How To: The Penny Pinchers Guide to Eating Cost Effectively Without Relying on Ramen

The Penny Pinchers Guide to Eating Cost Effectively Without Relying on Ramen

If you're on a tight budget for food, whether you're in college, or someone just starting out living on their own, you're probably low on money and sick of ramen noodles. Don't get me wrong, ramen can be tasty and filling, and there is almost nothing cheaper.

Sadly, people aren't like animals, and we get sick of eating the same food day in and out. Not only that, but ramen is high in sodium, which many Americans have a tendency to over consume. However, eating decently on a tight budget is easier than you may think. These are just some of the techniques I've picked up over the past year since my partner and I have embarked on a tight budget for food.

In my household, we manage to eat 2-3 healthy meals a day with plenty of snacks to fill in the gaps on $150.00 per month, for both of us.


  • Aim for a budget of $75.00 per person / per month in your household. This will allow each person to eat comfortably.

Find the Cheapest Local Store

Shop around a few places and buy the items you purchase most often. Find the store that offers the best deal on your most frequently consumed foods. This will save you a lot of money right from the start. If you're living on the West coast, the cheapest place is likely WinCo. If you're an East coast dweller, Sam's Club or CostCo seem to offer the best prices around.

Sign Up for Discount Programs

Most food stores offer programs that you can sign up for to recieve extra discounts on everything in the store—you can even pile the discount on top of items that are already on sale.

This brings me to an exploit you should always be out on the lookout for. Keep your eyes out for sales on items such as: "$2 off when you buy two or more". If you couple this with a buy-one-get-one-free deal using your card on something like soda, you can actually get paid for taking food!

One time, a friend and I used this exploit and got 5 cents for every Dr. Pepper we "bought". We took so many that we left with free cheesecake, and had drinks for a few months.

Drink Water

Drinking a big glass of water before every meal will hydrate you, make you fuller faster, help you digest and make you feel a lot better. Most Americans are partially dehydrated at all times—try to drink lots of water, and you will notice you feel better and spend less.

Foods to Stay Away From

Look at food in terms of portion and how many meals they could provide you with. To help you get started, here are some foods you should try your best to stay away from and the reasons why.

  • Bovine products—Try to stay away from beef. Beef is incredibly pricey, even for super-fatty stuff. To make a box of Hamburger Helper, it costs you 6 bucks in beef. 6 dollars for a portion fit for 1.5 people isn't a good idea.
  • Drinks that require added sugar—This means Kool-Aid, coffee and all of the rest. If you can deal with it, you are far better off drinking sugar-free drinks, or water. Drink some yummy mint-herbal tea instead.
  • Buy generic brand products—It's nearly the same stuff and sometimes it even is the same as the name brand alternatives. Toughen up and eat your Fruit-O's.
  • Buy as little fresh veggies as possible—Fresh is better and often tastes better, but this can be extremely costly depending on the veggies you purchase. Since it can vary, you are best off comparing the price between fresh and frozen veggies.
  • Lunch meats—No matter how convenient, the prices are insane. All because the meat is precut with tons of delicious chemicals, the price goes up to $6 for a half-pound. Buy the real meats and learn to cut it thin. You'll end up with tastier, healthier meat and a lot more of it.

Foods That Are Cost Effective

A good rule of thumb for saving money on groceries is to buy foods that you can mix and match very well. If you buy food that can only be used for one thing, you won't be making the most out of your budget. Here are some foods you should try to stock up on.

  • Frozen vegetables—These are an absolute must. You can get 5 cups of a variety of veggies for only 80 cents a bag. That's quite a bit of food, and it's healthy too. Learn to love the stir-fry.
  • Spaghetti without meat—A meatless spaghetti is actually a very cheap meal and can last you a few days of leftovers for under 4 or 5 dollars.
  • Bread—You can buy loaves of white bread for under a dollar quite easily. A sandwich or two makes a lovely meal coupled with a drink of water or juice. It's quite filling.
  • Fresh tomatoes, lettuce & onions—You can use these ingredients on a number of cheap meals, like tacos, chalupas, many kinds of sandwiches and more. If you run out of stuff to use them on, you can just make a salad with it when you're done. Yummy!
  • Cheese by the block—Though it appears pricier than fake cheese, getting legitimate cheddar or other blocked cheeses actually saves money. 1 block of cheese often lasts me more than a month, and I use a lot of extra sharp cheddar. If I tried doing the same with fake cheese, I would need 20 packages of singles. Nevermind that real cheese tastes better and is healthier.
  • Juice from concentrate—Some prefer the fresh stuff, but let's face it, concentrate is really cheap. You end up with a big jug of delicious, 100% fruit juice for only 80 cents.
  • Boneless chicken breast—A very versatile food indeed. With the different spices you can use, and all the different recipes that require chicken, you can make a nearly endless supply of meals and still get your protein. You can get 15 good slabs of chicken breast for under $20.
  • Eggs—You can get 60 eggs for $8. This deal is nearly impossible to pass up, since 18 eggs costs 3-5 dollars. I have an issue using that many eggs in a month, so at the end I usually make a bunch of hard boiled eggs for a great snack!
  • Bacon—Bacon is actually pretty cheap if you eat it with something such as a BLT. A package of package of bacon cost only $2.50, and comes with about 15 slices. It only takes 3 pieces to make a BLT. Sounds like a fantastic deal to me.
  • Canned tuna fish—Tuna fish with mayonnaise and your choice of extras can stretch out a single can of tuna to make up to 2 or 3 sandwiches. It's also pretty healthy and very scrumptious.
  • Rice—Welcome to the world of stir fry. With rice added to your arsenal, you can make a variety of meals for cheap. Try different spices and veggies everytime to experiment with range. Always a good purchase.
  • Potatoes—They're cheap. They're pretty healthy, They can be used for tons of stuff! Buy a big 50 pound bag of potatoes and eat all the mashed potatoes, potato wedges and french-fries your heart desires.

If you stick with these ingredients and then add your favorite snacks to the list until you hit your budget, you will find yourself with a lot of delicious food to choose from—without being poor when all is said and done.

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But Alex I liked my Ramen and Kool-Aid

Sob story: when the recession hit, I got laid off, ended up living off savings and eating ramen for 10 months. Can't look at the stuff now... Burgers and cognac for me thanks...

Aha. You can still buy it at the end ^_^. As long as you make sure you're food supply is-a-plenty, you can buy whatever you want at the end :D. I still get my soda, pizza and other delicious items when I'm done grabbing the inexpensive stuff :).

also if you're willing to up your budget to a cheap-on-the-yuppie-side level, Trader Joes can be pretty cheap with some planning.

You can get cheap fresh vegetables at ethnic grocery stores like Super King or Ranch 99 for really cheap, and they often have more interesting vegetables than what's at the local Safeway or Albertson's.

Also, it's cheaper to buy a whole chicken and then cut it up than to just buy only breast pieces or thigh pieces. WonderHowTo's got plenty of deboning videos for that.

Awesome ^_^.

seriously, fresh veggies (especially greens like komatsuna and bok choy) are super cheap at my local asian markets (and I live in a small city in Kansas). Potatoes of all varieties (especially if I can score some satsumaimo) are also cheap, easy to prepare, and high in potassium.

Yeah fresh veg is actually cheaper than frozen by a long shot at my local (I don't live in USA though so that's probably the cause of the difference). Also I'd go with chicken thigh fillets instead of breast. They are generally a buck or two cheaper per kg and taste HEAPS better. Breast is the worst cut of chicken imo, it's for health freaks that are scared of a tiny bit of fat and don't care how dry and bland their food tastes.

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