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For a very long year, I paid almost all the bills for a family of four on not much money at all.  I mean REALLY not much money.  When I needed a coat that winter, I bought it at Goodwill, and the fifteen dollars it cost (plus the cost of having it drycleaned and one card of replacement buttons, because several of the original ones were missing) was a big chunk out of the budget.  It’s a time I do not wish to revisit, but one that taught me a lot of lessons about living on very little.  

The most important of these:

* Except in the most dire of emergencies, do not use credit cards.  Period.  Don’t even carry them.

* Turn down the heat.  If there are drafts, put rolled up towels on the windowsills and at the base of the front door. Put on sweaters and socks.

* Don’t shop.  Stay away from malls. Find free things to do.

* If you need clothes of any kind, check Goodwill, the Salvation Army and thrift stores first.  Washing, dry-cleaning and new buttons and zippers (see above) can work magic.  (The same goes for clothing you might already have; don’t shop at all before rummaging through your closet and drawers.)

And perhaps the most important lesson: Be parsimonious with your food dollars.  This is the topic of tonight’s diary.

It is completely possible to eat sensibly and healthily and well on a tight budget.  Here are some ways to accomplish this:

Read the Food section of your local newspaper (which comes out on Wednesday) to see what’s on sale.  (On Sundays, most newspapers also have circulars with coupons in them; these can easily end up saving two or three times -- or more -- the cost of the newspaper.)  Match coupons with sale items.  There are also sites on line where you can find additional coupons:

Coupons.

(Also clip coupons for things you don’t need that particular week but which you use a lot: laundry detergent, shampoo, toothpaste, dish soap, etc.  Always clip coupons for staples; pasta, beans, canned goods.)

Get a coupon organizer or create your own with envelopes.  

Spend thirty minutes to an hour one evening creating menus for the entire following week.  Plan the menus around what your family likes, what you have on hand and what is on sale.  Pick the best store for the most bargains.  (It is unnecessary -- and expensive -- to drive around from store-to-store.)  (Exception: An incredible store.  Once, during lean times, I read about a grocery store that was going out of business and had marked everything at least fifty percent off.  We ate well off what I bought there for months.)

Your menus should include follow-up meals made from leftovers from previous meals.  Your menus should include breakfasts, lunches, dinners and any snacks.  

Make a detailed and thorough list.  You will not be buying anything that is not on your list.  (This is key; all of us "dollar dribble" -- picking up impulse items that have little lasting effect on our lives.  To get a handle on this, try these tips.)

Have a cup of coffee or tea and some fruit or a sandwich before shopping.  It is never a good idea to shop for food on an empty stomach; and you will not be stopping at Starbucks.  

Don’t buy junk food; it’s expensive, unhealthy and useless nutritionally.  For snacks, choose whole-grain crackers, fruit, cut-up veggies and air-popped popcorn.

If there is a terrific sale on something your family eats a lot of (chicken, turkey, tuna, peanut butter, canned tomatoes), buy extra, freeze or store what you won’t eat, and remember to include it in future menus.  

(Next time I write for this series, I’ll include some weekly menus.)

Eliminate throw-away products from your life.  You can use old towels (cut up into re-usable rag sizes) in place of paper towels; you can make your own cloth napkins.  And avoid expensive "cleaning" products.  There is virtually nothing in your house that cannot be cleaned with ammonia, white vinegar, baking soda and/or dish soap.   Frugal cleaning.

Be creative with your menu planning.  Consider an omelette filled with leftover vegetables and potatoes (and some cheese), a hearty soup, or a baked potato with cottage cheese or yogurt, and a green salad.  

If you are really in a bind, consider the menus at this site.

Here are a few low-cost main dishes for four people.  The soups are from Quick Cooking from the Top of the Stove by Marion Flexner, which my Dad bought for my Mom in 1951 (our copy is falling apart and, sadly, this great little paperback is hopelessly out-of-print).

Emergency Camp Chowder

4 thin slices leftover bacon
1 can vegetable soup
1 can tomato soup
1 can water
1 onion (chopped)

Fry onion in a little bit of olive oil (or in leftover bacon drippings), add the soups and water.  Cook until blended.  Season.  Crumble bacon on top.

Really good (and cheap) Fancy Mushroom Soup

¼ lb. mixed mushrooms
2 Tbl. Butter
Tabasco sauce (just a few drops)
1 can of consomme (or mushroom soup)
4 Tbl. Sherry
1 tsp. Worcestershire sauce

Brown mushrooms in butter.  Add consomme (or mushroom soup), sherry, Tabasco and Worcestershire sauce.  Boil.  Serve hot.

My Mom’s Kedgeree

1 large can tuna fish (7 oz.) (water packed; thoroughly drained)
2 C. cooked rice (leftover is fine)
1 C. cottage cheese
½ C. mayonnaise
Curry powder (to taste)
Salt and pepper (to taste)
½ C. parmesan cheese

Mix.

Serve with sides (any combination) of: peanuts or peanut butter, raisins, chutney, chopped scallions, apple slices, peas and/or hardboiled egg quarters.

My Tuna Macaroni Salad

1 large can tuna fish (7 oz.) (water packed; thoroughly drained)
2 C. cooked pasta (tiny shells or rotini)
3 Tbl. Mayonnaise
1 C. chopped celery (peel it first, so it isn’t stringy)
1/3 C. chopped scallions
2 Tbl. Lemon juice

Mix and chill.  Serve on lettuce.  

A Wonderful Omelette  (From Better Homes and Gardens New Cookbook @ 1953)

Preheat oven to 300 degrees.

Separate 4 eggs.  Beat whites until frothy.  Add 2 Tbl. Water and ½ tsp. salt.  Beat ‘til stiff but not dry.  Add 2 Tbl. flour and a dash of pepper to the yolks; beat the yolks until thick and lemon colored and fold them gently into the whites.

Heat 1 Tbl. Butter in a 10-inch skillet.  When the fat is just hot enough to make a drop of water sizzle, pour in the omelette mixture.  Level carefully, leaving the eggs slightly higher around the edge.

Cook over LOW heat until puffy and lightly browned on the bottom (about 5 minutes).  (You can gently lift the edge to check.)  

Finish in slow oven (300 degrees) 8-10 minutes.  When you put it in the oven, sprinkle on some shredded hard cheese.

The omelette is done when a knife inserted in the center comes out clean.  Loosen the omelette. Make a cut at right angles to the skillet’s handle, just above the center.  Fold and slice.

Serve with toast and tomatoes.

Thank you for reading, and many thanks to kossack Sarahnity for launching and maintaining this extremely useful series.

Originally posted to noweasels on Fri Dec 12, 2008 at 06:31 PM PST.

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