Food costs just keep rising and for some families, those rising costs are just not something their budget allows for. For those who are hungry and can’t afford to go to the grocery store, all hope is not lost. These tips and tricks will help keep you fed when you can’t afford to buy food.
Oh, friend. If you’re here, on this page, reading about how to feed yourself when you can’t afford to buy healthy food, I am so sorry you have found yourself in this situation. I know from experience that it is a difficult situation to be in.
In fact, it is a downright heart wrenching situation to be in; especially if you have kids and feel that you can’t afford to feed them the nutritious foods their bodies need.
Many years ago, I was there myself. I am far luckier these days, but I will never forget those days of struggling just to survive.
What Causes Food Insecurity?
The inability to buy food or to know that you will always be able to afford food is called food insecurity. It can be caused by quite a few different causes. If you’re currently in an insecure situation about the food in your home, chances are good it is because of one of these causes.
Causes of food insecurity can be:
- Food Shortages
- Low-income people who live below the federal poverty level
- Underemployment (this means someone who does not have a full-time job but works a part-time job instead)
- Poverty in general
- Food Deserts
- Natural Weather Events
- Lack of access to fresh fruits and fresh vegetables with only access to junk foods
- Food Waste
- Lack of education on eating healthy and having a healthy diet
- Not knowing how to cook and prepare nutritious meals
“I Can’t Afford to Buy Food”
While I know how discouraging it can be to say the words “I can’t afford to buy food” to your kids, the good news is that I can tell you from experience that it does not last forever.
I know. That doesn’t help much right now, does it? At the end of the day, the best place for you to be is right where you are. You are aware there is a problem and you are looking for the best ways to fix that problem.
You really cannot do much more than that. See the issue, fix the issue. Just recognize that you may have some tough decisions ahead of you as you navigate the waters of not being able to afford enough food to meet the basic needs of your family.
The list below will help you start thinking of ways to find food when you don’t have any. While they may not all work for you and your family, hopefully they will give you a good place to start.
What to Do if You Can’t Buy Groceries
If you have suddenly found yourself in a situation where you can’t afford food, the very first thing you should do is take a pantry, fridge and freezer inventory. Doing so will let you know exactly what you are working with.
If you have never done a full inventory, a printable packet such as THIS one can be a big help to keep you on track.
The next thing you’ll need to do is try to figure out how long the situation will be a problem. If you’ve suddenly found yourself unemployed, you will be at risk for it becoming a very long-term situation. If it’s just a situation where you’ve had a shorter paycheck, it will be a far shorter time that you will need to worry about.
After you know what you’re already working with and have a rough estimate of how long you think it will last, plan as many meals as possible using ingredients you already have.
Make them filling. Make them cheap.
This will give you a head start so you are able to focus solely on finding food.
A Quick Word:
Before we get to the ways to find free food when you have none, I do want to stop and mention that not everyone will be comfortable with all of these methods.
That’s okay. In fact, it’s more than okay and I encourage everyone to only do what they are comfortable with.
If there are any that you would never do, scroll on by and read the rest of the list. I am positive you’ll find something useful on it.
Fishing for Free Food
Ever summer my husband and I – or more likely me and my girls these days – head out fishing for a few days. We do this not only for the love of fishing but because it is one of the best options to feed our family cheaply.
In fact, I showed in THIS post that one of our 10-day fishing trips can feed my family for so much less than we could eat fresh fish at the store. In fact, I can feed my family for a year for not much more than I would pay for one month’s worth of fish at the grocery store.
In other words, it’s good food that is perfect for those on a tight budget.
If you are in a situation where you can’t afford to buy food, heading out to the lake can be an easy way to find a meal or three; especially if you already own the fishing equipment you need to fish and that you use fishing lures you already own.
Forage for Free Food
Foraging is another fantastic way to find free food to feed yourself and your family when you can’t afford to fill your grocery cart with fresh produce and meats. And since there are so many wild edibles in all areas of the world, it’s a great way to eat a variety of free food without too much trouble.
It’s also perfect for those with a low income since foraging is totally free to do!
Picking up a book such as “The Idiots Guide to Foraging” is a great way to learn how to identify wild edibles safely. If you’re interested in that particular book, I reviewed it HERE back after it was first published.
Go Hunting When You Can’t Buy Your Grocery List
Hunting is another thing my own family does to provide food. Yes, even I hunt when I can and when my health allows. One deer can feed our family of four for months. Add small game to that and you’ve got several more meals.
If you’re already a hunter and it is near season, plan to go once season opens if you weren’t already. Other than the cost of your supplies, it’s essentially free food. Since there are many, many different seasons throughout the year, you should almost always be able to find something to hunt.
And if you’re in Texas as I am, you can always hunt wild boar for food. Be sure to double check but last I checked there was no bag limit. They are considered a nuisance at this point.
Side Note: I do not under any circumstances endorse or recommend hunting outside of the appropriate season. Not only is it illegal but it also messes with the conservation efforts that hunting actually provides.
Earn a Free Gift Card
Hear me out before you automatically skip this one.
For years, I have been using free gift cards that I earn online to pay for everything from food to camping gear.
It has – at times – been a true life saver for us and if you have found yourself in a situation where you don’t have much money for groceries, it can be for you too.
Yes, you’ll have to work the free gift card sites for a bit, but if this is the way you can feed your family the fastest, it is worth it.
My all-time favorite site to earn gift cards with is called InstaGC. Basically, it is a survey site that pays you for doing quite a few things. You’ll earn points for surveys, completing offers, clicking links and even things such as listening to the radio. I have been a member for years and it’s a huge help! Save your points and cash out with as little as $1.00.
You can even use it to earn free Bitcoin!
Once you cash out the first time, your cash (PayPal or ACH) or gift card (to hundreds of places including Amazon!) are instantly sent! Plus when you sign up you’ll earn 10 points FREE just for signing up!
Here’s how to earn with InstaGC:
- Visit the InstaGC website and create an account.
- Click the link in the email they send you to confirm your account.
- Log back in and complete offers, take surveys, play games, listen to music and more to earn points.
- Cash out instantly with as little as $1.00 (100 points)
It is important to note that with InstaGC, your first cash out does take a couple days. This is because first cash outs may be done manually. This is normal for the site and once you receive your first one, each payout up to $25.00 will be done instantly. Anything over $25 is always processed manually.
My second favorite site is called Swagbucks and if you search the web, you need to be a Swagbucks member! Swagbucks literally pays you for searching the web! Plus, you’ll have the chance to earn points in tons of different ways! You can earn for surveys, videos, games, printing coupons and loads more! Prizes are sent as gift cards or PayPal 7-10 days after you request them. I have been a member for almost a decade and have earned several thousand dollars in that time!
Here’s how to get started with Swagbucks:
- Visit the Swagbucks website and create an account.
- Click the link in the email they send you to confirm your information.
- Log back into your account and start earning! There are so many ways to earn points!
- Cash out when you have enough points for a gift card or PayPal payment.
As a new Swagbucks member, they will give you a $10.00 bonus free when you sign up and meet all the offer conditions. Free money may sound too good to be true, but Swagbucks is as legit as they come!
Visit a Food Pantry
These days, food poverty has become such a problem that most areas have a network of food banks to help those with little money. Even better is that they have evolved from the old box filled with canned goods and instead, most offer fresh meats, kid-friendly items such as chicken nuggets breads, organic produce and even dairy products.
When you are faced with a situation like this, search the social media networks and Google for the phrase “food pantries near me.” This specific search term will pull up the nearest local food pantry for you.
Make it Yourself
Convenience foods have created a growing problem in our society. People just don’t know how to cook and even when they do, they no longer want to take the time to do so. This is just as common with older adults as it is with younger generations. Eating this way long term can cause not only budget issues, but health issues as well for you or a family member.
Even if you don’t have the easy, convenient version of what you need, there is a good chance that you have the ingredients to make what you need instead. The pantry inventory I suggested earlier can go a long way in letting you know what you have on hand and what you don’t.
And surprisingly, it may not be as hard as you think to make those quick options once you know what available foods you have to work with. Once you have things made, you can then take a look at putting a meal together.
A few great ideas to get started with are:
- Homemade Bread
- Homemade Pasta Sauce
- Homemade Graham Crackers
- Homemade Butter
- Homemade Pizza Dough
- Homemade Pasta
- Homemade Lemon Juice
- Homemade Ricotta Cheese
- Homemade Mozzarella Cheese
- Homemade Buttermilk
- or a Homemade Buttermilk Substitute
- Homemade Biscuits
- Homemade Yogurt
- Homemade Heavy Cream
- Homemade Tortillas
- Homemade Infant Formula
- Homemade Chicken Noodle Soup
- Homemade Salsa
Visit a Soup Kitchen
If you absolutely can not find food to feed your family, visiting soup kitchens or a community kitchen is always an option.
While Emma and I were homeless in 2010, we were lucky enough to live in a homeless shelter. However, because I did not have the money to buy food after our food stamps ran out, we often ate at the local soup kitchen twice a day.
The food was not great and to be honest, I still cannot tell you what the mystery meat was. It was a hit to my ego, but my daughter was fed and even though we did not have food security in our lives, she never went to bed without a full belly.
That was worth far more than my pride.
Government Emergency Programs
If things are so rough for you that you can’t afford food, I highly recommend you take advantage of any government programs you can. This can include the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (also known as food stamps), WIC and cash programs.
Both the WIC program and SNAP benefits are designed with low-income families on a limited budget in mind. To put it bluntly, they are there to help poor people buy whole foods instead of constantly spending cash they don’t have on junk food.
Look, I get how hard it can be for some people to accept that they may need the help of a program like the special supplemental nutrition program or WIC, but these programs are there for a reason; to help you out when you need them most. There is no shame in using them; especially if it is the line between your kids eating a meal and not eating.
Learn from The Great Depression
This isn’t the only time in history that folks have had a hard time making it. It has happened quite often, but never so much as during The Great Depression.
And those people that worked hard and survived that time period left their lessons behind for us to learn in their money saving tips from The Great Depression and in their Depression Era recipes.
One of my favorite resources is a cookbook called “Clara’s Kitchen.” Ms. Clara was a child during The Depression and shared her recipes; passing them on before she passed on.
They’re tasty and yes, they’re cheap to make.
Shop Discount Grocery Stores
Grocery discount stores or salvage stores can be great places to cut your grocery bill down by quite a bit. These stores often buy their offerings at deeply discounted prices from other stores or directly from manufacturers. Sometimes they are overstocks, they may be slightly damaged, or they may not have sold as well as the manufacturer would have liked.
This is a good thing for you since it can help you feed everyone for far cheaper than you would normally pay.
Use Online Warehouse Deals to Buy Cheap Groceries
Online warehouses such as Amazon Warehouse can be a great place to find groceries cheap. The deals you’ll find here are typically items that have been returned. They are checked to be sure they have not been tampered with then listed at deeply discounted prices.
A good example of these deals is one I got on popcorn seasoning. My family eats a lot of popcorn and we love having different seasonings available. I was able to grab an Amazon Warehouse deal for 12 bottles of cheddar seasoning for $6.00! They’re normally $3.98 each!
For those considering shopping Amazon Warehouse or the Amazon Outlet, make sure you are signed up with Amazon Prime. Doing so will ensure you not only receive free 2-day shipping, but also that you are able to apply any applicable Amazon coupons to your items.
Yes, you CAN use Amazon coupons on Warehouse and Outlet items
If you are not currently an Amazon Prime member, you can sign up on the Amazon website to receive 30-days of Prime totally free. If you like the service, keep it. If not, simply cancel before the 30-days are up and you won’t be charged.
Always Use Coupons When Able
Coupons have always been budget shoppers go-to for saving money. These days there is no reason not to use them. While paper coupons are still very much a great way to save, the rise of digital coupons has made doing so much easier.
For those new to using coupons, the one site you will want to know about. First is a site called Coupons.com. This site allows you to use both digital coupons that are added to your shopper cards as well as coupons you print at home to take to the store.
For those wanting paper coupons, these come in the Sunday newspapers. You can either go to your local gas station and buy the paper each week or you can sign up for home newspaper delivery at a discount through a site called Discounted Newspapers. The second option will save you much more money over buying them at newsstand prices.
Use Rebate Apps Whenever Possible
Another great way to help feed yourself when you can’t really afford to is by getting paid to buy groceries.
I know, sounds crazy, right?
It’s not! If you have an iPhone or an Android device, an app called Ibotta will pay you in cash back rebates to buy groceries! They also often offer free stuff after rebates which means you will earn the total purchase price of the item back as a rebate. When your account accumulates $25.00, you can cash out of a gift card, direct deposit payment or PayPal payment.
Here’s how it works:
- Download the Ibotta app and create an account.
- Before you go grocery shopping, find your store
- Add any rebates you want BEFORE you head to the store.
- Purchase the items needed to receive the rebate and save your receipt.
- Scan your receipt into the app and earn your cash back!
Buy Only Clearance for High Dollar Grocery Items
If your grocery budget really is in a bad place, it’s time to stop buying things at full price – especially high dollar items such as organic food and lean protein like lean ground beef. Instead, buy these high dollar items only when you can find them on clearance.
It may take a few weeks to really build up a good stock of clearance items, but if you give it enough time, you will see positive changes in how much you’re spending on groceries.
Don’t Pass Up “Scratch and Dent” Groceries
This kind of goes along side of buying warehouse deals and shopping clearance, but don’t pass on a deal simply because the box or packaging is slightly damaged. These “scratch and dent” deals are often some of the best you’ll find and can make buying cheap groceries incredibly easy when you’re on a grocery budget that requires you to walk a tight rope.
Change How You Cook
I have said this before in other posts, but it bears repeating again. If you are struggling to make ends meet, there are certain changes you should make to how you cook. The simple truth is that some meals are just not great for feeding a family cheaply.
Tacos are one example I love to use. We all love tacos, right? Well, to feed a family of four their fill of tacos, can be a bit expensive. However, I can take half the ingredients for half the cost and make a taco casserole recipe that will still feed my family of four their fill but save me money while doing it.
It’s all in how we look at the food we eat. Tacos are smaller and therefore, our bodies will tell us we need to eat more to be full. With a casserole though, you dish it onto a plate which in essence tricks our bodies into thinking we’re eating more when we’re not.
Don’t believe me? Try it. It works.
Stock Basic Pantry Staples
Another really effective way of helping yourself have food when you otherwise can’t afford it is to build a cooks pantry. Basically I mean that you need to stock the basic pantry items all pantries should have. These items include things such as rice, flour and so on. These all have a long shelf life and can help you make a lot of healthy meals if you really put your mind to it.
Once you’ve got those in stock, there is almost always something you can cook.
Make Use of Every Leftover in Your Home
My family loves leftovers and honestly, it would not matter to me if they didn’t. I would find a way to use them so they were not aware it was leftover. But, I am aware that there are people out there who do not use leftovers and instead throw that food away.
Simply put, food thrown in the trash is money wasted. Instead, make sure every leftover gets used to help feed your family again if possible. Make the lunch for the next few days or turn it into another dinner. The more meals you can stretch into another meal, the less you’ll need to worry about where your next meal is coming from.
Just be sure you pay close attention to them so they do not spoil in the fridge.
Get Creative with Basic Ingredients
Stocking the pantry with basic ingredients is one thing, but eating plain rice would get old very quickly. Instead, get creative and learn a few new recipes to help make those basic ingredients tastier. You also want to ensure that you’re not just feeding your family empty calories and with a little bit of creativity, you can do just that.
Empty calories might taste great, but they are incredibly bad for living a healthy life. They are usually lacking in healthy fats and other nutrients and serve only to provide your body with calorie overload.
Remember when I said some of these ideas may be across your line? This is one of them. It is also not one I personally would do nor do I really recommend it.
However, if you are truly out of food and there is not a local food bank option for you, no soup kitchens, and you have exhausted all other methods of attempting to get food, you can try dumpster diving at local grocery stores or restaurants. Most of the time these places toss perfectly good food and as long as it is not open, saturated in an unknown substance, too warm and so on, it is usually safe to consume.
The reason I do not really recommend dumpster diving for food is two-fold. First, it is illegal in a lot of places which can result in a high fine you can’t afford or possibly even jail time. Secondly, some places will actually contaminate food they throw out in an effort to discourage dumpster diving.
If you do choose to go diving for food, please be sure you take every precaution possible and that you never consume something you are not 100% entirely sure is edible food .
Grow What You’re Able to Grow
Growing a garden does more than help you lead a healthier lifestyle. It can also provide food for your family when you need it most. However, starting a huge garden all at once can be an expensive venture to buy supplies for. Instead, start small and build up to that big garden you dream of.
One very quick and easy way to begin growing your own food is by re-growing kitchen scraps. You can re-grow plants such as celery, potatoes, garlic, onions and even tomatoes. Some will grow from the scrap itself while others will grow from seeds you save.
In the end, growing your own food will save you far more money than you ever expected while providing your family the necessary meals they need.
Ask for Help
Finally, if all else fails, ask for help. If you or your kids are hungry and you’ve exhausted all other resources, reach out to your family and friends.
They are family and friends for a reason and more often than not, they will be more than happy to help you.