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5 Tips for Grocery Shopping on a Budget

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We all have to eat, but shelling out for groceries each week when your budget is already stretched thin can be excruciating. On average, American families spend $151 a week on food, according to Gallup, and that number can easily increase if you have a larger household or the cost of living in your hometown is high.

But while groceries are a major expense, they’re not necessarily a fixed one. If you’re on a tight budget, here are some tips and tricks for reducing your weekly grocery store bill.


“Don’t meal plan based on what you’re craving,” Kendal Perez of Coupon Sherpa tells mental_floss. “Plan your meals based on what’s on sale at the places you shop. A site like makes it easy to compare circulars between stores, or find the best price for an item using their search function. You can also create a grocery list using their app.”

Once you build your grocery list, you can search for coupons for even bigger discounts. And no, you don’t have to spend hours on end clipping: Most grocery chains have store-branded apps that make couponing easy. Download the app, link your store loyalty card, and just add any coupons digitally. The coupons are loaded to your card and automatically applied at checkout.


"You can save 30-50 percent on the price of produce by buying what's in season," Annette Economides, co-author of Cut Your Grocery Bill in Half with America's Cheapest Family, tells Money. When these foods are in abundance, grocers want to get them off their shelves before they go bad and therefore keep the prices low.

Not sure what's in season? Check out this list from the USDA, or use this interactive seasonal ingredient map from Epicurious. You can then plan your meals around these cheaper ingredients.


The average American family throws away $2275 in food every year, according to 2012 statistics from the National Resources Defense Council. Do you feel like you have an extra two grand to literally throw away?

“The single best way to avoid food waste is to invest in a small deep freezer,” says Kyle James of Rather-Be-Shopping. “You can get a good one from Costco or Lowe's for about $160. It'll allow you to freeze food before it goes bad, but more importantly, it'll allow you to stock up on proteins like chicken, pork, and beef when they go on sale. For a growing family, this savings alone can easily save you hundreds of a dollars over the course of a year.”

What’s more, many people are too quick to toss out food. A study from the Harvard Food Law and Policy Clinic (FLPC) and the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) found that "40 percent of food in the United States goes uneaten—resulting in waste of at least 160 billion pounds of food each year." The main culprit for this food waste, the study found, is the confusion caused by "best by," "use by" and "sell by" labels.

Sites like Eat By Date use information from the United States Department of Agriculture and the Food and Drug Administration to offer a more accurate view of your food’s lifespan. And instead of throwing those ingredients that are indeed nearing their expiration dates into the compost bin, toss them into a stew. “One of the best uses for aging produce is in soups and sauces, because they don’t have to be perfectly crisp in these dishes which typically render them a bit soft,” Perez says. “When you notice tomatoes and bell peppers looking soft and wrinkly, consider making spaghetti sauce or soup of some kind.”


The “Pantry Challenge” asks frugal shoppers to optimize the ingredients they have at home to make complete, tasty meals. “If you’re on a super tight budget or find that you’re out of funds well before payday, take the pantry challenge and try to create meals based on what you already have until your pantry is cleared out,” Perez says. “You’ll likely be surprised how many dishes you can prepare with what you already have on hand!”

Online tools like SuperCook work well for this. The site suggests recipes based on specific ingredients, so you can list the items you already have on hand, and SuperCook will come back with a handful of recipes you can make based on those items. Better yet, you can sort these recipes by specific meal types, like dinner or breakfast, and by cuisine, like Asian or Mediterranean dishes.


In general, it’s easier to plan meals on a budget when you stick to easy recipes with a few simple ingredients. “Typically, the simpler the meal, the less costly it will be,” Perez says “When you prepare meals with multiple ingredients, spices, sauces, and other additives, you’re just adding to the cost.”

In keeping meals simple, it helps to have versatile ingredients, too. Look for inexpensive, healthy food items that can be used in a variety of recipes: lentils, eggs, sweet potatoes, and brown rice, for example. And you can get quite a bit of meal mileage out of chicken, especially an inexpensive pre-cooked rotisserie from the grocery store. “A traditional chicken dinner can easily be made into chicken sandwiches, salads, or stir-fry later in the week or for lunch,” Perez says.

If you don’t already own one, consider investing in a slow cooker. Not only do they make meal planning easy, they’re also ideal for making batch meals out of inexpensive ingredients. “Beans can be cooked in a slow cooker or in a pressure cooker, the latter of which can only take 20 minutes to prepare if you soak them in hot water and salt overnight,” Perez says. “This is probably one of the cheapest, most satisfying meals people can have.”

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Courtesy New District
Say ‘Cheers’ to the Holidays With This 24-Bottle Wine Advent Calendar
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Courtesy New District

This year, eschew your one-tiny-chocolate-a-day Advent calendar and count down to Christmas the boozy way. An article on the Georgia Straight tipped us off to New District’s annual wine Advent calendars, featuring 24 full-size bottles.

Each bottle of red, white, or sparkling wine is hand-picked by the company’s wine director, with selections from nine different countries. Should you be super picky, you can even order yourself a custom calendar, though that will likely add to the already-high price point. The basic 24-bottle order costs $999 (in Canadian dollars), and if you want to upgrade from cardboard boxes to pine, that will run you $100 more.

If you can’t quite handle 24 bottles (or $999), the company is introducing a 12-bottle version this year, too. For $500, you get 12 reds, whites, rosés, and sparkling wines from various unnamed “elite wine regions.”

With both products, each bottle is numbered, so you know exactly what you should be drinking every day if you really want to be a stickler for the Advent schedule. Whether you opt for 12 or 24 bottles, the price works out to about $42 per bottle, which is somewhere in between the “I buy all my wines based on what’s on sale at Trader Joe’s” level and “I am a master sommelier” status.

If you want to drink yourself through the holiday season, act now. To make sure you receive your shipment before December 1, you’ll need to order by November 20. Get it here.

[h/t the Georgia Straight]

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Wally Gobetz, flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
A Brief History of the Pickleback Shot
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Wally Gobetz, flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

It's sour. It's briny. For some, it's nauseating. For others, a godsend.

It's the pickleback shot, an unusual combination of drinking whiskey and pickle brine that has quickly become a bartending staple. Case in point? Kelly Lewis, manager of New York City's popular Crocodile Lounge, estimates she sells at least 100 pickleback shots every week.

Pickleback loyalists may swear by it, but how did this peculiar pairing make its way into cocktail culture? On today's National Pickle Day, we hit the liquor history books to find out.


As internet legend has it, Reggie Cunningham, a former employee of Brooklyn dive bar Bushwick Country Club, invented the shot in March 2006. He was half bartending, half nursing a hangover with McClure's pickles, when a customer challenged him to join her in doing a shot of Old Crow bourbon whiskey followed by a shot of pickle juice as a chaser. As he nostalgically tells YouTube channel Awesome Dreams, "the rest is history."

Cunningham went on to introduce the pairing to more and more customers, and the demand grew so much that he decided to charge an extra dollar per shot, just for the addition of pickle brine. After that, the mixture spread like wildfire, with bars across the world from New York to California and China to Amsterdam adding "pickleback" to their menus.


Two shot glasses topped with small pickles.

Neil Conway, flickr // CC BY 2.0

Sure, Cunningham may have named it the pickleback shot, but after reviewing mixed reports, it appears pickle juice as a chaser is hardly novel. In Texas, for example, pickle brine was paired with tequila well before Cunningham's discovery, according to Men’s Journal. And in Russia, pickles have long been used to follow vodka shots, according to an NPR report on traditional Russian cuisine.

Unfortunately, no true, Britannica-approved record of the pickleback's origin exists, like so many do for other popular drinks, from the Manhattan to the Gin Rickey; it's internet hearsay—and in this case, Cunningham's tale is on top.


Not sold yet? Sure, a pickle's most common companion is a sandwich, but the salty snack and its brine have terrific taste-masking powers.

"People who don't like the taste of whiskey love taking picklebacks because they completely cut the taste, which makes the shots very easy to drink," Lewis told Mental Floss. "Plus, they add a bit of salt, which blends nicely with the smooth flavor of Jameson."

Beyond taste masking, pickle juice is also a commonly used hangover cure, with the idea being that the salty brine will replenish electrolytes and reduce cramping. In fact, after a famed NFL "pickle juice game" in 2000, during which the Philadelphia Eagles destroyed the Dallas Cowboys in 109 degree weather (with the Eagles crediting their trainer for recommending they drink the sour juice throughout the game), studies have seemed to confirm that drinks with a vinegary base like pickle juice can help reduce or relieve muscle cramping.


While core pickleback ingredients always involve, well, pickles, each bar tends to have a signature style. For example, Lewis swears by Crocodile Lounge's mix of pickle brine and Jameson; it pairs perfectly with the bar's free savory pizza served with each drink.

For Cunningham, the "Pickleback OG," it's Old Crow and brine from McClure's pickles. And on the more daring side, rather than doing a chaser shot of pickle juice, Café Sam of Pittsburgh mixes jalapeños, homemade pickle juice, and gin together for a "hot and sour martini."

If pickles and whiskey aren't up your alley, you can still get in on the pickle-liquor movement with one of the newer adaptations, including a "beet pickleback" or—gulp!—the pickled-egg and Jägermeister shot, also known as an Eggermeister.


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