Having a stockpile of pantry items has always been a good idea. It’s the way our grandparents and great-grandparents survived the Great Depression and other lean times. Recent circumstances have driven home the fact that we need to have basic items on hand in case we can’t get to the grocery store or because items are scarce. But unless you’ve got a lot of extra money tucked away you may be wondering how to stock a pantry when you’re broke.
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Why you need a pantry stockpile
Recent events have had lots of folks scrambling at the grocery store. Either because they couldn’t go to the grocery store as often as they needed to or were used to, or because items were in short supply when they finally DID get to the grocery store.
Even in the best of times it’s generally not possible to just waltz in to the grocery store and load up enough items to stock your pantry for a couple of months. Even if your cart could hold it all and you could drag it all home, your wallet would go into shock when you got the bill at the checkout register.
But if recent events have taught us anything, it’s that we need to be prepared.
Because, unfortunately, life happens. And if we’re not prepared then life bites us in the butt.
But this isn’t something new.
Ever seen news coverage of grocery stores when a major storm system is predicted to hit an area? The store shelves are wiped out in a matter of hours. If you’re not one of the lucky ones who got to the store at the right time then you’re just out of luck.
I don’t know about you, but I don’t believe in depending on luck when it comes to matters of survival. And I’ve taught my own kids not to depend on luck either.
Instead, PLAN for times when the “you know what” hits the fan…because it will. But it can be hard to plan ahead when money is tight.
So how do you stock your pantry when you’re broke?
Reasons you may not already have a fully stocked pantry
There are several reasons you may not already have what you need stored up:
1 – You simply may not have ever thought that you’d need to have extra items on hand. After all, life has been pretty good lately and it’s been a while since most of us have dealt with shortages or interruptions to the supply chain. It’s easy to get complacent when things have been rolling along normally and things have been plentiful.
2 – You may not have been taught to think in terms of “what if” or to always be looking a few steps down the road. This isn’t a value judgment and it’s no crime. It’s easy to live in the moment and not give much thought to what could be around the corner (besides, let’s be honest, thinking about this stuff isn’t fun).
3 – You may have thought about it but dismissed the idea because you wouldn’t have a place to store the stockpile anyway. A very valid point that we’ll get to in a bit.
4 – Or, you just may not have thought that you had money to spare to invest in building your stockpile. This is probably the most common reason and it’s totally understandable.
So let’s focus on the money issue.
Most of us do not have a bucket of money sitting around waiting for us to spend it at the grocery store. Most of us – if we’re honest – are already watching our pennies and are playing it pretty close to the edge. Thinking about the amount of money it would take to build a pantry stockpile can be overwhelming.
So we do nothing.
I’m here to tell you that it is possible to stock up your pantry even when you’re broke…you just need a plan.
How do I stock my pantry when I don’t have much money?
You’ve taken the first – and most important – step, simply by acknowledging that you need to build up your stockpile. The rest is just details.
The first thing you need to do to build your pantry stockpile is to take inventory of what you already have.
It’s time to get out pencil and paper, or to open an app on your phone so you can start making a list and keeping a count.
Next, it’s time to start going through your kitchen cupboards and shelves. This is a great time to take the items OUT of the cupboard and wipe down the shelves. Then as you return things, write down every item you’ve got as you put it back…yes, every one.
For example, if you empty out one shelf and find 2 cans of tomato sauce, 1 can of sliced mushrooms, 2 cans of corn, and 3 jars of sliced pimento, you’re going to write down each of these items and put tally marks beside them. That way if you discover another can of corn on another shelf you can simply add a tally mark to your count.
I know this process is a bit tedious. But you can use it as a chance to clean out and organize as you go so you’re getting a couple of things done at once. You’ll also come across some things that are expired or that you know you’d refuse to eat under any circumstances. Get rid of those items so that you’ll have room when you do start adding items that will get used.
Repeat this process through every shelf, cupboard, bin, etc. Don’t forget to look in other locations where you store pantry type items. Is there a box under your bed where you store extra cans….if so, go count what you’ve got. If you’ve got a closet somewhere with a bin of items, don’t forget to check there as well.
This is the hardest part so pat yourself on the back when you get this done! And if it takes several sessions to complete this part of the process, that’s fine. Just remember to adjust your counts if you use items in the meantime.
The next step is to make a list of items you need to add to build up your pantry stockpile.
Now that you’ve got a good idea of what you already have on hand, it’s time to think about your needs and preferences.
Take a look at your inventory. What items that you use regularly do you need more of? How many of these items would you like to have on hand ideally? A good rule of thumb is to aim for at least a one month supply of items you use regularly. It’s great to have more, and if you’ve got space I would urge you to work towards a larger stockpile once you’re got an adequate supply for one month.
When you’re looking at your inventory list you also need to think about items that are not on the list that you end up buying regularly at the grocery store.
Maybe you don’t keep extras on hand, but you pick up a box of pasta every week because you use it up every week. In that case, you’d want to add dried pasta to your list of items that you need to start stockpiling. You get the idea.
The point is that we are so used to being able to go to the grocery store at any time and find what we need. We haven’t necessarily had to have extras on hand due to shortages or limitations on our shopping hours.
So spend a little time thinking about the kinds of meals and snacks you consume during the month. This would be a great time to jot down a sample meal plan for one month to give you an idea about quantities. But don’t let that scare you. You can also just look at your inventory list and start making estimates.
If the thought of creating your own pantry inventory sounds like a lot of work, I’ve created one that’s only $2. There are three color choices to choose from.
Next, you need to make a purchasing plan. Yes, this is the scary part. You’re probably looking at the list of all the items you’d need to get buy for a month and thinking, “I can’t do this. I don’t have the money and I don’t have the space.” Relax. It doesn’t have to be done all at once.
You’ll want to look at the list and start setting some priorities as to what to buy first. Building your stockpile isn’t going to happen over night – it’s a process that takes some time. So you’ll want to start by purchasing items that have a long life span. Canned items are a good place to start. They generally have expiration dates that are the farthest into the future and you can store them in a box or bin if you need to.
So I’d suggest that you start by buying canned goods, then move on to dried items like beans, pasta, rice, and spices, then moving on to things like your baking goods – flour, sugar, etc.
Decide on your stockpile budget
Okay, here’s where the rubber meets the road – figure out how much money you’re going to put towards your stockpile items each week (or month). And don’t freak out. If you can only afford to spend $2 each week on stockpile items, that’s okay. You can do it.
Let’s go with the idea that you can only afford to spend $2 each week. That may not seem like much but don’t discount the fact that those small purchases add up over time.
So during your first week, you buy your regular groceries and then you look for the items highest you your priority list that you can purchase for $2 or less. That may mean that during the first shopping trip, you look at the canned vegetables and find the store brand green beans on a 2 for $1 sale. You pick up 4 cans of green beans and you’ve spent your $2 for the week.
Congratulations – you’ve started!
Next week, you do the same thing only this time you may spot boxed pasta for $1 per box. You grab 2 boxes and add them to the stockpile.
Do you see how this small investment is going to add up?
At the end of the month your purchases might look like this:
- Week 1: 4 cans of green beans
- Week 2: 2 boxes of pasta
- Week 3: 6 cans of tomato sauce (bought on a 3 for $1 sale)
- Week 4: 3 cans of fruit (like canned peaches or fruit cocktail)
You’ve now got enough in your stockpile to make several dinners depending on how many people you’re feeding. So if the worst happens, you’ve got just that much more food on hand to keep you going. And if you increase the money you spend during any week, the stockpile grows even more.
A few tips to save money on grocery items:
1 – Don’t get hung up on name brands. Store brands and generics are generally equal in quality to the brand names. Many canned items are processed at the same plant with only the labels changed out. For other items, consider the actual quality of the item and not just the name. IF (and this is a big IF) you think that something is truly “better” then evaluate why it’s better. Does it have a different taste, if it’s a paper good is it softer or more absorbent? IF you honestly think that something is of better quality then go for the name brand. Just be sure that you’ve made an informed decision and that you consciously decided that the quality was important enough to pay for.
2 – Pay attention to sales. Check online store ads and buy items when they’re at the lowest price you can find.
3 – Watch as items are rung up at the register. It’s not uncommon for items to scan at the wrong price. Perhaps sale prices weren’t inputted correctly or something accidentally scanned twice. Don’t be afraid to speak up if something isn’t correct.
4 – Check your receipt before you leave the store. Even though you’re paying attention while your items are scanned, you can still miss things. If you find a mistake go immediately to your cashier to find out if you need to see a manager or go visit customer service. Remember to ask nicely though. The mistake most likely wasn’t intentional and as my nana always said, “you catch more flied with honey than with vinegar.” A courteous customer gets better service (fair or not…it’s still true) and your cashier doesn’t deserve any wrath over a mistake.
5 – Consider starting or keeping a price book where you list out the usual prices for items you purchase frequently. This way you’ll know a bargain when you see it.
6 – Shop places other than your regular grocery store. You can find some good buys at the local dollar stores. Just be sure to pay attention to expiration dates.
The trick is to keep building till you have a good assortment of the items you use regularly. It’s truly that simple once you get started.
Where do I keep my stockpile items?
Once we’ve address the money issues, the next problem is space. Where do we actually keep the items we’ve purchased?
If you’ve got space, it’s preferable to keep things with the rest of your pantry items. Just know that over time this area will get crowded as you build up the stockpile.
That’s when you’re probably going to start looking for other places to store things. Fortunately, there’s no rule that says pantry items must be kept in the kitchen.
Our daughter lives in a small apartment. Her kitchen is small and when we started telling her to start purchasing items because things could get bad due to Covid, one of her concerns was where to actually put the stuff when she got home from the grocery store.
Totally valid concern!
That’s where you become a detective and start looking for unused space. Even in small apartments and homes there is unused space.
So start looking in the obvious places first.
Open cupboards and closets. Do you have some space on that shelf in the top of your closet? That’s a good place to put a box with items.
What about under your bed? You can either purchase an under bed box or scrounge up some cardboard and make your own under bed box. You simply need something with a bottom and sides that you can pull in and out from under your bed like a drawer. This is a great place to store canned items because they’re short (especially if you lay them down).
Do you have a few inches of space beneath your couch? Do you have an end table or nightstand that has some empty space? What about a dresser drawer that isn’t full?
All of these spaces can be reclaimed as places to store items. And don’t forget your kitchen. If you have cabinets that don’t go all the way to the ceiling then you can use the space on top to store bigger, bulkier items. Yes, you’ll need a step stool to get to the items, but space is space.
The trick is to look for space that you often ignore and put it to use.
A few more ideas might include:
- using those few inches between the bottom of your clothes and the floor of your closet to store short items (like cans)
- an end table has open legs can be draped with a cloth cover and items stashed underneath the drape of the cloth.
- cover a box with contact paper and store items on an open bookcase or shelf -the items will be hidden and it can still look pretty
- a basket or bin that stores throw pillows or blankets could have canned goods in the bottom – cover them with a towel if you don’t want to look at them when the basket or bin isn’t holding the other items.
- hit garage sales or look for cheap furniture that you can re-purpose to serve as pantry storage
- items can be kept in a storage ottoman
- you can hide boxes of pantry goods behind a screen in the corner of a room
You do want to make note of where you’ve got certain items. On your pantry inventory sheet you can make some notes on the back so you don’t forget what you’ve got and where you put it. The only thing worse than not having a stockpile is letting that stockpile go to waste because you let items expire or get ruined.
How do I keep pantry items from going bad?
You don’t want the items you’ve invested your hard-earned money in to spoil. This is where some storage tips are needed.
First, I suggest that you take a Sharpie or other permanent marker and write the date you purchased each item on the package. This will help you use older items first. There’s a rule about your pantry that is “first in – first out” – you’ll also see it called FIFO.
Your canned items aren’t going to be an issue other than to keep them from extreme heat. Otherwise they should last a long time just as they are.
For other items, you’re going to want to take steps to keep bugs and other pests out of the packaging. You’re not providing a pest buffet here!
There are places you can purchase food grade plastic containers that will seal to keep items airtight. But let’s get real…when you’re struggling to buy the food in the first place you probably don’t have lots to shell out for the containers.
Fortunately, a trip to your local dollar store, thrift shop, or hitting some garage sales can provide you with some good, cheap options.
Keep your eye out for jars with screw-on lids…preferably glass. You’re most likely to find these at thrift shops or garage sales, but you can also start saving the glass jars that you’d otherwise throw away that contained grocery items you’ve used up.
Have a big glass jar that held some pickles? A good cleaning (you’ll want to be sure to get the smell out) and this jar can now hold dried beans or rice.
You might ask your local school cafeteria, a restaurant or fast-food place, or any other place if you can have any jars or big plastic buckets that they’re getting rid of. You may be surprised at what you can find for cheap or free.
Anything that comes in a box or plastic bag can easily be chewed into by bugs or rodents. These are the items most in need of being stored in glass or heavy-duty plastic (yes, I know that a seriously motivated rodent can make some serious damage even on plastic, but at least it slows them down more than a thin plastic bag).
You can usually find plastic jars at your local dollar store and these are good for storing dried pasta, beans, or rice. Again, the heavier the jar, the better.
We’ve even kept items in those large plastic containers like you’d use to store Christmas decorations in. They aren’t airtight, but if you’ve got your food items in other, smaller containers, this makes an easy way to keep them together.
You’ll want to make sure to protect your items from damage due to heat or water as well.
If you’re keeping your items in a garage or closet that is near your water heater, you’ll want to keep the stuff a few inches off the floor in case of a leak. And you want to keep items out of extreme heat as well. This is why keeping things inside as much as possible is preferable to outside storage.
Another trick I learned is to store bags of flour or rice in the freezer for a few days before moving them to another container. The freezing helps prevent any bugs from hatching that might already be in the food (I know, gross to think about but some bug eggs are likely there already in certain items). This will prevent discovering a nasty surprise when you open an item to find it ruined.
Your pantry stockpile is insurance against hard times. You never know when an illness, job loss, disaster, or other emergency might arise. Having items on hand to help you get through these times is a pretty good investment in my opinion. It’s the advice I’ve passed on to my own kids and it can be done even w hen you don’t have a lot of money to spare.