Monday, April 20, 2015

$29 a Week Emergency Food Budget

Interested in completing the challenge, or truly need some help? Read on to find out more!

A lot of people have been “trying” to live on $29 per person per week as a special challenge to identify with how difficult people in poverty have it (mind you the $29 is just for food, and does not cost them anything, or include other resources they may receive such as WIC, food banks, etc.) However, I have heard many people claim that they “can’t” follow such a strict food budget (for whatever reason). I was intrigued, because when I ran the numbers for my family, it came out pretty close to what we actually spend on food (although I also include diapers, paper products, toiletries, and cleaning supplies in my food budget). So, I didn't really see this as a "challenge" for me, since it's what I do every week anyway. However, a lot of people had a lot of excuses or concerns when trying this challenge.

I’ll try to address a few excuses before providing a basic food plan for two weeks for a family of four.

Excuse # 1 - I am just one person, I go in to buy peanut butter and jelly and spend $29 just on that.

OK, so realistically you are not “just” buying peanut butter and jelly. Peanut butter is $2, jelly is $2 and bread is $2. Even if you buy organic and fancy, peanut butter would be $4, jelly would be $3.50 and bread could be as high as $4 if you buy really fancy bread and pay no attention to sales.

As a caveat, it is much harder to keep a cheap grocery budget when you are one person. You will either have to end up cooking only a few meals at first, or starting with something in your pantry or visiting a food bank and cooking bulk meals and freezing leftovers. I will address this in a later post.

Excuse # 2 - All I would eat on that budget is ramen and hot dogs!

In part, yes. If you are truly starting from nothing (zero food in your house, for example you just left an abusive relationship and have nothing with you) then you will have to make some drastic decisions temporarily. In my sample budget, however, it goes very quickly from pasta and hot dogs to salmon and pork chops. You just have to focus on what’s on sale, especially with produce items. And leave convenience foods behind.

Excuse # 3 - My grocery budget is 3 times that amount!

What else are you including in your grocery budget? Many people include soda, alcohol, toiletries and cleaning supplies, paper products, and diapers. Not all of this is covered in a "food stamp budget", but it is still an area that you can seek to budget for and reduce spending. For people who are on a fixed budget, don’t buy soda or alcohol, buy toiletries in bulk when you have the opportunity, and use fewer paper products. Cleaning supplies should include one or two clean rags and homemade cleaning solutions using baking soda and vinegar (average of $5 per month for 2 people for paper products/cleaning supplies).

Excuse # 4 - But you can’t buy organic coconut oil and almond flour on $29 a week!

That is absolutely true, but anyone who argues that you “need” these things is incorrect. There are millions of people living today on $1 a day or less. As a people group, we have survived thousands (or millions depending on your personal philosophy/theories) of years on several very basic food groups (whole grains, produce, meat, dairy, and eggs). Granted, we should not be using as many chemicals in food production as we do, however, if we did not, the entire world would face starvation because of the higher production costs and lower yield per farm worker. A better method would be to control what you can and let cost determine other factors (for example, in season, local produce is generally much cheaper, and better for the environment). You can grow your own vegetables as organically as you want and know that they are not being shipped across the country.

On a side note, there has been no proof that organic fruits, vegetables, meat or dairy are nutritionally different. Other than the pesticide residue on the “dirty dozen” you are not significantly benefiting from the 100% price increase of most organic items. And hormone free milk and Natural products means absolutely nothing (all milk is required to be hormone free and natural is whatever you want it to be).

Caveat: this is not precisely an excuse, but many people live in high cost areas of the country (New York City, Hawaii, Alaska). If that’s the case, the prices and meal plans listed below probably will not apply to you. However, a bus ticket out of town could be a great investment! If you’re not making your budget work in New York City, you would be amazed how much cheaper everything is in the mid-west or south (other than Florida). In the long run, moving would actually benefit the environment as well, because fewer farm products would need to be shipped to those “high cost” areas of the country.

Following are price lists and meal plans for a family of four starting from scratch at $29 or so per person per week. Prices are based on local “regular” prices or frequent “sale” prices common at stores in my area. If you already have a pantry stocked with some basics, or have access to a food bank or WIC, you will be ahead of the game and can skip to week 2 with substantial increases in meat purchases and produce purchases. None of the lists include splurges such as soda, but they do meet basic recommendations for fruit/veggie and dairy/protein servings per day and include lots of whole grains and "real food". If you have specific diet restrictions (gluten free or low carb for example) you may need to adjust your cost. Also, the diet is based on the average family of four, if you have growing teenagers or overeat on a regular basis, that will be something to consider as well. If you eat 2800 calories rather than 1800 per day, that is a 50% price increase in your grocery budget already. America is one of the most overweight nations, so maybe paying attention to your grocery budget can help you in more ways than one!

To follow the budget plans, take the food list and compare it with your 2-3 most convenient local stores. Feel free to substitute if you cannot find a sale on a certain item! Consider one store to become your primary store based on average best sale or store brand prices and clearance selection. Choose another one or two that have great discounts, review the circulars weekly, and purchase only the best-discounted items there.

Week 1 Price List with Recipes

Week 2 Meal Plan

Produce prices vary greatly based on what’s in season, adjust meal plans as necessary. An allocation towards meat costs increases in the second week, if you do not prefer to eat a lot of meat, or find great bargains, you can save your money for more bulk buys or buy organic even if you want to! Avoid processed and convenience foods (for health and budget reasons). Ensure all leftovers will be used before they go bad, or place in freezer. As you grow used to this type of budgeting, you will see that $10 or so of “overage” has been planned. Use this to stock up when you find a great price and place any extra portions in your freezer. Our freezer is always full of clearance meat (usually $2 or less per pound) such as pork chops, ground beef (divide larger packages into portions of ½ pound or 1 pounds), boneless, skinless chicken breasts or thighs and more! The freezer is also a great place to store bread that is at it’s best buy date, as well as many types of produce. 

If you are still having trouble with the prices listed, keep in mind that I assume that everything is the store or “Store value” brands rather than premium or name brands. I typically buy produce and basics (flour, sugar, oil) at Aldi’s and everything else at Kroger. Your mileage may vary. If something on the list isn't on sale for those prices, substitute! If it's a cheaper price, consider making a "bulk" purchase to save money next week. Still feel like you can't make it happen? Make a comment and I'll do my best to answer your concerns.
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