Live Off the Dollar Store for a Week on a $50 Budget

By Tahirah Blanding,

College, unemployment, or an unexpected change in your life situation can mean learning to live off the dollar store. These are times when a major cut in spending is required as you plan how to survive from week to week. We found that it's possible to take care of the essentials, with a dollop of comfort thrown in, for less than $50 a week by shopping at the local dollar store.

Sure, the dollar store is a pit stop for cheap snacks, cooking supplies, toys, and other small items, but it's also a source for food at one very low price. And yes, there may be a stigma attached to dollar store shopping for all your needs, but it's time to get over it.

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These super-discount chains can sell items cheaply because they follow a strategy that involves buying non-brand items that aren't backed by enormous advertising budgets, stocking items in smaller sizes, and buying products in bulk from companies that are going out of business. Most goods sold in dollar stores are perfectly fine, and you'll often find reputable brands such as Minute Maid, Del Monte, and Suave. Do shop wisely, however: Some items, such as electrical products, may be knock-offs that don't meet quality standards. A few dollar stores now sell meat, so be sure to carefully inspect the packages, just as the Ohio Department of Agriculture suggests.

Dollar store product generally come in smaller sizes than items sold at retail grocery stores, but the small servings still suffice for the average person (most dollar store food items serve at least one). Dollar store cereal, for example, typically comes in boxes that serve at least four; oatmeal in individual packs of six; small bags or boxes of pancake mix that serve up to 11; instant coffee that can make up to 50 servings. About 30 products used in various combinations for breakfast, lunch, and dinner (with a snack here and there) would cost less than $50 and keep you going for a week -- and then some.

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Breakfast for seven days would cost about $10 using combinations of coffee, apple juice, oatmeal, bread, eggs, milk, cereal, pancake mix and syrup. Outlays for lunch and dinner foods would total slightly more than $30 and involve mixing and matching tuna, pasta, frozen meat, premade pizza crust and sauce, canned soup and vegetables, etc. Our suggested menus and shopping list presume you have some staples on hand, such as mayonnaise and condiments like pickles.

Below are a suggested dollar store grocery list and menu for a week. Most of these items are sold in-store, but inventory varies at every dollar store.



Day 1: Bowl of oatmeal, coffee

Day 2: Pancakes, coffee

Day 3: Bowl of cereal

Day 4: Toast with jelly or peanut butter, scrambled eggs

Day 5: Waffles, coffee

Day 6: Bowl of cereal

Day 7: Bowl of oatmeal, cup of apple juice

Lunch (accompanied by water or iced tea)

Day 1: Tuna salad, potato chips

Day 2: Soup, crackers

Day 3: Hamburger Helper, canned vegetables

Day 4: Pizza

Day 5: Tuna pasta salad

Day 6: PB&J sandwich, granola bar

Day 7: Soup, crackers

Dinner (accompanied by water or iced tea)

Day 1: Spaghetti, canned vegetables

Day 2: Mashed potatoes, barbecue chicken, canned vegetables

Day 3: New Orleans-style rice, beans

Day 4: Tuna pasta salad, canned vegetables

Day 5: Pizza

Day 6: Hamburger Helper, meat

Day 7: Tuna pot pie


Granola bar, toast or crackers with peanut butter, jelly

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Grocery List

1 box cereal - $1.00

1 6-ct pack oatmeal - $1.00

1 bag coffee - $1.00

1 loaf bread - $1.00

1 box pancake mix - $1.00

1 bottle imitation maple syrup - $1.00

1 jar jelly - $1.00

1 jar peanut butter - $1.00

1 12-ct. carton eggs - $1.00

1/2 gallon shelf-stable milk/1 gallon fresh milk - $1.00

1 32-oz. jar apple juice - $1.00

1 2-ct. pack premade pizza crusts - $1.00

1 jar pizza sauce - $1.00

1 container grated parmesan cheese - $1.00

2 boxes Hamburger Helper - $2.00

1 bag pasta - $1.00

2 cans meat sauce - $2.00

5 5-oz. cans tuna - $5.00

1 box instant oatmeal - $1.00

3 1-lb. cans soup - $3.00

4 10-oz. cans vegetables - $4.00

1 box crackers - $1.00

1 pastry crust - $1.00

1 box New Orleans-style rice - $1.00

1 can beans - $1.00

1 box dehydrated mashed potatoes - $1.00

2 packages frozen chicken - $2.00

1 pack Country Time Iced Tea Mix - $1.00

1 bag potato chips - $1.00

1 6-ct box granola bars - $1.00

1 bottle barbecue sauce - $1.00
Total: $43

Plan out meals, rather than snacks, and purchase items that can be used in at least two different meal settings; bread and eggs work for breakfast and lunch, for example, and tuna and soup do double duty for lunch and dinner. Some dollar stores contain a frozen foods section (the Dollar Tree, for one, recently began installing freezers) stocked with items such as meat and TV dinners, and some have a refrigerated section filled with dairy products. Canned and boxed goods dominate dollar store shelves, however, so fresh fruit and vegetables will have to be put on hold.

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Living off the dollar store requires careful planning and discipline. Make a list of your needs (and commit to sticking to it) before setting foot inside. Avoid the non-food aisles. All too often a quick browse down the wrong aisle can lead to an impulsive choice of something that seems essential but under the circumstances just isn't. After purchasing all the necessary food stuffs, you may have a few dollars left over for a 6-pack of tissue or a stick of deodorant. Some dollar stores accept manufacturer's coupons, so don't be shy about checking the store's policy. Saving a few extra cents here and there adds up to dollars that can be allocated towards other expenses, such as bills or transportation.

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