Grocery Budget Makeover: Meet Jamey

Jamey is our final Grocery Budget Makeover participant. She lives with her family in the Washington, D.C. area. Jamey is married with three children and shops at the military commissary. She spends about $580 a month shopping once or a twice a week. She uses coupons occasionally.

Here is Jamey’s story.

We are a one-income family with three young children (2,3, and 4 years old), and my husband is enlisted in the military. We are trying to learn how to track our money and be responsible with it, but it’s been a steep learning curve for us. We are now dealing with trying to keep a grocery budget while dealing with food allergies for one of our children.We completed an international adoption this past year and are close to paying off our revolving debt, but then there are college loans, a car loan, and various saving goals. There are only so many places where we can eliminate spending and groceries are currently my focus.

Jamey has one child who is dairy free and is also trying to eat a more vegetarian diet. While she does live in a high cost of living area, she has the advantage of shopping at the commissary which is usually cheaper than shopping off base. If you have any tips for Jamey leave them in the comments.


  1. I feel your pain. We have multiple food intolerances and couple of allergies here, and are also a military family living in the DC area. It’s tough to shop on a budget with restrictions like that. I highly recommend you check out a local international grocery store. You can probably find good deals on produce, rice, and beans. We eat lots of beans here, as about 90% of our meals are vegetarian, and it’s really hard to beat around $1/lb on dried beans that’ll feed you for several days. (I will say, I don’t live near a commissary so I can’t comment on local prices, only that the international market near us is cheaper than the commissary we USED to live near in a different state.)

  2. diane etherton says:

    You should have an Aldi’s near you: a small store with high-quality, inexpensive basics and staples. There are very few items for which we buy name brands, so I don’t bother with coupons. The idea of complementary proteins is very helpful (Diet for a Small Planet), and I’ve read recently that exact ratios aren’t important: just keep the categories in mind so you are aware of how much protein you’re eating. For us, meat is a flavorful garnish; the only time it’s a main course is for celebration and feast meals. Dairy-free is tough because milk is easy nutrition. Try to find out if it’s milk fat, protein, or sugar that’s the trouble bc you may be able to use a few dairy products. We found bean and lentil meals that our children liked, and we encouraged them to prepare food themselves as soon as practical. Give each person a stake in the process: everyone gets a few favorite treats and meals, and sometime we eat things that aren’t our favorites, but that’s what there is to eat. Your family is unique, and, while eating on a budget is frustrating at times, it’s also a fun and ever-changing opportunity to grow together.

  3. I don’t have first-hand experience with food allergies, but I’ve heard a lot of people say that it can be cheaper to make convenience items yourself instead of shelling out big bucks for the allergen-free version. Granola bars, bread or hamburger buns, tortillas, etc. are all things I’ve made successfully at home without dairy. Good luck with it!

  4. DgsandBJsMom says:

    We have mutliple allergies at our house. My husband can not have coffee, sausage, cayenne pepper, paprika, onions: my daughter needs a high fiber diet and I am allergic to preservatives including the natural ones. This has all caused me to become quiet a good cook as I have been forced to cook from scratch. In our area we only have a WalMart so I buy in bulk at a Costco 150 miles away every couple of months. We eat a diet rich in potatoes, whole wheat pasta and rice with fresh vegetables and meat. I checked the prices of some gluten free items which would not have the perservatives and a pound of pasta was $3.00. It is very hard to find whole wheat lasagna noodles so I have not decided whether it is worth it or not.

  5. I’m lactose intolerant and eat almost no soy. I buy rice milk at Trader Joe’s, their store brand is so much cheaper than anything else I can find. They also have soy milk. I use rice milk one for one in all recipes. If you need something thicker than milk try canned coconut milk. It’s great in potato soup.

  6. Use swagbucks for amazon gift cards. You can “buy” expensive dairy free items this way.

    This: is a great recipe for dairy, egg free dough. You can turn it into breadsticks or make individual pizza’s that can be tailored to taste. That way you can omit cheese or buy soy cheese for the kid that needs it. Everyone else can have regular pizza.

    Also look into buying in bulk. Can you split a costco membership with another family? Buy 1/2 a cow? I know you want to eat more veg, but buying meat in bulk can save some $. Also check out the Dutch Market in Germantown, MD they have some good buys. Try ethnic stores, and by veggies in season and freeze enough to last you through the winter.

  7. Hubby and I both were in the military. The only time the commissary was cheaper is when we lived over seas. Once we were back stateside we shopped the regular grocery stores. It was way cheaper. I think the difference for us was we shopped for all of our groceries once a month, except for milk.
    If anyone has an Aldi’s around this is where we save the most money. We also shop at Price Rite, and what I can’t find there we get at Walmart. We also do a once a month shopping at BJ’s which is mainly for our critter food and kitty litter, since they are the cheapest for that.
    Once in awhile I do shop the chain grocery stores, but I do try to use coupons where I can.
    I’m also working on trimming our grocery budget also.

  8. Dairy-free is hard, not going to lie there. I think the key is not to rely on substitutes (even Trader Joes store-brand almond milk is expensive!), but to find cuisines and meals that don’t even think about dairy. Think different ethnic meals like Mexican (you don’t need the cheese), Indian (oh yummy yum yum), and Mediterranean (fish, veggies, etc).

    Being vegetarian is easy! My top meals: homemade pizza (with whatever we have on it, again you don’t need the cheese, just add herbs and veggies to your heart’s content), beans and rice (on tortillas, preferably corn, if we have them, otherwise in a bowl), veggies and hummus or other bean dip, and a meal of side (squash, spinach, rice, fruit).

    Also – oatmeal is cheap, filling, and delicious. I highly recommend it for breakfast.

  9. I am also a military wife and we are a one income family of three. We spend about $250 – 275 a month at the commissary per month and we do eat meat – my husband likes his meat with almost every meal! That being said, I can’t relate to having a child with a dairy allergy or going vegetarian, but I would think you would save by not buying much meat. I live in Washington State, which also has high prices, and I would say that the commissary is the best deal around. I have really started budgeting and paying attention to our grocery bill in the last year, and I would say the three best things that have helped me are going to the store every two weeks (this eliminates extra spending for me), menu planning (breakfasts, lunch, dinner) so I know exactly what to buy and can buy ingredients to use in multiple meals, and using coupons! I highly recommend you use more coupons. Not only do the commissaries have tons of pull off coupons in the aisles, but I use the web to get tons of other coupons. I would suggests checking out for sales and to pair them with coupons, and you can print off coupons in minutes from, redplum, and smartsource. My final advice would be to be patient – it takes a while to get the hang of using coupons and implementing strategies to save money. Best of luck!

  10. One money savingt ip I have for you is to buy your veggies when they’ve been marked down (not sure how the commisary may do it though). But usually my local grocery store waits until Sunday, Monday and Tuesday to mark things down like bagged salads, over ripe tomatoes, and ltos of organic veggies get the “Manager’s Special” sticker on thsoe days. Now of course it’s always best to watch for great sales on produce and stock up. One way you can do this without having to throw out any gone bad is to invest in a FoodSaver sealer and freeze them or if you prefer fresh over frozen then I highly recommend Fridge Smart containers from Tupperware. We love salds here so I’ll buy the bagged salads when they’re marked cheap, cheap and then keep it in my FridgeSmart for up to two weeks without hardly any browing. Now some may be wrinkling at their nose but trust me, it tastes just as good! Good luck to you Jamey and hope tis helps.

  11. In addition to the comments above, note that asian food is generally completely milk-free *and* high in vegetables!

  12. I’m also in the Washington DC area and shop at a Commissary (Walter Reed). I think it’s just so important to know your prices. Milk and meat are so much cheaper at the Commissary. We live near a Shoppers, so it’s easy for me to pick up bananas for .48/pound instead of .58/per pound at the Commissary. Spinach and greek yogurt are much cheaper at Costco and since the gas savings already covers our membership, it’s worth it. Ditto on the international markets too. I got 3 pounds of curry the other day for $4. I had to give a bunch away since that’s probably a lifetime supply for me! And it’s so much better than what I’d get at the Commissary. I don’t buy anything from the refrigerated section at them though. Bad experiences with that! My SIL is an Army spouse and was worried when she moved here (Ft Belvoir). When they were in Germany, they qualified for WIC. Here, they don’t. A few coupon trips to Rite Aid and they’re doing better here than they were on WIC. You can do it!! Speaking of WIC, look into it if you haven’t!

  13. Food allergies are tough. We’ve been there. We are down to only a nut/peanut allergy. That seems like a piece of cake compared to when we had to worry about eggs, milk and red dye as well. We made a lot of our own stuff from scratch. There are ways to make it even more convenient. I would double recipes. For instance, if I was making pancakes I would measure out a second batch of dry ingredients and put them in a storage container. Then all I had to do is add the wet ingredients later. I made my own spice mixes the same way. Made it easier for my husband to pitch in and help in the kitchen. Sometimes the rest of my family would complain about the allergy safe recipe. Just not the same. When that was the case, I would sometimes return to the original recipe and make a seperate one for the allergy kid(s). Lasagna with the cheese and a small one with tofu, for example. I did break down and purchase some things that were only for the allergy kid(s). I would shop the special bargains and deals for the rest of the family and spend where I needed to meet the needs of the restricted diets. My sister coined the phrase “happy tummy” for us. That was our code word for our then 1 and 3 years olds for the things they could eat. If they ate allergens, their tummies were not happy and we all knew it.

  14. See if there is a farmer’s market in your area. I know commissary prices are pretty good but if they are importing produce it may not be the best price especially if it’s organic. Another tip is to not buy too many “special” ingredients. For example, chicken, broccoli, rice, potatoes, and celery can be put into a few different meals like chicken pot pie, chicken and rice w/broccoli, and broccoli & cheese soup. In my house, when I buy heavy cream, it usually goes to waste because I only needed it for one meal. As for making things from scratch, the old Good Housekeeping Cookbook will never do you wrong!

  15. I use canned coconut milk for my cooking that requires milk. We drink raw milk, but I don’t like to use it for baking/cooking. Diluted one to one with water coconut milk is a delicious alternative to milk, minimally processed and very affordable. I use it for everything that calls for milk…drinking, baked goods, even gravy and potato soup! I was shocked that it doesn’t have the flavor of coconut…it has a mild tasting, neutral flavor. The benefit though, is that it makes baked goods richer than using almond or rice milk. (I never use soy…it’s highly allergic in and of itself and contains way too many phyto-estrogens to be healthy for anyone, especially children.)
    Here’s a recipe for what is referred to as coconut milk tonic ( You can google it and find quite a few sites on it. By adding 1 teaspoon dolomite powder (from your health food store and lasts forever!) to the basic recipe, it has the same caloric and calcium profile as milk. I buy the Thai brand because it doesn’t have a lot of extra ingredients (emulsifiers, etc) but an even better brand is Native Forest.
    As far as making a food budget stretch, you might look into the old fashioned envelope system. I have a grocery budget similar in expense as yours with 4 children over 10 in my house. I take my monthly allotment and divide it into subcategories…milk/eggs/butter (no skimping here!), meat, and a third category that I call “rotating pantry”. This is an amount I track very carefully by buying in bulk certain items that store well and are cheaper purchased in bulk (oats, flour, sugar, coconut oil, beans, rice, pasta). I roughly calculated how long 25-50# of each item I place in this category will last, and made up a schedule for purchasing one or two each month. This way, I always have them on hand and can take advantage of bulk buying. This month I am buying 25# rice and 10# cornmeal. Last month I bought a gallon of coconut oil, next month it’s olive oil and 25# pasta. Each envelope builds with any extra that isn’t used from it in a given month. As it builds it provides a cushion to buy something else in bulk quantity that I don’t normally get to buy…one time I had enough built up to buy a gallon of maple syrup!
    Then what is left I divide into 4 portions (one per week) and I know that’s what I have to spend on incidentals when I go to the store…the things that fill out my cooking/baking…the things that I’ll need to prepare what I’ve sketched out for the month. Yes, I make out a rough monthly plan…not one I’m married to, but one that will help me spend what I have most efficiently. If I get to the end of the month and still have a little money in this envelope, I use it to buy ahead the things I know I like to stock up on…coconut milk, butter, chocolate chips, things I want to always have a surplus of and not take a chance of running out.
    I also put $25 in a “holiday/company” envelope envelope. This will build after a month or two to give you a cushion for when you invite someone over and you want to fix something more exotic than usual; or will build so that at Christmas or birthdays you have a little extra to work with. I never touch this for routine purchases, and my children have grown up having fun helping spend this at the holidays!
    Wow! That was longer than I intended, but I’m pretty passionate about saving money and living within my means. Both are Biblical principles that have served me well for nearly 29 years of marriage though! Blessings as you seek to provide for your precious family and honor your husband by being a wise steward! 🙂

  16. Hello:-) we have two children with AS and they have asthma, allergies, and are lactose intolerant–bot that was a mouthful. We were in the military a while back and found that making our own soy milk, breads, muffins, and anything else from scratch really helped our budget—10 years later we are still doing it–have patience and remind yourself you have more time than money and you are providing a healthy diet for your children.

  17. Terri Layne says:

    Love the picture of your adorable family! Don’t know if you live on base or not–we lived on Bolling AFB for about 10 years till my husband retired (also an enlisted man) 4 years ago. I thought I would die when we moved off base and I had to start shopping the economy here in Northern Virginia. The commissary on Bolling is well worth shopping at and significantly cheaper. I shop the sales/loss leaders at Giant, Safeway and Shoppers and use coupons and catalinas. The disadvantage to the commissary is that they do not double coupons-still overall they are cheaper.

    There is an Aldi’s on Rte 1 south of the Beltway. Walmart can have some good deals. However, you may be limited on the time you have to run all over town, especially with three little ones. (Also your sanity must be taken into account! 🙂

    Don’t know if you are an adoptive or foster family. We have two girls from China and would love to meet you sometime. Nice group of foster parents and an adoptive/foster support group at our church also. Please email me separately if you would like to get together and commiserate about the expense of living in the DC area :-), and just get to know another multicultural family.

    Bless you!

  18. You definitely need Aldi! Just reading the banana prices above alone convinced me of that! They are about $.39 a pound at Aldi. Milk is $2.29. I, too, was going to suggest the Aldi on Rt. 1 in Alexandria (and 2 more a little further south, in Woodbridge), but I see Terri Layne already did that!! Even using coupons on name-brands is almost always more expensive than getting the “basics” at Aldi. You have to bag your own groceries (and buy their bags unless you bring your own or use the boxes from the shelves ~ they allow you to do this!)…and, you have to use cash or your ATM card ~ they do not take credit cards or checks!! I get all the basics at Aldi, and then buy the rest based on ads. Making a meal plan for the week has been a real time and money saver for me ~ I’m new to a weekly meal plan myself ~ and we are actually eating everything in the fridge before it goes bad … THAT is huge for me! We used to throw away a trash bag full of food every week! Sad, but true ~ teenagers!!

  19. Merri J. says:

    I wished we only spent $580 a month. we are a family of 4 and shop at our commissary weekly spending over $1000 a month. We eat almost all frest fruits and vegi’s. Two children are lactose intolerant and allergic to soy. Let me know when someone has some tips to lower my commissary bill

  20. A few years after becoming a stay at home mom, someone recommended Amy Dacyczyn’s book to me, The Complete Tightwad Gazette. I really can’t say enough about this book! I’ve learned so much from it, and reread it about once a year as a refresher course! See if you can sign it out from your local library or inter-library loan. There are often so many little leaks in the boat, where money just can slip away unaccounted for, aren’t there? This book is STILL revolutionary and relevant, and after all these years is still seen as the “bible” of frugal living. You can see a recent interview with Amy online if you google her name. Hope this helps, Susan (homeschooling momma of 8 .. one girl, then seven boys….all awesome! LOL)

  21. Terri Layne says:

    HI, could someone pass on my email address to Jamey? It’s up to her of course if she wants to contact me, but I would love to meet her and have our kids play together sometime. We have an adoption support group at our church which will be meeting again soon, and also usually has a swim event at the end of the year.
    Ditto your advice to shop at the commissary!

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