Broke with $20 to Buy Groceries for a Week

More times than I can remember I’ve stared inside a mostly empty fridge and opened cupboards looking for something to eat. A week or longer until payday, I had to figure out how to buy groceries with $20.

Since the pandemic hit, too many people are in a similar situation. A lot of people have lost jobs or had their hours cut back and are struggling to survive.

2023 update

This post has been updated for 2023. Click below!

Broke with $20 to Buy Groceries in 2023

Food banks

For the first time in their lives, people are going to food banks for help getting meals on the table. One in five Americans have gone to a food bank since the pandemic began.

Some food banks were set up to assist specific people, like this one for out of work casino workers in Atlantic City who lined up in their cars for miles.

Food insecurity is on the rise in Canada, and that’s directly related to low or no income households. Food banks are struggling to keep up with the extra demand, and food bank clients are dealing with longer distance as food banks close in Vancouver for a more centralized distribution.

In October, Canada’s federal government added another $100 million to the Emergency Food Security Fund.

If you need food bank assistance, do a Google search for “food banks near me” or “food banks” and your city.

If you’re not in need of food bank services, please consider donating extra food or cash to your local food bank.


My younger self kept a few packages of instant noodles, Jell-O, bread, margarine, tuna, popcorn, milk and cereal in the house. That was everything I needed for breakfast, lunch, dinner, dessert, and a snack.

This is about surviving. Not about eating tasty, gourmet meals.

It’s also about how to make do with less.

Check your fridge, freezer, and cupboards for anything that can be eaten. Maybe you can eat down your pantry while waiting for money to come in.

You might already have items in the house like condiments and seasonings to help make a meal less bland.

Instant noodles

Although not exactly healthy, or keep you feeling full for a long time, instant noodles are usually economical, around 25¢ each. I used to hard boil an egg and slice it onto my noodles.

Every now and then I spot a package of noodles in the store, and if I have money to spare, I’ll put it in my cart. At Walmart a 12-pack of their Great Value vegetable noodles costs around $2. Or at least it did before the pandemic hit. I haven’t checked the price recently! I still have a couple left in the cupboard.

At the Real Canadian Superstore I used to buy a 24 pack of the President’s Choice shrimp flavored instant noodles for around $3. I haven’t seen them on the shelf in a long time.

There are other flavors available of both these brands like chicken and beef, but they’re not much interest to people who don’t eat meat!

Peanut butter

If you have peanut butter in the house – excellent! Here’s a tip: always buy another jar of peanut butter as soon as you open a new jar.

It’s kind of like the royal family – an heir and a spare.

I always have a spare jar of peanut butter on hand, so even if things get really tight for me in the money department, that peanut butter can take me through a few meals until the next time I get money.

If you have flour, yeast, sugar, and vegetable oil, you can bake an easy loaf of bread.

If you have at least ½ cup of peanut butter and flour, sugar, milk, and baking powder, you can bake a peanut butter bread for making sandwiches or toast. Slice the loaf after it’s cooled, and freeze what you don’t need so you can eat later in the week.

1932 Five Roses No Yeast Peanut Butter Bread 2

I make open faced peanut butter sandwiches. The loaf of bread lasts longer that way! I slice up a banana on top of the peanut butter and that’s a filling meal. If you don’t have bananas on hand, but have apples, slice up an apple to top off the peanut butter.


What did you find when you looked in your cupboards, fridge, and freezer? Any foods that you can add to something you buy with that $20 in order to make a meal? Or at least a tastier meal.

If you have frozen vegetables in the freezer, you can make soup. No soup stock? Use water and herbs and spices you have on hand. If you have lentils or barley in the cupboard, put them into the soup. Do you have an Instant Pot? Throw everything inside and press the Soup button on the program menu. If not, put the ingredients into a pot, put it on your stove top, bring to a boil, and then let it simmer for half an hour or so.

Soup always tastes better the next day, so make enough for at least one more meal..

Dollar store

Check out the dollar store for cheap groceries. In the states, many dollar stores sell perishable items like eggs, cheese, milk, bread and frozen foods.

We’re still waiting for that to happen in Canada!

The dollar store will usually have cans of soup and beans for a dollar, pasta, pasta sauce, and canned vegetables. You can probably spend $20 and buy enough food to last the week. Many of these foods can be made into more than one meal. Put it in the fridge and reheat the leftovers for your next meal.

$20 grocery list

If you have $20 in your wallet and need to buy groceries to last a week, first of all, look around your pantry and see what canned goods, dry goods, and frozen food you have that can be used for meal preparation. Maybe you can even put off grocery shopping for a few days and eat what you have on hand! Here are some suggestions for low cost groceries to tide you over:

  1. Eggs – this is a great, low cost meal option. Depending on where you live a dozen eggs might cost $2, and probably no more than $4 if you live in a high cost area. I recommend hard boiling them as it’ll seem like you’re eating more. If you have an Instant Pot, see my post on making hard boiled eggs in the Instant Pot.
  2. Beans – canned beans can usually be found for $1 or less, or get more for your money and buy dry beans in the bulk aisle, soak overnight, and cook at home. The bulk bins usually have a scale, so weigh before you take them to the cash register, to make sure you’re under budget. Beans are filling and a good source of protein. If using dry beans, make enough to cover two or three meals.
  3. Rice – you can buy rice in the bulk aisle and get as much as you need, using the scale to match your budget. However, don’t discount the international section of the grocery store or small produce/grocery stores that stock a lot of Asian groceries. Sometimes you can buy several pounds of rice for less than $5.
  4. Oats – seeing as how you’re in the bulk aisle, buy oats and cook them for breakfast with brown sugar, cinnamon, or fruit if you have any.
  5. Skim milk powder – if you don’t have milk at home, and can’t afford to buy a jug, purchase skim milk powder while you’re in the bulk section.
  6. Potatoes – another filling food item. You can either buy potatoes singularly, or look for any specials in a bag. Sometimes you can buy a 10 pound bag of potatoes for $2 or $3. I find small produce or ethnic stores often have better prices than big grocery chains.
  7. Bananas – they fill you up and are usually not too expensive. You can weigh them in the produce section before you buy and keep it under $2.
  8. Frozen fruit and vegetables – as a single I tend to buy a lot of frozen produce because it beats buying fresh produce that goes bad before I can eat it. Cruise past your frozen section and look for items on sale.

If you have enough money to do so, try keeping a bag of apples and potatoes in the house. Often they’re sold cheaper by the bag, they last longer than other perishables, and they’re filling.

When you get more money coming in, just about all the items on this list can be purchased in larger bags, bringing down the cost and making them last longer. I keep oats in the freezer and I buy the largest bags of frozen vegetables when I go shopping, All 8 items on this list are in my house right now, and I recommend you also keep them on hand.

As your financial situation improves, add a couple extra canned goods to your shopping cart, especially sale items. The day will come when you’ll be grateful for your little stockpile.

Published by Cheryl @ The Lifestyle Digs on November 7, 2020 and updated on July 3, 2021.
More reading:

21 Budget Meals when Money is Tight

Low Cost Homemade Meals and Baking

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