Stretching Food Dollars on a VS Budget
Note: In this article, I refer to prices in Belize dollars. To convert the prices to US dollars, divide them in half.
I nearly started chewing my nails the first time I went grocery shopping at People’s Store on Main Street, Orange Walk. Oatmeal, the ultimate cheap food in the U.S., cost $7.50 a tub. Canned beans were $3.50. The price of cheese, $18 per pound, made me yelp. How was I going to cook without going broke? Then I noticed the dry beans were $1.00 a pound. Ah, that was more like it. But I’d never cooked beans before. Why bother when I could pick up a dented can at the store in Pennsylvania for a few cents? And so began my Belizean cooking journey.
We didn’t go broke, but our health nearly crashed because we were not getting enough vegetables—they too can be expensive. Through trial and error and the advice of others, I tried to find the balance of eating frugally, but healthfully.
1. Eat less meat. Bad news for the carnivorous, but meat will kill a budget (unless, perhaps, you’ve killed the meat). Serve smaller portions. If you serve chicken legs, most people will eat a whole leg. Cut the thigh and drumstick apart and then cut the thigh in half, and only those with hearty appetites will take all three pieces. Go meatless occasionally.
2. Use beans to stretch meat. Beans are an excellent source of protein, and in dishes like chili or taco salad, beans can be the star and the beef used for flavor.
3. Drink water. Save the juices and soft drink for special occasions.
4. Buy local. In Belize, we can now find most of the food items we bought in the States—for a price. For the price of a bag of 6 apples, I could buy 25 oranges. I could buy one box of strawberries for the same price as 96 bananas.
5. Eat like a local. Ask your neighbors what they’re cooking. Most Belizean food can be made with rice, beans, chicken, masa (corn flour), flour, a handful of vegetables and a shake of seasonings. If I make a meal using these ingredients, it will not be as hard on my stash of cash.
6. Make your own sauces, mixes, dressings, cereal, and yogurt. A bottle of ranch dressing? $9. Some mayo, milk, Complete Seasoning, and a few herbs like parsley? Less than half of that. I also make my own cream soups, taco seasoning, enchilada sauce, and salsa.
7. Don’t let food go to waste. Use your leftovers in your next meal. I love clear containers for leftovers so I remember what’s in the containers. A little bit of sautéed onions and peppers can go in the next morning’s eggs. Leftover fresh salsa can go in the next day’s recado chicken. Day old bread can be made into croutons or bread crumbs.
8. Use everything. Bacon grease is wonderful for sautéing vegetables or frying chicken. Plants love the coffee someone let set or the water used to boil potatoes. Sour milk makes great pancakes or cake. Leftover coffee makes great iced coffee, muffins, 1-2-3 coffee bars, or chocolate cake.
9. Use bones and vegetable scraps to make bone broth. It’s a great way to get more nutrition out of something we throw away.
10. Some former pantry staples may need to become treats. Items like peanut butter or yogurt are not terribly expensive in Belize yet can chew up a chunk of a grocery budget if they’re used regularly.
11. Don’t neglect health in favor of frugality. Eating ramen noodles and hot dogs would be cheap, but our health would suffer. Sometimes I use olive or coconut oil instead of vegetable oil and butter instead of margarine for health reasons even though they cost more. I try not to skimp on fruits or vegetables.
12. Decide which splurges are worth the cost. For us, that’s coffee. Coffee is expensive in Belize since most of the country is too low to grow it. We’ve decided that buying good quality coffee is worth the extra expense.
13. Use a budgeting app. As long as I’m faithfully entering our purchases, I can see at a glance how much grocery money is left. I use the app EveryDollar. (Although, I must admit, we don't always stay within budget if we have a lot of guests. We try to save some money each month for those times.)
What are your frugal tips?