Frugal Foods to Buy When Money is Tight (and What to Avoid)



Dave Ramsey, who wants everyone to live debt-free, often gives this advice on his radio show to people who are struggling with debt: Eat rice and beans, beans and rice. What he is saying is people should cut back on expenses as much as possible until they get out of debt. However, could rice and beans be good advice for foods to buy when money is tight? What kinds of foods should you buy when inflation leads to higher grocery bills, and what kind of strategies can we use to reduce our food costs? Read on.

1. Cook Your Own Meals

When our parents and grandparents went shopping, they bought ingredients like meat, vegetables, and potatoes that they would cook into meals. However, many people like convenience so they purchase meals already made, whether it is a frozen dinner, a meal in the refrigerated food section, a fast-food joint, or a dine-in restaurant. Unfortunately, when we buy processed food, pre-made meals, or have our meals cooked for us, we are paying more than we need to. It’s easy to cook at home. You’ll save money, you will eat healthier, and you will have leftovers, which means you won’t have to cook lunch tomorrow.

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2. Stock up on Staples like Rice, Beans, and Pasta

We now return to rice and beans, beans and rice, oh yeah, and let’s add pasta to the list. Carbohydrates are cheap calories, and they are great ingredients to extend your meat. Cut up some chicken breasts, saute them in a pan, and add the chicken strips to rice or pasta for a fulfilling meal. You can also fry up some onions, peppers, and mushrooms to make the dish go further.

Stock up on these staples when they go on sale, and you will eat good, even when money is tight. A lot of people like to add kidney beans into their chili, but beans are already full of protein. The next time you make chili, consider going vegetarian and just add an extra can of beans instead of ground beef. You will still get plenty of protein into your diet.

Pro tip: Choose complex carbohydrates. Think brown rice and wheat pasta. Support your health the best you can on your tight food budget. 

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3. Shop for Produce in Season

Did you know most fruits and vegetables only have like a 3- to 6-week growing season? That means two things: You only have a short window to truly enjoy fresh produce, and your opportunity to save on those fruits and vegetables is short-lived. 

Fresh produce is a great addition to any meal, but it gets more expensive when it is out of season because it is either trucked in from a southern state, or it is flown here from another country. We recommend a seasonal food guide to help yourself eat in season. 

When fruits and vegetables come in season again, take advantage and buy extra and freeze it. Tomatoes do not freeze very well if you want to use them as slicing tomatoes for burgers, but you can cut them in quarters, freeze them, and use them in soups and sauces.

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4. Nose-to-Tail Eating Yields More Food

When food prices climb and money is tight, people often just buy inferior meat at a discount grocer or shop for inexpensive cuts of meat that are tougher but can become tender and tasty when cooked low and slow in slow cooker or electric pressure cooker. But, there is an alternative to buying merely cuts: Getting the whole animal.

Nose-to-tail eating is a movement gaining popularity because it promotes eating the whole animal. Those who follow use all of the parts of the animal: Bones can be used for soup stock, fat can be rendered into tallow (which is good for your skin), organ meats like the liver, heart, kidneys, and tongue are nutrient-rich, and you still have all the cuts of meat. A single beef steer can provide more than 400 pounds of food. Ask your local rancher about buying a whole cow.

Consider buying the whole chicken. It’s good for the environment, and you save money (buying separate cuts of chicken costs more). What’s more, buying a whole chicken is ideal for meal prepping. Of course every chicken comes with two thighs, two legs, two wings, and two breasts. But when you buy the whole chicken, you also get the backbone and giblets which are great for making chicken stock for soup. Try buying a whole chicken. You’ll be surprised by how many meals it provides.

5. Be Innovative with Leftovers

When you cook your own meals, you will save money … unless you throw away leftovers that go bad sitting in the refrigerator. To make sure you keep your grocery costs down, find innovative and creative ways to take those leftovers and transform them into new dishes. It’s easy if you try.

If you have leftover steak, chicken, or pork, cut the meat into strips or cubes and use them for a stir-fry with some vegetables and rice. You can also dice the chicken, add some diced celery and mayonnaise and make chicken salad. If you cooked some rice and didn’t eat all of it, you can toss it into a soup. Leftover spaghetti can be used for a lo mein dish, just add some protein and vegetables.

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6. If You Want to Save on Groceries, Avoid These Foods

When you decide to cook your own meals and eat better, be careful to not fall into the trap of buying empty-calorie foods. These are foods that are full of calories but provide no significant source of nutrients. These are the kinds of foods and drinks that we love: Cookies, cakes, candy bars, hard candies, chips, sodas, energy drinks, and fruit juices (yes, orange juice is a no-no).

These empty-calorie foods and drinks are also the ones you will see conveniently displayed right by the cashiers when you get ready to check out at the store. So, avoid being tempted to pick up a candy bar and drink on your way out of the store.

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