I have experienced, and continue to experience, really hard times. Last year (from July 2012 to January 2013) I was unemployed and living on a VERY small wage from Unemployment and a 3 hour a week part-time job. I searched for a job to no avail. The biggest problem was I still had bills to pay and I still had to live. I had to eat. I struggled to figure out what I was going to do. Those of you who have ever been unemployed know the feeling.
But I consider myself luckier than most. Even though my parents couldn’t support me (because they have their own financial crisis), I only had myself to support. I don’t have any children. I don’t have a husband, it was just me. (Which some may think is a bad thing too!) My mom raised me to be a saver, not a spender. I do have moments where I want to spend, spend, spend, but this was one of those that I had to be very aware of what I was spending.
A monthly meal plan with recipes was the biggest change I made. I printed out a blank monthly calendar from Microsoft Word about 1 ½ weeks before the month ended. All meals that I love and I know are cheap and easy, I wrote randomly on the calendar. Some times I grouped certain meals together because one meal would be dependent upon what I made in another meal. I only fill out Monday through Friday with dinner meals for two reasons. 1. I eat leftovers for lunch. I hate throwing food away because it’s throwing money in the garbage. 2. Weekends were my “free days.” I managed to have a little cash here and there and would occasionally treat myself.
If I had any empty days that couldn’t be filled with my favorites, I would look through my Pinterest finds and Cooking Light Magazine and see if I wanted to try anything new. I managed to fit in at least 4 different “new” meals per month. Some of them were even added to the regular rotation (like this Buffalo Chicken Grilled Cheese Sandwich courtesy of Grilled Cheese Social). I tried to find things that had easy ingredients or ones that I could easily substitute or make my own. Many times I found myself adjusting certain recipes because it would mean fewer ingredients I had to buy.
This planning has become a habit for me now. I continue to do it because I’m getting better at couponing and it is really good practice. Below is a picture of next month’s meal plan and “recipe lists”:
(I used a basic calendar from Microsoft Word as a template.)
(This is on the back of the calendar. It is a list of every meal [sans sides] and their ingredients. The check marks mean I already had those things.)
With my meal plan in tow, I made a list of all the meals (sides included) that I had written down. I then made lists of all the ingredients I needed for each meal. So if a meal called for chicken, cheese, quinoa, broccoli, salt, and pepper, that would be a part of the list. Once I made individual lists for each meal, I went shopping in my kitchen.
This is the BEST way to save money. Why buy something if you already have it? There is only two good reasons: you have more than one recipe that calls for the same ingredient or you use the ingredient frequently enough you need to have a small stock pile. I always have frozen vegetables on hand because I eat or use them for almost every dinner.
As I shop, I mark off the food I already have. Now, if I’m low on something, I will put it on my list making a slight overlap of grocery staples. Once I’ve done my in-house shopping, I make my shopping list. I usually only shop at one or two stores (depending on the sales at each store). So instead of just writing everything down willy-nilly, I group it by categories (or where I can find it in the store). For example, all produce will be together, all “grocery” items will be together, dairy, so forth and so on.
Once I list everything I need, I go hunting. That’s right! But I don’t hunt with a gun. Oh no! Scissors are mightier than a gun! So is the internet. I look for coupons that cover most of the food I need to buy. You can get lucky sometimes and find coupons that cover produce and meat, but normally they are for frozen and grocery items. Websites like couponmom.com , and southernsavers.com are my go to internet sources for coupons. Couponmom.com also helps by displaying sales for every store possible. I also have someone from my church who collects coupons for me. She usually gives them to me every other week which gives me plenty of time to look through them and get what I need.
After I have collected my arsenal of coupons and my list, I go shopping. Sometimes I get things that are not on my list, but I always have a coupon for it if I do. I don’t always think about snack foods until I get in the store. Unfortunately that is bad practice and it causes me to go slightly over budget EVERY TIME. Its one of those things I haven’t been able to get a handle on yet.
I know, I know. All this sounds really complicated and time-consuming and initially it is. I think the first two times I did this whole process, it took me around 3-4 hours. However, I’ve managed to get it down to 1 hour with some multitasking involved.
I think things are only going to get harder for all of us. We have to make sacrifices in our lives in order to survive. However, I believe no one should go hungry. I’ve been there and done that in my life, I never want to do it again. Don’t sacrifice good, healthy food for something you don’t need. Food sustains us and without it, we will all fail.