Beverages are one of the easiest places to save money on your food bill. In order to do this we have to be willing to let go of old expensive attitudes and open the door to newer, cheaper ones. All beverages besides water, milk, and fruit juice are luxuries. This includes kool-aid, soda-pop, coffee, cocoa, tea, root-beer floats, cola, and almost any other beverage you can imagine. They add calories, caffeine, sugar, fizz and flavor to our diet. They do not add significant nutrition. When we buy these types of luxury beverages we are paying for someone else to combine water and flavorings for us, and then package them in a container that probably costs more than the beverage itself.
This doesn’t mean we need to give up our favorite beverages. It does mean that we need to recognize our favorite drinks for what they really are, luxuries. Then it’s a lot easier to put them in their place. We can become realistic about where they fit into our budgets. I do this by assigning beverages 1 of 4 labels: High Priority, Medium Priority, Low Priority, and No Way. The kids quickly learn this system, and actually stick by it pretty well. Below you will find a chart detailing the beverages that I usually fit into my budget, and the priority I have assigned them. Yours will be different; that is all right. I just want to give you an idea of how to begin to change the way you think about beverages.
Fruit Juice Concentrates
Evaporated Whole Milk
Sugar & Artificial Sweetener for Mixing our own Beverages
Unsweetened Cocoa Powder
Store Brand Unsweetened Fruit-Flavored Drink Mix
Bottled Lemon Juice
Store Brand Instant Coffee & Tea
Cheap Ground Coffee & Tea Bags
Store Brand, Canned 8-Vegetable Juice (low priority, but a real favorite of mine)
Fresh & Refrigerated Juices
Flavored Coffee & Tea
Juice Boxes or Pouches
Name Brand Soda-Pop & Cola
Most Canned & Bottled Juices & Punches
Your list won’t look exactly like mine, but it will probably be similar. If you notice, at the end of the Low Priority column, I list 8-Vegetable Juice. This is a long-time favorite of mine. I like to indulge in it when we have the extra cash. The rest of the family hates it though. This means that even though it may be very nutritious, it doesn’t have a regular place on my grocery list. If no one will drink it, it’s never a bargain. Instead it is special treat just for me. When everyone else gets soda-pop for a treat, I get a large can of store-brand Vegetable Juice, mmmmmm, delicious! When there is room in your budget for a luxury beverage, by all means indulge a little. It makes sticking to a tough budget a lot easier. Make sure the important things are purchased first. Buying your favorite soda-pop on sale for half price is false economy when you don’t have enough milk or juice to make it until next pay day.
Mix your Own for Biggest Savings:
The next step for saving money on beverages, is becoming willing to mix them up yourself. Most beverages can be mixed or brewed up at home, in your own kitchen, with a pitcher or blender, a big spoon, a bag of sugar, and a packet or jar of flavoring. This is true of milk, juice, coffee, tea, fruit-flavored drinks, milk shakes, slushies, smoothies, and a lot of other drinks too.
Mixing your own beverages takes commitment. It is easier to open up a carton of pre-mixed juice or fruit punch than it is to mix your own. If you read the labels on these beverages most are from concentrate or have added flavorings just like homemade. This means that you are paying someone else to open up a frozen can of juice concentrate, pour it into a pitcher, add 3 cans of water and stir. You have to shake the juice up anyway, so the stirring really doesn’t count. Usually even the least expensive cartons and bottles of juice cost twice as much as an equivalent amount of frozen, or canned juice concentrate. I cannot afford to pay someone else in a factory to prepare my beverages for me.
I mix up most of my beverages when I am cleaning up the kitchen at night. I have to check out the options for tomorrow’s lunch anyway, so I take stock of the beverage situation while I’m at it. Most cold beverages taste best if they are chilled overnight. When I mix them up before bed, they have ample time to chill by morning.
When you commit to mixing your own beverages, you need containers to mix or brew them in. I prefer to use 2-quart and gallon-sized pitchers. They are convenient for mixing and storing and very easy to keep clean. This becomes important when you find yourself mixing up to 4 different kinds of drinks a day. Yard sales are a good place to look for pitchers. Standard 2-quart size pitchers are pretty abundant these days. If you have a large family, you may want to invest in gallon size pitchers to reduce the number of containers in your fridge. I bought 5 of them at a local discount store, and they have made keeping up with the beverages easier for me. I still use a 2-quart pitcher for fruit juice, but for everything else, I make a gallon at a time.
If you cannot afford new drink containers, don’t worry. Free containers are available in the form of milk jugs, 2 & 3-liter bottles, on-sale-apple-juice-jars, and even half-gallon pickle jars. Use what ever is cheapest and most readily available. If necessary, a bottle brush and a little bleach may be used to ensure cleanliness. Narrow mouthed jars are easier to fill if you use a funnel. I jab a chop stick or spoon handle down the funnel spout to keep things moving if they appear clogged.
For a whole page about Powdered Milk click here.
Fruit-Flavored Drink Mix: These are usually cheapest in a store brand, or off-brand. I regularly find them 10/$1 at a local dollar store. There aren’t as many flavors available as in the name brand. The main ones: orange, lemon, cherry, fruit punch and grape, are available, and provide plenty of variety. I use 2/3-cup of sugar for each packet of drink mix. Most packages call for a full cup, but I’ve found 2/3-cup works just as well. Some people use 1/2-cup and find their flavor-ade is plenty sweet. If you prefer yours sugar-free, then sweeten it with artificial sweetener to taste. I usually use 12 packets of artificial sweetener to 1 packet of drink mix. Fred is diabetic, and finds this much to his liking.
Fruit Juice Concentrate: These are available frozen, and have just recently become available in 12 oz cans as well. The cans are usually found on a top shelf of the juice aisle. They are sometimes cheaper than their frozen counterparts, so be sure to price them when you are at the store. Often store-brand frozen juice concentrates are your best buy though. Orange, Apple, and Grape Juice usually have the lowest price per ounce. Read the cans to make sure that you are buying 100% juice, instead of juice cocktail or “ade”. If you are going to pay the money for juice, you might as well get the real thing. I prefer to buy juices that are enriched with vitamin C, but this is a personal matter. I am not willing to pay extra for the enrichment. Lemonade, made from bottled lemon juice is an excellent source of vitamin C. Even though it has sugar added to it, I include it in this category because of it’s nutritional benefits.
Tea, Fresh Brewed or Instant: Whether you prefer it freshly brewed and hot or icy cold, tea is one of the biggest beverage bargains these days. I usually buy tagless tea bags in a 100 count box for 99¢. This works out to 1¢ a cup! I am addicted to caffeine, and tea bags are the least expensive way for me to feed my habit. An entire pitcher of iced tea is less than a dime. I prefer it unsweetened, but you can easily add your own sugar if you like yours sweet; 1/2 cup of sugar per 2-quart pitcher is about right.
If hot beverages are more your cup of tea, then tea bags offer a variety of options. Orange or lemon peel, dry or fresh mint, lemon juice, garden herbs and evaporated milk can all be added to plain hot tea for variety. An old favorite is English Breakfast Tea. Add a teaspoon of sugar and a tablespoon of evaporated milk to a cup of hot tea and stir. This is quite enriching early in the morning.
Instant tea is handy to have around too. Store brands are often affordable, and are sometimes even cheaper per cup than tea bags. A 3oz jar of plain instant tea will make 30 quarts of iced tea. A 100 count box of tea bags will make 25 quarts of tea. If the 3oz jar is about the same price as the 100 count box, then it is a very good deal. I like instant tea for homemade tea mixes, and also for quick iced tea in the summertime. I use 3 level tablespoons of plain instant tea for a 2-quart pitcher, and 1/3 cup for a gallon. Add sugar if you like. An old trick is to put 2 to 4 tablespoons of lemon juice in with the tea to make it sparkle. You can’t really taste the lemon, but the overall flavor of the tea is improved.
Coffee, Fresh Brewed or Instant: I buy both instant and ground coffee. Instant coffee is good for making flavored coffee mixes. If you have ever found yourself paying $3 or more for a cup of cappuccino, then you really owe it to yourself to mix up a batch of flavored coffee in your own kitchen. For the price of one 12oz ready-made gourmet coffee, you can prepare enough homemade coffee mix to last a month. This is very significant savings. When making flavored coffees, I use the absolutely cheapest instant coffee I can find. The coffee is glorified by all the sugar, milk and flavorings, making the flavor of the coffee itself less noticeable.
Fresh Brewed coffee tastes better than instant. I prefer to buy it in large cans. The price per ounce is usually less this way, but not always. Compare prices with the vacuum packed coffee “bricks” to be sure. One nice thing about the large cans of coffee, is that when the can is empty, it can be reused. I wash mine with hot soapy water, dry them thoroughly, and cover them with contact paper. Then I use them to store my homemade baking mixes and granola. They look very pretty all lined up next to each other on the shelf.
Ray has a way to make a pot of coffee go a little farther. He prepares the first pot the normal way, in the coffee maker, using 1/3 cup of ground coffee per pot. When it is gone, he adds 3 tablespoons of new grounds to the old grounds in the filter. He then runs a full pot of water through the mixture of old and new grounds. I can’t tell the difference between the first batch and the second batch. Another thing he does, is to pour the coffee in an insulated pitcher or thermos instead of keeping it on the the eye of the coffee maker. He preheats the pitcher with hot tap water, and then pours in the hot, fresh coffee. We find that the coffee tastes better because it doesn’t develop that bitter “burnt” flavor from sitting on the hot eye of the coffee maker for too long.
If you prefer your coffee with cream, the most luxurious thing to use is whole evaporated milk. A large can costs about fifty cents, and lasts the whole week. This is one of my favorite luxuries in life; coffee and “cream” mmmm, decadent. A fat-free option is to stir powdered milk directly into the coffee. Usually a teaspoon or two is enough to lighten it sufficiently. Sugar or Artificial Sweetener can be added to taste.
Soda Pop & Colas: I grew up poor, and colas weren’t available very often, so I never developed a hankering for soft drinks. Then I married a man who drank a 2-liter of cola every day (before he developed diabetes). I became much more aware of how deeply soda drinking has infiltrated our society. In our culture, it is almost more common to drink soda pop than water. If you don’t have much money to spend on food, then it’s a bad idea to drink a can of pop, or an entire 2-liter every day. Soda Pop is a luxury, not a necessity. Buy the basics before you splurge on cola.
When you do buy soda pop, there are a few ways to save money on it. Avoid brand loyalty; national brands will always cost more money. Stick with the store brands for the most savings. At my stores, I’m able to find Gingerale, Dr. Perky, Cola, Root Beer, Cream Soda, Lemon-Lime, Mountain-Lightening, Grape, Orange, and several diet varieties too. All of these are available for between 50¢ and 60¢ per 2-liter. This is fully half the price of name brands. Which brings me to the next point, 2-liters and 3-liters are almost always better buys than 12 packs.
Some people don’t buy large bottles because it goes flat before they get a chance to drink it all. If this is one of your concerns, then try the following trick. Squeeze the air out of the bottle, until the level of the soda rises close to the top. Then screw the cap on tightly. The bottle will be dented. Reducing the amount of air in the bottle, preserves the fizz for a longer time. We do this with all of our pop bottles, and it really works! If saving money is your highest priority, then stick with store-brand 2 & 3-liters.
If you absolutely need individual drinks then store-brand 12 packs are the way to go. They are always better buys than juice boxes or pouches. My kids sometimes need lunches that are completely disposable for school field trips. I give them each a can of soda pop, and they feel like they are getting something really special.
Children will mimic the behavior they see in their parents. If you show them that sodas are a luxury and not a right, they will treat them this way. If they see you buying soda pop, when you’ve already told them that you don’t have any money left for luxuries, they will learn that soda is is more important than milk, bread and vegetables, which is not in their or your best interest.
Water: Never underestimate the power of water to quench a hearty thirst. Nutritionists say we need 8 cups or two quarts each day. When we keep our bodies hydrated our skin seems softer, we protect our urinary tract and kidneys, we keep our weight down, and mostly we allow ourselves to achieve optimum health. I keep a pop bottle of water in the refrigerator at all times. When the kids come inside from playing all day, the first thing they always go for is the cold water in the fridge. If you have a large family, it’s a good idea to keep a couple of large bottles or pitchers of water in the fridge, especially during the summer months.
We don’t drink bottled water at our house. We think it is ridiculous to spend a dollar or more on a penny’s worth of water. I keep a jug of water in the van so we can quench our thirst while we travel. This gets a lot of use in the summertime especially. If you need individual bottles of water, then get empty bottles from friends, bleach them well, and refill them with water. If all your friends are as frugal as you are, then check out your local dollar store. Ours has bottled water at 3/$1. For $2 I can get 6 good bottles to refill all summer long. Be sure to teach the kids to refill their own bottles, and even write each person’s name on theirs with permanent marker for easy identification. They can learn to fill up their own bottles before going on any car trips. Teach the kids by example, make sure they see the adults in the house drinking water too. It is infinitely cheap, healthy, and one of the miracles of modern civilization.
One last note. The biggest stumbling block I have experienced to mixing my own beverages, is having a sink full of dirty dishes. I cannot fit the pitchers or jugs under the spigot when the sink is overflowing with clutter. One of the biggest boosts I gave myself was vowing to keep the dishes done. Not only are beverages easier to make, but all of the cooking I need to do everyday, is a hundred times easier. If you can only afford to give yourself one free gift this year, give yourself the gift of finally conquering the dishes. You will always be blessed by an empty sink.