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Stretching a food budget to the extreme

Family of 3 to feed. For a month. On $100. Can it be done?

By Gary Foreman

The New Frugal You
New Frugal You columnist Gary Foreman
Gary Foreman is a former financial planner who currently edits The Dollar Stretcher website and newsletters. He writes "New Frugal You," a weekly Q&A column about frugal living, for CreditCards.com

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Question for the CreditCards.com expertDear New Frugal You,
My problem is beyond frugal. I only have $100 to feed my family of 3 for the next month. I'm not a great cook and just don't know what to do. Can you help me to get through the month without starving my family? -- Jana

Answer for the CreditCards.com expert Dear Jana,
Your problem may be bigger than most frugal living I get, but it's not unsolveable -- if you throw every trick in the cookbook at it.  Let's examine a few.

Begin by checking your existing inventory. You may not have a lot of food in the house, but you'll want to use everything that you do have.

If you're not sure how to use some of the things on your pantry shelf, check out recipe websites. Most will allow you to put in ingredients and they'll return a list of recipes that use them. Don't worry about not being an excellent chef. The recipes sites tend to have articles and videos covering any cooking skill you'll need.

Next, consider other sources for food besides the grocery store. Many are need based so you'll have to admit that you want help. There's no shame in that. Almost all of us have struggled at one time or another. 

Find out about local food pantries. Most contain a variety of staples. If you don't know of any in your community, check with a local church. They should be able to provide contact info.

Depending on your income level, government assistance might be available. SNAP (Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program), commonly called food stamps, is meant to help families who need help with groceries. 

Contact your children's school. You'll find lunch assistance programs available. An added bonus is that most school lunches are well balanced which should make your job easier.

It's also possible that you might be able to work for some food. That might sound strange, but it can't hurt to ask at local fruit/veggie stands and farms. Also ask them what they do with produce that's overripe and can't be sold.

One big key to your success is meal planning. You'll want to select recipes that allow you to use whatever inventory you have and don't require you to buy expensive ingredients. Stick to simple recipes.

When you do go to the grocery store stay away from processed foods. Whole potatoes are cheaper than the instant mashed ones. For the most part, the closer foods are to their natural state the cheaper they will be.

Basic food is relatively inexpensive, especially beans and starches. A five-pound bag of rice can be the basis for many meals for pennies. Sticking to the basics will stretch your food dollar. Use beans to provide protein for your meals. Raw beans are inexpensive and not that hard to cook. Check the Web for how-to videos.

Expect to have some meatless meals. Look for markdowns when you do buy meat. And only buy cuts that you can spread across multiple meals.

Take advantage of in-season vegetables. They provide good nutrition. Often they're flavorful. And, if they're locally grown, they can be found very cheaply. Blend in some soup or salad meals. A head of lettuce along with a tomato and a bit of salad dressing makes an acceptable meal.

Finally, make sure that nothing you buy goes to waste. Whether it's the last few pieces of meat or a half a potato, make sure you use it before it spoils. 

You're facing a tough challenge, but not an impossible one. For the next month your menu options may be limited. But your family need not go hungry and you'll pick up some frugal living skills that will continue to save you money.

See related: Making those meal dollars lastFresh fruits and vegetables needn't eat up your budget, Mmm, mmm cheap: Finding inexpensive, tasty recipes

Meet CreditCards.com's reader Q&A experts
Vexed by a personal finance problem? CreditCards.com's Q&A experts answer questions from readers every weekday. Ask a question, or click on any expert to see their previous answers.
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Elaine Pofeldt, Your Business Credit columnist Elaine Pofeldt,
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Erica Sandberg, Opening Credits columnist Erica Sandberg,
"Opening Credits"

Published: June 22, 2013


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