We Feed Our Family of Six on $450 a Month and They Aren’t Deprived OR Starving!

One of the biggest expenses families have is the cost of feeding them. There are many articles on the Net about “starving” families that are forced to spend a “measly” $12 to feed their families at the local fast food joint in order to survive, thereby affecting their health.

When we started cutting costs in 2013 in order to pay off our debt, we started with our grocery budget. By continually tweaking our techniques, we’ve learned how to feed our family on less than half of what the average family spends.

Friends, I’m going to share today how we feed our family of six on about $450 a month and they eat well and have full tummies. According to the USDA’s 2015 numbers, a family of four (two adults, two kids) on a thrifty food plan spends about $653 a month. The “liberal” plan spends twice that at $1298.80 a month. This is assuming the kids are between the ages of 6 and 11.

Our family of six spends roughly $450 a month on food, and our youngest kid is 10. How do we do it? Here are our tips.

*Note: We don’t just feed our family “crap food” on this budget. We buy only organic milk, butter and frozen veggies, and we buy farm-raised, grass fed local beef and local farm-raised, free-range chicken as well. You can do organic on a small budget, you just need to follow the tips below. 

Meal Plan

Every month I write out a list of fifteen meals that we like and plan on serving each one twice during the month. My mom did that when she was a single mom raising three kids on a welfare budget and then a piddly job making SO not very much money. It worked for her then and it works for us today. If making a monthly meal plan seems too overwhelming, try a weekly meal plan. It’s when you don’t have a plan that you’re making umpteen trips to the store and buying expensive processed foods or hitting the local pizza joint or take-out place.

Make a meal plan every week or two weeks, and stick to the plan, buying what you need to make the meals on your list. That one move alone will save you hundreds of dollars a year.

Know How Much Things Cost

I can tell you the price of nearly every single item we buy regularly at the grocery store. I use memory but you’re welcome to use a pre-written list. Knowing prices helps me to plan out a balance of cheap meals and pricier meals. It also helps me to know when a sale is really a sale.

You see, grocery stores use great marketing techniques to get you to stock up on sales that often aren’t really sales at all. By knowing the regular prices of thing we buy on a regular basis, I can quickly identify whether or not a sale is stock-up worthy.

Have a List of Cheap Meals and a List of Not-So-Cheap Meals

By having a list of meals that you like (or at least that you can tolerate) that are cheap and meals that you like that cost a bit more, you can learn to balance your budget better. In our home, we aim for an average of $5 per meal – at the most.

That means that if we want steak dinner one night, we have popcorn or buttered noodles for two nights to make up for the cost. The kids aren’t going to starve to death if they have a cheap meal once in a while, and it allows us to serve some spendy stuff once in a while as well. But we aim for an average of $5 a meal. Here are some of our favorite meals that run in the $5-$6 range for our family of six:

For more ideas on cheap but delicious meals check out this book:

Recommended reading: The $5 Dinner Mom Cookbook: 200 Recipes for Quick, Delicious, and Nourishing Meals That Are Easy on the Budget and a Snap to Prepare

Some ideas for cheap (as in $1 or $2) meals?

  • buttered noodles with salt, pepper, dried parsley flakes and garlic powder
  • air-popped buttered popcorn
  • homemade mashed potatoes and veggies
  • chipotle rice

Shop the Sales and Buy in Bulk

When it makes sense. This is vital to a frugal grocery budget. We menu plan around upcoming sales and then buy according to what’s on sale. This is extra important if you live in an area where food costs are higher. So is buying in bulk when it’s really cheaper and when it’s food you’ll really use. Just be careful not to use/waste more than you would normally because you have an abundant supply. 

Some of the foods we buy in bulk at the local warehouse stores include:

  • block cheese
  • organic butter
  • organic frozen veggies
  • sour cream
  • eggs
  • coffee
  • fresh veggies (we cut them up and freeze them in our deep freezer if we’re not going to use them before they go bad)
  • oatmeal
  • organic sugar
  • certain canned goods (be sure to compare the prices to grocery store prices)

Like I mentioned earlier, knowing prices of items you buy regularly is key to knowing if sales – or bulk purchases – are a good deal.

Keep Food Waste to a Minimum

The average family wastes up to forty percent of the food they bring into their homes. Forty percent!!!  That’s ridiculous. When our fridge starts to get filled with leftovers, we have “leftover night” for dinner or lunch or Rick brings them to work for lunch.

Learn to cook only enough for the current meal needs, or else commit to eating the leftovers for the next few days’ meals. You can also intentionally cook more – like with soups – and then freeze the leftovers for quick meals for work or at home.

Keep Processed Food Purchases to a Minimum

You will rarely find chips, pop, candy, store-bought baked goods or processed dinner and snack foods in our house. Why not? Because they’re not good for you and they’re expensive. In spite of what some so-called experts say, it really is cheaper to eat healthy, especially when you shop the sales.

We do have chips in the house on occasion, and we buy cheap tortilla chips at Aldi’s and have nachos for dinner some nights. But mostly we limit the kids’ snack choices to nuts (cheap at Trader Joe’s and the big box stores, and you’re not likely to wolf down oodles of walnuts like you would with chips because they fill you up faster), fruits (we get whatever’s on sale), veggies (carrot and celery sticks: we buy them whole and peel and chop them ourselves), homemade air-popped popcorn (we bought the Presto 04820 PopLite Hot Air Popper and it’s lasted us for four years now – much cheaper than the microwaved stuff AND better for you), and homemade baked goods such as my famous chocolate chip cookies.

By avoiding processed foods – especially sodas – you can save LOTS of money on your monthly grocery bill.

Beware of Making Random Trips to the Grocery Store

Random, unplanned trips to the grocery store are a budgeter’s worst enemy. This is why I rarely bring hubby to the grocery store with me. He gets drawn in with all of the sparkly marketing and pretty soon he’s “ooing” and “aahing” over the ice cream, the chips, the cookies and the other expensive crap food that looks so delicious in its’ colorful packages.

As my son likes to say when we bring Rick to the grocery store, “Mom, baby Ricky wandered off.” 🙂

Instead, when we have to stop into the store during the week I make an itemized list and a promise to myself that I’ll get in and out without browsing.

Keep Restaurant Meals to a Minimum

That’s right. In the last year we’ve been to a fast food restaurant five times. We limit sit-down restaurants to no more than once a month. Usually once every two or three months. Not only does eating out less save your family a boat load of money, it makes the times that you do eat out more fun. And it gives you serious peace of mind knowing that you’re not spending five, ten or fifteen times as much as you need to to feed your family dinner.

Another way we enjoy restaurant meals without spending money at a restaurant is to search the Internet. When we’re craving a certain restaurant meal, we head to the Internet and find a copycat recipe. Once of our favorites is this Better Than Olive Garden Alfredo Sauce. It really does taste like the real thing!!

We also make this delicious homemade pizza for pizza night. Honestly, it tastes much better than the takeout stuff and it’s cheaper, too.

 

*Bonus Tips

If you’re really feeling motivated, you can also save LOTS of money on your grocery budget by growing and preserving your own veggies. It does involve some work, but for us it’s allowed us to save hundreds of dollars per year.

Also, take advantage of shopping local farmers markets and roadside veggie stands. They usually have really great deals on fresh fruits and veggies.

If you like meat, work to find a local-ish farmer that will sell you meat in bulk. We buy grass-fed beef from our local farmer for $3.50 to $4.00 a pound so we can eat quality hamburger, steaks and roasts on our small grocery budget.

It Takes Effort

As with any good thing, it takes effort to feed your family on a budget. But not that much effort. Simply start by turning off the TV, putting down the smartphone and taking some time to educate yourself. Buy a book like this one that will teach you how to save money:

America’s Cheapest Family Gets You Right on the Money: Your Guide to Living Better, Spending Less, and Cashing in on Your Dreams

Then spend an hour a week or so learning to implement money saving strategies that will help you learn how to substantially lower your grocery bill and to save money in other areas as well.  Even the busiest of people can carve out an hour a week to learn how to save more and spend less. If you don’t believe me, go on a TV or smartphone boycott for a week and see how quickly you become bored.

After you take a bit of time to learn how to save more and spend less, you can take the money you’re saving each month and use it to reach your dreams of becoming debt free, quitting your job or building up some serious wealth. Stop being a victim of poor money management and start being a victor over your finances and your life. The effort will be worth it!

How do you save money on feeding your family? What are other ways that you save money and spend less?

32 comments

  1. Kathy says:

    I think this is the only time I take exception to a book recommendation you have posted. I have the book recommended above and found it to be pretty unrealistic in both it’s purported savings and the volume of food that family eats. At the time it was written they had teenage sons who were restricted to very minimal amounts of food…which having raised a growing boy myself….would leave them starving. And if I recall correctly, they purchased a lot of their food at scratch and dent places which doesn’t exist in every community. Otherwise your tips as usual are spot on.

    • Laurie says:

      Thanks for being honest, Kathy – I really appreciate it! Which book are you talking about; the America’s cheapest family book or the $5 dinner book? Glad to have your input! As an aside, I’ve worked with the dad of America’s Cheapest Family on freelance projects and have seen through various means pics of his family, and the boys look healthy enough to me. 🙂 But those teen boys do eat/need a lot higher calorie content than one might think.

      • Kathy says:

        It was the “cheapest family” book. I haven’t read the $5 Meals book. I sincerely didn’t intend to insult friends of yours, but I just couldn’t have a lot of belief for the numbers they cited in the book. And thank you for being open to comments that might be contrary. Very classy. 🙂

  2. Aaron says:

    You go Laurie! I’m very impressed with your guys’ resourcefulness when it comes to meal-planning. This is really no small feat – especially with a family your size. But you prove it can be done. Thanks for being an inspiration.

  3. Awesome stuff, Laurie. We’re (shamefully) spending about $450 a month for our family of two. A whole lot of that is beer for when we go to friends houses, or host guests, which happens a few times a week. I suspect our food cost is somewhere around $350? Still probably too high.

    I ended up donating that $5 Mom cookbook a while back but maybe I need another copy! 🙂 Or just some new recipes. Or, you know, less beer…but that’d be crazy.

    • Laurie says:

      LOL, I have to say that one of the reasons we don’t drink is b/c I can’t stand the thought of wasting the cash on the stuff. We’re too cheap to drink. 🙂

  4. Thanks for making the point that you aren’t all suffering as a result of your limited grocery spending! Like your family, mine certainly isn’t suffering as a result of a low grocery budget. We do everything on your list, Laurie. And I agree, dinner can be popcorn and buttered noodles sometimes. It’s really okay…

    We spend a total of around $400/month for a family of four (we are all very much adult-sized – my son is 6’3″!), when you figure in our bulk grass fed beef purchase each year. And we eat well!

    • Laurie says:

      You’re doing great, Amanda!! Anytime one can stick to around $100 per person I think that’s phenomenal. We’ll definitely be raising the grocery budget once the debt is gone. 🙂

  5. aretina says:

    While I agree with some of the strategies suggested here, I’m disappointed in yet another article that boasts the savings that can be had by purchasing industrialized $2/lb meat, frozen and canned foods from the grocer. There’s a reason these foods are cheap- they are sprayed, injected, modified, shipped thousands of miles from where they originate.
    Buy all “organic” and bust your budget? People, it doesn’t have to be all or nothing. Look outside the grocer for solutions.

    Many local farms already adhere to what most people consider “organic” standards- they just don’t or can’t use the organic label to sell their meat and produce. Get to know your farmers, start shopping at the market and find what fits your budget and what doesn’t. Learn what’s in-season, and work it into your budget. Farmers, just like the grocer, will drop the price on goods in high supply because, unlike the canned vegetables that can sit on the shelf in the store indefinitely, farm-fresh produce will spoil if not sold.My grocery store has never sent me home with free food to show their appreciation. I’ve gotten more free food from my farmers- a box of homemade chocolate, jars of jam, a 5lb bag of potatoes, fresh herbs or zucchini, or discounts- because they know me and know I support their business. I get quality food, support local economy, and support local farmers which to me is a better use of my money than $2/lb chicken.

    Tyson, General Mills and Green Giant keep their “trade secrets” to themselves. Yet, I’ve never met a local farmer who wasn’t eager and willing teach me how to grow the same vegetables myself.

    • Laurie says:

      Great suggestions. We actually buy lots of organic – we just hit the sales when we do. These suggestions can apply to all shoppers whether they prefer organic or non-organic. The popcorn we use for popcorn night is GMO-free popcorn, the noodles we use are bought at Trader Joe’s (they purchase noodles manufactured in Italy where dangerous pesticides are banned) and we buy only organic butter and milk.

  6. Meal planning made such a huge difference in my food budget. Monthly is still too hard for me. Ifound when it was time to make a certain meal, I no longer wanted it. But if I just plan for the week, I tend to do much, much better. I also plan my meals by the sales flyers and do keep in mind if I see something at an exceptional price, such as roast or chicken, that I may not need this week but will still buy and freeze. Food waste is a huge issue and another thing I used to be terrible about but have improved dramatically. I’m still not perfect but getting closer. And yes to having a few cheap meals to both balance more expensive meals and to save your hinny because even with good planning, sometimes things don’t work out. And cheap meals don’t have to taste bad either.

    • Laurie says:

      I think you’re doing great, Tanya. Awareness is really a big part of the battle. We sometimes do weekly planning instead of monthly planning for that same reason. The important part is to do what works.

  7. I get tired of hearing that as well. It really isn’t that difficult to eat cheap. We’ve seen our grocery budget go up with the addition of our growing boy, and we also elect to go out to eat about once a week. But we still spend less than $500 / month. We could probably optimize this some more, but we do follow your advice of eating mostly unprocessed meals.

    I really like the idea of laying out the menu at the beginning of the month and I could see how that really comes in handy with a growing family and busy schedules. Thanks for the great post!

    • Laurie says:

      It really isn’t that difficult – so glad you agree!! Busy schedules can definitely make a difference. We often times will put together some meals on a Sunday to sock into the freezer so that busy times will be covered.

  8. Josh says:

    We belong to a couple buying clubs that deliver once a month. One delivers dry goods (Azure Standard) and the other is a regional fresh organic produce carrier that sells wholesale. They bring an 18-wheeler to a parking lot and we get the goods from them.

    Regarding the fresh produce, we buy as much as we can an stretch an entire month, we do have to go to the store towards the end of each month to supplement or we jsut forego certain foods to keep our costs low.

    Regarding the fresh produce, we have noticed a lot of families only buy enough to last that first week and go to the grocery store the other three weeks. By planning ahead & having the storage capability, it’s possible to save some serious moolah over the course of a year.

    P.S. Like the new website background.

  9. Mackenzie says:

    As you know, the grocery budget is still a difficult hurdle to cross, but I think for November, if I can plan out some meals now, that will help. Especially with Thanksgiving, it’ll help to look at sales flyers to get a jump on things 🙂

    • Laurie says:

      We’re doing the same thing with Thanksgiving. I’m already on the lookout for cheap turkey, ham and potato prices. Aldi is huge on great sales if you have one out there.

  10. Great points, Laurie. You are the expert here! Our budget is about $320 per month for four (but the kids are still small). This does include a fair amount of hosting and taking snacks to church functions, etc. Making homemade chicken stock, yogurt, bread and baked goods, and cooking dry beans and whole chickens makes a huge difference for us. I kind of can’t believe I used to buy boneless, skinless chicken breast exclusively. They aren’t as tasty, and they are so much pricier!

    • Laurie says:

      I think $320 a month is great, Kalie!! Homemade stock is huge. We always save the juice from our chickens and our roasts and use it later to make soup or make gravy to serve with mashed potatoes and veggies. Even if there’s no meat left over the kids don’t miss it a bit as long as that meat flavor is there. 🙂

  11. It’s an area our family of five still struggles with. We shop with a list and meal plan. It’s something I’m going to re-look at to try to get our budget under control. Eating out is a lesson we are trying to impress upon our teenagers. With two of our three driving and working part time jobs, the spend a good bit of their money on food.

  12. Great tips. It’s been getting tougher since we have little ones and feel like there’s no time to prepare meals and meal plan. And, yea it’s an excuse but my toddler can be a little picky when eating too. But definitely shopping sales is important, too many people just go to the supermarket with no plan and just buy whatever it is they feel like eating.

    • Laurie says:

      It’s hard sometimes to work around kids’ preferences. In our house we have a rule that I’m not a short-order cook and that the kids will eat what’s served. However there are exceptions. For instance, our youngest daughter has hated peas since she first tasted them at three months old. As such, we allow her to pick another veggie, such as a celery stick, when we’re serving peas with dinner. Vivid memories of my parents forcing me to eat squash as a kid when I thoroughly despised it makes me a bit lenient when it comes to certain foods my kids absolutely hate. 🙂

  13. Amy says:

    Meal planning is critical for me!! I hate cooking, and I don’t particularly enjoy grocery shopping, either. Every Sunday, I plan out the upcoming week’s dinners. This saves time, money, and my sanity – talk about a win-win!!

    Like you, I know what’s a good price on things we use frequently, and stock up when they go on sale. For example, in my area, $0.88 is generally the best price I see for a 16 oz. box of pasta, and that’s when I stock up. Sometimes the grocery store will price it at $1 a box and act like it’s on sale, but I know better. 🙂

    • Laurie says:

      That is so important, Amy!!! They often tout sales as sales when they’re not really sales at all. It’s so frustrating to have to dodge marketing ploys, but it saves cash in the long run. 🙂

  14. Michael says:

    Excellent post! Meal planning has given our family almost $50 savings per month. It has helped us limit grocery purchases and also reduce food wastage significantly.

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