Here’s what I learned about food and money during year of living modestly as a VISTA

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March 15, 2011 by Ashlee Clark Thompson

I didn't have a lot of this during the past year. Photo courtesy of AMagill via Flickr.

As an AmeriCorps VISTA, I earned a “modest living allowance” while I completed my term of service.

Translate that as you wish.

I was recently hired by the organization where I served as a VISTA for the past year. But the new habits I developed to save money have become a permanent part of my life, even though I make a slightly higher income.

I started this blog as a way to explore how to spend money on good food when I didn’t have much in my wallet. I’ve learned a lot and had fun doing so. But a few food lessons stick out.

  1. There is a huge difference between a need and a want. I need food. That’s a given. But do I need to spend $20 on an entree? Do I need name-brand shredded cheese? Do I need a new slow cooker? Not necessarily. I learned be more thoughtful and strategic in identifying my needs versus my wants and to find an appropriate balance.
  2. Buy more basic ingredients. A stocked pantry full of basics and motivation to cook have helped me survive between visits to the grocery store. For example, I wanted some cornbread to go with some beans I had bubbling in the Crock Pot, but I didn’t have any cornbread mix. I did, however, have a carton of cornmeal, milk, flour, an egg and the Internet. Twenty minutes later, homemade cornbread muffins without having to go out of my wallet. My new favorite staple? Oatmeal.
  3. Cut back on the packaged food. It’s tempting to buy bags of potato chips, granola bars and individual applesauce cups. But convenience items like these get expensive.
  4. Eat more produce. It’s cheap. It’s good for you. Nothing to dislike here. And trips to the farmers’ market are fun.
  5. Cook more. I learned to cook seven years ago when I had my first internship and discovered how expensive eating out is. I revisited my beloved cookbooks (along with plenty of food blogs) and went back to the kitchen to save money.
  6. Shop around. I read Sunday ads religiously to find the best deals around town. If Aldi doesn’t have something at the right price, there’s Kroger. Or Walmart. Or ValuMarket. Be willing to be patient when shopping to find the best deals.

How do you save money on food?

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