Insanely Frugal Shopping Guru- Interview with Penny's Dad

Hello there everyone. Today I decided to do something a little bit different. I've talked about my parents before, and how I grew up, and shared various things my dad and mom have taught me about saving money and cooking... Recently, though, my dad has been talking to me about his monthly grocery budget and I'll tell you something- if you think I'm nuts and crazy frugal, he outshines me by a mile.
My dad cooks mainly for himself, 3 meals a day, seven days a week, and has guests (2-4 at a time) over for about 7 or 8 meals a month.
His grocery bills on average are about $43 dollars a month for all that.
Yes, you read that right. This is not a typo. 4. 3. dollars.
And I thought my 428 dollars-575 dollars a month (ok, for a family of 6, granted) was frugal. The biggest difference is that my dad is cooking for one (mainly) and I'm cooking for 6, and my dad and I have very different diets. My diet is very vegetable heavy, gluten free, processed food free, pretty much paleo, and my kids eat gluten free. My dad on the other hand doesn't avoid processed foods in theory, but overall does simply to save money, and he eats a lot of gluten and refined carbohydrates and white sugar, etc... I wouldn't necessarily recommend someone follow my dad's shopping and dietary habits, but since I know there are many out there that don't see the need to eat the way I do, gluten free and practically paleo and a "traditional foods diet" but just want to eat decent meals on a low budget, I figured that it would be a nice idea to share how he shops and cooks. Maybe it'll inspire those of you who eat a diet more similarly to his than mine.

Here's the thing. I wanted to tell you about how he shops and how he keeps his grocery bills so low, but I knew many people wouldn't be likely to believe me, so for a month I asked him to keep tally to the nearest dollar, and for the month of May he spent $75.50. With half of that being food that he stocked up for a few months in the future. He predicts that he'll probably spend under $30 this month, but I'll follow up with him next month to see.

My dad is here right now, visiting, and I decided to write this post interview style, so he can tell you about how he shops the way he does, where he shops, what he eats, why he does it, and all that.

Meet my dad, Cardiologist Colonel Edward of the US Army, currently on inactive duty and living abroad not so far from where I do.

Penny: First of all, tell the readers- do you think most people can or should do what you do to lower their grocery bills the way that you do?

Edward: They can, if they want to. People should understand, I don't eat any food that I don't like to, and all the foods that I eat are healthy, nutritious, and put a smile on my face after I eat them.

Penny: So, tell us about your shopping habits. How often do you shop, what type of stores, and how much do you usually spend on most shops?

Edward: I go to large chain supermarkets but get most of my vegetables from the open air market (where Penny gets her produce). My one rule that I follow is that any vegetables that I find at 12 cents a pound, grade A, not grade B, I stock up on and that's what I'll be eating. I also buy produce for up to 30 cents a pound, but I stock up when I see it at 12 cents a pound. I wash the vegetables, cut them up, and put them in the freezer. (Other than potatoes. Those can last months in the fridge.)

Penny: So you say the vegetables you get are not grade B/reduced rack?

Edward: Nope, I only get good quality, grade A.

Penny: How do you manage to do that? What vegetables do you end up buying?

Edward: I go late in the evening to the market when they're closing, when they want of get rid of everything. Things I've gotten at 12 cents a pound are cucumbers, tomatoes, potatoes, sweet potatoes, zucchini, red and yellow peppers, radishes, fennel, and kohlrabi.

Penny: What other vegetables do you get and how much do you pay for them? Do you get fruit and what about those?

Edward: Fruit I buy when Lizzy comes to visit (a couple of apples for about 50 cents a pound), and a few grape fruits every couple of months for about 12-25 cents a pound, whenever I'm in the mood for one, which isn't very often. I buy green and red cabbage, eggplant and onions for about 20 cents a pound.  I spend the most on butternut squash, 40-50 cents a pound, for when I have guests. Once in a while (like for special occasions) I'll get corn on the cob- it cost probably about $1 per pound, but I got just one or two. Occasionally I'll get broccoli and cauliflower for the same price.

Penny: What about other foods? Besides for vegetables, what other groceries do you tend to buy?

Edward: I buy rice and I buy pasta, eggs, ground chicken, liver, gizzards, beef, lentils, buckwheat, corn meal, flour, breadcrumbs, salt, sugar, tea, lots of coffee, about a liter or 2 liters of milk per month, vinegar, canola oil, cheese-I buy a kilogram of cheese for $8.55 ($3.80 a pound) and it lasts about 3-4 months., peanut butter, jelly.  Frozen corn, canned corn, canned mushrooms, hummus, mustard, tomato paste, soy sauce (but not as much anymore since I'm using my homemade miso to make tamari sauce and sometimes I just put miso straight into chinese food (but you have to be careful with that since its a lot saltier than soy sauce)).

Penny: So where are you buying these things and how are you keeping down the costs?

Edward: I buy things on sale and I eat what's on sale. I freeze things. I go into supermarkets, different ones each time, and see what is on sale that I need. Sometimes I buy only one or two things that I need, and rarely nothing. If I see a good sale on things I use, I stock up.

Penny: What do you eat for all your meals with only buying these groceries? Let's start with breakfast.

Edward: My breakfasts are most varied. I never have the same breakfast two days in a row. One breakfast is polenta with salt and pepper and sometimes a slice of cheese. Sometimes grits. Sometimes leftover polenta fried with onions and maybe zucchini and an easy over egg. Sometimes I have peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. Sometimes I have grilled cheese. Homemade pizza on pita bread (that I buy on sale at the market, usually 2.5 kilos, about 30 pitas, for $2.85, about 10 cents a pita). I have miso soup. Pita or homemade sourdough bread with hummus. Sometimes I'll just have a salad with tomatoes, cucumbers, and fresh garlic. Sometimes I'll have fried pasta for breakfast with a little bit of salt. When my stomach is upset just plain rice. That's a lot of different breakfasts. Oh, and pancakes- sourdough pancakes- I make that once a month. And I freeze them to have them when I feel like having them.

Penny: Ok, so sometimes your breakfast is just plain carbs.

Edward: With black coffee. Always with black coffee.

Penny: Ok, so sometimes your breakfast is just plain carbs. Sometimes its carbs and protein. Sometimes its got some vegetables. Do you think your breakfasts are nutritionally sound, and as a cardiologist, you'd recommend your patients do the same?

Edward: There's no such thing as good food and bad food, there's good eating habits and bad eating habits, and I try to balance my carbohydrates, proteins, and vegetables throughout the day, just not necessarily all in the same meal.

Penny: Continuing onward. What about lunches and suppers?

Edward: Lunch is my least varied meal. Three days a week I am away from home working for 12-14 hours, and in the middle of the day I have a large hoagie roll with chopped onion, sauerkraut or cabbage salad, mustard, and one homemade chicken burger cut up and spread inside the hoagie roll (that I buy on sale at the market, 24 for $2.85, and then freeze them), and I'll eat that in the early afternoon, and it'll satiate me until supper at 8:00 in the evening.
On days I am home for lunch I'll have a homemade chicken burger (made with ground chicken I buy on sale for $1.93 per pound, that I mix with onion, garlic, miso, egg, and flour) on homemade sourdough bread, with vegetables on the side, usually just chopped raw vegetables, and sometimes in a salad. I love the cores/heart of cauliflower and cabbage, and it's a treat for me to eat that when I finish a head of cabbage or cauliflower. Sometimes I'll put two burgers in a pita (when I'm hungrier) with a big salad. Sometimes I'll make fried rice with my homemade miso, about 60-80% vegetables (miso is the protein). You only need 50-60 grams of protein a day, most people get much more than that, and I get close to 80-100 grams of protein a day.

Interruption while I go and look up how many grams of protein a day. Turns out its closer to 40 or 50.

Edward: Right now I'm on a diet and have lost over 20 lbs, usually I eat twice or even three times the amount and get more protein. I guess I am on a lower protein diet, but that is healthier for your kidneys to have a lower protein diets. When you have a lower protein diet you also have lower fat, which is heart healthy. Basically 80% of my calories are from vegetables and starch.

Penny: So what about supper?

Edward: Supper is pretty varied. General tso (sweet and sour stir fry) with rice- chicken (the scraps from when I roast chicken) or beef, burgers chopped up into a tomato sauce and served over pasta, liver with mushrooms over rice or pasta, majadra with lentils, majadra with buckwheat, both with 50% or more vegetables. I roast chicken (wings) on top of stuffing (made from bread with fried onions, carrots, and whatever other vegetables I like) or rice with onions. Shepherd's pie with potatoes and ground chicken. Tuna croquets with with Russian dressing. Tuna sandwiches. I'll sometimes make a pot roast that I serve with potatoes and carrots and whatever other vegetables I feel like. Sometimes I'll just have pasta with cheese sauce. Miso soup. Corn soup.

Penny: What is your favorite meal that you have?

Edward: General tso. I probably cook it once a month and I have it every night for supper for about a week (unless I have guests, then it lasts only 2-3 days). Sometimes I'll have hot dogs- that's a very unusual item- I have 2 to 3 packages a year, and I eat it with a hoagie roll, mustard, and sauerkraut. It's not very healthy, high in nitrates, so I eat it rarely, and there's usually more cabbage and sauerkraut in the bun than hot dogs. They have vitamin C in it, which is a reducing agent and prevents the production of nitrosoamines, which are carcinogenic.

Penny: Why do you eat and shop this way? You're a cardiologist, and everyone knows that cardiologists are "rich"? Are you eating and shopping this way because that's all you can afford?

Edward: No. First of all, I'm not rich because I give away a lot of free care to indigent people and I pride myself that they get high levels of care. I prefer to prioritize how I spend my money, and would rather spend less on groceries and save money to spend on expensive vacations and putting away for retirement. I have been to luxury beach resorts multiple times, the bottom of the Grand Canyon 4 times, and take high end vacations, recently went to Disney World for my 12th time, travel internationally at least once a year. Basically I'd rather live a frugal lifestyle and be able to go on on nice vacations than have more expensive groceries and not be able to pay for those vacations. When I go away and often, it is always to five star hotels. I like to go to high end restaurants 2-3 times a month. I don't see the point in spending more on groceries when I eat food that I like and am able to afford nice things this way. (I only go to restaurants to get food that I can't make at home.)

Penny: You work long hours away from home. When do you find the time to do all these frugal things, the cooking, etc... Do you think busy people can do what you do, and if so, how?

Edward: I do the frugal shopping in stores and markets near work, so I'm right there and walk in on my way home or in between jobs. I get up between 4 and 5 am, and can get so much done when no one else is awake. I batch cook burgers, general tso, miso soup, sourdough bread, and everything else is quick to cook. Salads I make every 2-3 days, because I prefer them after they've had a chance to marinate in my homemade sake based wine vinegar.

Penny: Any last thoughts?

Edward: I love food and I like what tastes good and my food tastes good, and my guests agree also. One of the biggest thing is that when I am invited out people request my sourdough bread, miso soup, and homemade sake.

How much do you spend per month on groceries? Do you think, if you needed to, you'd be able to spend as little as my dad does? Do you have any follow up questions for my dad?

Penniless Parenting

Mommy, wife, writer, baker, chef, crafter, sewer, teacher, babysitter, cleaning lady, penny pincher, frugal gal


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  1. I have a question for Dr Edward. You mentioned low protein diets being healthier for your kidneys. I only have one kidney thanks to kidney cancer. BUT before losing a kidney, I had Roux en Y Gastric Bypass surgery and am
    Supposed to a eat high protein diet. So, kind of a conundrum for me. Damned if I do, damned if I don't situation. I'll have to do some research. I wonder if my high protein diet caused my kidney cancer?

    1. The New England Journal of Medicine had an article 35 years (or so) about what is the safest and healthiest diet for the kidneys. The diet they preferred was that of big game animals. Eat mainly a vegetable based diet and one every week or two (after catching an elephant?) eat a high protein (large amount of meat) diet. So for you I think miso based food would be good and once a week or 2 pig out on steak, chicken, etc.

      Penniless Dad (aka COL Ed)

    2. I work with a doctor who is a de-tox specialist and has been for 45 years with great results and he tells me to get my amino acids from fruits and vegetables instead of from proteins because meat is hard on the kidneys. I feel better since I stopped eating so much meat - my kidneys don't hurt anymore.

  2. Interesting priorities. Enjoy in good health.

  3. I loved this interview! I think our diet is much more like your dad's; it's more carb-heavy with rice, pasta, etc. But we probably eat fewer vegetables and more protein. Can't imagine finding produce for $0.12 per pound! That would be awesome! I do a lot of the same things as your dad (price list shopping, only buying and eating stuff that is on sale, etc.) and our grocery bill for two people is about $80.00/mo. It's not fancy food, but we don't eat anything we don't like and there is plenty to go around.

  4. First thanks to your dad for his service. Secondly your dad has his priorities 100% correct. If you can eat well and use a little foresight you can save money for the important things. There is no reason to line the oligarchs pockets here.

    1. If one does a large amount of cardiovascular exercise (as I do) carb loading and eating carbs after an event are more important that protein. After doing a 20km or 30km hike (or even just an hour of running) I crave pasta, rice or bread. I believe my body is telling me that my glycogen stores have been depleted and need to be replenished.

      Penniless Dad (AKA Col Ed)

  5. We seem to be coming in at $600 a month for 4, in the US, in an expensive area of the US. I would not be able to eat as cheaply as your dad, simply because I cannot get fruits and veg for $0.10 to $0.12 a pound. Not even a single fruit or veg. And we eat a lot of fruit and veg. I also don't eat as carb heavy as a diet because I cannot maintain weight that way.

    It's nice that he knows what his priorities are and spends accordingly, especially if he likes nice vacations. Is he able to save money by traveling Space-A? While I'd imagine that private cardiologists are often "rich", compared to military. Even a Colonel in the military on active duty is making a pretty penny. I used to be in the Navy. My old buddies are now Captains. I've done the math. It's quite a bit more than I make in the private sector, and my friends who are now retiring in their late 40's are pulling in 50% of their income as a pension.

    I think you look like your dad.

    1. I do not travel space A (except fro when I was at war and deployed). However, I am quite good at using Kayak and finding the best fares. Last year my wife an I flew to Miami roundtrip for 600 dollars/ticket. I often find fares to NYC at 600-750 dollars.

    2. That's a good tip. I've never used Kayak. I only successfully flew space-A once while in the Navy, from Dover, DE to Frankfurt. Then back from Frankfurt to Philadelphia.

      It was quite a long trek there (Dover to Norfolk to fix the plane, to Keflavik overnight, to Frankfurt). And my traveling companion (my now husband, also in the Navy) didn't get a seat on the way back. Had to fly commercial. Otherwise a fun trip!

  6. I have a question: Edward, what do you cook on the holidays?
    Do you eat any soup? (I don't seem to be seeing much of this.)

    And what are your 'go-to' foods, when you're tired or not feeling well? (I noticed rice when your stomach is upset...)

    I also cannot get fruit and veg for 30 cents a pound or less...but I can often get it for less than $1 a pound. That's doing well here in Colorado.

  7. thanx for sharing. I really enjoy hearing and learning what other families do to buy on a budget etc. rochel.

  8. This was one of my favorite posts thus far. Thank you, Penny and Dr Edward!

  9. Also one of my favorite posts. Penny, your dad seems like a wonderful person who has a lot to give over! So cool how he keeps his grocery bill so low yet has such delicious variety. May he lives many years in good health :)

  10. Can I say again how envious I am of your open air market prices?! Even if I buy my produce on sale, they are still at least twice or three times the price you pay.

  11. Penny, I hope this isn't too nosy but since you mentioned that your husband works a minimum wage job and there's not really a chance of upward mobility, has your father ever considered supporting your family? Or just treating you out? I know your kids haven't gone to Disney before but it looks like their grandpa has multiple times!

    1. My dad doesn't believe in supporting family. He helps out when needed, and I can count on him in a pinch that he'll be there to support. He believes that you learn better how to take care of your finances by independent- he'll be my life raft when needed but doesn't want to be a tug boat always holding us afloat. (And it doesn't help that he also has a lot of expenses, like paying for child support for my younger siblings.) He does treat us out, takes us on trips, helps us out when and how he can. And for the record, most of the times he went to Disney were before I was married- only one of those times were recently, and flying a family of 6 to Disney would be a fortune, so I don't expect it.

    2. These are some very good points. I'm the 8th of 9 children. Unless you are fabulously wealthy, at that number, most parents teach children how to be self sufficient, and at a young age!

    3. Penny, I love your answer here. I was taught and provided tools by my parents growing up to help me take care of myself and my family. A very important lesson they taught all of us was wants vs. needs. They would absolutely step in if one of us kids did not have a NEED, but a want should be saved for and is a luxury. The way I see it, my folks earned what they was theirs, not mine. Even when they died, I felt guilty accepting my portion of the Estate because I didn't EARN was theirs.

  12. I average about $240 a month for food for me, my husband and guests. I garden and preserve a lot of food, shop sales, make nearly everything from scratch. I make real sourdough whole wheat bread, as well as other breads. Fruit and vegetables that I buy are more expensive than he buys. I'm always stocking up when there is a sale on something, and that saves a lot over time. I loved this article!

  13. No,we could not spend as little as your dad because we don't have that kind of prices where I live. Veggies and fruits are on the expensive side. And we eat lots of produce. And hubby is gluten-free, and we don't eat a lot of process food. And we buy natural/organic meats. So a good month for us is around 700$ (2 adults, 2 young kids).

  14. Thank you for allowing comments. I sent your blog link to someone who is living on food stamps and they really like the aquafaba ice cream recipe.

    When I was a kid I always craved fruits and there never seemed to be enough in our household.

    Since I retired and choose not to drive I've discovered online ordering. Plus my doctor has me mostly on a fruits and vegetables diet and my current grocery list is mostly canned fruits (frozen fruits when I can get to the store) and canned coconut milks (Native Forest "Premium" or "Simple") which I purchase by the case for a per can price reduction.

    Most of my canned fruit I get from Walmart online starting at 98cents per can and mostly in juice or light syrup. Amazon has the best price on Native Forest "premium" if you buy by the case. I stock up on a month's worth of "not from concentrate" organic juices from Aldi's ($3.89 per glass jar) and Welch's 100% grape juice. My breakfast is usually a glass of juice with a squeze of lemon juice, which I slowly sip -- better than coffee for me.

    Being single and not very active I eat only one meal a day - the slow sipping of juice seems to keep me going until "dinner time". A few days to a week every month I do a supervised dryfast (no water, no food) to help a longstanding nervous system issue heal.

    Then there are the dried fruits which I shop online for the best bulk prices. I like to buy my zucchini fresh because I have a spiralizer and I make a great pineapple/nut butter sauce for my "zoodles".

    People are concerned about blood sugar and insulin issues and my blood sugar spikes have ceased since I stopped eating so much meat and complex carbohydrates. Just don't guzzle the grape juice or you might get a blood sugar spike :-)

    Oh, I always have a bag of apples because apples are a great digestive and I do occasionally like to eat a heavy meal of more complex foods for the body to break down, so apples are my "dessert".

    This is how I eat and now that I have a lot of bulk dried fruits in the pantry I can start to spend less and less per month .... I must have about 25 pounds of organic black currants (small raisins) and 11 pounds of crystallized ginger, and 10 pounds of organic dried apricots, so there was an initial investment but I could probably go one month without buying anything at this point. I do invest about $45 per month in "Oxy-Powder" because doc wants me to clean my intestines and I'm not interested is doing repeated enemas. It's working great!!

    This is what I eat and drink and it puts a smile on my face :-) No more adrenal or kidney issues or pancreatic/blood sugar issues.

  15. This was an interesting interview to read. Any chance your dad might be interested in sharing his recipe for the sourdough bread and the starter for it?

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