How to eat for less than $99 this month
Food costs put a significant dent in your monthly budget — and unfortunately, you can't stop eating to save money. Still, if you're trying to cut back on food costs, you might be able to squeeze by on a food budget of $99 or less.
The average monthly cost of groceries for men in the 19 to 50 age range following a thrifty plan is $184.70, or $163.30 for women, according to July 2016 estimates from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. If you want to get your spending goal far lower than these averages, you'll need to get creative.
Follow these nine tips to learn how to save money on food — without starving.
1. Mooch Off Friends and Family
You've probably been meaning to visit your parents more anyway, so why not set up frequent dinner dates? At their house, of course, with your mom providing the food and, preferably, a dessert at the end. And while you're there, check the fridge and pantry for items you know your parents will agree to part with — stuff that's about to expire or you know your dad bought that your mom doesn't approve of him eating.
Get closer to friends by always offering to be their wedding, party or outdoor barbecue date — nobody likes to attend such events alone, so really, you're doing them a favor. You're also getting some delicious food for free. Just don't forget to bring the Tupperware.
2. Nab Snacks From Work
Many companies offer free snacks, so if you're privy to this perk, take full advantage. Pick up a couple snacks every time you pass by the breakroom and place them in a designated snack drawer in your desk. Before long, you'll have your own personal bodega you can access as you please, making it easy to swipe snacks to eat on the way home or on the couch while watching TV.
Keep this little habit under wraps, though, because the last thing you want is to get fired for hoarding granola bars.
3. Shop Discount Items at the Grocery Store
Most people aren't into nearly expired grocery items, but when you're living on less than $99 of groceries per month, you can't afford to be picky.
"Sure, it's mostly several-day-old boxes of doughnuts and questionable kids' products marked at 75 percent off, but who says you can't make a meal out of apple fritters and dinosaur mac 'n cheese?" said savings expert Kendal Perez of CouponSherpa.com.
While you should never eat something that's going to make you sick, you might be surprised at how often meats and vegetables go on sale just as they're expiring. Andrea Woroch, a consumer and money-saving expert, recommended Allrecipes.com for when you're stumped on what to cook. The site allows you to plug in random items to make something palatable out of whatever foods are in your fridge.
Discover 17 items you should always buy in bulk:
4. Go On a Diet
If you're prone to mindless snacking, now is the time to cut back. Cheap meals are only cost effective if you limit them to three per day, so use this opportunity to pad your bank account. When you eliminate pricey snacks from your food budget, you'll be pleasantly surprised when you check out at the store.
Perez recommended eating foods rich in fiber and protein to help you stay fuller longer. And don't forget: Water is free, so cut out soda and other drinks that come with a price tag.
5. Eat Lots of Ramen and Beans
A 3-ounce, 12-pack of chicken or beef flavored Nissin Top Ramen costs $2.10 at Walmart — a price you're probably not going to beat.
Cheap meals don't have to be tasteless though, so mix your 18-cent pack of ramen with cheese, Sriracha, peanut butter, soy sauce, beans, frozen vegetables, Thai curry paste, eggs or a cheap cut of meat for a tasty and nearly balanced meal.
Teri Gault with Live Below the Line recommended beans and sprouted lentils.
"One of the greatest super foods is sprouted lentils with the added benefit of live enzymes," she said. "Expensive when you buy at Whole Foods, but you can easily sprout them yourself with a glass jar and cheesecloth for just pennies a day."
6. Take Advantage of Happy Hour Specials
If making cheap recipes isn't your strong point, start eating dinner during happy hour, recommended Brent Shelton, a money savings expert with FatWallet.com. He said buying a cheap beer can get you free snacks, like pretzels or a nut mix, or even access to a happy hour buffet.
Many restaurants offer normal menu items at huge discounts during happy hour too, so this is your chance to eat well without paying full price. In addition to local eateries, many chain restaurants offer happy hour at most locations, including P.F. Chang's, Daily Grill and Benihana.
7. Sneak Food Out of Buffets
The national average per person cost of a dinner out is $39.40, according to Zagat's 2015 Dining Trends Survey — which is nearly half the money you have to spend on food for the entire month. But buffets can be a boon to your savings strategy.
Act like your grandma at a McDonald's condiment stand and pack what you can into your purse. Wrap rolls in napkins and pour pudding into Ziplock bags. You can even pick up lemon slices to flavor your tap water at home.
"If you get caught, just say you suddenly weren't feeling well, but you didn't want to waste what was on your plate," Shelton suggested.
8. Become a Coupon Guru
Instead of ditching the weekly ads filled with coupons that arrive in your mailbox without a look, it's time to start clipping them. But that doesn't mean you have to act like someone from "Extreme Couponing." It just means you should seek out coupons for items you actually need, because scoring discounts is only useful if the items are practical. Ten cases of grape soda, for example, won't benefit your life in any way.
Maximize your savings by checking to see if any grocery stores in your local area doubles coupons. Also, carefully review your supermarket's weekly specials to save even more — with or without coupons.
9. Get Free Samples
Many grocery and warehouse stores like Costco offer a slew of samples one or more days per week, which is one of the easiest ways to get cheap meals. Figure out when every supermarket in your area has a sample day, and go there for morning and afternoon snacks.
Sometimes, the person passing out samples will also have a stack of coupons on-hand for those who like the product, so don't miss this opportunity to save money if you sample something you'd like to buy.
You can even sign up for freebies and samples from food companies, said Shelton. "FatWallet Free Stuff forum is one good destination for both free food and beverage samples, as well as samples of other items you may need from eating cheap food, like antacids and diapers."
Megan Craig contributed to the reporting for this article.
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