This NYC Food Writer Manages to Make $40 Stretch Into a Week of Meals — Here's How

She makes a game out of grocery budgeting — with prizes for accomplishment!

Marisel Salazar
Photo: Courtesy of Marisel Salazar

Marisel Salazar is a cook, food writer, restaurant critic, recipe developer, and host. Single and living in New York City, she budgets about $40 to $50 per week on groceries.

While that figure might seem spare for a professional foodie in a city with a high cost of living, sticking to a budget is nothing new for Salazar.

"When I was in my early 20s, I gave myself $32 a week to spend on groceries. Why? Because at the time, that was the amount per week that a single person on limited income could spend per the FDA. This is also known as 'the SNAP challenge,'" she recalls. "Despite working in the food world, I grew up in a tight financial household — my mother was a single parent, and we were raised on a single income."

Originally an immigrant to the U.S. from Panama and now a citizen, Salazar notes, "budgeting for food has always been at the forefront of my mind, even as a cook and recipe developer today."

Overall, groceries account for 5 to 10 percent of Salazar's monthly budget. Here's how she makes it happen.

Shopping Strategically

Always on the hunt for the best prices, Salazar loves Trader Joe's — when it's not too crowded.

"I absolutely love the range and variety of Trader Joe's, but the experience can be stressful due to overcrowding of the stores, which deters me from shopping there most of the time," she says. Plus, the nearest store is a 20-minute walk from her apartment, and she can only buy what she can carry home.

More practically, she loves Amazon Fresh for groceries and only wishes she'd discovered it sooner.

"I can't believe how easy it is," she says. "I use this for heavier items that I physically cannot carry but also when I know I have the space in my fridge, freezer, and pantry to hold $50 worth of groceries — I always make sure to reach the threshold for free delivery," otherwise the cost eats into her budget.

"Sometimes the prices aren't as competitive as Trader Joe's but the convenience is unparalleled," she adds.

She also shops Target for groceries as a matter of convenience because the store is open late.

As part of her role as a cook and recipe developer, a brand or publication may sometimes reimburse her for the cost of ingredients. "When I do work on a recipe, I have an overflow of food or ingredients — too much for a single person," she explains. "So I will give food away or try to freeze it for later so nothing goes to waste."

Marisel Salazar's sample grocery list:

  • fresh mint leaves
  • sweet Hawaiian rolls
  • sliced deli ham
  • Dijon mustard
  • coconut creamer
  • red onion
  • Nespresso pods
  • bag of salad
  • tin of smoked sardines
  • jar of pickles

Prioritizing Quality — and Coffee

She may be on a budget, but Salazar always makes room for quality coffee.

"I am Panamanian and come from one of the best coffee-producing countries in the world," she says. "Coffee is very important to me, and I generally tend to buy bags of coffee in the $15-plus range — and drink multiple cups a day. I also love experimenting with coffee beverages, so I buy coffee pods, instant coffees, and other coffee-related items to play around with."

Similarly, she won't compromise when it comes to the quality of meat, poultry, fish, dairy, and eggs, which she prefers to buy grass-fed, pasture-raised, and antibiotic-free.

"I aim to have the highest quality meat I can afford," she says. "Since this can be expensive, I view meat as a garnish or special-occasion [food], rather than the primary focus of my daily meals."

Relying on Store Brands

Salazar turns to store brands for savings whenever she can.

"Many grocery stores offer generic versions to popular brand-name items. An experiment found that generic-brand — grocery or store brand — foods cost an average of 30 percent less than the same big-name brand versions, and the quality is usually one to one," she says.

She'll also reach for frozen produce as a cost-savings measure.

"Frozen produce can be cheaper than fresh. For example, frozen organic spinach can cost about 50 cents less than fresh organic spinach for twice the amount in some shops," she says. "And many of these frozen foods also come in generic versions — so you save even more."

Using Leftovers Strategically

Salazar finds the economic rationale for leftovers irresistible, and she plans for them with intention.

"I like to think about why I should make leftovers in terms of overall savings so I am more motivated to do it," she explains. "You could potentially save over $1,000 a year by eating leftovers, and also decrease food waste."

That's why she cooks enough for two to three meals each time, with the plan to reheat them for subsequent meals.

"But make sure you commit to eating your leftovers rather than throwing them out," she advises. "Otherwise, you are also throwing out money."

Shopping What You Already Have First

To keep the budget streamlined and eliminate waste, Salazar shops her own pantry before pulling out her wallet to buy more. "By taking stock of what you already have, you can save money and avoid buying something you may already own," she advises. "Check in the back of the cupboards, pantry, fridge and freezer for any hidden items you may be able to use."

It's all part of a budgeting strategy that works for Salazar because she finds it to be a fun challenge. "I like to turn budgeting into a game," she says. "I know this sounds silly but it works for me. If I really stick to my budget for several cycles, I get to win a 'prize.' That prize might be that one more item that I really wanted on my list or a splurge item I've wanted!"

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