How Cutting Our Grocery Bill Helped Us Survive Unemployment

updated Jun 4, 2019
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(Image credit: Diana Liang)

It’s the situation nobody wants to find themselves in, but many of us do. A job loss, especially a sudden or unexpected one, is a massive blow to household finances. You don’t really have a chance to stop reeling from this punch in the gut before you have to sit down and address the money situation.

While we certainly didn’t relish this opportunity, my husband and I had the chance to find out just what we could scrape by on when he was laid off late last summer. While we’d known it was a possibility down the road, when it did come we had one day’s notice — and we needed to spring into immediate action.

The good news: We had savings from having sold our home several months before, and I had regular freelance work. The bad news: We were about to launch a major renovation of our home that would tear through those savings (it was a calculated risk, as the reno was of our third-floor living quarters that we were converting to a full-time Airbnb precisely so that we would always have other sources of income!).

While certain costs were unavoidable, there was definitely fluff to be trimmed. The biggest culprit? Food.

We do love our good food, and I couldn’t remember the last time we’d stuck with a grocery budget. Instead we’d wind our way through Trader Joe’s or the farmers market loading up our prizes, and then wonder where our cash went.

We did the math and arrived at an amount that could be sustainable if, worst-case scenario, it took six months for him to find another job. Then we went to the store. That first trip took forever. We scrutinized every single price, compared costs on sizes — it’s not as easy as just buying in bulk — and tried to crunch numbers on the byzantine promotions stores offer now (whatever happened to plain ol’ coupons? What’s with buy five of these random assortment of non-related items and get $1 off on each?).

How I Cut Our Food Budget

One thing we had in abundance now (well, my husband did anyway, aside from job hunting and taking classes full-time) was time. Here are some of the tricks we picked up.

1. I shopped at international markets.

We made an effort to browse the aisles of the local international markets, where produce was a fraction of the cost, and prices on bulk items like beans and rice let me breathe a little easier as we loaded up the cart.

2. I found the magic of dried beans.

We broke out the Instant Pot we’d picked up in our two-income days and learned that pressure-cooked dried beans were amazing. We couldn’t get enough, and they cost just pennies a serving.

3. I didn’t let special ingredients go to waste.

One month we picked a theme and cooked that throughout the month so the specialty ingredients we had to buy didn’t go to waste. The winner was an amazing beef noodle dish (with leftovers going into homemade scallion pancake beef roll-ups).

4. I made everything from scratch.

We love pizza, and previously bought pre-made dough from a local pasta shop. When literally every dollar counted, we switched to making it from scratch. Again, pennies. We couldn’t go out on dinner dates; our new evening was cooking together and listening to music in our kitchen.

5. I found the cheaper versions of my favorite staples.

Some things weren’t going to go — namely, coffee and bourbon. We dialed back our inner food snobs and found some new bottom-shelf favorites. Seattle’s Best won in our home coffee taste tests, and we found a budget bourbon that we still drink. Pour lowbrow Benchmark into a cool vintage decanter and you’d swear it was a fancy bourbon.

6. I cut back on meat.

And we cut back on meat. As former vegetarians we’ve never gotten into a habit of eating it often, but when we do it’s from the market or local butcher and doesn’t come cheap, so that was one of the easiest cuts. For a rare and luxurious splurge we’d buy dry-aged beef from the butcher for burger night with homemade “Shack sauce” and roasted Brussels sprouts. While way more spendy than grocery store beef, it still clocked in at less than families might spend on fast-food burgers.

7. I made meals that created lots of leftovers.

We also found new favorites that could stretch to leftovers. Jamie Oliver’s chicken in milk became an obsession; one chicken made dinner plus chicken and ramen twice.


While I certainly wouldn’t say it was fun — especially not when I stood gazing longingly at the cheeses we couldn’t afford — the stringent focus on food costs and discipline at the store was a valuable experience. It took the full six months (the last few weeks pretty harrowing, to say the least) for my husband to find a new position. Had we continued spending at the grocery store like we always had, we wouldn’t have made it nearly that long. And now we know that if the worst happens again, we will be prepared.

Funnily enough, the first trip back to the store after we had that new paycheck, I let myself go through the store without my calculator pulled up on my phone. Even though I treated myself to a few favorites I’d missed (cheese and frozen treats) and felt like I was going wild, it still rang in at our new budget. It seems I’d learned a new way to shop.