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America’s ‘cheapest family’ answers your questions

On TODAY, the proudly penny-pinching Economides of Arizona shared their strategies for saving money in tough times without sacrificing quality of life. Questions from viewers poured in, and now America's "cheapest family" respond with more tips and advice.
/ Source: TODAY contributor

The Economides of Arizona, self-proclaimed “cheapest family” in America, appeared on TODAY Sept. 29-Oct. 1 and revealed their strategies for saving money in tough times without sacrificing quality of life. Questions from viewers poured in, and here the Economides respond with more tips and advice:

Q: I can understand how the “cheapest family” grocery-shops once a month if they are eating and meal-planning from the freezer or pantry. But how do they eat fresh produce like salads and fruit, or perishable foods like yogurt or cheese? Those foods don't last a month in the fridge. Is it realistic to grocery-shop infrequently and still eat fresh, whole foods? — Rebecca, Nashville, Tenn.
A: There are lots of kinds of produce that can be stored in the refrigerator for several weeks: apples, oranges, carrots, celery, cabbage. Yogurt will easily store for a month. Cheese in vacuum-sealed packaging can also be stored for a month. We freeze milk, bread and cheese, effectively storing it until we want to use it. We love fresh fruit, so we eat the more perishable items first (grapes, strawberries, bananas, salad fixings and so on), and then move on to the heartier ones. We supplement our once-a-month shopping trip with a visit to a produce shop in the middle of the month if we’re running low.

Q: I budget, I plan my menu in advance, I take my list and stick to it — but I can never seem to stay within my budget. I search for coupons, but finding ones I would use has been difficult. Where are some of the better places to get coupons? — Kim, Athens, Ohio

A: To get more coupons, start a coupon swap with relatives or friends at work or in your neighborhood. Take what you need and pass the rest. We’ve done this for years and always have multiples of coupons for the products we use. Our Sunday newspaper has always been the best source of coupons for us.

One of the best ways to stay within your budget is to start using cash to buy groceries. Only take a specific, predetermined amount to the store. When the cash is gone, stop shopping. Putting a limit on yourself will encourage you to plan more, buy less on impulse, and be more creative.

Q: I have three children and appreciate the prices provided at big warehouse-type stores such as Costco, but find that I really don't save money when I shop there. We don't need to buy in such large quantities: It usually isn't a value. What are your suggestions for getting the best value at these types of places? — Sherry, Portland, Ore.

A: Warehouse clubs are an easy place to shop — and an easy place to spend way too much on groceries. Grocery store sale prices will beat the pants off of warehouse club prices (in our book we share comparisons of several items and found a savings from 19 to 31 percent).

The best way to know when an advertised price is really a great deal is to create a price tracker sheet. You record the prices on individual items you normally buy and compare between the grocery store and the warehouse club (or any other place where you buy grocery items) —it really helps.We have a copy of it on our website: just click here. The better you know your prices, the more you'll save.

Q: I've noticed that a lot of your homemade meals are meat dinners. We are a family of six and we are are all vegetarians. Any suggestions for low-cost homemade vegetarian meals? And no, we do not eat fish. — Ronnie, Philadelphia, Pa.

A: Ronnie, we are all about self-education. Swap recipes with your vegetarian friends. Visit your public library: They’ll have shelves full of cookbooks for every type of ethnicity and lifestyle. Check some out and give a few of the recipes a try. It will take some persistence to find many that your family will enjoy, but it’s worth the effort.

We include several meatless meals in our monthly menu, such as eggplant Parmesan, vegetable lasagna, quiche, vegetable bean soup, broccoli and cheese soup, and spaghetti with homemade sauce that contains eggplant, mushrooms and olives. Let your creativity reign and you’ll discover some fabulous meals.

Q: I have a family of seven: four boys, my husband and his brother. I try not to spend a lot on groceries, but my two oldest sons can eat more than me and my husband put together. They are teenagers and I feel overwhelmed by the food bill. I feel like I am feeding 11 people with them. My question is, do you have any teenage boys in your home? If so, have you had this problem as well? — Mary, Phoenix, Ariz.
We understand your dilemma: We had three teenage boys devouring anything edible in our house. We still have one living at home, and he’s a college athlete working on gaining weight. Since your kids are growing at an amazing rate right now, they definitely need a lot of protein (and, of course, other things) in their diets to help them develop strong bodies.

Eggs are an economical source of protein, so include things like quiches, stratas and scrambled eggs with cheese and hash browns in their diet. Using starches to stretch your meat meals is essential to feeding a big crew, so cook things like lasagna, baked ziti or spaghetti with meatballs, or you can cook big batches of rice to accompany your main dishes. Corn and potatoes also make things go farther and give tummies a full feeling.

Come up with some good snack foods like popcorn, lots of fruits, veggies — celery with peanut butter is good. It’s helpful to make a list of snacks so you can quickly refer to it when those teens get that crazed look in their eyes.One last thing: If your teens and your brother-in-law are able, they need to contribute (financially or by helping out) to feed the family. This burden shouldn’t be yours alone!

Q: What would you recommend for a single person trying to lower her grocery bill when may items are packaged for more than one person? — Jasmine, Irvington, N.J.

A: We know that eating has unique challenges for singles and empty-nesters. We included a bonus section at the end of our book that addresses the specific issues you face. Here are a few suggestions:

  • Larger packages of many items will actually save you money. Buy discounted family packs of meat, bring them home, repackage them into single servings, and store in your freezer.
  • Multiply your cooking. Cook double, triple or quadruple batches of your favorite recipes, then separate them into individual servings and freeze for later. Essentially you’re making your own “TV dinners,” but they’ll be much healthier.
  • Get together with a friend or two and cook several meals in one day. Then divide them up and eat them over the course of a week.