Over the past several years I’ve conducted an informal analysis of common beverage buying habits. The results have shocked me. Many people are spending as much as 20% of their food budget on beverages! This is completely outrageous to me—bottled water, sports drinks, juice boxes, canned soda-pop, individual packs of fruit drinks. How did we get bamboozled into believing that everyone needs their own individual bottle, pouch or can? What ever happened to cups and glasses? When did we forget how easy it is to mix our own beverages in reusable pitchers and store them in the fridge? When did we stop caring about how much money it saves us? Avoiding individually packaged drinks not only saves us money on our grocery bills, it preserves environmental resources as well. Mixing our own beverages gives us more control over what we put into our bodies. If we’re avoiding fat, sugar, or artificial sweeteners, or even just trying to drink more water, taking control over the liquids we put into our bodies benefits us and our environment.
Saving money on beverages is relatively easy. First we have to let go of some expensive habits that no longer serve us, and then we must open the door to developing new habits that will save us money along with preserving our good health.
All beverages besides water, milk, and fruit juice (and maybe tea) are luxuries. This includes fruit punch, soda-pop, coffee, cocoa, cola, and almost any other beverage you can imagine. They add calories, caffeine, sugar, fizz and flavor to our diet. They do not add significant nutrition. When we buy these types of luxury beverages we are paying for someone else to combine water and flavorings for us, and then package them in a container that probably costs more than the beverage itself.
This doesn’t mean we need to give up our favorite beverages. It does mean that we need to recognize our favorite drinks for what they really are, luxuries. Then it’s a lot easier to put them in proper perspective.
I did this by assigning all of our favorite beverages 1 of 4 labels as listed in the list below. When I had a concrete understanding of where specific beverages fit into our budget then I was able to explain it to the kids. They learned the system quickly, and actually stick by it pretty well.
- Milk (Fresh & Dry – Dairy or Nondairy)
- Frozen Juice Concentrate
- Maybe Tea (cheapest value brand)
- Bottled Lemon Juice
- Tea (if not included above)
- Unsweetened Fruit Drink Mix (store-brand kool-aid)
- Evaporated Milk or Coffee Rich (dairy-free)
- Unsweetened Cocoa (for hot chocolate and chocolate milk)
- Store-brand Soda Pop
- Wine in a Box
- Cheap Beer
No Blasted Way!
- Name Brand Soda Pop
- Individual boxes or pouches of anything
- Bottled Water
- Bottled Coffee or Sports Drinks or Iced Tea
My list may help you create your own. I prefer to do it on paper, but even a mental list is better than none at all. Your list won’t look exactly like mine. That’s okay, it’s not supposed to.
If you notice, at the end of the Low Priority column, I list box o’ wine and cheap beer. I am not religiously opposed to drinking alcohol. Jesus’s first miracle was turning water into wine at the wedding in Cana. However, alcohol isn’t something we drink every week, or even every month. Now and then, especially when entertaining, I am willing to budget for these luxuries. We have wine during Passover and Christmas and we have beer on the Fourth of July. I treat them like extreme luxuries because they do not contribute nutritionally to our diet. I never buy them a the expense of high priority items like juice and milk (and maybe tea).
When there is room in your budget for a luxury beverage, by all means indulge a little. It makes sticking to a tough budget a lot easier. Make sure the important things are purchased first. Buying your favorite soda-pop on sale for half price is false economy when you don’t have enough milk or juice to make it until next payday.
Most beverages can be mixed or brewed at home, in your own kitchen, with a pitcher or blender, a big spoon, a bag of sugar, and a packet or jar of flavoring. This is true of milk, juice, coffee, tea, fruit-flavored drinks, milk shakes, slushies, smoothies, and many others too. Mixing your own beverages takes commitment. It is easier to open up a bottle of store-bought juice or fruit punch than it is to mix your own. If you read the labels on these beverages most are from concentrate or have added flavorings, just like homemade version. This means that you are paying someone else to open a can of juice concentrate, pour it into a serving container, add 3 cans of water and stir. You have to shake store-bought juice anyway, so the stirring really doesn’t count. For 2-minutes worth of effort you wind up paying double for the juice. I don’t know about you, but I can’t afford to pay a factory to prepare my beverages for me. Even if I had the cash, I don’t think I could make myself pay so much extra for the small amount of work involved. To me, refusing to make my own beverages is the epitome of laziness.
I mix up most of my beverages while I’m cleaning up the kitchen at night. I have to check out the options for tomorrow’s meals anyway, so I take stock of the beverage situation while I’m at it. Most cold beverages taste best if they are chilled overnight. When I mix them up before bed, they have ample time to chill by morning.
When we commit to mixing our own beverages, we need containers to mix or brew them in. I prefer to use 2-quart and gallon-sized pitchers. They are convenient for mixing and storing and very easy to keep clean. This becomes important when you find yourself mixing up to 4 different kinds of drinks a day. Yard sales are a good place to look for pitchers. Standard 2-quart sized pitchers are pretty abundant these days because so many people have stopped making their own beverages at home. Couples and small families will find 2-quart pitchers the perfect size for most things. If you have a large family, you may want to invest in gallon size pitchers to reduce the number of containers in your fridge. Over 15-years ago I bought 5 of them at a local discount store so it would be easier for me to keep up with my family’s appetite. All of them are still going strong and they have paid for themselves time and time again. I still use a 2-quart pitcher for fruit juice, but everything else I make a gallon at a time. Small families will find 2-quart pitchers just as handy.
If you cannot afford new drink containers, don’t worry. Free containers are available in the form of milk jugs, 2 & 3-liter bottles, on-sale-apple-juice-jars, and even half-gallon pickle jars. Use what ever is cheapest and most readily available to you. If necessary, a bottle brush and a little bleach may be used to ensure cleanliness. Narrow mouthed jars are easier to fill if you use a funnel. I jab a chop stick or spoon handle down the funnel spout to keep things moving if they appear clogged.
(Milk is featured in a different section)
Fruit-Flavored Drink Mix
These are usually cheapest in store-brands and off-brands. I regularly find them 8/$1 at a local dollar store. There aren’t as many flavors available as in the name brand. The main ones—orange, lemon, cherry, fruit punch and grape—are available, and provide plenty of variety. I use 2/3-cup of sugar for each packet of drink mix. Most packages call for a full cup, but I’ve found 2/3-cup works just as well. Some people use 1/2-cup and find their fruit-drinks plenty sweet. If you prefer yours sugar-free, then sweeten it with artificial sweetener to taste. I usually use 12 packets of artificial sweetener to 1 packet of drink mix. Fred is diabetic, and finds this much to his liking. Saccharine is the most affordable artificial sweetener.
These are available frozen and in shelf-stable pop-top cans. The cans are usually found on a top or bottom shelf of the juice aisle. If you have limited freezer space they are an excellent alternative to frozen. Sometimes they are cheaper than their frozen counterparts, other times more expensive, so be sure to compare prices so you can find the best bargain. Most often store-brand frozen juice concentrates are your best buy. Orange, Apple, Grapefruit and Grape Juice usually have the lowest prices per ounce. Apple juice is especially affordable. Read the cans to make sure that you are buying 100% juice, instead of juice cocktail or “ade”. If you are going to pay the money for juice, you might as well get the real thing. I prefer to buy juices that are enriched with vitamin C or calcium, but this is a personal matter. I am not willing to pay extra for the enrichment.
Homemade lemonade, made from bottled lemon juice, is an excellent source of vitamin C. Even though it has sugar added to it, I include it in this category because of its nutritional benefits and because it’s mixed up in a way similar to juice concentrates.
Whether you prefer it freshly brewed and steaming hot or icy cold, tea is one of the biggest beverage bargains these days. It’s the only non-nutritive beverage I regularly include in my highest-priority group. I usually buy tagless tea bags in a 100-count box for under $2. This works out to 2¢ a cup! I am addicted to caffeine and tea bags are the least expensive way to feed my habit. An entire pitcher of iced tea is less than 20¢. I prefer it unsweetened, but you can easily add your own sugar if you like yours sweet; 1/3-cup of sugar per 2-quart pitcher is about right.
If hot beverages are more your cup of tea, then tea bags offer a variety of options. Orange or lemon peel, dry or fresh mint, cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg, black pepper, lemon juice, garden herbs and evaporated milk can all be added to plain hot tea for variety. An old favorite of mine is English Breakfast Tea. Add a teaspoon of brown sugar and a tablespoon of evaporated milk (or dairy-free Coffee Rich) to a cup of hot tea and stir. This is quite enriching early in the morning.
Instant tea is handy to have around too. Store brands are often affordable, and are sometimes even cheaper per cup than tea bags. A 3-ounce jar of plain instant tea will make 30-quarts of iced tea. A 100-count box of tea bags will make 25-quarts of tea. If the 3-ounce jar is about the same price as the 100-count box, then it is a very good deal. I like instant tea for homemade tea mixes, and also for quick iced tea in the summertime. I use 3-level tablespoons of plain instant tea for a 2-quart pitcher, and 1/3-cup for a gallon. Add sugar if you like. An old trick is to put a couple of tablespoons of lemon juice in with the tea to make it sparkle. You can’t really taste the lemon, but the overall flavor of the tea is improved.
I buy both instant and ground coffee. Instant is good for making flavored coffee mixes. If you have ever found yourself paying $5 or more for a cup of cappuccino then you really owe it to yourself to try some of the flavored coffee mixes elsewhere in this section. For the price of one 12-oz ready-made gourmet coffee, you can prepare enough homemade coffee mix to last a month. This is significant savings, especially if you’re currently buying gourmet coffee on a daily or weekly basis.
When making flavored coffees, I use the absolutely cheapest instant coffee I can find. Since it’s glorified by all the sugar, milk and flavorings, the flavor of the coffee itself makes little difference.
Fresh Brewed coffee tastes better than instant. I prefer to buy it in large cans. The price per ounce is usually less this way, but not always. Compare prices with the vacuum packed coffee “bricks” to be sure. One nice thing about coffee cans, is that the empty cans may be reused. I wash mine with hot soapy water, dry them thoroughly and cover them with contact paper. Then I use them to store my homemade baking mixes and granola. They look very pretty all lined up next to each other on the shelf.
Fred has a way to make a pot of coffee go a little farther. He prepares the first pot the normal way, in the coffee maker, using 1/3-cup of ground coffee per pot. When it’s gone, he adds 3-tablespoons of new grounds to the old grounds in the filter. He then runs a full pot of water through the mixture of old and new grounds. I can’t tell the difference between the first batch and the second batch. Another thing he does is to pour the coffee into an insulated pitcher or thermos instead of keeping it on the eye of the coffee maker. He preheats the pitcher or thermos with hot tap water, and then pours in the hot, fresh coffee. We find the coffee tastes better because it doesn’t develop a bitter “burnt” flavor from sitting on the hot eye of the coffee maker for too long.
If you prefer your coffee with cream, the most luxurious thing to use is whole evaporated milk. A large can costs less than $1 and lasts the whole week. This is one of my favorite luxuries in life; coffee and “cream,” Mmm, decadent. A fat-free option is to stir powdered milk directly into the coffee. Usually a teaspoon or two is enough to lighten it sufficiently. Sugar or artificial sweetener can be added to taste.
If you have leftover coffee be sure to stash it in the fridge. You can use it to make iced coffee later in the day or week. Combine it with a little sugar and milk and serve over ice; it’s an affordable luxury with a cosmopolitan flair.
I grew up poor. Cola’s weren’t available very often so I never developed a hankering for them. Then I married a man who drank a 2-liter of cola every day (before he developed diabetes. Since then I have speculated as to the contribution that daily 2-liter made to its onset). As a new bride I grew increasingly shocked over how deeply soda drinking has infiltrated our society. In our culture it’s more common to drink soda pop than water. If you don’t have much money to spend on food, then it’s a bad idea to drink a can of pop, or an entire 2-liter every day. Soda pop is a luxury, not a necessity. Buy the basics before you splurge on cola. If you must have caffeine then try iced tea instead. You can make it as sweet as you like and it will still cost less than colas.
When you do buy soda pop, there are a few ways to save money on it. Avoid brand loyalty; national brands will always cost more money. Stick with the store brands for the most savings. At my stores, I’m able to find Gingerale, Dr. Perky, Cola, Root Beer, Cream Soda, Lemon-Lime, Mountain-Lightening, Grape, Orange, and several diet varieties too. All of these are available for between 70¢ and $1 per 2-liter. This is fully half the price of name brands. Which brings me to the next point.
Two-liters are almost always better buys than 6-packs or 12-packs. Some people don’t buy large bottles because it goes flat before they get a chance to drink it all. If this is one of your concerns, then try the following trick. Squeeze the air out of the bottle, until the level of the soda rises close to the top. Then screw the cap on tightly. The bottle will be dented. Reducing the amount of air in the bottle preserves the fizz for a longer time. We do this with all of our pop bottles, and it really works! If saving money is your highest priority, then stick with store-brand 2-liters.
If you absolutely need individual drinks then store-brand 12-packs are the way to go. They are always better buys than juice boxes or pouches. When my children still attended public schools they would sometimes need lunches that were completely disposable for field trips. I gave them each a can of soda pop for their beverage and they felt like they are getting something really special.
Children will mimic the behavior they see in their parents. If we show them that sodas are a luxury and not a right, they will treat them as such. If they see us buying soda pop, when we’ve already told them that there’s no extra money left for luxuries, they will learn that soda is more important than milk, bread and vegetables. This isn’t in our or their best interest.
Never underestimate the power of water to quench a hearty thirst. Nutritionists say we each need 8-cups or 2-quarts a day. When we keep our bodies hydrated our skin seems softer, we protect our urinary tract and kidneys, we keep our weight down, and mostly we allow ourselves to achieve optimum health. I keep a pop bottle of water in the refrigerator at all times. When the kids come inside from playing all day, the first thing they go for is the cold water in the fridge. If you have a large family, it’s a good idea to keep a couple of large bottles or pitchers of water in the fridge, especially during the summer months.
We don’t drink bottled water at our house. We think it’s ridiculous to spend a dollar or more on a penny’s worth of water. I keep a jug of water in the car to quench our thirsts while traveling. We each have our own plastic cup, and refill it as necessary. If you must have individual bottles of water, then you can usually pick up reusable sports bottles from the dollar store. If possible choose different colors so each person can tell which one is theirs. If you can’t find different colors then label each one with a permanent marker. Teach the kids to refill their own bottles, especially before traveling in the summer. Even short car trips can make us work up a thirst. With our bottle of water available for easy hydration we can avoid all that temptation to stop somewhere for a quick bottle of pop.
My oldest son wanted glass water bottles, so he found high-end lemonade at the health food store that was packaged in 16-ounce glass bottles. He bought 2 bottles for $3. After drinking the lemonade he saved the bottles and has used them for a year as his refillable water bottles. The initial $3 investment for the bottles has paid for itself repeatedly. He takes water in one bottle and kool-aid or iced tea in the other and drinks them during the day when he’s at school. The bottles are especially sturdy and haven’t broken yet. If you prefer not to use plastic water bottles, this option works well.
Lead the kids by example, make sure they see the adults in the house drinking water. Unless Mom & Dad drink water in front of the kids, they won’t understand it’s value. Water is infinitely cheap, healthy, and one of the biggest miracles of modern civilization.
One last note. The biggest stumbling block for me is having a sink full of dirty dishes. I cannot fit pitchers or jugs under the spigot when the sink is overflowing with clutter. One of the biggest boosts I gave myself was vowing to keep the dishes done. Not only are beverages easier to make, but all of the cooking I need to do everyday is a hundred times easier. If you can only afford to give yourself one free gift this year, give yourself the gift of finally conquering the dishes. You will always be blessed by an empty sink.