For the past six months, I've been feeding two people on $35 a week.

That's right—$35 a week. Five dollars a day, $2.50 per person, 83 cents a meal.

I live in a normal city lot; have a 1940s-era, closet-sized kitchen with a crappy electric stove; don't clip coupons; and do my weekly shopping at Fred Meyer, just like everyone else I know. I do eat meat, and dessert. The only difference is that every meal I eat costs, on average, less than a candy bar.

I'm doing this partly out of necessity (marginal employment, student loans, mortgage), and partly because I had grown disgusted with just how much money my husband and I were spending. I, like most Portlanders, used to love eating out, especially at food carts. I'd grab a banh mi here, a breakfast bagel there. Life was good. That is, until I realized I was spending nearly $150 a week on food, just for myself. This was completely unacceptable—and totally avoidable. So I set out to make a change, bringing my lunch to work every day and eating exclusively at home. Before I knew it, I had cut my food budget dramatically.

Based on the U.S. Department of Agriculture's 2011 estimate for a family of two on a "moderate" grocery budget, I estimate we have saved more than $2,500 over the past six months, or around $416 a month—enough for a car payment, increased student-loan payment, or even part of the mortgage, all by following a few common-sense principles. 

  • Plan meals ahead of time and cook every day, from scratch. I prepare every single meal I eat from raw, unprocessed ingredients. Believe me—not every day do I want to do this. I come home exhausted and tired from work just like everyone else. But not only does it have the added benefit of allowing me to know exactly what I’m putting in my body—including the ability to calculate the calorie count, if need be—but it has allowed me to develop my cooking skills beyond what I ever thought they’d be.
  • Practice targeted grocery shopping. Do you know how much a package of Chinese egg noodles costs at a regular supermarket? About $3.79. Do you know how much they cost at Fubonn? About $1.50. This is why I take thrice-yearly stock-up trips to Winco for bulk foods, an Asian market for Asian ingredients, Costco for staples like butter and flour, and Grocery Outlet for inexpensive cheese. That way I only have one weekly trip to the regular supermarket for produce and incidentals.
  • Stock up on bulk foods. Spices, flours, sugar, oats, cornmeal, whole grains, dried beans and even sometimes dried mushrooms can in most cases all be bought in bulk for a fraction of what it would cost to buy them pre-packaged. This isn’t always the case at some supermarkets, like Fred Meyer, so be sure to compare the packaged with the bulk. Try to find a store that specializes in bulk, like Winco, and buy a few months’ worth of supplies.
  • Never buy full-priced meat. Most grocery stores have an area in the meat department reserved for meat that’s at or is fast approaching its “sell by” date. Often these packages are marked down by 30 percent to 50 percent, or even more. Even if you’re not looking to eat meat that particular week, always browse the discount-meat section every time you go to the store. My personal budget for beef or pork is $2.99 a pound, and $1.99 a pound for chicken. If you find something at a good price, take it home, portion it out, wrap it, label it and freeze it for later.
  • Don’t eat meat for every meal, and when you do eat meat, don’t make it the centerpiece. Even at just $2.99 a pound, the cost of meat adds up. Try to think of meat as a garnish or additional flavor; you’d be surprised just how much satisfaction you get from a wee 4-ounce sirloin sliced over a big salad than you would an 8-ounce T-bone all by itself. 
  • Don’t snack, or at least keep it to a minimum. Hungry in between meals? Grab a piece of seasonal fruit, or a cheap prepared snack like homemade gingered carrot pickles. (Put 1 lb. carrot sticks and 3 T peeled ginger matchsticks in a jar; add 1 cup white vinegar, 1/4 cup turbinado sugar, 1 T kosher salt, and water to cover. Keep refrigerated.)
  • Bake your own bread. I bake bread twice a week, every week (flour is 32 cents a pound in bulk at Costco), and individually wrap each slice to be frozen. This way hot, fresh bread is always a toaster or microwave minute away and can be used for everything from a side for soup to sandwiches or bread crumbs.
  • Develop an arsenal of quick, cheap breakfasts and lunches. On days we have leftovers, lunch is a no-brainer. However, on days there aren’t any, we need a cheap, quick alternative, such as eggs and homemade toast, oatmeal with walnuts and frozen blueberries, or simply a hunk of bread and a couple pieces of fruit.
  • Take advantage of seed exchanges, or start one yourself. I grow almost all my garden plants from seeds, many of which come from trading with friends. I often use only about a third of a packet of seeds, so exchanging the other two-thirds for seeds I need is a great way to build variety. (I cut small envelopes in half, copy information from the label, and tape them shut. Most seeds are good for a few years past their “packed for” date.) 
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