Being Frugal,  Doing More With Less

5 Cheap Ingredients to Get You Through a Tight Week

5Payday arrives every other week here, and the check that’s closest to the first gets a big chunk taken out for rent. (Too big, frankly, which is part of why we’re moving.) That leaves us with one week or so per month, between having paid the rent and waiting for the next payday, that ends up being a pretty lean week. This week is one of those weeks.

Enter Wally, the handsome man on your right.

He’s 11, which is not ancient for an indoor cat, but it’s not youthful either. Sunday afternoon was spent in the vet’s office trying to diagnose what’s making him have a runny nose and keeping him from eating. [Short answer from the vet: “uh, I ‘unno.”]

After leaving the vet’s office several hundred dollars lighter than when I went in, I immediately started thinking about the week ahead. While my pantry was already pretty well-stocked with my usual staples, I started to think about what else I might need for the week… and I realized I have a handful of go-to ingredients that are cheap and would to brighten up boring food (like beans and rice) without spending a lot.

1. Limes. In the lemon vs. lime debate, I am always firmly Team Lime. Less bitter, less sour, slightly floral — what’s not to love? In my neighborhood, a dollar will get you between 3 to 12 limes, depending on the time of year, but even just one lime will liven up a lot. A wedge squeezed over black bean soup? Perfect! Lime juice + mayo + cumin? Instant salad dressing!

2. Herbs. First off, if you’re paying more than a buck for fresh herbs, chances are they’re already less than ideal. But a dollar spent on, say, a good-looking bunch of flat-leaf parsley will enhance dishes for at least a week — possibly even more, if you follow this tip for keeping the herbs in your fridge fresh.

3. Fresh garlic. This tip is not for everyone… it’s for you with the jars of pre-minced garlic in your fridge. You know who you are. Honey, please. Just throw it out. By the time it’s been processed into those little jars, it hardly even tastes like garlic anymore. Not only is a head of fresh garlic tastier, it’s cheaper and probably better for you.

4. Fire-roasted canned tomatoes. I love these canned roasted tomatoes from Hunt’s — they impart a fantastic smoky note to whatever you’re cooking. Open a can, throw in some old bread, maybe a cucumber and a clove of the garlic I insisted you buy, and you’ve got amazing gazpacho.

5. Cream (or even half-and-half). Not a lot, mind you, but even a little half-pint will go far in making things taste better. Jar of not-especially-great tomato sauce you bought on sale turns into a light tomato-cream sauce. A bag of frozen corn and a couple of potatoes becomes a chowder.

What’s your favorite cheap go-to ingredient? Leave a comment here or over on Facebook!


  • Jane

    I feel your pain; unemployment checks don’t go very far, either, and I only have a few of them left!

    These are great tips; I tend to get in a rut with the way I flavor things.

    Are you SURE Wally doesn’t have allergies? It doesn’t sound like the vet has considered this. (And, by the way, if you want an affordable vet, go to the Humane Society. A non-emergency appointment is only $38; of course, medicine and tests are extra, but you still come out way ahead … and they’re very knowledgeable!) If poor Wally is stuffed up, that would account for his not eating, since he can’t smell his food. One of my friends’ cats has a runny nose and sneezes if she doesn’t get her allergy medicine … but that’s all that’s wrong with her!

    • gezellig*girl

      That is just what I said to the vet: “he’s got a runny, sneezy nose; he’s had it a bunch of times before for a couple days here and there, but this is the worst he’s ever had it; the other two cats in the house are completely fine — I really think it’s allergies.”

      The vet (the one on W 187th and Ft. Washington, specifically) was all “no no no, not allergies, definitely not. I don’t know what it is but we can do $500 of tests [seriously, I declined over $500 of procedures] to see what it is.”

      He had a slight fever at the vet’s office and we’ve been giving him antibiotics — he’s getting better very slowly, but if he’s not well soon, I may take him to the Humane Society after all.

      • Jane

        Oh, dear … I’ve been told by a number of people (including the Pet Health Store on Columbus Avenue and 81st St., where I sometimes buy my cat food) NEVER to go to that vet!

        I just got back from the Humane Society, where Billy had his ears checked and got his shots updated. Cost of exam: $38. Cost of two shots: $31. It’s a bit of a schlep, but entirely worth it. They’re very good over there. I showed up at the desk last summer with a piece of sticky-tape from my lint pick-up roller, covered with these weird little things that looked like sesame seeds. They’d been appearing on the end of my bed, where the cat sleeps … and a very sharp vet technician immediately identified them as dried-up tapeworm segments! I promptly got a pill to put an end to them … all of $12, and I didn’t even need to bring him in!

        • gezellig*girl

          I buy prescription cat food there (for the same cat again; he’s a handful, I guess) but yeah, I also do not recommend their veterinary services. The receptionist was pretty horrible to my husband on the phone when we were trying to ascertain how much the visit was going to cost. If it had not been an emergency (seriously, the cat was looking pretty rough) I wouldn’t have gone there at all.

          I wrote a piece about the vet at Inwood Animal Clinic for the Manhattan Times a while ago — she was so super nice. I would have gladly gone there but, again, it was a Sunday and an emergency so I took what I could get.

          I’ll definitely try the Humane Society next time (and OMG I hope there will not be a next time again soon).