Spending $100 or less on groceries today is quite the challenge. And with the ever present force of inflation slowly pushing prices up and up, it only gets harder to survive on that $100.
The last time I lived on such a budget was more than a decade ago, but the same strategies that got me through the poorest time in my life still work today.
And even though I have more flexibility today with my financials, I’ve always been tight with money, and I’ve picked up some new ways to make each dollar go farther.
My College Days
I graduated in 2008, so it’s been a little while now and food is more expensive now than it was then. However, I’m no stranger to the $100/month meal plan.
I worked for the school cafeteria about 20 hours a week at $6.75 an hour. So I was living on about $600 a month of income.
I lived (and still live) in the midwest United States, where the cost of living is relatively low. I split my $500 rent + utilities three ways with my two roommates. And actually for about 6 months I lived out of my SUV (I was able to save some decent money doing this).
Anyways, when it was all said and done I was living on a budget of about $200-250 a month for several years in college.
Basically, I got by with a lot of pasta, about 20-25 free meals a month (from the cafeteria I worked at), and skipping meals here and there.
If I were to go back to that time I’d do a few things differently. Because I definitely learned a few things in the years that have followed.
But I made it work back then. So I’ll be walking through some of the old tricks and the new. I honestly believe that it’s possible to survive on only $100 a month for food. Now I’ll show you why.
Do The Math: $1 Per Meal
If we assume that you are eating 3 meals each day and that there are 31 days in a month, then there are 93 meals in a month.
At $1 a meal you’re looking at $93, just under the $100 mark. Maybe you’ll get to splurge once a month on a $7-8 lunch.
There’s not a lot of wiggle room in a $100 food budget.
And let’s face it, you’re not going to manage $1 a meal eating out. You’ve got to find other ways to buy your food.
1. The Magic Combo (Meal Planning + Buying in Bulk)
The magic combination of buying food in bulk and planning all your meals is the most important tip for spending less than $100 a month on groceries.
I don’t think it’s any secret that you can spend significantly less on food buying it in bulk. You can buy 230 servings of rice for less than $70. That amount of rice could easily last 4-5 months, even if you’re eating rice every day.
So yeah, buying in bulk is one way to save money on food.
But there’s a problem that most people forget about when you’re grocery shopping, and this problem costs most families hundreds of dollars in food every year.
How often do you find food in the back of the fridge or freezer and you wind up having to throw it away?
Yeah, food waste is a majorly expensive problem for most people. I do it even today. Once or twice a year we clean out the fridge and throw away at least a hundred dollars worth of food. What a waste!
Planning out every meal in advance ensures that you won’t buy anything that doesn’t get eaten. The times in my life when I’ve committed to meal planning have been almost totally waste free.
Meal planning, the early months
I’m one of those people that can eat the same thing over and over again every day. So sometimes my meal plan looks the same from one day to the next. Breakfast: eggs and yogurt, Lunch: spaghetti, Dinner: chicken, broccoli and a pear.
But that doesn’t work for most people.
If you get tired of the same meals then you need to plan more than 3 meals. You should plan anywhere from 3 days worth of meals to an entire week of meals. Then hopefully you won’t get too bored.
But keep in mind that with a $100/month budget, you may have to build up to a more diverse meal plan. You might be stuck with a lot of rice, beans and spaghetti for a month or two before you can start buying new items in bulk.
If you can afford to spend several hundred dollars up front, then you can start out with a diverse meal plan. If not then it may need to start off with a month or two of very repetitive meals before things get better.
2. Buy Non-Perishable Foods
Fresh fruits and vegetables work wonders for your body’s digestion.
But there’s a problem.
Fresh fruits and vegetables don’t last 4-5 months. You can’t exactly buy perishable items in bulk. In fact, if you’re trying to spend less than $100 a month on groceries, then you shouldn’t be buying perishable items at all. They’re just too expensive.
You should be buying only non-perishable items in bulk.
- Frozen fruits and vegetables
- Canned fruits and vegetables
- All types of uncooked pasta
- Dried rice
- Dried quinoa
- Dried oatmeal
- Dried lentils
- Dried beans
These dried, canned and frozen foods can give you a lot of calories per dollar. And you’ll easily be spending less than $1 for a meal’s worth of calories.
3. Freeze Anything That’s Going Bad
Some fresh food is actually quite affordable. Take bananas for example. You can get a lot of bananas for $10. And sometimes bananas get even cheaper.
Anyways, what I’m trying to say is that you can still buy perishable food, because almost everything that’s perishable will last way longer in the freezer.
Fruit about to go bad? Cut it up and throw it in the freezer.
Bread about to expire? Yep, freezer.
Spinach getting iffy? Hello freezer and hello frozen green smoothie.
4. Coupons and sales
My wife is very good at finding deals. Good deals tend to come in a few different flavors, but when it comes to groceries deals are usually in the form of a sale or a coupon.
If you’ve got a tiny budget, you’d better get real used to the idea of cashing in on a good deal.
Always keep your eyes open for an opportunity to save money on foods that you already buy. And if you see a particularly good deal on something you don’t traditionally eat, this may be your chance to try something new.
Every grocery store these days has their own promotional thing.
For my local store, we get sales for being a member of the store and swiping our card. We also get printed coupons every time we check out, often for items that we already buy. And of course we watch the grocery deals that come and go every week to see if anything goes on sale for a great price.
And if you make friends with some of the employees, they’ll clue you in when something really drops in price.
You should never be ashamed of cashing in on a great deal.
5. Sharing Meals with Friends
This isn’t really a way to save on groceries, but it is absolutely a way to get some more variety in your meals.
You can feed your friends if they agree to feed you.
You make a meal to feed 3 of your buddies. Then over the next few weeks the four of you get together for dinner and everybody provides the food once.
You may not save money, but you can get a break from the usual dishes in your meal plan.
6. Cash Back Credit Cards
Credit cards come in all different flavors these days. I’ve always been partial to cash back credit cards. And groceries are one area where you can get some meaningful rates.
If groceries are a huge part of your budget, then why not get a cash back credit card that gets you bigger savings for groceries?
We’ve since changed cards, but once upon a time we had a card that let you choose the category that gave you the most cash back. And if I recall correctly, we could get 5% on all groceries.
With a card like that your $100 grocery budget becomes a $105 budget.
7. Don’t Forget To Invest
This is an investing blog after all, and I believe that everyone should learn the basics.
There’s a famous investing book called The Richest Man in Babylon. It reads like a fiction novel, but the lessons there are as true today as they have ever been.
One of the most life changing lessons is this idea:
If you can survive on $100 of groceries per month, then you can survive on $90 of groceries per month. And you can pocket the extra $10 and invest it.
Like I mentioned at the beginning of this article, the macroeconomic force of inflation guarantees that in a year, 3 years, 10 years, your groceries will be more expensive.
If you want to maintain (or better yet improve) your financial status, it is absolutely imperative that you put some of your money towards assets that will grow in value over time.
I’m not going to give you a crash course here, but here are a few articles that could be a good starting point:
- The three ways to make more money
- 50 ways to invest
- Taking a $40,000 a year salary to extreme wealth
- How to get 20% ROI on your investments
My top 2 tips for spending less than $100 on groceries are to plan your meals and buy non-perishable food in bulk.
If you do these two things then you’ll spend very little per meal and you’ll reduce your food waste to nearly zero.
This, along with my other tips are a recipe for a food budget at or below $100 per month.