Would you like to save more money, or improve your spending efficiency? Or are financial struggles such as unemployment and diminishing resources forcing you to trim back your grocery bill? This specific plan is not for everyone, but provides a sample of how to successfully budget while feeding a household. For those who want to save for the future, pay off debt, or simply need to feed the family AND pay rent during challenging times, I am here to tell you that it can be done.
Feeding Our Family on $50 Per Week
It all began within our first month of marriage. As newlyweds with big dreams and a small income, we developed a goal of spending minimally, saving exponentially, and traveling as much as we could. Trimming down our basic needs and frivolous spending so we could invest in a more prosperous future, after some trial runs we whittled our food budget down to $50 a week.
A budget is essential for us to steward our resources so we can intentionally invest in our goals. It is important to be a careful steward, living intentionally and with vision, not carelessly and haphazardly. Just like with life, without a vision even our money will casts off restraint and perish (Proverbs 29:18).
A challenge? Absolutely! But we were up for the task. The years passed quickly, our family grew, and our financial status fluctuated from two comfortable full-time incomes, to long stretches of unemployment, to now a single primary income. Now seven years and four children later, we have surprisingly continued to feed our household on the same $50 per week. Our choice? Yes, for now. Is this for everyone? Not at all. Can it be done when needs or goals require it? Yes! I will show you how.
What We Eat, What We Don’t
When newly married, I was excited to prepare gourmet meals for my husband, but as our family grew, my menu became simpler, both to accommodate more people, toddler taste buds, and my limited time and energy in the kitchen. What has not changed is the need for big flavor and beautiful presentation, using spices and artistic arrangement to craft delicious meals. A little creativity goes a long way when using basic ingredients, and I have found that I rarely need expensive items to cook an impressive meal from scratch.
For instance, these mini pavlovas consist mainly of 4 egg whites and sugar, some whipped cream, and crystallized pansies from my garden. It cost less than $1 to make, and they were the star of a ladies’ tea I attended.
I also learned from our African and Hispanic friends to cook rice and beans well, so it is no sacrifice for us to exchange meat and cheese for delicious meals of rice and beans to stretch the budget.
Homemade bread, butter and fresh vegetables from the garden in the summer make a wonderful treat.
Our breakfasts usually consist of eggs, oatmeal, or cold cereal and milk.
Lunch is often PB&J or cold cut sandwiches, soup, or pasta and salad.
Dinner on a common night could be many variations of hearty stew like chili or lentil soup with cornbread, salad, homemade pizza, meatloaf or baked tilapia with oven fried sweet potatoes, or chicken and rice and beans.
If we have planned ahead for guests, we will dress up our menu with stuffed chicken breasts, gourmet cheeses, loaded salads, and plentiful side dishes like breads, seasoned vegetables, fresh fruits, and an elaborate dessert.
Though we enjoy all kinds of foods, we seldom buy organic, and we reserve packaged snacks, beverages, ice cream, bacon, or expensive cuts of meat for special occasions.
What is Included in Our Grocery Budget
From its inception ‘til now, our weekly budget has included food and household essentials like paper products, diapers, and cleaning supplies. Restaurant dining is not included, but our general frugality allows us to celebrate special occasions with peace of mind.
How We Make It Work
So, how exactly is this done? $50 a week to feed 5 hungry bellies, plus care for an infant? We spend more than that on one dinner if my husband and I go on a date! My mother-in-law who works as a private chef considers $10 per plate a deal, not counting her labor. I now feed my family on $10 per person per week.
The key to accomplishing this is careful planning and resistance to impulse buying.
Armed with a cash-only system, calculated grocery lists and thorough online research of the weekly specials from my favorite rotation of local stores (Aldi, Price Rite, and Grocery Outlet) helps maximize my dollars and stick to the plan. If I deviate from the list to add something to my cart because it’s a “good deal,” I can easily blow the budget. Dollars add up quickly, and I aim to spend less than $2.00 on an item unless it is in bulk and can produce more than one meal.
While self-discipline in the store is helpful, planning at home is key to maximizing the budget.
Strategies for Success:
- I shop on the same day once a week, forcing me to use what I already have while planning ahead for next week’s breakfasts, lunches and dinners, including meals for guests or events.
- I write a list as I take inventory of my pantry, prioritizing ingredients that build flexible meals and can be stored longer than a week: things like oatmeal, rice, pasta, potatoes, beans, meat (chicken, ground beef or ground turkey), eggs, root vegetables, frozen vegetables.
- Then I add fresh vegetables like lettuce, spinach, bell peppers and tomatoes that work well with my meal plans, factoring nutrition, bulk, and satiation into my selections.
- After this, I add fresh fruit like bananas, apples or oranges.
- Lastly, I allow for pantry ingredients or condiments that last longer: flour, milk, oil, butter, sugar, spices, mayonnaise, salad dressing, in that order.
- If there is any cash left over from that week’s groceries, I save it to add onto the next week, or use it to buy something extra special.
Maintaining Goals Under Peer Pressure
We understand our way of spending is foreign to most of the people with whom we associate. Many of our friends eat out frequently and spend significantly more on food. So how do we coordinate diverse lifestyles? If we plan to participate in an event, we evaluate whether spending more or eating out will truly be a blessing to others or if the same (or better) could be accomplished with an alternative.
For instance, we were once casually asked by a family member to buy 4 cupcakes from a specific bakery for another family member’s birthday, which we were happy to do until we found out the cupcakes cost $25. At that time we didn’t have that kind of money to spend on a small dessert. I was already an accomplished baker able to whip up something just as delicious or better with less than $5 for ingredients. When we asked if it would be acceptable to make a special dessert instead, our family member agreed, and the birthday was joyfully celebrated with love, intention and probably more appreciation than if we had bought the cupcakes.
If, from habit or perceived convenience, a casual meal at a restaurant is suggested by friends and we are not free to indulge at the time, we will offer to host a meal at our home which is much more manageable for us and often more enjoyable for everyone else. This ends up creating value for everyone involved. Other times, we know spending more makes an occasion especially meaningful and have invested the money joyfully, without hesitation.
Spending is a value exchange, so we try to invest money in opportunities or experiences that grow in value (like good memories, relationships, new skills, quality of life and the well-being of people), not depreciate (like buying unnecessary things that add clutter, waste and frustration to a home). We always ask ourselves: what is the need, what is the vision, and what will it take to fulfill that experience? Does it take money or time and creativity, and which is more available at this time?
If you save where you can, you can spend where it matters.
Hospitality: Generosity and a Budget
While we budget our finances, hospitality ranks even higher in our priorities. It is how we express love to family, friends and strangers alike, giving of ourselves to those we meet. This meeting of home, food and fellowship to create meaningful connection with people of all backgrounds is essential to building community.
We enjoy hosting and gathering people together. I have been impressed by the elegant holiday spreads my aunt offered in her home when I was a child, and I have been trained by my mother’s generous table where she daily arranged vibrant, fresh meals for our family of eight, plus friends, neighbors or my dad’s coworkers who could stop by at any given time. I have been further impacted by the expressions of lonely individuals who wished aloud that people had invited them over to share a meal with them, even if it was just peanut butter and jelly sandwiches or a simple spaghetti dinner, or that they had been welcomed into small or messy houses. Instead, they lived for years without fellowshipping in homes because others were too insecure to invite them in.
I determined to never be ashamed of offering PB&J or spaghetti if that was the best I had on hand, and to never shrink back from hosting friends or strangers if our fridge was close to empty. There has always been enough. Furthermore, we have rejected the urge to hide the uncomely seasons of life when we didn’t have much or our house was messy. Funny, I have yet to regret a single time someone saw my messy house or ate the last thing in my refrigerator.
It is our conviction that our Father God loves to pour into those who pour out. I have often thought of the widow to whom Elijah came and requested food. She had nothing but a little flour and oil. In fear she wanted to refuse him, but in faith she released what she had only to receive more than she ever dreamed (1 Kings 17:7-16).
If I am planning ahead for a special event or a holiday, I will begin planning a menu and gradually stocking up on things for a couple weeks before the event so I can maintain the budget and offer what feels like a lavish, though not excessive feast. I will sometimes exceed the budget by $20-30 (in the past I usually compensated for it in the following weeks).
Even for parties, I use relatively inexpensive ingredients, selecting recipes that are unique and elegant. I take joy in creating a meal for my guests, considering what will delight their senses and honor their interests and culture. Food is only part of the equation, and we creatively pull together the things we have on hand to design a beautiful experience with music, china, candles and fresh flowers from the garden.
Above all, I serve my family and guests with warmth, love and laughter, celebrating the gift of their presence, trusting that as I welcome all who come to our table, God will provide for me a feast of faithfulness at His.
Why We Do This
My husband and I both come from lower income families: my husband from a family that lived generously but often struggled with debt, and I from a family that was free of debt and quite frugal. Valuing our upbringing and wanting to build upon the lessons learned for future increase, we committed to financial freedom and integrity, always giving to God what is His, never spending money that is not ours, and avoiding frivolous spending on things that mean little to us, so we can be generous toward things that will truly bless.
We identified our family values and stayed true to that. I always ask myself, “will spending this money produce joy and satisfaction for us and others, or will it result in waste and remorse?” Every dollar spent is an investment, and we choose to invest with intention and mindfulness. Our goal is to live simply while fully enjoying life.
Living simply has become such a natural way of life for us that our children know of nothing else, and my husband’s only small gripe is not having junk food to snack on late at night. We have always had more than enough, and enjoy the satisfaction of wasting nothing. We don’t overeat, and with fresh, nutritious (though not organic) meals, we maintain excellent health.
I dream of offering lavish events and gifts, so I have learned to think outside the box to fulfill my goals. In choosing gratitude and rejoicing in what I have in any given season, it has been key to never indulge in fatefully comparing myself to anyone else, unless it is to learn and be inspired. Truly, there is great power in learning the “secret” of contentment, whether in lack or abundance (Philippians 4:12-13).
A Journey of Contentment, Trust, and Empowerment
The discipline of budgeting has more to do with a mindset and way of life than it has to do with just money. It has been a journey of contentment, trust and empowerment.
My mind is flooded with images and feelings from moments along the way. I see myself on triumphant days grinning ear to ear as I marched from the car to the kitchen, arms loaded with bountiful groceries to stuff our refrigerator and pantry to bursting. I see myself late at night carefully calculating grocery lists on my phone with the week’s needs in mind, swiping through online specials in the meat department at Karns or the produce at Aldi. What a thrill it was to add it all up and have money to spare. I see other moments during financially hard times, wearied from worry, fighting back the lump in my throat as the cashier rang up the total and I returned items from my carelessly filled cart. I’d carry my few groceries to the car while squeezing back hot tears of shame and fear that I couldn’t feed my family well that week. I see myself in following days, amazed at the plentiful meals I could craft from the extra ingredients found lingering at the back of the kitchen cupboard.
I think about bountiful times, the beautiful parties and the joyful intention that went into creating special moments for family and friends. I think about the fun of fulfilling visions for lavish events by creatively using what I had on hand.
Most of all I see the months and years of ease and contentment, a steady rhythm of having all we needed or wished for, a simple life of plenty.
The more I think of it, my family’s life on a $50 budget has less to do with money or food and more to do with our conviction to be responsible, generous, and make the most of everything we are given. And it has everything to do with trusting our faithful Father.
The Heart of Our Faithful Father
During particularly hard times (like a long stretch of unemployment), fear and uncertainty were more of a snare than the actual circumstances. God provided personal comfort and reassurance through various provisions, such as gifts of food sent home with us after events we attended, or fresh produce offered to us from friends’ gardens. Nobody but my Father knew I was worried about the status of food at home. I learned to literally trust God for our daily bread. If He feeds the birds of the air, He will surely feed His children (Matthew 6:25-34).
During such a time when money was tight, our then 4-year old asked for hotdogs, and knowing how sparse our refrigerator was, I said perhaps we could buy some next week. The next day, a friend surprised us and dropped off a small box containing some fresh vegetables and hotdogs. God supplies the desires of our hearts, even if it is hotdogs for a little girl.
I have carried these lessons back with me into the seasons of abundance and ease, proving a stable foundation for my thoughts, emotions and behavior. The security of knowing God’s faithfulness has been an exciting experience during a pandemic when both the present, the future, employment and the grocery shelves appear uncertain!
We have learned to never fear, nor hoard, nor ration things out when things appear tight, but to enjoy what we have, to choose wisely, live fully and give freely, and expect abundant provision to be supplied as needed.
$50 a week for groceries is a price that’s right for us, and perhaps you’d like to try it as well! It need not be $50, but if you desire, you could experiment with $100, $80, or $60, until you find the sweet spot that connects your life and goals. We will not always feed our family on $50 a week, and a time is coming when we will spend far more, knowing our faithful Father supplies plentifully according to each season. In the meantime however, this fun challenge has been a source of blessing for our entire family, and I believe it can be for yours as well.
Laurel Vargas is a wife and busy mother to four young children. She manages her home with grace, extends hospitality with joy, and runs a business, Laureli Cottage, on the side, all brightened by her creativity, her natural eye for beauty, and most of all, her love for Jesus.