Help with Food Costs


woman purchasing milkEven when you know which foods you should choose for your health, being able to pay for those foods might be hard, especially if you are on a fixed income. Start by deciding how much you can afford to spend on food. There are websites that can help you plan a food budget. For example, the U.S. Department of Agriculture supports the website Spend Smart-Eat Smart through Iowa State University. This website also has inexpensive recipes based on the Dietary Guidelines.

If you don’t have access to the Internet, you can call the Iowa State University Extension offices at 1-515-296-5883. Their staff will help you develop a food budget.

Once you have a budget, read the store ads in the newspaper to see what is on sale. Try to plan some meals around featured items, and pick up some extra canned goods or staples that are on sale. But, stocking up on sale items only makes good sense if they are foods you would buy anyway. And check the expiration or use-by date. A product might be on sale because it is almost out of date. Choose items with dates farthest in the future.

Some ways to save money when grocery shopping are:

  • clipping couponsAsk about discounts. Ask your local grocery stores if they have a senior discount or a loyalty or discount card. Besides getting items at a lower price, you may also get store coupons.
  • Use coupons to help you save money. Remember that coupons only help if they are for things you would buy anyway. Sometimes, another brand costs less even after you use the coupon.
  • Consider store brands—they usually cost less. These products are made under a special label, sometimes with the store name. You might have to look on shelves that are higher or lower than eye level to find them.
  • Be aware that convenience costs more. You can often save money if you are willing to do a little work. For example, buy whole chickens and cut them into parts; shred or grate your own cheese; make your own yogurt smoothie; and avoid instant rice or instant oatmeal. Bagged salad mixes cost more and might not stay fresh as long as a head of lettuce.
  • food label with unit priceLook at unit prices. Those small stickers on the shelves tell you the price but also the unit price—how much the item costs per ounce, per pound, or for a standard number. Compare unit prices to see which brand is the best value.
  • Try to buy in bulk, but only buy a size you can use before it goes bad. If you buy meat in bulk, decide what you need to use that day and freeze the rest in portion-sized packages right away.
  • Focus on economical fruits and vegetables like bananas, apples, oranges, cabbage, sweet potatoes, dark-green leafy vegetables, green peppers, and regular carrots.
  • Think about the foods you throw away. For less waste, buy or cook only what you need.
  • Resist temptations at the check-out. Those snack foods and candy are put there for impulse buying. Save money and empty calories!
  • Make smart choices. Choose less red meat, processed foods, baked goods, and snacks. You’ll save money and make smart food choices too.

National Resources for Locating Help with Food Costs

man and woman looking at a book while grocery shoppingThere are several ways to learn more about programs that offer help with meals or food costs. You could contact each program listed above separately, or you could use one of these services:

No matter how careful you are, the cost of food can still eat up a big part of your budget. There may be additional help. For more resources to help with shopping and food costs, visit Learn More.

Meal Delivery

While some older people have trouble finding enough money to buy food, others need help preparing meals. There are a variety of groups around the country that deliver meals to people who have trouble getting out of their homes. These groups usually offer one hot meal a day. One of the largest is the Meals on Wheels Association of America.

What's On Your Plate? is based on the nutrition recommendations for older adults in the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2010 from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS).