Living on $13,000 or Less: Our Frugal List (part 8)

How a family of 3 (with 1 on the way) made it through the first year of grad school living on less than $13,000 without any federal aid for housing, medical care, or food.

How our family lived on $13,000 during graduate school-without food stamps, medicare, or subsidized housing. 

Here’s the second half of our frugal kitchen habits list, part 8 of the Living on $13,000 or Less series. Click through if you missed last week’s post with the first half of this frugal list.


5. Switch to homemade snacks

Anything homemade tastes better and healthier, so we didn’t buy many snacks before grad school. When our store bought snacks were eaten up-instead of buying more-I made more muffins, scones, and prepped fruits and veggies for quick eating.

* It’s really important to do more than cut things out. Find something to fill the hole created when you cut. Switching habits this way will prevent you from falling back into the old unwanted habit.

In this case we made a conscious decision to replace our habit of buying snacks with the habit of making snacks. We could have chosen to cut out the snacks and just eat less, but hunger would likely have undermined that plan. Plus not eating enough could create health issues and thus higher medical costs.

How a family of 3 (with 1 on the way) made it through the first year of grad school living on less than $13,000 without any federal aid for housing, medical care, or food.

6. Shop from the pantry

We ran out of olive oil near the beginning of the program. Since I was being so careful paranoid about our finances I didn’t feel comfortable buying more oil, especially when we had perfectly good vegetable oil in our pantry. So I just used vegetable when I could and avoided recipes in which olive oil was imperative (usually salads). Honestly this didn’t affect our lifestyle too much.

Soon after giving olive oil up-and right in the middle of making dinner-I ran out of fresh onion. Anyone else guilty of starting something they can’t finish? I turned to google and discovered you can use dry chopped onion when the recipe calls for fresh by rehydrating it.

Next time you throw some dry onion into soup, pay attention to how it looks and feels when you’re eating it. Notice how it’s no longer thin, crunchy, or paper like-but instead thick, translucent and juicy? That’s because it’s been rehydrated. I had to do that countless times when making the chicken cilantro rice, while waiting for fresh onion to go on sale.

While the rehydrated onion worked okay, fresh was still preferable. I found that white and yellow varieties don’t go on sale very often. So I’d get a ton of the yellow when they were finally on sale & slice/chop them up and freeze. This way we’d have some on hand for months without it going bad. Plus having some prep work done is so nice when making dinner, so why not!?

I also found one of the best tools to support pantry cooking is the Betty Crocker easy meal finder. Just put in 3 ingredients, the type of meal you’re making and it’ll create a list of recipes that might work for you. Usually I’d have to tweak it to use the staple ingredients I have instead of the prepackaged foods they suggest, but it was a great place to start.


7. Alternative Protein Sources

Now let it be known that I myself am a major meat lover. Steak, guacamole burgers, chicken nuggets, bacon…Mmmm bacon…you name it I probably love it. Even so meat is the most expensive part of a meal, so I took a good hard look at protein sources. During that time I basically went for peas and beans, since then I’ve found this plant based protein list and this article to be helpful.

I also found some nutrients, like B12, only come from animal based products. So completely cutting out meat was not the way to go for us. Instead we went meatless twice a week, it was fairly often but definitely worth it.

How a family of 3 (with 1 on the way) made it through the first year of grad school living on less than $13,000 without any federal aid for housing, medical care, or food.

8.Throw Less Out

Within a week of using our tiny new budget I saw a lot was going out in the trash can. Ugh! What a way to lose money, literally in the trash! So I brainstormed how to cut our trash as well. I figured the less we tossed the more money saved, and I was very right. I think this was the number one thing we did to save.

1. Switch paper towels for real towels
This probably cut out a good $20 every few months and the laundry to wash it was less than $2 a month. This was a definite savings.

2. Less Saranwrap
Gladware became my new best friend, both for storing food in the fridge and heating it up in the microwave. This was just a few bucks here and there but really easy to do.

3. Switch wax paper out
When I ran out of wax paper, I found rolling out dough between 2 silicone baking sheets worked really well. In fact I found it easier than wax paper-which would crinkle or tear a hole while trying to transfer the dough.

4. Upcycle
Instead of tossing the mesh bag my onions or clementines came in, I’d turn it into a dish scrubber. As we had to hand wash all our dishes at the time we went through sponges pretty quick-so being able to make our own was really helpful.

5. Sharpies and Ziplocs-need I say more?
Labeling Ziplocs for our freezer foods allowed me to reuse them several times before tossing. Plus knowing the date our food went in the freezer let me know if it was still safe to eat or to eat it soon. I tend to be on the safe side so this meant I threw a lot less out.

6.Freeze, freeze, freeze
I froze as much as I could. After I dished our dinner for 3 and before I called anyone to the table-I’d put the leftovers in the freezer. I first started freezing right away because I was less likely to forget. I soon found a helpful side effect—we weren’t overeating.

Not that we were overweight-trying to diet or anything, but an extra helping here or there wasn’t always needed. Those extras would be far more helpful at a later date. Portions I might have thrown out or eaten in the past like: that extra spoonful of peas, handful of pasta, or a quarter of a dinner entree would soon add up to an extra meal (or two!) every couple of weeks. There’s a lot of power in the small things.


*bonus: Since that time I’ve learned from my grandma to put a plate over a bowl while microwaving-it saves on the saran wrap.

**Double Bonus: I also learned from the comments on my ‘One slice at a time’ post to keep a container for food scraps in the freezer. After tossing enough onion, garlic, celery ends and such you can use them to make vegetable stock.

Be sure to check in next Tuesday when we go over what we ate and what our menu plan looked like.


What’s the best way you’ve found to save money in the kitchen?


Want more from the ‘Living on $13,000 or Less’ series? Check these out!



Update: You can now click through here to read the rest of this series published posts.