buy things that are on sale and assume that they are at a cheap price or a good deal. Items don't necessarily have to be on sale to be a good deal.
I mentioned earlier that I stock up on items that are on sale, and I also mentioned how just because items are on sale, that doesn't mean they're cheap. Well one of the best places to get items at cheap prices and stock up on them would be buying them in bulk.
All grocery stores have some section or items that are sold in bulk, such as large tubs of ice cream or 3 boxes of cereal that are packaged together at a discount price.
There are also membership stores like Costco and Sam's which specialize in selling bulk items at wholesale or discount prices. So if you're just trying to eat cheap for a month, it may not be worth the membership fee you would have to pay to shop at these places.
You may just want to check the bulk section of your local grocery stores and compare prices. Otherwise, getting a membership card to the stores that exclusively sell in large bulk items can be the cheapest way to eat each month.
Just be careful not to buy more than you would normally consume. Sometimes people buy in bulk, and because they bought so much, they start to consume more thinking that it's so cheap and that they have so much of the item.
This defeats the purpose, so you need to make sure your consumption levels don't go up just because you bought more of an item.
Be cautious of expiration dates and try to measure or imagine how much you would normally consume before the expiration date comes, so you're not left with a lot of one item and it's all expired. I've found that the best way they save me money is on snacks and junk food.
In between meals, I usually get hungry and want to eat something quickly. Sometimes this can be costly if I choose to eat my regular food as snacks during the day. By buying filling items that are really cheap like snacks, I can eat them throughout the day to feel full and I don't have to get into my more expensive food which is the food I eat for main meals.
Most snack foods that I buy don't have to be refrigerated and have a very long expiration date, so I can stock up on them when they're at their cheapest prices or on sale, and this really saves me a lot of money each day.
Free Membership Cards
Most stores have some form of membership card that allows you to get good items at cheaper prices. By membership card, I'm not referring to the type of membership that you have to pay annually on like at bulk stores such as Sam's and Costcos. I'm referring to the free membership cards that stores like Albertson's, Target, and Safeway all have.
Just about every grocery store these days has these types of cards, and you need to ask for them at the register if no one offers you one. They are free and take only a minute or two to fill out the form with your phone number, name, and address.
Once you have this card, you can buy many items at cheaper prices by handing the card to the cashier when you're ready to pay for your purchases, or in some stores, by swiping it at the credit card terminal or scanner near the register.
The way these cards work is that the stores mainly want you to feel like you're saving a lot of money by shopping exclusively with them. For some people, having a card makes them want to shop at the place where their card is, because they feel like this will save them more money than if they go elsewhere.
The grocery stores hike the prices up a little more for non-card members, and then advertise the regular prices the items would normally be at as "special card holder prices". So some people really feel they're getting the item at a very cheap price.
This is similar to how some stores try to trick people with "on sale" items which aren't really as cheap as they should be. But even though it's a bit of a trick, you still need this card to get items at the normal prices they should be at, so it's a good idea to get a card for each store you shop at.
Sometimes they do have good deals and items on sale that you can only get as a card holder. Such as items that are sold as "10 for $10" or "buy one get one free". Without the card, you may be spending a lot more money for these items at any of the stores.
Using coupons can also be a really great way to save money. You can get coupons by checking your local newspaper, pennysaver, or other types of publications in your area.
Many grocery stores also have their own publications or sales brochures at the front of the store which have all the latest items that are on sale for the present week or month. You will usually need to cut the coupons out of these types of publications and the cashier will scan them at the register when you purchase the items.
Some items will actually have coupons that will be given to you at the register after you buy them, or on the actual package or inside it as well.
For example, I buy yogurt a lot and there's a lot of times where I'll be buying it at the register, and the cashier will hand me a coupon for that brand of yogurt so I can save some money the next time I buy it. Other times, I'll buy an item like hot pockets or frozen pizza, and there will be a coupon either attached to the box and wrapped in plastic, or inside the box, which I can use towards my next purchase of the same item.
Sometimes you can even find coupons on the shelves next to the items, usually in coupon dispensers. With these, you get instant savings and don't have to wait until the next time you buy an item. Most coupons usually have an expiration date printed on them, so you need to make sure you buy the items before that it expires.
Also, you usually can't combine coupons together to reduce the price even more. For instance, some coupons may be "buy one get one free" type deals, but others may be "35% off". You can't normally take two coupons such as "35% off" and combine them together to get 70% off one item.
Each coupon is usually only good for one item per coupon. The companies would be losing money if they allowed people to combine them together, because some people would combine so many times to get items for free, or at prices which would make it impossible for the company to make a profit.
Most stores also offer gift cards or gift certificates which are good for purchases within their stores. Now you may be wondering how you can save money by using gift cards.
Some people receive gift cards as birthday or christmas presents, or as prizes they won in contests or drawings. Sometimes these people would rather have cash than to have a gift card, because they want the freedom to shop wherever they want. With a gift card they're pretty much stuck buying items at whatever store the gift card was issued from.
So what these people sometimes do is they go online to websites like eBay and Craigslist, and they sell their gift cards at a reduced price so they can get cash instead. So a $100 gift card for Target may be sold for $80 on eBay or elsewhere. If you happen to buy this card from the person, you have no saved $20 on your next grocery purchase if you go to Target and use this gift card there. The person who sold it to you now has $20 less to spend, but they have the freedom to spend their $80 anywhere so this may be a better deal to them.
The only problem with this is that with some cards you need to make sure that the balance on the actual card matches what the person says is on there.
This can be difficult with some cards and it can also allow a scam to take place if the person has a way to use the numbers or file it as a lost or stolen gift card. So you need to be careful when it comes to some of these and make sure there's no way you can be scammed in the process.
But majority of the time, it's a safe and legal way to save money on your purchases. Another problem you may encounter is that there is often fierce competition online for these types of things, so you may have to bid for the item against many other bidders, and the gift card or certificate could go to the highest bidder.
Sometimes one of these items will be posted for $20, with a $100 value on them, but with so many bidders it can end up selling for the price of $98.
So the person who won the item only saves about $2 and has to wait for the item to arrive in the mail or has to meet the seller in person if that's the agreement.
Fast Food Value Menus
One of the best ways and probably also one of the most obvious ways to save money is to go to fast food places and buy food on their dollar menus or value menus.
At Mcdonalds you can buy a mcdouble burger for less than $1.40 which is two patties of meat between a bun, and for some people this is enough for one meal. However, your average person would still be hungry after this, so you may need to buy two or more at a time.
They also have the Mcchicken and a few other items on their menu at similar prices that may be more filling to you.
Other fast food restaurants also have value menus, including Burger King, Taco Bell, Wendy's, and Jack n the Box. But your meal won't be so cheap if you purchase a drink at these places.
So you should probably get your food to go and only drink water or cheap drinks from home with your meal to really save on money. Fast food places make a lot of their money just from the overpriced drinks they sell.
Food Stamps, Food Drives, and Shelter Food
If your reason for trying to eat cheap for a month is because you're having money problems, then you might just be able to qualify for certain social services. You could try applying for food stamps, and if you're approved then you will be given a specific amount of funds each month, but strictly to buy food with.
The money will usually be placed on a card, which is known as an "EBT" card (Electronic Benefit Transfer), but the amount you receive per month will depend on how much you qualify for.
In order to qualify for any amount, you will usually have to prove that you don't have too much income or assets. People with income can still qualify, but it can't be over the limit and the limit for income and assets is different from place to place.
Even if you don't qualify, there's other services that may be offered in your area. Many organizations put together food drives in which they give out bags of groceries and non-perishable items. Each organization is different, so you would probably have to call the ones in your area to see what requirements they have in order for you to receive food from them.
In addition to these other services, many homeless shelters and soup kitchens have food available each day. Some serve breakfast, lunch, and dinner, while others may only serve one or two meals. Many churches or other religious organizations do the same.
Most places that serve food allow anyone who needs a meal to show up, wait in line, and be served one. Unfortunately, this allows some people to take advantage of these services. A few shelters require that you give them a record number in order to eat.
This number is usually given to lower income people who have proven they're low income by registering with their county or state. This is usually done through the social services department in most counties. The meals in shelters are usually completely free.
Cheap Grocery Store Foods
When shopping at the grocery store, there's certain things that you should buy that are just cheaper than other things. Peanut butter and jelly can be purchased fairly cheap and with bread you can make a lot of sandwiches with a little bit of money.
One personal favorite meal of mine that's easy to make and very cheap is the Tuna Helper and Hamburger Helper meals. You purchase a box of one of these and then buy either red hamburger meat or cans of tuna and you can make a lot of meals with just one box and a little meat or tuna.
One of your biggest expenses that shouldn't be overlooked is your drinks. If you're really dedicated to saving money, then you'll probably want to stick to just water. Not only is it the healthiest drink for you, but it's also the cheapest.
If you live in a place where the water is drinkable, such as a home with well water or city water that is safe enough to drink, then this is probably your best bet. But if you're unsure whether it's safe to drink, then you may have to buy your water like many people.
You could buy it bottled at the store, but it would be much cheaper if you got a water jug and fill it up at one of those water dispenser machines they usually have outside grocery stores. These typically cost about .25 cents to .50 cents to fill up a large jug of water.
If you must drink other types of drinks then you should look for generic brands or dilute what you buy. For drinks such as soda, generic brands are usually much cheaper than name brand products. You can usually find generic brands on the same shelf or in the same area as the name brands. The prices can often be at 50% cheaper or more for the generic brands.
By diluting, I mean that you can use water to reduce the concentration of a drink so you get more for your buck. With things like tea, juices (orange juice, apple juice, grape juice, lemonade etc.), and mixed drinks like Kool-Aid and Crystal Light, you can add more water to increase the amount you have.
Sometimes certain things come in high concentrations such as 100% orange juice, but this doesn't mean that they have to be consumed like this. The downsides to doing this, however, are that you'll lose a little flavor, and in the case of nutritious drinks, they may lose a bit of their nutrition value.
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