Sunday, April 19, 2015

SNAP Food Budget Challenge: Groceries for 4, $80/week

I've been rather fascinated by all the buzz surrounding the #foodbankNYCchallenge this week - one of my favorite topics, grocery budgeting, has gone mainstream! If you haven't heard, the challenge is to use $29 per person for food for a week. You can't use food you've already bought, and you aren't supposed to rely on food from others. The idea is to raise awareness about the realities of life for those who rely on SNAP benefits, as recent cuts to the program have left many struggling to put food on the table.

The numbers given are actually higher than what I budget for our family per week (I suspect that might have something to do with the higher cost of living in NYC), though I do buy in bulk and rotate types of food purchased throughout the month (one week I'll spend more for meat, another I'll buy several packages of frozen vegetables, etc). That means I use food already purchased in any given week, but for the month overall I budget for $320 for our family's food. That's $80/week for the family, which works out to $20/person. I don't generally use coupons for food, because I don't tend to buy name brand items, but occasionally I'll encounter a coupon or flier while I'm in the store and take advantage of a good deal. I'd love to be good at couponing, but we don't have a lot of storage available for packaged food, so it just doesn't work for us right now - and that's okay. It's frankly easier for me to just think week to week and month to month when I shop, and probably more realistic in the scope of the above challenge.

You're probably wondering what I buy and what we eat - so let's get to the good stuff. My grocery list usually has the following items:

  • milk
  • half and half (for our coffee)
  • yogurt
  • sour cream
  • cheese
  • eggs
  • tub margarine
  • bananas
  • apples
  • whole carrots 
  • celery
  • some other seasonal fruit (strawberries, oranges, etc)
  • potatoes/onions
  • tortilla chips
  • wheat crackers
  • chocolate chip cookies
  • peanut butter 
  • cereal
  • ground coffee
  • baking supplies (flour, sugar, etc - I don't often get more than one per week)
  • beans (some canned, some dried)
  • rice (bagged, not instant)
  • pasta
  • boxed macaroni and cheese 
  • chicken ramen 
  • frozen vegetables
  • lunchmeat
  • one type of meat (ground turkey, chicken thighs, whole chicken)
  • casserole ingredients (canned soup, canned green chiles, salsa, canned tomatoes, etc)
  • bread/tortillas (I buy a large pack of tortillas every other week)
(**I also buy household goods like paper products, toiletries, diapers, and dish soap, but those go into a separate category in our budget  - $30/month for everything but diapers, $30/month for diapers.)

What do we eat? Glad you asked. We eat a lot of casseroles for dinner, which work nicely for a few reasons. One, you can work with a few base ingredients and vary the seasonings to make several different meals. Two, they can be made ahead and frozen, which is very nice for a busy working mom of two young children. Three, they cook in the oven with little hands-on time required, which means I can be playing with the girls and getting them dinner while our dinner cooks. Four, they use smaller amounts of meat, which is great for stretching our budget - one pound of ground turkey can make two or three casseroles with about six servings each if you do it right. On the nights we don't have casseroles, I typically make something in the crockpot, we eat leftovers, or we have something very simple like quesadillas and beans or soup and bread or cereal. The girls aren't much for grown-up food yet, and I don't force the issue at the moment. I offer a small amount of what we're eating and give more if they like it. They often just have fruit, toast, and either cheese or yogurt for supper - a few times a week they'll have macaroni and cheese, which they love (I typically do that on nights my husband is working late and/or I know I'm making something they aren't going to like).

There was a time in our married life where I wasn't so sure about generic brands. I wondered if the food would taste the same. Once the girls were born, I started driving a bit further to WinCo, our local discount grocery store, and taking full advantage of their low-priced store brand foods to stretch our tight maternity-leave budget. Guess what? For the most part, there's no difference between generic and name-brand or off-brand products. The only disappointment was the lowest-priced fruit yogurt cups, which tasted strangely diluted to me. Luckily, the girls were willing to eat those that week, and I stuck to the next cheapest regional brand after that. There are some items that we've found we prefer, such as the house brand coffee, macaroni and cheese (Erin actually won't eat the name brand!) and canned goods. The store is very large, but the aisles are wide and it's always well-stocked so I don't worry that we'll have to go elsewhere for anything on our list. It's a small investment in extra time and effort that really pays off in the end. At this point, after 3 years of shopping there, I really struggle to find things at other area stores! It's a good thing I work close by so I can make a quick emergency stop as needed.

Emergency grocery runs brings me to my other main money-saving technique, which is only shopping once a week. I typically shop on the same day, and I start making a list a couple of days before I go. If we run out of something, I do my absolute best to substitute or make it from scratch. I am a bit of a fanatic about knowing exactly how much of any given food we'll use in a week, and trying to always have just a little bit more than we'll need. The only things that would drive me to the store during the week (barring an unforeseen illness or other minor catastrophe, like a toddler dropping all of the eggs as she helps put away groceries) are running out of coffee, half and half, milk, or bananas. We actually run out of bananas at least once during the week, but that's just a given - one of us gets them on the way home from work. What can I say? We all like them and go through at least 10 lbs a week - they just don't keep well enough to buy that many at a time. Thank goodness they're cheap! As for the other must-haves, I try to buy just a little more than I know we'll use and ration what we've got if we're close to running out. I'll put a little milk in the half and half to make it last, and I'll drink water or tea instead of milk. For all other packaged goods, I bought one extra at a time over a period of a couple months, so when I see we're close to empty on the ketchup and get a new bottle, there's actually already one in the cupboard and I'm replacing the extra bottle. That way, if things get really tight (and they do sometimes) I can wait a few weeks before I buy more than the bare necessities. Once a week shopping has made me very conscious of what we can do without on a regular basis, and I've gotten pretty creative when it comes to substitutions - most worked, some not so well.

Obviously I have a lot to say on this subject! I'll spare you any further rambling, but I'd like to end by reminding you that food banks are a very worthy cause. Stopping to consider the realities of such a tight budget, plus the numerous challenges of living in poverty, makes me even more grateful for the ways our family is blessed. If you can, please consider a donation to your local food bank, and don't waste food if you can help it - cutting down on waste will save you money.

I'm linking up with the lovely Julie at The Corner With a View for the SNAP Food Budget Challenge! Head on over to read how others make it work on a tight weekly food budget!


  1. This is such an awesome post, Sarah! Thank you for sharing!!

  2. Agreed! I just found you because you started following *me*on Instagram, but I'm so impressed with this post! I know I could be doing a lot better with our grocery budget and reading yours i think I could find a few savings areas. Thank you!

  3. These are amazing tips. Things I wish I would have started doing earlier in my twins lives.

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