one week of eating on a $25 grocery budget

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Hello! I’m Charis, and I’d consider myself a pretty frugal person.

a portrait of the author smiling

Charis Barg

I always look for deals on everything I buy, I get clothes from thrift stores unless I have a gift card, and I enjoy checking menu prices before I go out to eat at restaurants. I even write about budgeting and share money-saving tips on my website, Choose Frugal.

But even with years of budgeting under my belt, managing my grocery bill has always been difficult for me.

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I tend to go through phases with what I buy — sometimes I’ll be on a kick where I’m into super healthy, fresh meals, and other times I can go weeks without eating a vegetable. This wild flux in my eating style makes it hard to be consistent with my groceries.

Recently, I noticed my grocery bill was creeping up, probably due to my current phase of getting frozen meals and prepackaged foods. I thought back to the time in my life when I was paying off debt and didn’t spend more than $50/week on groceries. I decided to tap into that part of myself to see how low a grocery budget I could reasonably manage.

So, I decided to challenge myself to stick to a $25 budget for groceries for one whole week.

Staying under budget would required careful planning; I wanted to make sure I could keep my costs down but also that I wouldn’t run out of food! I definitely didn’t want to get stuck at the end of the week with nothing but a bag of rice.

Also, keep in mind that a $25/week grocery budget is intensely frugal. If you’re not sure how much a realistic grocery budget should be, the USDA lists different food cost plans based on family size and spend level. It’s a great way to start if you’ve never budgeted for groceries before.

The Plan

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I started by looking for recipes that were filling and used similar ingredients, since I knew this tight budget meant I wouldn’t be getting a ton of variety.

Chicken teriyaki meal prep lunch box containers with broccoli, rice and carrots

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I planned on having the same thing for breakfast every day, leftovers for multiple meals, and two types of snacks: one sweet and one savory.

Lately I’ve been eating the same thing for breakfast anyway, so I knew that wouldn’t really matter to me. I’m also not really into cooking, so having lots of leftovers meant I could spend less time preparing my meals — win!

Once I’d decided on my menu for the week, I listed out the ingredients with their online prices based on the two grocery stores near me that I know are cheap: Aldi and the 99 Cent Store. The Aldi website doesn’t show prices so I actually had to check using Instacart. I had a pretty good idea what the 99 Cent Store prices would be though (obviously).

Below is my estimated meal plan, list of groceries to buy, and projected cost:

Breakdown of weekly meals and a list of groceries with prices

Charis Barg

I estimated being a little over $25, so I hoped my actual spending would end up being less!

Some notes about what I chose:

• I have no dietary restrictions (meat, dairy, and grains are all fair game for me).

• The majority of these ingredients are staples that can sit in the pantry for a while, like the canned non-perishables, oatmeal, pasta, etc. I like keeping these kinds of items on hand so I always have meals I can cook at home.

• I opted for frozen vegetables because they last longer (I don’t like stressing out about making sure I eat veggies stored in the fridge before they go bad).

• I picked recipes that didn’t require weirdly specific ingredients — a lot of them use spices (which I already had at home) to add flavor.

• I’d made all these recipes before, so I already knew roughly how many meals I could get from them.

• I didn’t want to spend hours in the kitchen cooking, so I chose simple meals that wouldn’t require much chopping/prepping. (It took me less than 30 minutes to make each meal.)

• I didn’t track calories nor macros, but I still wanted to be relatively healthy. I tried to make sure I didn’t get anything that’d make me feel like my arteries were clogging up.

After an hour of walking up and down the aisles while entering prices into my phone’s calculator, I got my haul!

The week's grocery items all together on my counter

Charis Barg

There were a few notable differences from my estimate:

• I found pasta sauce for $0.99 at the 99 Cent Store, so I didn’t need to buy the tomato sauces and tomato paste from Aldi for $1.56 (savings = $0.57).

• 99 didn’t have peanut butter nor oatmeal, so instead of the estimated $2 for both, I ended up spending $3.88 at Aldi (over estimate = $1.88).

• I estimated $2.49 for sweet potatoes but they ended up being on sale for $0.79 (savings = $1.70).

• I found frozen stir-fry bell peppers for $0.99 at 99, so I didn’t need to buy a bag of peppers for $3.25 at Aldi (savings = $2.26).

• The cantaloupe was on sale for $0.25 — YAY (savings = $0.64).

But the big question is…how much did it all cost??

I ended up spending a total of…$22.16! Under budget!

Receipts from Aldi and 99 Cent Store

Charis Barg

A couple of quick things:
• I didn’t buy any additional spices since I have a TON.

• I also didn’t buy any staple condiments since I had those at home. The specific condiments I used were soy sauce and Stevia (or sugar).

• I normally just use nonstick oil spray when I cook, and I had some on hand so didn’t need to purchase more (you could use any type of oil you already have in your pantry).

Then, it was time to prepare the food!

The Food

Kathy Hoang / BuzzFeed


Kathy Hoang / BuzzFeed

Oatmeal with peanut butter

Bowl of oatmeal with a dollop of peanut butter

Charis Barg

For my breakfast, I prepared one serving of oatmeal and added one tablespoon of peanut butter, some Stevia, and cinnamon. Please note the picture above is about one-third of my breakfast portion (I just used this bowl for the ~aesthetic~).

I ate this oatmeal for breakfast all week. I’ve been doing that for months anyway, so it really wasn’t different from what I normally do.


Kathy Hoang / BuzzFeed

Cantaloupe and hard-boiled eggs

Container of cantaloupe next to a small dish of two hard-boiled eggs

Charis Barg

I cut up the cantaloupe to eat throughout the week. I also boiled one dozen eggs, so that equated to about two eggs per day, except for one day when I knew I wouldn’t eat any. If you’re curious, I eat my hard-boiled eggs with soy sauce (don’t @ me).

Lunch and Dinner

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Day 1–2: Chicken curry with rice

Bowl of rice and chicken curry with sweet potatoes

Charis Barg

For the first two days, I made chicken curry with rice by (loosely) following this Ambitious Kitchen recipe.

Here are the substitutions I made:

• Instead of garlic cloves, I used garlic powder

• I replaced the fresh veggies listed in the recipe with my frozen stir-fry veggies

Snack update: I didn’t actually have any snacks on day one because I was so full from the portions of curry I had for lunch and dinner! On day two, I had some cantaloupe and two eggs. I actually ate the same size lunch and dinner portions, so theoretically I shouldn’t have been hungry? Who knows.

Day 3–4: Pasta with turkey

Bowl of pasta with turkey sauce

Charis Barg

By day three, I was super glad to be eating something new. (The curry was good and it normally doesn’t bother me to eat leftovers, but four big meals in a row was a bit much.)

I actually thought about making both the pasta and my next meal (sweet potato chili) to alternate but…laziness won out so I made just the pasta.

I didn’t follow a recipe for this dish, but here’s how I cooked it: I boiled the pasta according to the directions on the package. While that was cooking, I browned the ground turkey in a separate pan, and then added the pasta sauce and a generous amount of spices (I used Italian seasoning, garlic powder, onion powder, oregano, black pepper, and a bit of basil). That’s it!

Snack update: On day four I actually finished all the cantaloupe. Probably should’ve portioned it out instead of eating it right out of the container ¯_(ツ)_/¯.

Day 5–6: Sweet potato chili

Bowl of chili with sweet potatoes, chickpeas, and tomatoes.

Charis Barg

By day five I was, once again, eager to eat something new. I used this Sweet Peas and Saffron recipe as a guide to make this meal.

Here are the substitutions I made:

• Since I didn’t end up getting tomato sauce, I used the leftover pasta sauce. (I figure it’s all just variations of tomatoes, right?)

• I didn’t have adobo sauce so I omitted it

• Instead of stock, I just used water

• I replaced the garlic cloves and the two small onions with the spices I had at home (garlic and onion powder)

• I didn’t buy fresh carrots so I just added about half the bag of frozen mixed vegetables

Even with the substitutions, it turned out tasting just fine!

Snack update: On day six, I was wishing I still had my cantaloupe. I ate my hard-boiled eggs between meals if I got hungry, but I was more just…bored. My mouth was lonely for more variety of food.

Day 7: Chicken fried rice

Bowl of fried rice with chicken, vegetables, and sweet potatoes

Charis Barg

For day seven, I made chicken fried rice with some of the frozen chicken and vegetables. I actually had another portion of the sweet potato chili left, but I wanted to mix it up!

I didn’t use a recipe for this either but here’s how I made it: I pan-fried the chicken and vegetables with soy sauce, ginger powder, and garlic powder. I cooked the rice in my trusty rice cooker, then simply combined it with the chicken and vegetables.

Snack update: I ate the last two hard-boiled eggs while feeling incredibly excited about the thought of snacking on something new the next day.

Final Thoughts

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Woohoo! Done with the week! Overall, it really wasn’t that bad.

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By the end of the week I had the following ingredients left: plenty of oatmeal, peanut butter, and rice; slightly less than half the pasta; two pieces of chicken; and half a bag of frozen mixed vegetables. Oh, and one more portion of the sweet potato chili meal!

While the challenge wasn’t as hard as I thought it would be, looking back, there were definitely areas I could’ve made it easier for myself.

If you wanted to try this yourself, here are some tips based on what I learned:

Make sure you have enough variety when it comes to snacks. Only having cantaloupe and eggs to snack on was a bad idea. Since I was under budget, I should’ve used that $3 to add bread, a frozen pizza, or a few microwavable meals.

Cook two meals at a time and alternate. Leftovers don’t bother me, but since I was eating large portions and only cooked one recipe at a time, having the same thing meal after meal got boring pretty quickly.

Or, spend a day cooking a bunch of meals and freeze them. Most of the dishes I made were freezer-friendly, so in hindsight I could’ve cooked everything at the beginning of the week and frozen a few of the portions. This would’ve helped with variety while making sure the food didn’t spoil before I got to it.

Consider the time it takes to meal plan, too. I spent two hours planning and one hour shopping, which meant a time commitment of three hours instead of my usual 45 minutes (I normally spend 15 minutes planning and 30 minutes shopping). This was because I spent so long checking prices before (and during) shopping to make sure I stayed under budget. To be honest, I don’t normally check so strictly because time is also important to me. Personally, I would rather have a slightly higher grocery budget if it saves me over two hours of meal planning a week.

Dollar stores are great for many (but not all) ingredients. They’re great for frozen food and grains, but I noticed that dairy, eggs, and canned items were actually more expensive at the 99 Cent Store than at Aldi. Also, keep in mind that dollar store items can sometimes be smaller than at other stores.

Keep lots of spices around. IMO, spices are the best and cheapest way to add flavor and variety. I’ve never counted how many different ones I have, but it’s probably over two dozen types. Some grocery stores sell spice bottles for around $1 each, so it’s definitely worth stocking up! If you don’t have any yet, I recommend starting your spice collection with garlic powder, black pepper, onion powder, oregano, and cumin.

Get cheap and filling food staples. Grains, beans, and frozen vegetables are versatile, hearty, and affordable! Plus you can keep them in your pantry or freezer for a long time without worrying if they’ll go bad.

Portion out your food. This’ll help you plan out how many meals you can get out of it. (And make sure you don’t finish all your snacks by mid-week.)

Want even more ways to save? Check out our other personal finance posts for money tips and tricks.


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