Try These 15 Easy Tips to Stock a Pantry on a Tight Budget

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Especially if you’re living on a budget, you need a well-stocked pantry. It’s a vital safety net during challenging times and literally everyone should have at least a few basic staples on hand at all times. But how do you load up on extra supplies when your budget is stretched thin? In this post, I’m going to break down my favorite tips on how to stock a pantry on a budget.

how to stock a pantry on a budget pin

Why is a well-stocked pantry so darn important?

There are so many reasons to keep even a minimal pantry and they look a little different for each person.

Personally, I like to keep a well-stocked pantry to simplify cooking from scratch.

If your pantry has all the basic ingredients to prepare your family’s favorite meals with ease, you’re more likely to cook them.

This is typically healthier and way cheaper than hitting the drive-thru or getting takeout.

Plus, if you’ve ever experienced a time of reduced income or job loss, you know how stressful it is to make ends meet. Having a well-stocked pantry means you don’t have to worry about how you’ll afford to nourish your family because you’ve got supplies to rely on during times of stress.

Have you ever had a giant bill disrupt your life? I sure have. From dental bills to car repairs, I’ve had to prioritize those huge bills over my groceries.

Fortunately, when you have a well-stocked pantry, you can simply dip into your pantry reserves when money gets tight.

A well-stocked pantry is an excellent savings account to lean on when you need to send cash elsewhere.

how to stock a pantry on a budget

Learn from my mistakes

There are so many reasons to keep a well-stocked pantry, but there are also some things not to do. I want to make sure you’re not wasting a single penny or can of tomatoes.

Most important: Get your systems in place

Don’t worry – I’ve got a lot of great tips to share with you about how to stock a pantry on a budget, but first…we need to get organized.

There are a few must-have tools and routines that will make it easier to shrink your monthly spending.

When you’re really only buying what you need, you’ll be able to afford your pantry staples and keep your pantry stocked naturally.

Use a pantry staples list

I cannot underestimate the value of a pantry staples list. This is a game-changer in how you stock a pantry, meal plan, and grocery shop!

My motto is to make things easy.

I also love to use tools to help me take some things off my mental to-do list.

A pantry staples list is a simple tool that lists out all of the items you should have in your pantry. That’s it!

In reality, a good pantry staples list should only feature the ingredients that you use regularly.

This includes things like:

  • Whole grains
  • Dried beans
  • Canned vegetables
  • Baking ingredients
  • Frozen vegetables
  • Sauces & condiments
  • Spices

When you grocery shop, you’re solely adding items that are low on the list or that you need for a specific recipe. That’s it!

It makes grocery shopping so much easier. I also use this list and some other tools to meal plan all of my meals for the week in just a few minutes per week.

Plus, this system ensures that you will keep your pantry stocked naturally. It makes it so much easier!

I’ve turned my own personal pantry staples list into a one-page download that you can use right now. It’s available to all of my newsletter subscribers so sign up below!

Get your pantry staples list now!

Cooking from scratch is a gift you can give yourself and your family! It’s way easier than you think and my free pantry staples list & meal planner will help you get started right away.

Send your free downloads directly to your inbox!

Start meal planning

I know…no one wants to hear that the answer to stocking a pantry on a budget requires homework, but it does.

Here’s the thing…

If you grocery shop without a list, you’re typically shopping hypothetically.

You’re buying things that you think might be handy to have around.

But, you’re almost always forgetting something: the food already in your fridge, that late-night practice when you’ll have to get food on the go, etc.

This approach to grocery shopping is almost always wasteful.

You forget about the food already in your fridge, so it goes bad.

You buy ingredients you won’t be able to use in time, so they go bad. Plus, you’re more likely to fall for in-store advertising and marketing techniques causing you to spend more.

I can’t really say it enough, but you need a grocery list…

…and the only way to really have an accurate list is to know what you’re going to make.

This means you need a meal plan.

Don’t worry, I’ve included my one-page weekly plan with my pantry staples list as a free download.

If you’re new to meal planning or have tried and failed to meal plan a million times before (like I used to do), learn how to meal plan once and for all with my workbook Make Over Your Meal Plan.

I’ll literally break it down into tiny pieces and help you create a meal planning routine you can come back to again and again.

Stop trying to tweak someone else’s plan

Real meal planning fits your lifestyle, eating preferences, and budget. Let me help teach you how to meal plan once-and-for-all in this easy, painless workbook!

Shop with a grocery list

Once you know what you need in your pantry and you know what’s on the menu for the week, you know what you need to add to your grocery list.

With this simplified, cross-checked, and accurate list, you’ll be able to make decisions about just the items you need.

Honestly, it feels way better to buy what you actually need and not just grab things “just in case.”

Plus, it’s way cheaper. You’ll save a ton of money when you stop buying food you don’t really need!

At this point, my shopping list consists of:

  • Fresh produce
  • Eggs & cheese
  • Refilling pantry staples we used up

It’s way easier (and cheaper) than throwing everything in my cart and hoping it works!

how to stock a pantry on a budget

Isn’t this just all common sense?

Honestly, no, it’s not. Unless you grew up learning how to meal plan, cook from scratch, price compare, and budget as a child, you probably struggle with these skills today.

Plus, we’re all so busy and stressed and drained…we’re relying on overpriced meal kits and drive-thru way too often.

This isn’t to shame anyone. I just want to make it clear that even if you think these tips are too simple, I assure you that they are not.

Especially if you’re trying to shop on a tight budget, you need a system.

By spending a little time upfront and learning how to stock your pantry and meal plan, your grocery bill will be lower, thus making it easier to afford the extra staples you need to stock up on.

My Favorite Habits & Tricks to Stock My Pantry on a Budget

Alright, if you’re at this point, you’re getting yourself set up with a pantry staples list and you’re going to start meal planning based on those staples. This will allow you to shrink your spending so you can buy only what you need and be able to afford to add a few items to your pantry.

What other tricks do I have up my sleeve for you? Here you go!

1. Ditch the processed foods

When a company starts making prepackaged mixes and items, they’re getting the basic ingredients as cheaply as possible. They can buy things at a scale you wouldn’t believe.

But, they add all of these “cheap” items together and have to pay for labor, manufacturing, packaging, shipping, and marketing.

This means that you are paying for the cheap ingredients and everything else.

Even if you can’t get the ingredients quite as cheaply as the big companies, you’ll still be saving money if you can put in a little labor yourself.

There’s a balance between cooking everything from scratch and paying slightly more for time-saving conveniences, but these are some of the items we don’t typically buy:

  • Crackers
  • Granola bars
  • Cereal
  • Chips
  • Cookies
  • Bread

We do buy some of these items on occasion for special events or treats, but otherwise, we do without or make them ourselves.

2. Stop snacking or try these cheaper alternatives

We really try not to snack as those small bites are typically not very nutritious and their cost adds up.

Instead, we almost always have apples in the fridge (we often buy a case at a time to get a lower price), cheese, nut butters, and dried popcorn.

For a snack, we’ll have an apple with cheese or some peanut butter. We also love to air-pop dried popcorn and serve it with different spices or my favorite white cheddar cheese powder.

These items can all be used in a variety of ways and we price shop to get the best deal possible. We supplement with other fresh fruits as they become available during the season.

stock a pantry on a budget

3. Break your pantry staples list into pieces

Many people already have some sort of pantry started maybe with a couple of boxes of pasta and a few cans of beans.

When they complete a pantry staples list, they feel a little overwhelmed with all of the basic ingredients they do not have on hand. They start to imagine what it will cost to stock up and start to sweat a little.

Don’t worry!

First of all, only buy the ingredients you will actually need and use.

Then, focus on the simplest and most versatile ingredients first.

Think about which ingredients can be used in a variety of ways.

For us, that’s typically very basic components like:

  • Coconut oil
  • Flour
  • Oatmeal
  • Diced tomatoes
  • Soy sauce
  • Peanut butter
  • Pasta sauce
  • Dried beans
  • Dried pasta
  • Brown rice

We can use and assemble these ingredients into so many different meals. It makes sense to focus on those first.

Plan on adding 1-2 staples per grocery trip as your budget allows. Before you know it, you’ll be fully stocked!

I love to keep my pantry stocked with products from Azure Standard. I love the quality, and I can easily stick the pantry quickly!

4. Make your own pantry staples

Did you know you can make your own brown sugar? It’s true (and super easy!)

In my local grocery store, organic brown sugar is really expensive. However, I can mix organic sugar and organic molasses for as much brown sugar as I need for less money.

You can also make your own vanilla extract, which requires a little investment upfront but gives back in vanilla that lasts for years.

By soaking dry beans overnight, you’ll pay a fraction of the price of a can of beans.

Homemade salad dressings are ridiculously easy and can be made with common ingredients from your kitchen pantry.

make your own vanilla extract

5. Invest unexpected money in your pantry

This is one of my favorite tips. Consider adding to your pantry with extra money that comes in like birthday money or tax returns, etc.

I’m a big fan of using birthday money to stock up on meat. My birthday is in December, so it’s already an expensive time of year. It can help so much to add some extra ground beef and whole chickens to my chest freezer.

There’s also a local grocery store that does a Cyber Monday grocery sale every year. They sell $100 gift cards for $75 and each family can get a maximum of 4 cards. This makes it $300 for $400 worth of groceries.

I love to ask for these for my birthday and Christmas or I try to invest in them myself.

6. Watch the ads

Major grocery store chains will buy huge quantities of items and sell them off inexpensively as sales items.

Even if they aren’t making money or may even be losing money on these deals, they believe that just by getting you in the store, you’ll buy enough on other items to make it worth it.

Game the system and watch the sales flyers. If you see an item from your pantry staples list there at a great price, stock up!

Just be mindful to watch that grocery list or they’ll find a way to make that profit somewhere else.

stock a pantry

7. Stock up on meat

If you’re not a meat eater, skip this tip. If you are a meat eater…you know how expensive meat has become.

Meat is such a huge budget buster! Especially if you try to eat higher-quality meats, you know how expensive grass-fed and organic meats have become.

To resolve this, I typically try to stock up on meat by buying large quantities at once. This year, I split half a cow with my in-laws. It was a lot of money upfront (about $650 for our half), but it stocked our freezer for months.

We still have a bunch of it, although we flew threw the cheaper cuts like ground beef quickly.

To get the best deal on meat, I usually try to buy a package from a local farmer (a set number of pounds for a price), shop online, or stock up on good sales at the stores.

We have a local shop near us that sells pasture-raised chickens for about $9-10 each every few months. I’ll buy 4-5 at a time at that price.

I like to shop Wild Pastures to get high-quality beef, chicken, and pork at very competitive prices. These prices are not affordable for everyone, but every grocery store has sales on meat at different times. Simply buy what you can afford and store the excess in your freezer, if possible.

Read: Where is the Best Place to Buy Grass-fed Beef? Here’s My Advice

8. Skip the name brands

Most generic store brands are made by major manufacturers and they may actually be identical to the name brand products.

Especially if you try to buy organic products, generics are one of the best ways to make organic products fit a small food budget.

9. Shop the bulk bins

I love bulk bins for so many reasons: the low price per unit, the minimal packaging, and the wide variety of products available.

The second a company packages a product, they can typically sell it for more money. By shopping at the bulk bins, you can take advantage of that lower price and some stores may even allow you to fill your own jars for a truly zero-waste shopping experience.

P.S. I almost always buy spices in bulk because they are way cheaper!

Read: Zero Waste Pantry Staples for Beginners

bulk store bins

10. Compare unit prices

This is one of the easiest ways to make sure you’re getting the best price on your groceries. Plus, you don’t even really need to do the math!

Unit prices are simply the price per item or unit of measurement. If you’re buying something packaged in ounces, it would be the cost per ounce.

Most stores show the unit price on the label these days, which makes it even easier to judge which one is the lowest price.

If they don’t, simply divide the total cost by the number of items or ounces, etc.

11. Buy in bulk when appropriate

You will typically pay less when you buy a larger quantity of a product. One pound of brown rice is usually more expensive per pound than if you buy five pounds.

However, you have to be careful buying in bulk. It’s easy to overspend and buy way more than you need.

I usually find that when I buy things in bulk, I go through them faster. It’s like because I have so much of them, I want to use them more.

If I shop at a regular grocery store instead, I usually spend less money upfront and still get everything I need. Somehow, I can stretch a bag of X from Trader Joe’s but if I get a bigger one from Costco, it’s gone in a week.

When you have smaller quantities of things, you tend to use them more sparingly.

price shop local grocery stores

12. Compare your local grocery store options

For a long time, I would jump from store to store to find the best prices. I’d get these things at Costco, those at Fred Meyer, these ones at Grocery Outlet, take a trip to Trader Joe’s for that, etc.

Heaven forbid my husband shop at the wrong store for an item and over-pay!

Yes, I was getting the lowest price per item, but I was spending way more time and gas money driving all over the place.

The solution is to compare prices at your local grocery stores.

In my workbook Make Over Your Meal Plan, I share a printable tool that helps you track prices at a handful of different stores. With online shopping, you can calculate a lot of these prices without even leaving home.

Track a whole bunch of your most commonly purchased items and see which one is cheaper overall.

Then, make that grocery store your primary shopping location. Even if you pay slightly more for one item, the savings on the other items will make it worth it.

Plus, you’ll save so much time and gas money!

make over your meal plan

Learn how to meal plan once and for all

In this workbook, I applied my professional background as a teacher to break meal planning into the easiest, bite-sized pieces. It’s as easy as answering a few questions!

13. Know your stock-up price

If you’ve compared unit prices, you’re going to know what’s the normal price for white rice or peanut butter.

If you see that item for significantly less than that price, it’s time to buy a few extra. Depending on your budget, you can grab one or two extra or buy a case.

14. Flex with the seasons

Eating in season is almost always cheaper, fresher, and less wasteful than buying foods grown outside the growing season.

Be flexible with the fresh fruits and veggies you buy and allow your options to change with the seasons.

In the fall and winter, we eat a lot of pears, apples, and citrus. In the summer, we tend to eat a lot of stone fruits like plums, peaches, nectarines, etc.

free printable seasonal produce calendar

Get my free seasonal produce calendar

Learn which crops are ready to eat during each of the seasons. Print this & stick it on your fridge for easy meal planning!

stock pantry frugal

15. Learn to preserve

I love stocking my pantry, but it’s hard to store fresh fruits and local produce for longer than a few weeks.

Plus, local produce is typically really expensive here. I have a lot of tips about how to afford local produce on a budget based on my experience as a farmer’s market manager and seasonal farm helper!

One key tip is to prioritize storage crops like apples, pears, potatoes, winter squash, and onions.

For items that go bad more quickly, try to freeze, dry, or can as much as you can! You can also extend the life of your fresh veggies by learning how to store them properly.

Some of my favorite food preservation projects:

What’s your favorite trick about how to stock your pantry on a budget?

There are so many tips on how to stock your pantry on a budget and I hope you learned something that helped you! If you have a question about pantry items or living with a grocery budget, feel free to ask them in the comments below!

Get your pantry staples list now!

Cooking from scratch is a gift you can give yourself and your family! It’s way easier than you think and my free pantry staples list & meal planner will help you get started right away.

Send your free downloads directly to your inbox!

stock a pantry on a budget real food

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  1. What an awesome article! This is really helpful. I’ve really been trying to up my game when it comes to buying in bulk and it’s really paying off!

  2. I agree completely! I’ve always been a food hoarder, according to my family. I don’t hoard food per se, I just prefer to have a well stocked pantry so when the mood strikes, I have what I want. I love your list and thankfully, I can mark quite a few off it!

  3. It’s surprising how many of your tips I grew up using. For Mom and Dad money was feast or famine so they grew what they could–including meat and there was always the wild game and fishing harvests; my Dad hunted and fished to the legal limits EVERY year–bought staples in bulk and stocked up whenever we had the extra cash. One thing they did was look for marked down items. In many cases they are marked down because they didn’t sell and the store marks them down just to get rid of them. Or they may be fresh food that’s on the last day of sale. That happened to me just last week; I was in Aldi’s buying some pork when I spotted a markdown sticker on a five pound pack of chicken legs. The sell by date was the next day and they were almost half price. I grabbed them, packaged them for the freezer as soon as I got home and had roasted chicken legs for the next two months. The lesson I learned long ago? Go to the store with a list of what you need/are looking for but be flexible AND CAUTIOUS. Some bargains are not worth it. A friend brought home tuna from a fish market that had been marked down because one of display cases had failed and they needed to get rid of it. He made sushi that night and was in the hospital by midnight with food poisoning. He had trusted the fish market to tell him if the fresh tuna had not been under refrigeration–turns out it had been left out most of the day–in August. That fish monger is no longer in business; several of his customers that day got sick off the fish he sold at bargain prices without telling them how long it had been out. Dad was once offered some lobsters from a chain market that were left when their tank broke. Dad didn’t take them because the lobsters weren’t moving and smelled a little like ammonia. AND he told the fish manager and the customers surrounding them WHY he wasn’t buying them. AND made sure to stop and tell the manager on his way out of the store. Dad has always been very big on cleanliness and safety in food products and it carries over into his shopping.

    1. Tammy, Thanks so much for sharing your experiences! Isn’t it amazing how many of these ideas our parents or grandparents grew up with? My grandparents were born in the 20s, so they passed these ideas down to my mom, then me. They’re just as helpful now as they were back then. Thanks for visiting!

  4. I freeze things in food saver shrink wrap or zip lock bags to use later . Over ripe bananas freeze for banana bread . Tomatoes freeze for soup,chilli, spaghetti sauce. Squash slice or grate and freeze for soup ,casseroles, breads. I even freeze celery, chop onion, lettuce or cabbage (shred) all used in soup and casseroles. Summer fruit frozen for smoothies ,cobblers etc. Don’t throw it out, freeze and use it later.

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