Donna Michaels finds making her own staples, like bread and tortillas, a joy instead of a chore — and it helps her feed her family for $100 a week.
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Donna Michaels 2
Credit: Courtesy of Donna Michaels

Mom of four Donna Michaels lives in the small town of Southeast, New York with her husband and two daughters who remain at home, one in college and one a senior in high school. As her family has evolved, so have her grocery needs — as well as her budgeting strategy.

"I used to have a budget when I was younger, but I don't have one now," she explains. "I operate on a buy-what-is-needed basis. I plan out what I'm making and stick to the plan." 

Indeed, taking a prepared, methodical approach is the way she stays frugal — and it allows her to keep her weekly spend under $100. Here's how she does it.

A DIY Approach to Groceries

One of the ways Michaels keeps her food spend low is by making as much food as she can on her own, rather than buying prepared versions. Indulging in prepared foods — whether for taste or convenience — can really ding the budget. "It's buying convenience foods that is the dollar killer," she says. "The key is to make everything from scratch."

That means bread, tortillas, spaghetti sauce, "chopping your own vegetables and not buying things that make life easier is key to sticking to a plan." During quarantine, she was even making her own pasta and donuts. "Making these types of things at home can provide a huge savings," she explains. "Plus, it's fun!" 

Her self-described grocery store "splurge" is buying milk chocolate chips to make desserts and snacks: "I'm going to admit I'm a chocolate addict." She's also been making her own ice cream in the pandemic. "Allrecipes has some excellent ice cream recipes, but my favorite is a mint chocolate chip that doesn't have eggs in it."

She even makes more advanced DIYs, such as her own vanilla using organic vodka. "Vanilla is so expensive nowadays. I make my own, and I stay ahead of the game by starting it way in advance of when I might run out."

And she turns to the bounty on her own property for some wholesome — and cost-effective — grocery items. She has wild berries growing in her yard, and uses a plant-identification app to ID them. 

"I cleaned the raspberries, wineberries, and blackberries and stored them in my freezer for future use," she says. "I also make my own jelly. It's an easy task and Allrecipes also has great recipes for those interested."

Related: Browse our Jams and Jellies Recipes.

Foraging is not just a cost-savings opportunity for Michaels, but it's also a chance to connect with nature's bounty, and the actual source of her food. "I've become very appreciative of all the things nature has to offer that we tend to ignore," she says. "As an experiment, we let some grass grow freely just to see what we have in our yard that we didn't know about. It turns out we had wild garlic, which was amazing. I chopped it up and have it ready to use."

Grocery Shop With Intention

Her prepared approach to meal planning also applies to her grocery shopping strategy. "There's a fine line about that rule of not going to the grocery store hungry. If you go to the store hungry, you will tend to purchase outside of your list," she says. "If you go full, you may not feel like buying anything at all — or at least that's my issue. Having a plan and being stringent with it is the ultimate way to save money."

Pre-planning doesn't necessarily mean using coupons — but instead, just having an eagle eye when scanning the shelves for deals. "Coupons are great, but I learned that the best method is to see what is on sale at the grocery store where you shop and to plan your meals around it," Michaels says.

"We have a food supplier here called Ace Endico that opened a storefront for the community," she explains. "Over the years, this company has expanded the store to include organic foods, plenty of fresh produce, and frozen items for quick meals. I have found that I can make quite a variety of meals via their store offerings rather than stand in a long line at a traditional grocery store."

If not shopping there, her other favorite go-to is Trader Joe's. "I love their coffee," she says. "The ability to purchase organic fruits and vegetables for less is a huge plus. Have you tried their organic tomato soup? It's addictive!"

Buy (and Cook) in Bulk

At Ace Endico, she purchases flour and sugar in bulk, and stores these dry staples in food-safe five gallon buckets to save money. "The expense seems like more at first, but ends up being less in the long run," she explains.

She also buys a lot of dried beans, a nutrition powerhouse and a great way to get budget-friendly protein. "We mostly eat vegetarian meals here, and the mistake people make is forgetting that protein is needed," she says. "Dried beans are very inexpensive and can be incorporated into a lot of meals."

She also shops at Ace Endico for huge cans of tomatoes that she turns into an excellent sauce — in bulk quantities. "The sauce can be incorporated into all kinds of pasta dishes, as a side for mozzarella sticks, and used as a pizza sauce — it's amazing. I freeze one large vat of sauce into smaller amounts to be used for other dishes."

Dining in to Save

Michaels explains that her overall budget "has wiggle room as we're smart about our finances." For one thing, that means saving money by eating at home as often as possible.

"We rarely go out to eat," she says. "We figured out a long time ago that dining out was costing people we knew over $500 a month. We decided to always try to eat at home, and with four children, going out to eat was more of a hassle and expense than for a smaller family."

There are however occasions when the family splurges — but it's no more than once a month. 

Waste Not

As you might expect from the budget-minded shopper and grocery DIY-er, Michaels lives by the overall food philosophy, "Never let anything go to waste."

Naturally, that means making good use of leftovers — which she finds not to be a chore, but rather a delight. "I've heard people throw away leftovers, but I love them. When I have to go to work, I will put leftovers in a reheatable container, and I'm so thankful for them," she explains. "My mother used to have a leftover night where she would put everything out that she had made, and we would pick what we wanted for dinner. That was making some fun out of leftovers!"