Her Town Has Just One Grocery Store, but This Mom Manages to Feed Her Family of 6 on $200 a Week

Limited rural grocery options won't stop Alene Laney from saving on her family's food budget. She has a plan.

Alene Laney
Photo: Courtesy of Alene Laney

As a personal finance blogger, Alene Laney is naturally focused on her household's bottom line. With six people in a mostly one-income home, budgeting is both a challenge and a necessity. "We mostly live off my spouse's law enforcement salary, so we have to make it count," she says.

The pair live with their four boys, aged nine months to seven years; the infant still eats formula, the cost of which adds up quickly. Overall, she estimates the family spends between $200 and $250 per week on groceries these days, which she characterizes as "more than double what it used to be."

Why? "I can't seem to fill the stomachs of four growing boys!" she says. "Buying a single bunch of bananas turned into four, and a package of blueberries doesn't last more than 10 minutes."

Plus, she notes, the family's money just doesn't go as far as it used to now that they've moved to a rural area in Utah with only one grocery store in town. That makes it pretty challenging to shop around for bargains.

For instance, she'd come to expect bananas at about $0.39 a pound. The town's one grocer asks $0.79, "and that's typical throughout the store," she says. "I'm easily spending at least 50 percent more, if not more [than that], for groceries than when I lived in a larger city."

Here's how Laney stretches the family budget with limited local options.

Utilize Resources, Far and Near

While Laney's most convenient option is the grocery store in town, she batches her needs and shops further out to save money. "If I want to shop elsewhere, I have to drive an hour to get there," she explains. "The nearest Costco is four hours away. Rural problems!"

Once a month, she drives an hour to Walmart for groceries. She also brings home bulk items from Sam's Club or Costco three or four hours away.

She also shops at ethnic grocery stores as a cost-saving effort, noting her local ethnic grocer has "unbelievable deals on produce." In fact, she offers this tip: "Your Asian grocery is going to be the cheapest place to buy fresh herbs like basil."

Among their grocery expenses, formula remains a huge line item for the family. They also spend to have fresh foods at the ready. "We always have apples and bananas at our house" for healthy snacks, she says.

Be Purposeful With Cooking

Laney takes a practical, unfussy approach when it comes to meal planning for her big family. "This is going to sound nuts," she says, "but I only cook dinner two to three times per week." Her strategy is to prepare extra food at each meal, and then eat the leftovers the next day.

"Sometimes on Sunday, I make a big salad or soup to eat for lunches for the week — that's my meal planning," she says. "I freeze extra soup if I've made a ton. I also have sandwich and smoothie supplies on hand at any given time. I'll make a big smoothie and put it into three of those plastic, freezer-safe cups with lids and eat throughout the week."

She admits that her leftover strategy is neither "really creative" or "always fun" — but it serves important purposes. "You can reduce a lot of waste and save a lot of money and time by actually eating the leftovers. Just eat them!" she says. "It will save you the stress of making dinner every night, and save you more money than you think."

Be a Copycat

If she acknowledges that her leftover strategy isn't that fun, Laney has a much more exciting personal challenge when it comes to eating enticing, restaurant-style meals in a budget-friendly way. "My favorite way to save money is to cook copycat recipes from my favorite restaurants," she says. "Making something so delicious helps remove the temptation to eat out and spend money."

Among her favorite copycat dishes are chicken lettuce wraps inspired by PF Chang's. She also makes pad Thai and curries inspired by local Thai and Indian restaurants. She's tried copycat versions of recipes from Olive Garden, Cheesecake Factory, and more. "I really just Google 'copycat recipe for [a favorite restaurant],' and choose a recipe where I think the ingredients sound about right."

She's even done a financial analysis on the per-serving cost of many of these recipes, an exercise she says is a "fun" challenge. "I calculate what it costs to make and compare it with what it costs to buy at the restaurant per serving," she says. "Sometimes, it will actually make more financial sense to buy food, such as an In-N-Out cheeseburger, instead of making it at home."

Take Laney's financial analysis for Cafe Rio pork salad. She calculates she can make it at home for an estimated $2.09 per serving, compared with the $10 or so it costs to buy it at the restaurant.

Doing this kind of detailed cost breakdown "might look kind of complicated," she says, "but I only do this once for each meal — ever. I think everyone inherently knows it's more expensive to eat out, but it's also kind of fun to know by exactly how much."

Alene Laney's sample grocery list

  • apples
  • bananas
  • milk
  • bread
  • cheese
  • butter
  • peanut butter
  • jelly
  • yogurt
  • spinach
  • vanilla protein powder ("I buy this in bulk from Costco a couple times a year.")
  • strawberries, blueberries, mangoes, or any other fruit under $2 per pound
  • avocados
  • zucchini
  • broccoli
  • frozen fruit
  • sour cream
  • turkey lunch meat
  • chicken breasts
  • other meat on sale
  • cereal
  • canned goods on sale
  • oatmeal

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