Saturday, February 4, 2012

How-to: Eat When You're Broke

Your hours are cut, or your car dies, or you end up in the ER for stitches. . .sometimes it just happens that you're checking account looks a little grim and you say to yourself, "Well, either I can dig into my savings or. . .just not buy groceries for the rest of the month. . ."

Now, my Camry is pretty mellow and anti-drama, but last month the alternator suddenly quit, I had procrastinated on replacing the engine mounts too long, and it was time for an oil change. Ouch. I spent half of my monthly income on that car, and what I had left? Was just enough to pay the bills. My checking account was looking pretty grim, and I felt like I needed to go grocery shopping. . .but I didn't want to dig into my savings just for that!

See, I have this rule that I don't use my savings for basic living expenses (food, rent, utilities, car repairs—hey, when you're driving a car that's nearly as old as you are. . .) It's a good rule and I recommend adopting it. Now, I did use $200 of my savings for my car last month because I couldn't foot $600 of maintenance otherwise--so I was even more determined not to spend any more.

The $5 Meal Plan
So I looked at my resources, thinking "What sort of meals can I make with what I already have?" I took stock and found. . .
  • A bag of dried split peas, half a ham steak in the freezer, some potatoes that were showing their age but still adequate for soup, and a partial bag of baby carrots – Split Pea Soup. With some water, chicken bouillon, and spices, I didn't need to buy anything for a hearty dish that would last a few days.
  • A can of peas, an onion, and some miracle whip---if I bought a can of tuna and a box of macaroni noodles I would have Tuna Noodle Salad. Another filling and relatively balanced dish that could be dipped into from the fridge.
  • Some turkey and broccoli in the freezer, plenty of rice, and condensed cream of chicken soup. A basic chicken/turkey and rice casserole. And I didn't even get to this meal idea, because the other two lasted me through my next paycheck.
I made a budget of $5 for a week of groceries. I decided not to buy bread because I had the ingredients to make it. And in fact, I did make blueberry muffins and a loaf of pumpkin bread with only the ingredients I happened to have. I decided not to buy eggs because you can substitute oil and leavening for them in baking, and they aren't very filling or a necessity of life if you eat them on their own.

I bought a can of tuna, a box of noodles, 4 rolls of the cheapest toilet paper in stock, and some bananas; and I spent $4.88.

Moral of the story, don't give into your circumstances and make unnecessary compromises. With a little bit of gumption you can stick to your budgeting rules.

Apply It
  • What do you have? Go through your freezer, canned goods, and baking supplies; take particular note of meats, vegetables, grains, and beans—they are filling and can be stretched.
  • Think about your favorite comfort foods—if it's something you make often, you probably already have a lot of the ingredients for it on hand.
  • Brainstorm soups and casseroles. They can be made out of pretty random stuff if you're desperate.
  • Optimize. "What is the most largest, most filling dish I can make with what I have?"
  • Figure out what 3 or 4 ingredients you could get on the cheap that would fill the gaps in your pantry.
  • Set yourself a budget. If you're like me—you live alone, and like to cook—your pantry is probably pretty well-stocked and $5 should be sufficient. If you don't spend a lot of time in the kitchen, be a little more generous with yourself—but think about what non-perishable ingredients you could keep on hand in the future to guard against the rainy day.
What is your favorite rainy-day recipe?