Maintaing a well stocked pantry is one of the biggest secrets to living on a tight budget. But how do you fill the pantry when your food budget just keep shrinking and shrinking? This is something we've had some experience with over the years and although I don't have the perfect system or all the answers, I do have a few tricks we've picked up along the way that help.
What is a shoestring budget? Honestly that will vary based on what you are used to having at your disposal. In the most recent months with all of our home repairs, car repairs, appliances needing replacing, medical expenses, and such things, I've often had something around $500 a month to work with for a family of 11. Some weeks a lot less than others. When you are getting down to less than $50 per person per month, things get a bit tight. Keep in mind, that I typically think you should try for about $100 per person per month and work up or down based on your own situation. But with food prices going up lately, even that budget gets tight lately.
The first and most important step that many of us forget is to pray about your situation. Yes, work like everything depends on you but don't forget to pray and ask God to step in and help. I remember one particular time when we were living in Florida. We had some sort of unexpected bill pop up leaving us with about $10 for grocery money for the pay period. Even though our pantry was starting to get a bit bare, I still knew I could make it work if I planned properly. So I started doing our pantry inventory and discovered the pantry had been infested with bugs. The kind of bugs that often hitch a ride home from the grocery store in bags of flour and then hop around your kitchen infesting all of your food that is not canned. They were having a party in the pantry and I had to toss about 90% of the food in the house that was not in the fridge. The buggers managed to get inside sealed bags and boxes and everywhere. I took a gamble and kept our canned good even though they often liked to feast on the glue holding the labels on cans but decided since the pantry was so bare, it was a risk worth taking. The pantry was completely scrubbed down and cleaned out. Then I sat back and realized I had enough food for about 3 days and had to make it 2 weeks. And that $10 I was going to spend on milk simply would not be enough. So I just might have done a little crying or swearing and packed the kids up to go put some groceries on the credit card. A few hours after getting home, one of our elderly neighbors came by with several bags of food from their kitchen for us. It seems they were getting ready to head up north for the summer and didn't want any food to go to waste. And they brought over pretty much everything I bought at the grocery store that day. If that wasn't a big old sign from God telling me to trust Him more, I'm not sure what it was but I learned a lesson that day. One that I have had to relearn a few times. We need to step back and remember to pray and them remember to give God time to work in our lives to make things better. In His time, not ours. So pray first. Then tackle the next steps.
Second, you need to inventory everything you have in your house food wise. Or if you are concerned with the entire house, inventory all household supplies as well. This step helps you figure out exactly what you have on hand so you don't waste precious resources stocking up on something you already have hidden in the back of your cupboards. It's also important at this point to double check best if used by dates and make plans to use up the older stuff. Just keep in mind that for most products, the best if used by dates do not mean the food is not longer safe, it simply means it might not be at it's peak freshness. It baffles me how often people toss perfectly good food because of these stupid dates so do some research so you know which ones you truly have to pay attention to and which ones can be ignored.
Third, look for and be open to chance to glean. Last year we were able to get a ton of free apples, pears, and walnuts from an older couple who owned a large overgrown orchard that they no longer truly were able to use. The kids loved being able to climb the old trees and pick the fruit and I was able to can applesauce, make pie filling and apple crisp, can pears, and the kids ate apples and pears for a week. We were also able to give away quite a few apples and pears to a few friends. Were the fruit as nice and pretty as the ones in the store? Nope. Were they treated with chemicals and pesticides like the ones in the store? Nope. Were they delicious and free? Yup. We've also picked up slightly soft produce that one of our neighbors sets out on a free table on our street. Perfect for making pear butter and several of the kids just ate them.
If you know the budget cuts will be more permanent, start looking for ways to produce your own food. This can be as simple as a few plants in pots or as complicated as raising your own animals. Everyone can do something to produce some of their own food at home and it can make a difference.
This time of year, I would also look into the farmers markets and produce stands. Developing a relationship with some of the venders at farmers markets can be a great way to get produce cheaper than normal. Especially if you let them know that you are willing to take seconds or bruised produce. Especially if you are willing to haul away large loads of it to get it off their hands. We've developed a bit of a relationship with what is typically an over priced produce vender near us but the deals they will give us on the seconds/bruised produce are more than worth it. I've been able to keep our freezer stocked with peppers year round by waiting until they are 7 or 8 for a buck. Last year I bought out their seconds table a few times (and they were willing to negotiate the cost down if I took everything on it) and can a ton of food. It does require committing to doing nothing but processing the food for 48 hours or so but when you can fill the back of your car to the brim with produce for $20, it is more than worth it.
Another way I fill the shelves on a slim budget is to use coupons properly. This does not mean using every coupon out there or, for me, buying multiple copies of newspapers or anything. For me it means taking advantage of the items you can get for free or super cheap each week. Almost every week there are at least 2 or 3 items that I can buy for free and often others that I pay less than 20% of the normal price for. Last week it was free tuna and scotch tape and 29 cents for a pound of carrots. Often it is free toothpaste, shampoo, and soap. Ask for coupons from friends or family members who may not use them or start a coupon exchange with friends who do. Our local library now has a coupon swap box that anyone can use to take coupons they may use or leave behind coupons they won't need. Don't forget to use the special coupon programs and price matching programs available when you are able. That store loyalty card can save you some money as can programs like Target's Cartwheel program. I also follow several local coupon blogs and frequently watch on-line to request free samples. I am also able to use teacher discount programs as a homeschooler. Once a year we get a box full of toothpaste samples, 25 toothbrushes, and 25 coupons for toothpaste. I've found the right store to use the coupons at each year to get tubes of toothpaste for 8 cents each. I'm not sure why that store charges tax on the coupon total since most other stores do not but it still ends up much cheaper than buying toothpaste full price. Yes, one sample or freebie seems like it won't make a difference but in the end they all add up to help fill in the gaps.
When deciding what to put on your pantry shelves, start with the inexpensive foods. In our area, that means things like rice, dried beans, pasta, sauce, and oatmeal. If you know how to cook from scratch, these items can give you a creative base to work from. Just be realistic and admit to yourself that when you only have $30 for a weeks worth of groceries, this is NOT the time to buy cookies, expensive produce (stick with the cheaper stuff), most meat, or anything other than the plain simple basics. It's not a bad thing to admit that you will be eating spaghetti, beans and rice, and oatmeal for a week.
Sell stuff. This may seem silly but seriously, if you realize your budget will be tiny for a while, start looking for things to sell and donate. The more you can look around find extras in the house, the more you realize you are truly blessed. Plus less stuff means less to organize and keep track of. I'll admit the past few weeks, I've been selling extra homeschool materials for our grocery money. The stuff has been laying around for far too long and clearing it out has given us several weeks of food without wondering where the money was coming from. I've also cleared out several van loads of other stuff from the house and taken them to the thrift store to donate. The upside of this (other than extra space in the house) is that this thrift store gives you coupons and discounts every time you donate so I've also been able to buy things we needed at a significant discount (like the sandals the kids needed).
Seek out alternative sources for food. When I say this I mean abandon your brand loyalty and look around for the discount outlets, the cheaper grocery stores, the ethnic markets in your area and see if you can cut the amount you spend. I've started shopping at Aldi's and the bread store first before heading anywhere else. It saves us a decent amount of money and has made a difference lately. Not every location will be the same quality wise and I would not sacrifice quality for price but if your local store has quality foods, you can save a ton this way.
Learn to cook from scratch (and teach your kids). This may sound silly but it truly makes a huge, huge difference. If you know how to make bread yourself, you can make several loaves for the price of one. If you know how to cook dried beans, you'll save a ton of money vs canned. If you have the basic skills, you can get creative when the budget is tight. If you know how to throw together a pot of soup from scratch, you can feed your family for pennies. It does seem to me as if cooking from scratch is truly a lost art and one that needs to be resurrected.
This is a big one that I know some people will take issue with. But you cannot stock your pantry or manage your food budget if you are dealing with picky eaters. So unless someone in your family is dealing with allergies or sensory issues, it is time to kick picky eating to the curb. I'm not really talking about the kid who won't eat one or two foods. I'm talking about the kid who wants to live on just pasta and eggs or something. I'm talking about the kid who comes to your house and insults the food you've made for dinner or fills their plate, takes one bite, and throws the food away. I'm talking about the kids who have been taught that if they don't like what is being served, they can go into the kitchen and dig in the cupboards for something else no matter where they are, your house or theirs. Yes, I've had all of these things happen with guests and I don't understand any of them. I've been yelled at by other parents for insisting that my kids finish the food they took. I've been told it is mean and the kids have to eat. Well, no normal kid will starve if they decide to miss a meal because they've been rude but they may find themselves getting fewer invites over to our house if they are constantly filling their plates and then throwing their food away. So banish the picky eating, not just for the kids but for the adults as well. I've had several people tell me they can't cut their grocery budget because their husband won't eat certain foods. I just have to say that then you need to sit your husband down and explain that you can't cook the foods if the money isn't there and he's old enough to understand that. But I'm mean like that. Picky eating should not be what prevents you from slashing your grocery budget.
If needed, you also need to sit down with your family and discuss things like proper portion sizes, greed, and gluttony. I know we don't like to think about those things but we need to. If one child takes 3rds of the main dish so another child then leaves the table hungry and it happens on a regular basis, there is a problem. If you buy a treat for the entire family and one or two kids eat the entire thing, there is a problem. If you buy a treat specifically for a certain person, but someone else eats it, there is a problem. If you are finding food trash around the house because the kids are snatching any and all treats that come into the house, there is a problem. Yes, we are battling a few of these issues right now and they frustrate me because the kids involved are pretty much all old enough to know better and understand how what they are doing is wrong. But they are playing the there are too many of us for them to pin point who did it game. So for the most part, I am no longer buying the treats or juice or anything extra that kids have been taking without permission. I figure if they are taking carrots and celery, they are really hungry. If they are taking cookies and candy, they are just bored and greedy. So I'm also saying no to making cookies and treats lately because the same thing happens. One or two kids eat most of them leaving almost nothing for the rest of the family. So have those discussions. Repeatedly until the message is received because no one needs the habit of gluttony with regard to food to follow them into adulthood.
I've also started looking into alternative sources for bringing in small amounts of money. Nothing major or that takes me away from my primary job of being home with the kids but enough to make a difference when we need it. I use Checkout51, SavingStar, Pinecone Research, and Swagbucks to earn gift cards, gifts, and checks. If you have a smartphone, there are many other coupon based apps you can use to earn money for what you buy at the store as well. You can also use programs like Paperback Swap to trade books, cds, and DVDs that you are no longer using for ones that you would use. We also keep track of free programs for the kids. Free movies and programs from the library, free coupons from the summer reading program (this year we have coupons for free food from Taco Bell, Wendys, and Brueggers) as well as programs like the Pizza Hut Book-It program give us free treats for the younger ones.
I'm sure none of these ideas are new or amazing. They are just what work for us. If I had $30 to spend on groceries, I would try to spend $25 on food to eat that week and $5 for stocking the pantry. Even spending a couple dollars a week can eventually help. Small steps, remember to be thankful for you do have, and get creative to find what you need will make a difference.