How to Stretch Your PCS Food Budget

people sitting around restaurant table
(Andrew Jones/DVIDS)

Moving season, affectionately called Permanent Change of Station (PCS) season, can be a great time to save some money for your family.

Yes, you get money for food and incidentals when on PCS orders, known as a per diem. In fact, for most families, you get more than enough for lodging and food. But even so by keeping your goal of being budget friendly in mind, you can pinch some of those pennies and save them to pay down debt, use as a down payment or put directly into your savings.

So, how can you stretch that money while still eating well? Here are our ideas.

1. Stay in a hotel with free breakfast. This is a super easy way to save some money. Breakfast is usually the cheapest meal to eat out, but it's so much cheaper when it's included in the cost of your room.

2. Order takeout instead of eating in a restaurant. When you order takeout, instead of eating in a restaurant save some money by taking it to go. How? If you order takeout you can usually eliminate buying drinks, there's no added pressure for appetizers or desserts and you can much more efficiently split meals to eliminate waste.

3. Buy snacks in bulk. As all parents known, snacks are the secret to success. You are probably already stashing some snacks for your PCS, but this is a great way to stretch that PCS budget. If your kids are on to you, get some "special" snacks for dessert after dinner in the hotel room and hide those away during the day.

4. Drink water. Instead of defaulting for soda or juice, go with water. Water at restaurants is usually free. Bottled water is really cheap. In fact, you can buy a 48 bottle case of water from Costco for the cost of a Starbucks coffee, and that case of water will probably last you a week. Water is also much easier to find, doesn't have to be refrigerated and your water bottles can be refilled almost anywhere.

5. Embrace sandwiches for lunch. When you're at home, lunch isn't usually a big deal. In my house it's usually leftovers or peanut butter and jelly. So why does it have to be so much bigger on the road? Hint: it doesn't. Pack those PB&J sandwiches and call it lunch.

6. Scope the "Kids Eat Free" deals. These are the best places, and there is absolutely no shame in choosing a restaurant because kids eat free that day -- no shame at all. In fact, let's direct our attention to this website that keeps all this information handy for you. Use this to your advantage while you can, because just about the time you really want this financial break, your kids will be too old for it.

7. Share meals. When eating out with kids you probably end up with some serious leftovers, which is so annoying on the road. So, take the opportunity to split meals between the kids, or even between adults. And if they fight back, just remind them that you can always order more food.

8. Skip dessert. On top of not needing dessert in life, you already packed snacks. Plus, if you get dessert every night of your PCS your kids are going to expect it for the rest of their lives. Trust me.

9. Stock the mini fridge. When you get ready to check in to your hotel, swing by the local grocery store or gas station and grab some milk, yogurt and fruit and now you have everything you need for a snack or breakfast the next day for about the same you'd pay for a specialty coffee or two.

10. Pack your Instant Pot or slow cooker. This is my secret PCS tip. I take my Instant Pot, and store in it some basic spices along with a can opener, mini oven mitts, a paring knife and a small spatula. Now I can make anything on the road with a quick trip to the grocery store. Taco salad? No problem. Sausage and potatoes? Dinner's ready. I even fried eggs in the Instant Pot over our last move.

Do you consider a PCS more like a vacation where you splurge on food or do you prefer to save as much money as possible? What are your tips for stretching the food budget while moving?

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--Rebecca Alwine can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @rebecca_alwine.

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