The empty nester and her retired husband keep their kitchen stocked with Champagne and fine cheese by shopping mindfully and strategically.
Lisa Lynn Backus
Credit: Courtesy of Lisa Lynn Backus

Lisa Lynn Backus lives in the Las Vegas suburb of Henderson with her husband, Dick. Now empty nesters, Dick is 77 and retired, while Lisa Lynn, 59, is semi-retired from a long career in hotel catering and convention services. Food and drink are among their greatest shared pleasures.

"After 37 years of marriage and several houses, we prefer to rid ourselves of possessions and focus on enjoying fun, creative, and very tasty meals together," she explains. "This is where we spend our money. Our pantry is always full — OK, overflowing — and embarrassingly we have three refrigerators!"

The household also includes their two cats, Parmesan and Mozzarella, who enjoy two cans of cat food a day, copious treats — and on rare occasions, rotisserie chicken, salmon, beef, and turkey.

"From a young age, I have been a home cook who loves trying new recipes, cooking old favorites for special occasions, and learning techniques to be better," Backus says. "My mother said she never worried about me running away from home because the whole neighborhood would follow me."

Indeed, Backus' home has long been the go-to for family and friends. "You will never go hungry here," she says. "We celebrate life on a daily basis."

Here's how the Backuses keep the humans and the furry family members eating well despite working so much less than they used to.

Budget Is a Moving Target

Given neither spouse works full time, the pair operates on streamlined income. The earnings that come in are inconsistent from week to week, and that impacts the grocery spend.

"Depending on our financial standings during the month — whether I've worked the previous week or pandemic unemployment benefits came in — I will spend more these weeks and less on weeks we save up for times when larger payments are due like biannual car insurance or end-of-month health insurance payments," she explains.

That means some weeks she might spend $100 on groceries, and on others, it could be $400. "Wish we had [a budget]," she says. "Wish I could stick to one."

Still, it's a lifestyle trade-off that works well for her. "During my working years, I didn't get to spend much time at home with a crazy schedule of 50 to 70 hours a week including most weekends and holidays," she says. Whereas now, "I'm currently a gig worker, a temp worker, and a part-time worker and loving it!"

Spending Freely — but Strategically

Backus shops in person at stores like Vons, Walmart, Smith's, Sprouts, Trader Joe's, Whole Foods, Albertson's, and Target, as well as online at Amazon.

"I will drive 20 miles round trip and out of my way to get great deals at Walmart Supercenter for produce, frozen food, meats, dairy products, and wine," she explains.

She estimates 90 percent of the family's budget goes to food and beverages, like wine, Champagne, and bottled and seltzer water. But even with groceries as the centerpiece of the family's spending, she chooses frugal options whenever possible. And she steers clear of products whose price tags swing widely. 

"I will not buy items that are not value-priced or tend to fluctuate, like asparagus from $2.99 to $4.99; or name-brand dairy products like one-percent milk that is $2 to $3 more for a quart than generic or lesser-known brands," she says. "Strawberries' pricing can vary widely based on season and supply." 

Living by the List

Backus and her husband keep a running grocery list on their smartphones as a way to stay organized and keep spending under control. "When I go shopping, which is often, we compare lists and discuss in detail what we want and what we are willing to pay," she says. "I hope that this eliminates the compulsive buying. However, if I see a bargain... I will go after it!"

She also keeps a weekly meal calendar — or at least she tries to. "We stick to it about 50 percent of the time," she says. "It's a noble effort on my part and my husband teases me about its merit."  

Smart Splurges

While Backus keeps a close eye on prices, she's willing to splurge on certain items she considers essential to a good life — like filet of beef, Chandon rosé Champagne, Hawaiian hazelnut coffee, skinless salmon, and fine cheeses. "We love our cheeses — especially me," she says.

She also considers buying fresh flowers at Trader Joe's an extravagance that's well worth the money. "Even though they are really fairly priced, it's not a necessity and clearly a feel-and-look beautiful splurge," she says.

Budget Buys

Plenty of Backus' go-to items are budget friendly year round: pasta, rice, fresh jalapeños, cilantro, stocks and broth for soups, and canned tomato products ("I can't get enough of these!"). 

She also shops for ground turkey and uses it tons of different ways, minimizing effort and cost. "It's great in pasta dishes, rice dishes, salads, as burgers, tacos, nachos, casseroles, lettuce wraps, and with eggs for breakfast," she says.

Stock Up on Sale

Backus' top overall money-saving tip is straightforward and time tested: "Know the market pricing on items, and shop sales." She also takes advantage of coupons where available. "I especially love Vons Just for U offerings," she says. "Wow, you can save a ton with these!"

When you find exceptional discounts, she says, stock up and freeze any excess. "Label and date all leftover food and add them to your weekly meal calendar," she advises. "On the day before your weekly scheduled trash pickup, go through the refrigerator and see what needs to be frozen or discarded."

Taking Ordinary Meals to the Next Level

Backus explains that she and her husband like to transform ordinary groceries and menus by "doctoring then up" to add flavor and pizzazz. They keep a living basil plant on the kitchen window sill to zhush up dishes conveniently and affordably. "A little chiffonade is a great flavor booster in many meals," she says.

They also add red pepper flakes and hot sauces — many bought on vacation — to pastas and casseroles; zucchini, olives, and onions to spaghetti sauces; and sunflower seeds to macaroni and cheese.

"Soups are a staple in this house and we love to add crunch from crumbled potato and tortilla chips, croutons, and homemade polenta croutons," she says. "These are low-cost items and serve to make our meals more interesting."

Ultimately, it's Backus' strategy and skill that makes her cooking exciting without breaking the bank. But it's also the loving intention behind preparing the meals for loved ones: "We are the rock-solid constant for a loving, home-cooked, beyond delicious, and comforting meal when you need it most," she says.