Saturday, March 5, 2011

Bulk purchasing

Buying in bulk can seem like an impossible challenge at first, if you're living paycheck to paycheck. But you can ease into it slowly, bit by bit, and if you resist the urge to spend the money you save on other things, you'll soon be able to take advantage of sales and great deals to save even more. Keep in mind that bulk buying is generally much better suited to staple foods rather than perishables.

Start really small, with just $3 extra. Week 1, instead of buying sodas at work from a vending machine at $1.00 a can or more, buy two 2-liter bottles of soda at the grocery store for $3, take them to work with you, and make them last the week.  If you're like most of the people I work with, you've skipped $10 worth of canned sodas and only spent $3.

You have that $7 to start Week 2. You need to buy pasta this week, and macaroni is $.89 a pound. If you normally would use a single pound for the week which would have cost $1.29, buy 3 pounds of macaroni for $2.67, using up $1.38 of the money you saved from the sodas. You still have $5.62, and the store brand of tomato sauce is  $.29 a can, instead of the $.44 a can for the name brand you normally buy. Instead of buying 3 cans of the name brand at $1.32, buy 9 cans of the store brand for $2.61, using up another $1.29, leaving you with $4.33. Buy the 2 liter bottles of soda again for $3, and you have $1.33 left over.

Now you're into Week 3. You have $8.33 ($7 + $1.33). You don't need macaraoni again, so that $1.29 is available, and you don't need tomato sauce, another $1.32 available. So, now you have $10.94 for bulk buying. You buy a pound of rice every other week for $.89 a pound. You notice this week that 5 pound bags $.59 a pound, so you get one of those for $2.95, using up $2.06 of your $10.94, leaving $8.88. You normally buy a couple of cans of broth for 2/$.98, but you decide to try the soup base for $2.99, using up another $2.01 of your bulk money, leaving you with $6.87. You decide to try making bean soup as an experiment, Spending $.89 on a pound of navy beans and $.89 on a pound of kidney beans, using another $1.78, leaving you with $5.09. You buy a package of ground turkey and freeze it for $1.39, leaving you with $3.70. Buy your soda and you have $.70 left for next week.

In Week 4, you have the $7+$.70, $1.29 for the macaroni, $.98 for the broth, and you saved $2 on lunches by taking homemade bean soup. That gives you $11.97 to work with. You look at the oatmeal rather than the cold cereal, and discover a big container is on sale for $2.29, with about 2x the servings of the cereal you normally buy for $3.29. Buy two at $4.58, and you've used $1.29, leaving you with $10.68. You glance in the meat case, and discover whole chickes are $.69 a pound.  You always passed on them before because it was a lot to spend on one thing, but this time you pick up one for $5, knowing you'll get at least 3 meals out of it, probably saving you $1 a meal, and leaving you with $5.68. You discover that your favorite brand of soda is $1 instead of $1.50, so you buy 5 of them, leaving you with $.68 for next week.

It's Week 5, and you have $7 that you didn't spend on vending machine sodas, $.68 from last week, $.89 because you don't need rice, $.98 because you don't need broth, $2 you saved on lunches by taking bean soup, $3.29 for cereal you don't need, and $3 you saved on suppers by buying a whole chicken.  You now have $17.84 for your bulk buying (see how this snowballs?) You need pasta and buy two 2-pound packages of spaghetti for $.89 a pound, $3.56, less the $1.29 you normally spent, using $2.27. You have $15.57, and you check the tomato sauce. The sale isn't as good, but you get 12 cans at $.34 each, for $4.08, less the usual $1.32, leaving you with $12.81. You wander by the frozen meat case and notice that out of season turkeys are $.59 a pound. One of the smaller frozen turkeys, around 14 pounds, is $8.50. You realize you have more than enough to buy it, and you can get several meals out of it, a pot of soup from the carcasse, and freeze enough meat for several more meals. And you STILL have $4.31 left for next week.

In Week 6, you have $7 from sodas, $4.31 from last week, $.98 from savings on broth, $3 you saved by making turkey and bean soup for lunch, $3.29 you saved on cereal, $1.29 on pasta, $1.32 on tomato sauce, and $5 you saved on suppers. That's $26.19 you have available for bulk buying this week, and you still have about 3 1/2 pounds of rice, 3 pounds of spaghetti, 9 cans of tomato sauce, a chub of frozen ground turkey, several meals worth of frozen cooked turkey, some oatmeal and beans, and plenty of soup base. And all you did was start with $3.

Some of you have a lot more room in your budget, and that's great, just apply this in ways that make sense for your circumstances (set aside a certain amount each week to take advantage of good sales). Some of you, though, are already eating the cheapest things you can find. All I can suggest is try to scrape together an extra dollar or two and use it to take advantage of a really good sale to buy extra of something you use. Though I ordinarily frown on ramen soups as lacking nutrition (and the poorer you are, the more you need to be careful of it), eating those once a day for a few days as a temporary measure might be enough to get you that dollar or two. It will still snowball, just more slowly. But it's a tiny amount of effort for the end results.

A quick word on a related subject---the pantry. The poorer you are, the more important it is to have a reasonable amount of food stored. Once you are past the first few weeks and have that bulk-buying money established, start buying a little extra every week in staples and canned goods. Use up older stuff first, but build up some extra. I think everyone should have at LEAST 2 weeks worth of food and water in the house for emergencies, and preferably at least one to two months of food. This can be built up slowly, a bag of beans here, a bag of rice there, a couple of cans of vegetables, $2 - $3 a week, and you can store up a month's worth of (admittedly boring) food within a few months. Even $.50 worth of food stored per week gives you a little cushion.

I've heard this referred to as hoarding, and I'm baffled by that attitude, at least in relation to the poor. If food prices jump up, the poor are going to be hit the hardest (think back about 3 years ago when flour and rice and other staples doubled in price in the US.) This is a kind of food savings account, whether against inflation or against illness/loss of income. I have about 2 months worth in the house and would be happier with 4 (but I lack the space to store it), though I admit by the last couple of weeks, we'd probably be living on things like rice with just a touch of canned chili on top for flavoring. About once a year, we pull out anything that's getting older that we weren't able to eat and donate it to a food bank so it gets used while it's still good. So, in our case, it's also a form of charity.

Friday, March 4, 2011

Finding a few extra cents...

I promised a few ideas just for those who are really desperate. So if you feel confident you never will be and just aren't interested in reading about truly penny-pinching ideas, skip this one.

***Make sure you check into local ordinances and state laws before you do any of this*** 

Been unemployed for a while, and the job prospects in your area still look bleak and you're financially against the wall? Then it's time to step into more drastic territory. The one thing you have in abundance is free time, so making ANY money from your time is good. Cut out everything that is not an absolute necessity (I'll go into ideas on that on other days), then start with an inventory of your resources.

What day-to-day skills do you have? Can you sew, clean, tell a story, fix a flat tire, paint trim, weed, anything? What assets do you have that you could part with? Does your area have lots of yard sales? A recycling center that will pay for metal or glass?

If you can fix a flat tire, you could make up a small (1/4 page size) flyer, and pass them out in the parking lot of a grocery store, or, if that's not allowed, a church, advertising your skill and willingness to drive out and change flat tires and help them get the damaged one repaired or replaced if needed. State rates and when you are available and give a cell phone number. Don't say "any time of night or day" unless you really mean it, though. Get help with the flyer if you don't know how, and make it as cheaply as possibly. If you repeat the flyer 4 times on a sheet of paper, you can make 25 copies and have 100 flyers to pass out for a pretty small investment. Keep the rates cheap enough that it seems worth their while, especially if the local auto assistance group tends to take an hour or two to show up. If you get even a couple of calls a month, that's still extra money in your pocket.

If your area has lots of yard sales, this could be either a source of raw materials or items for resale IF you know a lot about the items and have the knack of selling on EBay, for instance. Most yard sales have lots of clothes that no one buys. If you can pick up old pants at the end of the day for $.05-.25, you can make shopping bags that should sell for a couple of bucks. If you can quilt, even better. But don't make full sized quilts. Make quilt blocks that you turn into purses and totes and backpacks. These are faster and require less matching fabric. Your dollar-per-hour return will probably be below minimum wage, but your time isn't earning ANYTHING if you don't.

You may even be able to get bags of ruined clothes that weren't worth donating to a charity for free (and most charities get items too unusable to resell that they'll give away). Ruined clothes often have small areas of useable fabric. These can be washed and cut into quilt pieces or made into scrunchy hair bands (that's a great use for t-shirt fabric, by the way).

If you have no skills except the ability to scrub, advertise yourself to do jobs too small or dirty for the regular cleaning crews (or more cheaply). Use the same strategy as for changing tires.

The point here is: think creatively. And keep in mind that getting SOME return for your time is better than getting none. Working 40 hours for a return of $2 an hour gets you $80 you wouldn't have gotten otherwise.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Cooking double

Returning to the idea of cooking and freezing food, another simple way to get started at this is to cook double. Making a favorite dish? If it's something that may freeze well, it's often hardly more work to cook twice as much at a time, and the extra half can be frozen for a quick future meal. The savings here is mostly in efficiency, of time and energy, but this is an approach that can also allow singles and couples to take advantage of the lower costs of bulk purchases. 

Want to make breakfast tacos, but the one pound chub of ground sausage or turkey is way too much? Go ahead and cook up the full amount, then fill the tortillas and roll up (omitting sour cream or salsa for now). Let them cool while you have breakfast, then use ziplock-type bags to package them up in single meal portions. Then when you think you'll want a filling, hot breakfast, pull a package out of the freezer at night to thaw overnight in the refrigerator. In the morning, warm them in the microwave for a quick hot breakfast. If you like sour cream (I substitute plain yogurt) or salsa, spoon a little out onto your plate and dip the breakfast taco. For a larger family, you can still cook up large batches of the filling and make them up on the weekend (and involve the kids in a filling-and-rolling party).

If you have a favorite casserole that you think might freeze well, this can work. If it makes way too much, just make the normal recipe and divide the leftovers into single meal portions to freeze. If you have a larger family that this casserole feeds perfectly, fix two at once, take one out of the oven slightly early, and freeze. Rewarm in the oven (which should finish cooking it too). Some quiches freeze well too. Keep in mind that sour cream and yogurt and cream based sauces don't always freeze well.

A single or couple eyeing those family packs of steaks or ground beef? Go ahead and buy them and cook the whole batch at once. Freeze the extra in single meal portions. If you're using a grill, cooking a lot at once makes the most efficient use of it.

One of the tricks to this approach is remembering to pull items down to thaw in the refrigerator the night before (for breakfast) or the morning of (for supper). I usually leave frozen lunches in the freezer until I'm about to walk out the door because of the drive and delays when I get to work in getting items in the refrigerator. I find I like the texture of food that's been thawed naturally a little more, and it cuts down on microwave time.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

The American love affair - the automobile

This is a topic that's almost guaranteed to get an emotional response from an American, especially most men. I used to have a friend who drove a convertible that he was so attached to that he'd named (and he admitted he had a better relationship with it than most women). And on a practical level, they can be necessary for many jobs or when you live in an area where alternatives just don't exist or aren't practical.

Yet, this can be a huge part of a budget, especially if you are low income. I've frankly found that those who aren't really pushed to the edge are rarely willing to make changes in this area (and even some of those who are.) However, with gas prices creeping back up, there are a few possibilities to consider. First, live as close to where you work as practical, unless the location of your current home is vital (i.e. you live next to an elderly parent). I live about 2 blocks from where I work and less than that from the nearest bus stop for the university I attend. My daughter rides to work with me and catches a bus to her classes from there. If my car has a problem, I can be at work or on the bus within 10 minutes. My oldest daughter lives close enough to work to walk in a pinch, and she has co-workers who'll give her a ride home if her car is broken down (and she helps them out the same way).

If you have to live further away, look into carpooling or a flex schedule. If you can work 4 ten hour days, that saves one trip in a week (saving gas and milage on the car). Can you telecommute one or two days a week? If you can't change your residence or the number of trips, seriously look into a more fuel-efficient car. Price insurance, switch to liability only on older vehicles, increase the deductible if you have savings to cover the costs. Shop around for mechanics. Take good care of your car. Don't speed, you'll use less gas and have less chance of accident. Run all your errands at once, and plan them for the most efficient driving route. If you're married, do you really HAVE to have two cars?

Drive your car longer before trading in. If you have a car payment, instead of trading in as soon as you pay it off, try to drive it at least 6 months longer than you would have and put aside every penny that you would have made in payments. If your current car payment is $300, that's $1800 plus interest that you can use in addition to the trade in value toward the 2nd car. But instead of buying "more" car or getting a lower payment for the same term, get a shorter loan term. If you go from a 5 year term to a 4 year term on a $15,000 car loan, you should save at least $400-500 in interest. Then drive it til you've owned it at least 66 months too before trading in, saving that $300 a month to give you $5400 plus interest toward your 3rd car, which should let you reduce the term to about 2 1/2 years. If you keep that one until it's a bit older than that 66 months, you may have enough between trade in and cash to buy a modest car outright, with no loan. Drive 12 months instead of 6 months past the first one, buy slightly "less" car, and you'll have $3600 and trade in toward your 2nd car, try to shorten the term for the 2nd car to 36 months, then save for 36-39 more months before trading in, and you may have enough to buy the 3rd one in cash.

Even better, if you're more willing to compromise, consider buying a used car in good condition and drive it as long as it doesn't develop major problems, maintaining it carefully, and save all the car payment money once it's paid for (don't take more than a 3 year loan on even a relatively new used car). I bought my current car when it was 21 months old (in cash, btw), with less than 23,000 miles on it, still under warranty and with a good service record. I have been driving it for just over 8 years, and hope to get another year or two out of it, but keep in mind my highest mileage for a year was about 7,000. But this car could have been paid off in about 3 years at about that $300 payment I mentioned. In ordinary use, anyone should have been able to get another two years past that out of it before trading in, saving $7200. With the trade-in, you could almost buy the next used car in cash. At that point, you could either reduce the savings rate to $200, freeing up $100 a month for something else, or save the full $300 and buy a new car in cash next time.

For those more who really have problems, consider more drastic solutions. Trade in a luxury car for a cheap used economy car. Consider car-sharing or no car at all for a time. Public transportation, bicycles, mopeds, and walking are all cheaper (cost of public transportation varies by area, though). Look for a co-worker who lives near you and offer to pay for their gas (but have a backup plan if they're sick). If you're single and really broke/out of work, consider applying for live-in positions (this isn't likely to work if you have a criminal record, however, or sometimes even a bad credit record).

Don't consider these measures as deprivation or feeling "poor." Think of it as getting ahead over a long term. Unless your job really depends on appearance, luxury cars (or frequent new cars) are, on a practical level, a status whirlpool sucking your money out of your pocket. I'm only addressing it at that practical level. I'm not condemning luxury cars, if you won't miss the money and you genuinely gain pleasure out of having that luxury car, then it's worth it for you.

Just because...

Since I notice that someone in Russia apparently is reading my blog, I have to say

Dobro pozhalovat. Spasebo.

Excuse my transliteration; I learned Russian over 25 years ago, so I'm a little rusty...

Tuesday, March 1, 2011


Environmentalism sometimes runs hand in hand with frugality, and reuse is a basic idea of either. And it can also be fun and creative. So, just a few quick ideas...

Plastic shopping bags can be used to line small garbage cans.
Empty plastic coffee containers can be used as canisters to store flour, sugar, rice, pasta, beans, and almost any similar dry staple, which also keeps some pests out of them.
Empty peanut butter jars or vitamin bottles can be used to store herbs, spices, teas, small amounts of grains or beans, loose change, batteries, and kitchen or bathroom odds-and-ends like twist ties or hair bands or combs.
Empty jars and yogurt containers with lids, and empty margarine tubs can be washed and used for food storage, or as cheap semi-disposable lunch containers.
Envelopes from junk mail, blank sides of junk mail, and misprinted or old (non-confidential) documents can be used as scrap paper (my mother wrote hundreds of grocery lists on old envelopes).
Line an empty plastic coffee container with a plastic bread bag, and you have the perfect arrangement for collecting smelly food scraps and other things to go into the garbage if you don't have a garbage disposal.
Oh, and turn a few of those bread bags inside out, wash them, then save them to use for homemade breads or to wrap messy things up in, etc.
Ziplock-type bags can also be turned inside out and washed for reuse, as long as you didn't use them for meat or something else that might be risky in food handling.

Obviously this list could go on, but how about something more creative? Have an old pair of jeans with a ripped knee or seat or worn inner thighs, but still has good, sturdy fabric in the lower legs? If the hems are still in good shape, cut the legs off below the ripped knee, cut out the inner seam on each leg (but leave the french felled outer seam intact). Sew the two leg pieces together, then sew the knee end closed. The original hem of the jeans now becomes the top hem of a bag. Attach a handle (I use cheap strapping I buy at the sewing store, but you can make a strap from other jean material), and you have a sturdy, attractive tote or shopping bag for the work of cutting, three seams, and the handle. I've made a lot of these over time, but almost all of them have been "acquired". 

A variation on this is to cut the legs off if the torso part is in good shape, sew the bottom closed, and add a strap for a novel bag, complete with 5 pockets (if they're this type). You can also make a purse out of a single leg. You can do these with any sturdy, non-stretching pants fabric. But none of these work well with the cheap, over-washed jeans that are so popular now, the fabric is too thin, and intended to rip and wear out quickly. 

Which leads me to my thought for today. Truly good quality that lasts a long time is worth the money. High quality pants that look good for 5 years (and I have pieces that look fine after 10), even at $80, are less than half the cost of pants for $20 that have to be replaced every 6 months (10 pairs X $20 is $200). Just be sure you're paying for quality and not for the label. I can get old-fashioned heavy denim jeans for less than $30 that will outlast 10 or 15 pairs of the cheap thin ones at $15 to $20. And then get shopping bags or quilt fabric out of them...

Monday, February 28, 2011

Freezer thrift

Freezer cooking is a concept that's been around for many years; my mother did it in a simple form all through my childhood. These days, it goes by several fancy names, probably trademarked so I won't use them. But this is as much an idea in efficiency as in thrift. It's particularly useful for singles, couples, and small families whose time for cooking from scratch is very limited, but large families can find it useful too. It starts with the idea that that freezer connected to your refrigerator is useful for more than storing ice cream and commercial frozen dinners. Remember from earlier posts, too, safe food handling!
At the simplest, and for those with very limited space, I recommend cooking meat in bulk, dividing it into meal-sized portions and freezing those portions for future meals (preferably on your weekend when you have a little more time). When hams go on sale for the holidays, for instance, buy 2 and bake them at the same time (if your oven is big enough). It takes about the same energy to cook two in the oven at once, saving money there. If you make these on the holiday, I recommend cutting the meat not intended for the holiday dinner off in chunks to refrigerate because you'll probably be pretty tired by then. The next day, take out these chunks and either slice them for sandwiches or dice them into cubes and freeze in one or two meal portions. Recruit family to help, but make it fun (cooking should be GOOD family time, not drudgery.)
A week or two after the holiday, when you come home from work tired and late and need a quick dinner, pull out one of these packages, thaw in the microwave, and make a chef salad, hot sandwiches, shepherd's pie with canned biscuits as topping, an omelet with ham and tomato (or whatever you like), and so on. The idea here is that the meat itself is already cooked and ready to go. I usually pull down a package of meat the night before and put it in the refrigerator to thaw so it's ready by suppertime. (Remember SAFE thawing, not on the counter at room temperature.)
You can do this with those big chubs of ground meat, roasts, chickens, turkeys, bags of chicken leg quarters, etc. Having the meat pre-cooked or browned means you save that time (and extra pan sometimes) when it's time to make dinner.

Cheap breakfasts

So, breakfast in the US tends to be cold packaged cereal and milk, at best, and often is a poptart and can of soda. Honestly, this is a lousy way to start a day, and what's more, it's expensive. Regular oatmeal is a lot cheaper per serving, can be cooked in the microwave, and is generally better for you. Or make granola out of it if you have to have it cold with milk.
But I'm a believer in a high protein breakfast. I read a study many years ago that a breakfast that supplied 22 grams of protein with a little fat and some sort of fruit or vegetable gave a person the most stable blood sugar and energy level all morning, and I try to aim for that. A cheap way to do this is a couple of boiled eggs (about 12 grams of protein), a slice of whole wheat toast (brands vary, mine has about 4 grams of protein per slice), and a glass of skim milk (8 grams) for 24 grams of protein. This is relatively low cal (less than 300 calories, depending on the brand of bread) and, for me, costs around $.65. It's better if you have some fruit with it, but I tend to have a little fruit mid-morning instead. Yogurt and fruit with whole wheat toast is a good breakfast, though it tends to be more expensive.
If you aren't picky about "breakfast" foods, I get low fat turkey hot dogs cheaply, cook up a package all at once, and freeze them in pairs. Two of those on slices of ordinary whole wheat bread with maybe a little tomato or salsa make a good, cheap high protein breakfast. Peanut butter toast and a glass of milk is another option (as long as the toast is whole wheat) and probably one of the cheapest.
If you're desperate, and getting enough calories is the real concern, get day old whole wheat bread (or learn to bake it and buy the flour in bulk) and eat it with at least half a glass of whole milk to make sure you have a complete protein. Or bake a couple of potatoes and have them with a little milk. Or fry the potatoes and break a single egg into the pan to hold them together. French toast is nothing more than slices of bread dipped in an egg beaten with a little milk. Keep in mind that the boxed cereals are VERY expensive per serving.

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Soup for tightwads

 To start with, my advice for today is: be flexible. No one set of advice fits everyone and every day. For instance, while cheese and beef are relatively cheap where I live, I know people in other parts of the country who pay twice as much. And the food that's cheap today may not be next week, and vice versa. Corn meal and chicken wings used to be incredibly cheap. Now, corn meal here is often around $.75 a pound, while I frequently get white flour for about $.25 a pound and chicken wings sometimes cost close to the price of chicken breasts. A couple of weeks ago, I found whole wheat macaroni on sale for less than the regular.

Soup is a fascinating and versatile dish. It can be the cheapest of meals or incredibly expensive. And as the old story about stone soup should show, you can put almost anything into it. One caution up front: be sure of your food safety and handling. Don't cook the soup at too low a temperature, for example, especially if it involves meat. If you don't know these things already, try here for advice:

I'll leave the gourmet soups to the foodies and address soup for tightwads. Soup is easy and cheap to make and doesn't really require a recipe, just some common sense and a willingness to experiment. I buy beef and chicken soup base in a jar that you scoop out one teaspoon per cup of liquid. One jar at $2.99 makes 91 cups of broth, which is about $.10 for 3 cups of broth. Those who are just trying to cut corners a little can pay a bit more for a better quality of the same product and still get it for less than $.25 for a quart of broth. But for those who badly need to pinch every penny, make your own which is much easier than people realize. Save bones (separated by poultry or beef) in the freezer until you have a couple of pounds worth. Put them in a pot and cover with water at least an inch or two above the top of the bones and add about a tablespoon of salt. I recommend adding a tablespoon or two of either lemon juice or vinegar to extract extra calcium from the bone, but I like the flavor. You can save vegetable peels the same way in the freezer and add them to the pot as well. Bring to a boil, then lower to a simmer, cover and cook for a couple of hours, then strain out the bones and peels. Check the water level in the pot regularly and add more if it looks like the bones will poke out of the water. This is best in a slow cooker, cooked over an entire day. I don't recommend using bones that have been in contact with people's mouths, but some older books point out that boiling is supposed to kill germs. For vegetarians, by the way, you can get or make the same kind of stock with vegetables.

So, now you have stock. What to put in the soup? I'm a fan of meals with a good amount of protein, so I like some meat or at least some legumes in it. I make soup with leftover cooked meat, but if you are using raw meat, brown it at least a little before adding to the pot. Proportion to the amount of stock, up to a cup of diced meat per quart of liquid. Unless you're more interested in cutting calories than expense, you'll probably want to add a starch-potatoes, beans, lentils, split peas, rice, or pasta. Keep in mind how much water each will absorb in cooking. If a pasta recommends 3 cups of liquid per cup of pasta. don't add 2 cups of pasta to a quart of broth. Instead, since you want this to have some broth left, cut the amount of the dry product by about 2/3, and for 3 cups of liquid, only add about 1/2 to 2/3 of a cup of pasta. This is part of that common sense I mentioned. If you're using leftover cooked meat, you can put in the meat and the starch at the same time, cooking until the starch is done. If you're using raw meat that's been browned, cook until the meat is completely cooked through before adding your starch. If you want to add vegetables, add them with enough time to cook before the starch is cooked. This is a preference thing. Some people like their vegetables to be mush, some want them almost crunchy still. And seasonings. Pick appropriate ones for what you're cooking and add them early enough to give the soup flavor. I find a tiny touch of cayenne does wonders to spice up a bland bean-heavy soup

The first time you try making soup like this, keep it simple. Use a single precooked meat, add a starch you have experience cooking, and only add one or two vegetables and simple seasonings-2 quarts of broth, a cup or so of diced cooked chicken, a cup or two of diced potatoes, a few diced carrots, simmered for 20 to 30 minutes with some salt, pepper, and garlic.

For those who are desperate, I think soup is the food of hope. Beans, split peas, lentils, and brown rice are regularly less than $.70 a pound in my grocery store. I can make a pot of bean soup that, with some bread, feeds 4. About $.10 for the stock, about $.25 worth of beans, about $.05 worth of seasoning, and some day-old white bread about $.35, at a total of around $.75 for the entire meal. If you mix a legume (beans or split peas or lentils) with rice, you also have a complete protein. Potato soup, made with a little milk, is filling and a good protein. And look for bargains to add vegetables. We live a few blocks from a produce market that has a back corner where older produce is put out at $1.00 a small basket. I can get several pounds of tomatoes or eggplant for a dollar, but we don't use produce quickly enough to take advantage of that. That's important to consider: will you use it before it turns?