Dinner Tonight

No-Buy Night Is the Money-Saving Strategy I Swear By

June  4, 2018

These were my first two jobs just out of college: line cook ($10/hour) and freelance writer ($0.15/word). My partner, whom I moved to North Carolina with, was a PhD student (you do the math).

Which is to say, our budget was tight. But that was a good thing! Learning how to stretch money and save money and talk about money and disagree about money are all life skills, big ones, just like learning how to drive a car, or bake a chocolate cake.

Or at least that’s what we told ourselves.

So we got in the habit of making budget spreadsheets, reading personal finance books, and asking relatives for advice. Mostly, though, we talked about food. This was where we saw the most penny-pinching potential. And felt the most excited. And excitement goes a long way anywhere, but especially here.

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We bought produce in-season and meat in-bulk and on-sale anything and store-brand everything. But our favorite trick was this: One night a week, we wouldn’t buy anything. We called it No-Buy Night.

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Top Comment:
“Try no buy month! Back in 2011, I gave up something every month. Many were food related (sugar, alcohol, meat, dairy, dining out) and many were not ( television, driving, cursing, shopping). During the shopping one I utilized a lot of random stuff from the pantry and got the freezer cleaned out. Toward the end, there was very little fresh food, but it all worked out fine.”
— FrugalCat

It’s sort of like that Food Network show, Chopped. But instead of opening a basket, you open your pantry and fridge. There, we always unfailingly had: a variety of grains, canned beans, onions, all the pasta, eggs, and some sort of cheese. Plus, all the random leftovers from the week.

But it’s always easier to show than tell.

I dug up my old notebooks from those first few years and plucked out random meal plans. We made these every week. I never wrote down No-Buy Night because that’s the whole point: to be spontaneous, to get creative, to cook on the fly.

If you want to give it a whirl, here are four examples: what we ate that week, what was probably leftover in our fridge, and a couple No-Buy possibilities. So grab your apron and let’s do this.

Week 1

Sunday: chicken Caesar
Monday: patty melts + kale chips
Tuesday: scrambled eggs + roasted potatoes + breakfast sausage
Wednesday: mushroom, olive, and onion pizza + vinaigrette salad
Thursday: brown rice bowl with tofu, kale, and avocado
Friday: carrot-ginger soup + vinaigrette salad + bread
Likely Leftovers: carrot soup + beef + sausage + romaine + bread + Caesar dressing
No-Buy Option 1: pasta carbonara with sausage and onions + Caesar salad
No-Buy Option 2: sausage and onion frittata + vinaigrette salad + bread

Week 2

Sunday: porky spring rolls with peanut sauce
Monday: hot and sour soup + brown rice
Tuesday: pesto pasta with roasted cauliflower
Wednesday: bagels and smoked fish + vinaigrette salad
Thursday: scrambled eggs + sauteed greens + breakfast sausage
Friday: polenta with tomato sauce and braised cabbage
Likely Leftovers: peanut sauce + pesto + romaine + tomato sauce + cabbage + sausage
No-Buy Option 1: fried rice with cabbage, eggs, and peanut sauce
No-Buy Option 2: pasta with sausage-y tomato sauce + vinaigrette salad

Week 3:

Sunday: carrot-ginger soup + brown rice
Monday: cashew-coconut curry with cauliflower and peas + brown rice
Tuesday: black bean and avocado tacos with yogurt, romaine, salsa
Wednesday: roasted cauliflower + wintry tabbouleh with dates, feta, lemon
Thursday: miso soup with mushrooms and kale + brown rice
Friday: kash varn!
Likely Leftovers: carrot soup + peas + tortillas + yogurt + romaine + salsa + kale
No-Buy Option 1: kale quesadillas + carrot soup
No-Buy Option 2: kale and chickpea tacos with yogurt, romaine, salsa

Week 4:

Sunday: tofu-avocado nori wraps + ginger salad
Monday: polenta with mushroom ragu + vinaigrette salad
Tuesday: miso soup with kale + brown rice + ginger salad
Wednesday: pasta with artichokes and spinach
Thursday: French onion soup + mustardy salad
Friday: roast chicken, parsnips, carrots + vinaigrette salad
Likely Leftovers: ginger dressing + polenta + kale + bread + chicken + parsnips + carrots
No-Buy Option 1: kale salad with chicken, parsnips, carrots, and polenta croutons
No-Buy Option 2: chicken salad sandwiches + kale salad with parsnips and carrots


What No-Buy Night would you make out of one (or more!) of these weeks? Share your ideas in the comments below.

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Emma was the food editor at Food52. She created the award-winning column, Big Little Recipes, and turned it into a cookbook in 2021. These days, she's a senior editor at Bon Appétit, leading digital cooking coverage. Say hello on Instagram at @emmalaperruque.


Katie June 5, 2018
Isn't this something most people already do? I can only name a handful of people I know that shop more than once a week. If there's deviation, they shop every two weeks or once a month.

Heck, if you cut out bills, my normal is only spending money a few days a month for all things.
FrugalCat June 5, 2018
Try no buy month! Back in 2011, I gave up something every month. Many were food related (sugar, alcohol, meat, dairy, dining out) and many were not ( television, driving, cursing, shopping). During the shopping one I utilized a lot of random stuff from the pantry and got the freezer cleaned out. Toward the end, there was very little fresh food, but it all worked out fine.
Emma L. June 5, 2018
Oh wow! Going to remember this for a 2019 resolution.
Claire June 5, 2018
I love this, FrugalCat! Going to try this for food shopping next month. Thanks for the idea!
Katie June 5, 2018
I would love to be able to have the luxury of not driving for a month. It's nearly impossible where I live as I wouldn't be able to safely get to work.
Ali June 5, 2018
I’m trying, but I’m having trouble understanding. Don’t most people shop once a week?
Kristin C. June 18, 2018
Nope! I’ve never been able to shop only once a week. I shop at several food stores, and I spread out the shopping throughout the week. I can’t imagine buying fresh bread on a Saturday if I want to eat it on Thursday, and the same goes for certain fresh fruits.
Claire June 4, 2018
Hah, when I was learning how to cook senior year of college, my roommate and I used to call this "no buy" cooking "pantry surprise," and we did it most nights...
Emma L. June 4, 2018
Ha! Were there certain dishes y'all made again and again?
Claire June 5, 2018
I just revisited an old list of pantry items from back then and they include agar agar, 4 lbs edible glitter, 50 ramen packets, 25 dented cans mandarin oranges...so I'm going to say, none I suggest to others! But practicing making "pantry surprise" dinners developed into a super handy skill- one that I use every day in my job as a sorority chef!
Cassidy June 4, 2018
I would make marinated ginger chicken and put it over the polenta with parsnips and carrots and steamed kale.
Emma L. June 4, 2018
Oo, love the idea of using the ginger dressing as a marinade! Have to try soon.