How to be a foodie on $75 a week

Today I’d like to introduce a friend of mine named Anne. She’s a foodie blogger who currently lives in the Windy City of Chicago.

Since this site is about saving money and retiring early I challenged Anne to maintain her foodie status, but in the confines of $75/week.

If you have ever read my blog, you will know that food– both the restaurant and homemade varieties– is a big part of my life. You may even call it a passion.

I consider myself to be pretty money-conscious, as a general rule. I was raised by hardworking parents that started their married life (and our family) without a whole lot of money, so the principles of budgeting, saving, and worth vs. value have been instilled in me from a young age. My husband and I have both been laid off (twice each) over the past 5 years. We have since bounced back and are frantically trying to save up enough money to buy our first home so that we can start a family– not an easy task on two modest incomes in downtown Chicago. Living in a city known for its amazing restaurant scene and its amazingly high taxes, we do all that we can to keep our cost of living on the low side: limit our dining out, cutting coupons, cooking at home…

Even so, when Johnny Moneyseed challenged me to be a foodie on $75/week I realized I had no idea what a REAL food budget actually looked like. This challenge was a big wake up call for me and a really great exercise in learning how to budget, plan, and cook effectively– and to still be able to enjoy what we are eating!

Today I want to share a few of the biggest takeaways that I learned in this challenge. But before I do that, here’s how the whole thing transpired:

I first got to work on meticulously planning out a menu for the week with a corresponding shopping list. Staying within JM’s budget constraints was tricky, but I did make it work. In total, I spent $87.61 on groceries for the week. However, a lot of of the items that I purchased weren’t used in full during that week and could be frozen or used in meals the next week. After doing some nerdy calculations about how much of each item I actually used during the challenge week, the grand total came out to be $69.82 spent.

One other caveat to mention: I did not include what I consider to be pantry staples in my budget. These are items that I think most home cooks have on hand to use on a regular basis: oils, vinegars, butter, salt, pepper, and dry herbs. I didn’t use anything too out of the ordinary in terms of seasonings this week– just the basics like garlic, oregano, basil, parsley. If I were to have used something a little more obscure that you’re not likely to have on hand then I would have included that in the budget.

I’ll be posting some of the dinner recipes from this challenge week on my blog!

How to be a Foodie on $75/Week:

  1. Plan, plan, plan! Even before this challenge, I have always planned out a weekly menu and shopping list before heading to the grocery store on the weekends. It’s a great way to keep yourself from buying too many items that you won’t need or that will go bad before you can use them. It will also keep you sane at the store and when you come home from work– you already know what you’re making that night, so there is no guesswork involved.

I also recommend using your grocery store’s circular as the basis for planning your meals. For the challenge week, I found my store’s circular online and noted that chicken breasts were buy one get one free and that pork chops, potatoes, tomatoes, broccoli, and a few other items were on sale that week. I added them to my list and started creating meals around those ingredients. It’s a great way to keep your costs down and because sales change each week, it will also add some variety to your dinners week to week.

  1. Shop with coupons and look for unexpected deals. I’m not suggesting extreme couponing, but coupons are a great way to shred a few dollars off of your grocery bill without a lot of extra work. My store, for example, sends a $5 off purchases of $50+ coupon to me in the mail each week. That’s a big deal– especially when you’re working with $75/week! Additionally, about every other week I go to and check for new coupons on products I use. You just print them off and take them to store and it’s an easy way to score some additional savings.

This challenge also taught me to look for deals where a foodie like myself may not always be looking. Buying generic products when possible, for example, is a great way to save some money. I’ll be honest that I don’t do it for everything, but for staple items like milk and cheese, I bought the store brand this week, saved some money, and didn’t notice a difference. And don’t forget the day old bread shelf! I’m a bit of a bread snob, and I found some great discounted (and still good) take-and-bake Telera deli rolls there.

  1. Find multiple uses for the same ingredient. This step is key for avoiding food (and money) waste– and boredom. Nobody wants to eat the same thing for dinner every night, no matter how much money it saves you. This week I made a big batch of BBQ chicken in my slow cooker, which became sandwiches one night and then a topping for Irish Nachos later in the week. And I only needed a little bit of heavy cream for theFried Eggs with Rajas recipe, but knew I would have some left over so it was incorporated into the tomato cream sauce for our spaghetti and then whisked into the omelets we had on Sunday morning.
  2. Meatless Monday may be cliche, but it works. It doesn’t have to be Monday, but it is true– going meatless is good for your body and for your wallet too. Even the cheapest cuts of meat can be expensive (and then they can be difficult to cook). Instead, use other ingredients like cheese, eggs, legumes, or squash to add some heartiness to your meal. You’ll notice in our meal plan that we enjoyed a few meatless dinners like Fried Eggs with Rajas and a Baked Spaghetti Squash. I could go meatless everyday, but my husband would disagree. I have to say, however, that he cleaned his plate after both meals so I think we are on to something with these recipes!
  3. Buy seasonal ingredients — or grow your own (if possible). Cooking with seasonal ingredients is a great way to save money because produce that is in season is abundant and doesn’t have to travel as far to get to your store. These items are easy to spot when you’re shopping because they are typically on sale and prominently displayed in the front or center of your produce section. The other huge benefit of using seasonal produce is that food tastes best when it is in season.

And if you have the space, patience, and the green thumb then growing your own fruits and veggies is about the cheapest and most convenient way to enjoy fresh produce. I live in a downtown loft and don’t have the luxury of growing a full garden. However, I love to cook with fresh herbs (and that’s some of the priciest produce of all!) so I have planted a few window boxes on my little deck and just snip and cook with them whenever I need them. I don’t have to buy an entire bunch of parsley when I only need 2 tablespoons for a recipe and I don’t have to worry about a $4 package of herbs going bad in my fridge before I can use them all. At the end of the season before it started to get really cold, I picked all my herbs, chopped them up, and then froze them in an ice cube tray filled with olive oil so that I can cook with fresh herbs all winter too.

  1. Use online deals and loyalty programs when dining out. If we are being completely realistic here I can tell you that dining out is something that I can curb, but not give up completely in the name of budgeting. However, I have learned a few tricks to make it more budget-friendly. One option is using online deal sites like Groupon or Gilt City to get discounted deals on new or favorite restaurants. Another great way to save money when dining out is to join restaurant mailing lists and loyalty programs. It’s a great way to earn points toward freebies or receive coupons or deals from your favorite places. There is a Chicago-based group called Lettuce Entertain You and they own/operate over 30 restaurants in our area. They also have a great loyalty program where every time we dine at one of their restaurants, we earn points. Between the points we had banked and the $15 birthday gift certificate they sent me, we were able to enjoy a free dinner out at one of our favorite LEYE spots during the $75/week challenge. Not bad!

I’m no financial expert, but this experience certainly opened my eyes to ways that I can balance being a foodie, while still being frugal. I hope you found it helpful too!

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