Q&A with the $5 Dinner Mom

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Her budgetary goal is pretty simple to follow: The ingredients for each evening meal for her family of four must cost five bucks or less. Her strategies for reaching that goal: Among other things, clipping coupons (big-time), using cash only instead of plastic, and never, ever paying full for anything. Her as-yet unreached goal, which is becoming her personal white whale: figuring out a way to make a full pan of lasagna for $5.

Erin Chase blogs at 5dollardinners.com and is the author of The $5 Dinner Mom Cookbook: 200 Recipes for Quick, Delicious, and Nourishing Meals That Are Easy on the Budget and a Snap to Prepare. Whew! That’s some subtitle.

Below are her answers to the questions I’ve sent to all sorts of bloggers who write about cooking on a tight budget.

How and why did you start writing about eating on a tight budget? Did it spring out of necessity, as a lark, or what?

Erin Chase: Necessity is the mother of invention. Isn’t that how it goes?!? Eating on a tight budget has not always been a priority for our family. I used to walk up and down the grocery aisles, tossing this and that into my cart, never paying attention to what I was buying or how much it cost. I wasn’t being extravagant in my spending; I just wasn’t taking notice.

In the summer of 2008, when the gasoline prices shot through the roof, my husband and I decided we better cut back somewhere…you know, in order to avoid going in the red and dipping into savings. I learned a savvier way to shop at the grocery store and was shocked at how little I could spend…if I put my mind to it!

Since I was not working at the time, I took it upon myself to spend less of my husband’s hard earned money at the grocery store. My new “job” was to spend a little time writing out a meal plan, scouring grocery store and drug store ads and clipping coupons. This new job resulted in cutting our grocery bill in half, from $500/month to $250/month. Please note that I was not buying anything different. I was buying the same products that we’d always enjoyed, fresh meats, fresh and frozen produce, bakery breads and other wholesome ingredients. But now I buy them only on sale, and ideally matched with a manufacturer or store coupon.

(Read: How to Feed a 205-Pound Man on $25 a Week)
What are your ground rules? How exactly do you define what’s in your budget and what meets your standards and restrictions? Give us the fine print, including how you deal with beverages and dining out (that is, if you ever dine out)?

EC: The Rule: Don’t spend more than $5 for the dinner meal, for the entire family!

Sub-Rule #1: Don’t spend more than $2.50 for the protein portion of the meal. Which basically boils down to buying meats when on sale for less than $1.99/lb.

Sub-Rule #2: Make a meal plan and clip coupons. Meal planning and matching coupons with sale prices are essential aspects to not only reducing your grocery spending, but also to making $5 meals.

Sub-Rule #3: Never pay full price for anything in the grocery store. By watching sales cycles and coupon trends, I’ve been able to pay rock bottom prices on all our favorite products.

The grocery store budget of $50-60/week includes all food items, household and cleaning items and toiletry items. It does not include medications or vitamins. As for beverages, my husband and I drink water with dinner and the kids drink milk. The milk cost is not included in the overall meal cost.

Eating out happens 2 or 3 times a month for our family, usually once for lunch and twice for dinner. We have a separate line in our budget for restaurants.

(Read: How to Eat on a Dollar a Day)
(Read: How to Eat on a Dollar a Day, Part II)
What are some of your favorite cheap ingredients or spices — you know, the little something that doesn’t cost much but adds a lot to a meal?

EC: I love adding diced tomatoes with green chilies into a meal for some kick. And I grew up in the land of Tex-Mex, so I throw ground cumin around the kitchen like its salt.

Tell us about some of your experiments aimed at saving a buck on food. What worked? And what didn’t?

EC: This entire journey has been an experiment. Making meals for less than $5 is a challenge, but it’s a worthy challenge. Thus far, for me, the experiment has been wildly successful. Ever since starting down the road of making $5 dinners every night, I’ve been dying to make a 9×13 pan of lasagna for less than $5. While the entire pan would feed my family for 2 meals, I could justify that it should cost $10. BUT, where’s the challenge in that? I know I could make an entire pan for under $10, but I’ve wanted to prove that I could make a pan for under $5. I have yet to make this $5 pan of lasagna. Even if I buy everything on sale, with as many coupons as I can find for the different products, I’ve always come up over $5. I’ve made Lasagna Soup and Lasagna Roll-Ups, but never a pan of lasagna! So to those of you grocery store execs out there reading, please run a “Lasagna Ingredient Sale” one week, so I can make this pan of lasagna for less than $5!!!

(Read: How to Bring Your Grocery Bill Down to $15 a Week)
What has been the hardest thing to do, or to go without, since you started cooking and eating on a super-tight budget? What are you dying to splurge on and eat right now?

EC: Good cheese. Fine cheese. I miss blue cheese and brie. A lot.

(Read: How to Cook Like a Gourmet—When You’re Broke)
When you told people about your food budget, what sort of reactions did you get?

EC: Some people listen in shock. Most want to know how I do it and how much time I spend “working” on my grocery list and menu plan.

What have you learned about yourself and about how people in general consume food and function as consumers, while you’ve been blogging about eating on the cheap?

EC: I’ve found that people are shocked and amazed at how much they can save at the store when they start paying attention and implement some meal planning and couponing strategies. This slow economy has forced people to take a closer look at their finances, and ways they can cut back. Just as for our family, people see that cutting back at the grocery store can be easy and effective.

I’ve also learned that it requires a lot (and by a lot, I mean A LOT) of discipline to stick to your spending plan. One of the smartest decisions we made in our grocery spending was switching from a credit/debit to a cash-only budget. This switch has helped me manage my grocery spending, as well as spending in other areas. You just can’t ring up $72 at the cash register and hand over the $60 you have on hand! The store isn’t going to just give you the other $12.

(Read: How to Eat Well on $50 a Week)