Aloha again everyone! This is a post I’ve been eager to write this week, given that we are now living even more deeply in the uncertainty and sting of corona times. Many early childhood educators found themselves furloughed from work and on unemployment. Certain goods are nearly impossible to find at the store (like, am I really going to have to grind my own flour from wheatberries until this pandemic is over?). Everyone is now required to wait in outrageous, black-friday-esque lines at the grocery stores like we’re waiting to ride Splash Mountain at Disneyland.
And if that’s not nerve-racking enough, the grocery stores are like the community watering hole– everyone is bound to traverse the grocery stores and drop some germs there at some point. And that makes grocery shopping feel like you’re Sandra Bullock in the movie Bird Box, trying to get in and out as fast as you can. Except the masks are over our noses and mouths instead of our eyes. Real talk, this is our life right now, LOL.
The truth is, though, even if we weren’t on unemployment right now, many of us teachers (and even parents) still need to keep food expenses low because preschool teachers are down there among the lowest paid professionals in American society; and having extra mouths to feed at home or in your childcare programs ain’t the cheapest endeavor.
Another reason why I hope my grocery shopping strategies will hold more weight for those of us who need to save money is that I live in Honolulu, Hawaii. If you’ve never been here before, you will most certainly suffer from sticker shock when you realize how expensive the groceries are here. It’s the price of paradise. Other background info about me is that I’ve been literally broke and on food stamps before after getting laid off from a preschool job.
When I was 14 and landed my first part-time job, my mom cut me off financially for anything I wanted, and I had to pay for my own lunch and leisure. In high school, I spent $5 a week on lunch (yepp). And I remember my mom used to say, and I quote, “You eat your money”. Maybe I was always hungry as a result of spending $5 a week on lunch, possibly, mother? And P.S. that is a borderline hypocritical remark for anyone born and raised on the island of Hawaii to even make! Where do you think I learned to love food? Hello!
Anyway, I know how to be resourceful in keeping the fridge and pantry stocked, and how to be almost Jesus-like in making a little food go a long way. And how to do it in a way that keeps your waistline and your budget tight. Anyone who knows me knows I can put it down, too– I might be small, but I can seriously eat. So if I can manage to keep my weekly grocery tab remarkably low, I believe anyone can!
Post, at a glance…
- where I source my food
- how to eat to save money
- my food staples
- how to make your food (and money) go a lot further
- how to potluck for cheaper, and
- how to find food when you’re legit broke.
(I’ll be dividing all of these tips up into “Hawaii” specifics and “mainland” specifics; because here in Hawaii we don’t have the same stores).
WHERE TO SOURCE FOOD
In order to keep my grocery tab low, I do the majority of my fresh produce shopping at the farmer’s market; and this is the first place I typically go (but I’m sorry I cannot disclose which farmer’s market I go to, or which vendor I specifically source from because I love love love my source, business is already booming for them, and I don’t want everyone in town eating all the food that keeps ya girl fed, LOL). Shopping at the farmers market not only keeps my tab lower, but it forces me to vary my produce consumption and it forces me to eat both locally and seasonally. So I really love this budget-reducing grocery shopping tactic; and highly recommend it for anyone who is able to access farmer’s markets. We are super blessed here in Hawaii that we have a year-round growing season where fresh produce is always available. And there are farmer’s markets happening somewhere almost every day of the week. Take your pick!
After I’ve hit the farmer’s market, I then shop at Whole Foods. Again, this might shock people to hear. But if you shop the right way at Whole Foods, you can absolutely walk out of there having spent very little money and having chosen foods of sustenance and high nutritional value.
Two important pieces worth mentioning: I do purchase an amazon prime membership annually which breaks down to roughly $15 a month or less; and it includes free shipping on anything I order and the free movies and shows. So to me it’s worth it. An Amazon Prime membership can drop produce to half its typical price.
Secondly, when I shop there, I’m not really buying processed, packaged, bougie items. I see those gluten-free Siete brand cassava tortillas and it pretty much makes me want to vomit that those exist and sell for like, $14 a package, OK? Cassava is the food of very poor brown people of the world, like Filipinos and Brazilians 😂 . You know a food was meant for the poorest of the poor when it comes outta the ground basically inedible and we were so hungry we figured out how to turn it into dessert. But I digress. When I meander through Whole Foods, I’m actually choosing (and this is gonna sound so cliche but) whole foods, LOL. It’s literally either real foods, bulk items, frozen fruits and veggies, and a few staple canned goods. Maybe the occasional condiment or dessert. But by and large, real foods in their whole form. That mochi ice cream bar, tho! Stay away from that!
Third food source… if I need to fill in any additional gaps with the few other foods I typically buy, these will come from Target, Foodland, Down To Earth bulk bins (that’s Hawaii’s hippie vegetarian grocery store), or asian grocery stores. For example, the canned tuna is hands down the cheapest from Target. The rice is not cheap at Whole Foods; it’s cheaper elsewhere else. My favorite marinade for chicken only comes from Foodland. And if I want to make my own dashi for Japanese foods, I’m gonna source the Kombu and bonito from Nijiya. I still have not figured out where to find some of my Vietnamese pantry faves here; (if you know what ruoc is, raise your hand!) but I know they must be here somewhere because I see all the little Vietnamese aunties at the bus stops and at the farmer’s markets.
When I used to live in the mainland (CA, Portland, and Baltimore) my go-to strategy would be to shop at Trader Joe’s first, and then fill in the gaps from Whole Foods, other hippie health food store bulk bins, Target, and ethnic grocery stores. In the mainland, you guys do have a much wider variety of ethnic grocery stores; and you really should take full advantage of these because they are cheaper than western grocery stores, and offer a wider variety of produce.
It is also worth mentioning that your region of the mainland will affect your produce considerations. So bear that in mind. The best berries in the country come from the pacific northwest. I never in my life have pulled over to the side of someone’s neighborhood median raspberry bush in front of their house, and ate raspberries straight off the vine in a until I lived in Portland. In Baltimore, all of your fruit is going to ripen like 10 times faster in the summer than it would in Cali.
Filipino, Mexican, and even Indian markets can be amazing sources of nutritious and delicious foods you can’t find at say, Safeway. In the mainland, if I had to drive 45 minutes to find Asian and Hawaiian pantry staples, I would. #AlohaShoyuFoLife. I also genuinely miss my Indian beauty items!! Vicco turmeric face cream is the best! I’m also not sure whether everywhere in the mainland has Trader Joes. But that store is designed to keep your diet varied and your money saved, OK? I used to spend an average of around $30 a week on groceries when I lived in the mainland; and I attribute that level of financial frugality specifically to Trader Joes. Before I really started shopping at Trader Joes on the regular as a college student, I was under the false impression that Trader Joes was some high makamaka, expensive hippie store because my mom would only go there for things like huge bags of mixed nuts. uh, no– Trader Joes is affordable AF. Finally, if you are on the lower end of poorer living in the mainland, you need to shop at Rainbow Grocery Outlet.
HOW TO EAT TO SAVE MONEY
What to eat
If you want to save some money on eating, the real secret here is that you need to eat real foods; and keep packaged foods to a minimum. “grab and go” foods for me are fruit, and food I can prepare in 10 minutes or less, like crackers and hummus, veggies and hummus, boiled eggs, things I have baked from scratch, or Japanese onigiri. Anything I can basically throw into a small container in under 10 minutes is my version of “fast food”. The only immediately available foods I ever have are fruit, bread, raw vegetables, or anything I’ve baked and have laying around waiting to be eaten. Real foods are the cheapest foods.
what I DON’T eat
Just like in a Montessori classroom, what’s not there heavily factors into the success. What I DON’T eat to keep my food spending low is just as critical as what I DO eat. I don’t eat a lot of meat. I pretty much rarely to never buy beef, fish other than canned tuna, frozen shrimp, and I treat myself to poke on occasion.
I do not eat dairy, because dairy makes my skin break out. I might buy a very small shaker of parmesan cheese from Target, or a couple sticks of butter here and there. These last me forever because they’re used more like a spice, and for baking. Otherwise, I do not buy dairy products. Cheese is expensive. A gallon of milk in Hawaii costs just as much or more than a gallon of gas. I also had to break up with coffee shops in 2020; and it was one of the best money-saving decisions I have ever made. Buy your own espresso maker from Amazon. Or get your hands on instant coffee and make dalgona coffees if you need to feel fancy.
Th only beverages I drink are water, coffee, tea, smoothies, beer, wine, and the occasional kombucha. I don’t buy sodas, and I don’t buy juices.
supplements and splurges
OK so here’s one of my dietary considerations. I highly value health; and life is also meant to be enjoyed in moderation. So there are certain items I will “splurge” on for either my health, or for pleasure. And the beauty of spending so little on groceries is that some weeks, I find myself with a surplus of grocery money that can be used on supplements and the occasional treat.
Supplements I buy maybe once or twice a year are: Udo’s 3-6-9 oil, a bottle of Now brand Colloidal trace minerals, Collagen supplements for my joints, local organic raw honey, and probiotics. If my expenses are doing particularly well, I might splurge on a vitamin (Sugar Bear Hair Care Vitamins, or a solid food-based multi).
Treats I buy here and there include dark chocolate, spirulina, matcha green tea powder, my favorite teas, the occasional gelato for a potluck, the occasional kombucha, beer, and wine. But I’m not kidding when I say that I can make these treats last forever. Like, for-eva-eva. I literally had a bottle of beer that was over a year old still sitting in my fridge at the end of 2019. Believe it or not, I rarely go out to eat; and I would say one of my biggest temptations is to not buy little treats when I’m out and about. By which I really mean Banan, Sunrise Surf Shack, or Nalu Bowls. One of my favorite things to eat out is Ramen. And at $11 a bowl, it’s hard to feel bad about that. Other treats I’ve invested in over the past couple years is a bag of puffed quinoa, and specialty baking or smoothie additions.
MY FOOD STAPLES
There are certain foods that I literally ALWAYS buy and always keep in my fridge or pantry. These are like the “big rocks” in the jar. These key players then get surrounded by the “gravel” (anything that I consistently buy but may vary in type), and then it all gets topped off with “sand”– the occasional treats and supplements.
carbs = rice, ezekiel bread that stays in the freezer and gets eaten slice by slice, ramen, pasta, sweet potato (‘uala). Annie’s boxed mac & cheese (this is my comfort food staple).
proteins= nut milk, eggs, rotisserie chicken, canned tuna, beans, ground turkey. nut butter. Occasional nuts and seeds.
Veggies= a box or bunch of leafy greens, cherry tomato, onion/ shallot, garlic, frozen peas, frozen corn, canned tomato, carrots by the bag.
Fruits= bananas, pineapple, mandarin oranges, lemons, x1 bag cheaper frozen fruit
Condiments & flavorings= aloha shoyu, better than bullion chicken broth, Herdez guac salsa, sugarless ketchup, creamy vegan salad dressing, tahini, earth balance vegan butter.
Pickled kine stuff= miso paste, roasted red peppers, pickled veggies, kimchee, a jar of chipotle pepper in adobo sauce.
Sauces, & oils= olive oil, coconut oil, sesame oil, aloha Shoyu, Raw apple cider vinegar, rice vinegar, dijon mustard, balsamic vinegar.
Roots, herbs, & Spices= Hawaiian Sea Salt, olena (turmeric), ginger, pepper, garlic powder, cinnamon, cayenne pepper, paprika, parsley, cumin, basil, oregano, dill, curry, cardamon, cocoa powder, coffee, my favorite teas.
I also always keep baking supplies on hand. You never know. These are: a couple sticks of butter, flour, baking soda, baking powder. I have a pancake addiction.
… again, to reiterate, the aforementioned items are things I ALWAYS have in my home at all times; and it’s filled in with items that vary by season, or preference.
HOW TO MAKE THE FOOD (AND THEREFORE YOUR MONEY) GO A LOT FURTHER
- Meal plan. I will never, ever create a grocery list without actual meals planned out for most days of the week. I typically find that I can plan for 5 or 6 meals even if there are 7 days of the week. I’m not always super hungry each and every day; plus here in Hawaii we do a lot of potlucks and I always attend family dinner each week.
- prep and freeze things. For example, there is always frozen sliced bananas in my freezer, a chopped up rotisserie chicken in my freezer, and at least one DIY frozen meal of leftovers in my freezer.
- save and use food scraps. So not everyone knows that there are a lot of food scraps people throw away that are actually edible or can be repurposed. For example, I throw all the unused bones from the rotisserie chicken in a ziplock and freeze them to make stock later. Same with most non-edible veggie scraps. You can chop off strawberry tops and freeze them, and blend them into your smoothies later. You can use carrot tops in place of freshly chopped parsley.
- cook once, eat multiple times. A former housemate once gave me this tip; as he would cook big meals, and then freeze it or eat the same meal multiple times. For those of you who hate leftovers, hate to say it but the palate that can’t tolerate repeated leftovers is an expensive palate to maintain. If you are the kind of person who needs different flavors every day, then you can still food prep a lot of staples and build them into different meals each night.
HOW TO POTLUCK FOR CHEAPER
So one of the biggest budget busters for broker people is pot lucking. Here in Hawaii, food is one of our favorite past time hobbies, right up there with the beach, the hiking, and the dancing. We say aloha with food. So when I first moved here, I found myself attending multiple potlucks per week; and it almost gave me anxiety trying to keep up.
And here’s a thing about potlucks when when you’re single, and don’t make a lot of money… potlucks are actually financially disadvantageous for your budget. Because it’s just you; and you’re literally spending a minimum of like $10 to join this potluck. That’s the cost for one single person to eat out. $10 for one meal is kind of a big ask when my weekly food budget is $40. So in order to potluck as cheaply as possible, I suggest the following:
Hawaii (note: you can’t skimp on potlucks in this place; and you have to bear in mind wether you’re showing up to the hot beach, a daytime birthday party outdoors, or an indoor, air-conditioned event)
a) a veggie side dish
c) Good quality bread and gourmet-tasting (but not gourmet-costing) dip. I’ll post these recipes eventually.
d) a $10 or less case of beer.
e) Spanish Rolls from Nanding’s.
f) a pineapple (pre-sliced, and with li hing, even better)
a) anything from Trader Joes.
b) chips and salsa, or chips and guac.
c) Hummus with crackers, bread, or veggies. Hummus is actually really cheap to DIY, too.
d) a bottle of wine or a case of beer for $10 or less.
e) A few bottles of kombucha (I once brought kombucha floats to a potluck and they were a smashing success).
f) anything made using beer as a main ingredient. Beer bread or beer cake.
WHAT TO DO WHEN YOU’RE LEGIT BROKE
So if you ever find yourself in a position where you’re legit down to the wire and have no more money left for food, here are your options…
- find a local food pantry. #NoShame. This is real life, and there are people in most communities giving out food for free. Check with your local Christian churches, as these tend to be the best resources for free food. If you’re not christian, there’s nothing like a good unexpected budget-induced fast that will bring you to your knees, begging God to show up in your life. Even if you’re not Christian, there is not one Christian church that will turn away a starving person.
- Food Stamps/ EBT/ SNAP. I’ve been on food stamps before; and lemme tell you I will happily be on them again whenever needed b/c I ate like royalty on $200 a month. You often have to apply for food stamps separately from unemployment, just a head’s up. And yes, there will be a long line and a lot of lower-income people waiting in line right alongside you. #Humbled.
- Forage. Here in Hawaii, a lot of fresh fruit grows on the trees, a lot of plants grow in the ground. You just have to know what to look for and maybe try ask a neighbor… Same in Portland– there were berries growing all over the place.
- Find an urban Garden or farm you can volunteer at. Yepp. This tip will sound super odd for anyone who has never done it, but you can exchange your work on a farm or at an urban garden for fresh produce.
- Hare Krishna temples sometimes offer free meals. This sounds like such an intense suggestion, but many friends I had during college would fully exploit the free meals from Hare krishna temples during our broke college days. If Jesus ain’t your style, try the Hare Krishna, Buddhist, or maybe even Hindu temples.