How To Live (Comfortably) on $36 A Month For Food

I was having a nice lunch with Chris Wand the other day.  The bill came, and I laughed, it was around $40 with tip, which was more than my entire food budget for a month in college.  I told this to Chris how I did it, and  he said I should write about the process of living off of next to nothing.

This isn’t a post that resembles a call to action.  It is a (poor) diary of how I lived off of a $36 food budget for a month.  One of the most humbling experiences I have ever had was shopping for two weeks worth of food with a twenty dollar bill.  I learned to get by with some tricks.  I was in college for this, and was deathly fearful of graduating with debt, so I did all I could to stick to my budget I earned on a 20 hour a week university job.

Try Eating

Hacking your food budget is one of those things that I am surprised more people don’t do. My current budget is around $380/m (it was $180/m until I started training for half Ironman distance triathlons), with my favorite recipes coming from when I didn’t have the money to splurge.

So if you are interested in lowering your monthly food budget, but still eat good food, remember these as a starter:

  • If you are $ poor you might not be time poor.  Use this to your advantage.
  • Everything you buy should be at least 50% off retail.  Every. Single. Thing.
  • Realize that if you are really sticking to a budget, you have to change your whole thought process on food.  It is a staple of survival.  Lard is the highest calorie per cent food you can buy.  Disturbing, but if you are going to be scientific about it, makes the most sense (I’ve never had to go there).
  • You can do this by ramen, but that isn’t healthy, or tasty.

Alright, so if you want to do $36 a month for food, you are going to have to break that down to about .33 a meal.  Sounds like pennies.  It isn’t as tough as you think.

Cook Every Meal At Home:

No question about it, except if you can find a bag of day old bagels.A Sign Of the Times

Sales and Shopping:

The hardest part to start.  You need to shift your habits to load up on foods that are deep discounted.   Figure out the stores cycle of coupons, sales and clearance.  When I lived in Rhode Island, Sunday was the big sale day and also the day when the clearance stickers went on.  In Boulder, the grocery store I go to has the best bang for your buck day on Wednesday (they honor last week and the next weeks deals).  Ground beef might be on a super deal (sale plus a manager special), grab a months worth.  That week, other items won’t be on sale, pass on them.  Your pantry, and your ability to not have anything spoil will be a great way to cut costs.

Breakfasts:

Cheapest meal of the day, also my favorite.  Oats with raisins or a banana works out to be about $.12 a serving.  Milk or soy brings it up to about $.20.  Lipton tea bags cost $.02 a piece.  If you are on the run the oatmeal packets (the flavored ones) run around $.15 a piece.  Eggs can run as low as .09, so a 3 egg omelet with peppers and cheese goes for $.38.   I used to see english muffins go for $1  a pack of 8 on Sundays.

Lunch:

Sandwiches are the cheapest route.  PB+J can be priced at $.25, so doing two plus a banana ($.10) makes a pretty filling lunch for $.60.  Leftovers from dinner are also an option.  Rice cakes and cheese was a favorite.  Bagels, fruit and salads are staples.  Lunch was always my wild card.  Leftovers were the norm.

Dinner:

Rice and beans extravaganza is my favorite meal (still to this day I make it once a week).  Rice can be found in 10lb bags for $5 at a specialty store.  You can soak your own beans, add ground beef (a pound of 85% can be as low as $1.25) cheese and an avocado.  You can make 3 dinners for around $.44 a serving.  A big pot of soup can be ultra cheap (chicken broth, veggies, spices) with bread.  Homemade bread can be time consuming, but can bring costs down to around $.80 a loaf.

Salads are cheap, buy from the bins and bag your own.  Spaghetti can cost out to $1.50 with enough for three meals.   Repeating meals saves money because you can share ingredients.   Also, if you are really hurting to make due, ask your friends to cook for you.  Bring what you can and help clean up.

Snacks:

The bulk section (generally the biggest rip off) can have some great snacks (granola ~$.15 a handful).  Carrots or produce can be cheap, shop the deals.I'm too cheap for food...

Hacks

Drink tons of water 20-30 min before your meal.  Your brain will think you are full when you start eating, and you won’t feel bad about not having a feast.  Find as much free snacks as you can (during this time I would take a small bag of peanuts from the admissions office every other day).  The smaller your stomach is, the easier this is going to be.  There are tons of ways to get free food by just asking.  Waiters that happen to be friends are a good source.  Dumpster diving (a favorite of my neighbor) is surprisingly clean with most of the good stuff set in a box on top of the garbage.

Coupons:

There are a ton of no frills coupons on items.  I remember buying a flat of spaghetti sauce for $.1o a can.  If you have the time, you can cut your bill in half, if not more.  A friend still sends fan mail to companies in hopes of getting coupons back.  There is room here if you have the time!

Closing:

Please list some of your favorite ultra bootstrappy meals in the comments.  This is a case of a little extremism.  I could have gone cheaper, but instead had a pretty good amount of food, both quality and quantity.

I’m going to go eat something that doesn’t remotely resemble a $.33 meal.

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  • Sally Chad

    ya this is for the US what about canada where rent is sky high and pension checks are very low I’m paying 580 for rent and I get 886 a month now your got bills and now your broke your if your lucky 5 bucks to your name

  • COD Error Reporting

    I did this for years too, I just bought:

    a big bag of mozzarella cheese from Sam’s club
    a big bag of pepperoni from Sam’s club
    loaves of white bread from Dollar Tree
    cheap bottles or cans of generic spaghetti sauce

    Put 2 pepperonis, 1 spoon of sauce and 1 spoon of cheese on each slice, then made sandwiches, pressed and cooked them in a waffle iron or panini machine. It works out to about 50 cents for 4 half sandwich panini pizzas. You can freeze them in sandwich bags and rerun them through the panini to heat up or pop them in the microwave for quick easy tasty meals.

  • Natascha

    Hello darling, one of the things we used to do was “overnight oats” oats mixed with yoghurt and milk, water and any scraps of fruit we could find all mixed together and left in the fridge overnight. Couscous is good, you just need a way to boil water (kettle). Add tinned corn, a stock cube and spices to couscous, pour over boiling water, cover with cling and leave. Fluff and mix (and eat) with a fork. Stuff on toast is good. I mash chickpeas (garbanzos) with garlic, lemon juice, salt pepper in a bowl and put on hot toast l. So good. Or alternatively toast “pizza.” Tomatoes/sauce/puree/paste mixed with mushrooms and cheese on hot toast. The toasted sandwich maker is a wonderful invention. I have a triangle one and I used to make spinach and cheese pasties with puff pastry triangles instead of bread. I still do this, but now my baffle iron is shaped like a shell. (Small luxuries). If you have a microwave the options are wide open. Microwave potatoes in the skins til cooked, top with slaw or tuna or tinned beans and cheese. But the ubiquitous “stuff on toast” was my favourite.

  • This is good to know. Thx for sharing.

  • Natascha

    Hi all, when we were utterly strapped for cash I would buy things one at a time. So, for instance, take carbohydrates. Week number one I would buy flour (bread, pancakes, muffins, for adding with seasoning and binding dishes, thickening soups/sauces etc. yes, it was terrible, that first eek I could only eat flour based stuff. Week 2 I bought potatoes. A big bag. Now I had not only flour, but potatoes to choose from. Week ; rice, so rice and potatoes and flour etc. the week after that was oats, then spaghetti, then couscous. I did the same with dried herbs and spices. Month one I bought garlic and a jar of Italian mixed dried herbs, month 2, I bought cumin, month 3, paprika and so on until stocked up.

    As for recipes that are healthy and inexpensive. How many do you want? Most of the ones I make are stews and soups.
    Mexican lentil soup
    Fry an onion with some garlic, then stir in a 1/2 taco seasoning packet (or just cumin, paprika, dried oregano, chilli powder, and salt for the spice lucky. To this I would add a cup and a bit of dried lentils, and a cup of rice a tin of diced tomatoes and a litre or do of stock. Cook slowly til lentil and rice are tender. Serve with cheese/ sour cream. Anything you think would enhance.

    Curried potato soup.
    Fry onion with garlic. Stir in curry powder and pepper. (Or mustard powder/ Worcestershire if you have none.) add potatoes and any other veg you like (I like zucchini) add a little stock and boil until spuds are done. Puree with milk and serve with bread.

    Make pesto pasta (I’ve even made it without any herbs at all.) I puréed broccoli with cheese and nuts and told him it was ‘rabbit pesto’ he ate it

    Pasta Arabiatta: fry onion with chilli and garlic. Stir in a tin of diced tomatoes and a pinch of dried herbs (oregano is best but whatever) toss over pasta. A lot of the time I toss this with anchovies (or a tiny tin of really pongy sardines) and serve with olives. In my richer days I used to cook this with bacon and serve with olives, fresh parsley and cubes of feta cheese

    Turkish lentil soup (mercimek corbasi): fry an onion and 2 carrots (I often add a chopped potato but it’s neither here nor there) in butter. When softened throw in 1/2 bag lentils, with some cumin. Stir for a minute then add a big tin of tomato puree, and some stock. Cook until lentils are done. You can either puree this and serve this as a thin soup (with homemade flatbread). Or you can add less liquid and leave it as a stew (over rice). Serve with lemon juice (the only essential)

    All purpose veg curry
    Chop up 2 onions, 2 carrots, 2 potatoes and any other veg kicking around. Fry in oil til tender with a tin of chickpeas and a tin of tomatoes. Add garlic, pepper and curry paste/ powder to flavour. Simmer slowly til really thick (like a curry ratatouille). You can add coconut milk if you can afford it. Serve with rice and chapatti (mix a mug of plain flour with a pinch of sat, add 2 tablespoons of oil and enough water to make a dough. Knead, then roll into circles and fry.

    Basic chilli
    Fry onion and mince with chilli and garlic til both brown. Add 2 tins kidney beans, 2 tins of tomatoes, and a tin of sweet corn. Add capsicum strips if you have it. Serve over rice with cheese.

    As someone said, make a whole world of meals out of one chicken. (My best is 7 meals for 3 people including stock I made from leftover veg peelings and the carcass)

    And we aren’t even at tuna possibilities (lots: pasta, patties, casserole etc.), egg possibilities (omelette, soufflé, boiled, fried, poached, scrambled, quiches, as a mayo, hollandaise, carbonara sauce. There are just so many). Potato bake, macaroni cheese, fritters. And there’s still meat left to explore.

    The way I do it is to make sure many if the things I use are universal. I always use onions, garlic. I often use tinned tomatoes, tinned or dried pulses, potatoes and carrot. I use similar veg each time (so I can buy in bulk) but create really unique dishes by varying the spices and seasonings.

    I love (and need) to eat cheaply.

  • hokietrax

    Got anything resembling a source for this hydrolyzation? By the way, that means to break down by the addition of water. Also looking for which vitamins are and are not destroyed and the chemical alteration.

  • Cloud Kurosaki

    impossible to get eggs in vegas for less than 40 cents an egg

  • Pat

    Rice a roni bought with a coupon on sale with hamburger. Add seasoning or even almonds if you have some. I have overage on some coupons and that helps with product and meat that usually don’t have coupons. I use a lot of sausage for meat cause it has coupons and if you shop at target there are cartwheels that take some percent off. I stock up on items that are free after coupons and especially on items that have overage. I bought some soup that was on sale for 4.99 and the coupon took off 6.99 score. I bought baby formula once cause it had 1.50 overage on it and I donated the formula to a food bank. If it is free I buy it and give to friends and family or donate it. I have given a lot of my stash to tornado and flood relief help. It is time consuming but if you follow the blogs (I follow Hip2Save and KrogerKrazy) you can save big. I even get organic free or almost free. You just have to work at it. I have more time than I have money. I have my two disabled brothers and three grand kids to support on one salary. I was raised in the military and don’t believe in state aid so I work full time and part time when I can and squeeze every dollar out of my pay to pay the bills. It can be done.

  • Candace Marie

    I can’t believe, at 28 years old, I’m just now stumbling onto this. BUT!!! This is actually fascinating, and very creative.

  • Dabnasty

    Kai, please don’t say things like this without at least googling it first. There absolutely are organic pesticides, here is a list –

    http://www.ecfr.gov/cgi-bin/text-idx?c=ecfr&SID=9874504b6f1025eb0e6b67cadf9d3b40&rgn=div6&view=text&node=7:3.1.1.9.32.7&idno=7

    This list also includes organically approved synthetic substances.

    But the truth is, it doesn’t matter whether something is a pesticide by definition, what matters is if something is bad for us/the environment or not. We shouldn’t be lumping 100’s of different chemicals together and saying “pesticides are bad” or “synthetic chemicals are bad” or especially not “organic is good”.

    All of these statements are sometimes true and sometimes false.

    And to be fair most of these comments are opinion supported by incorrect facts or none at all, but making false claims and citing the USDA is particularly offensive. Please don’t do that. they have a hard enough time combating ignorance as it is.

  • Yonit Gefen

    How did a discussion about price become a debate about organic ?

  • Yonit Gefen

    seeds , nuts and veggies (if you buy them are expensive) but beans and rice,, cost little

  • Robert Fraley

    I too have read that the microwave will destroy by overcooking the molecules and destruction of the valuable benefits. https://search.yahoo.com/yhs/search?p=microwave+cooking+destroys+nutrition&ei=UTF-8&hspart=mozilla&hsimp=yhs-002

  • YepItsMe

    I just wanted to say thank you. We’ve run out of … well, almost everything .. with about $10 to make it til payday, almost a week away! It’s just two of us right now, as we’re letting our daughter stay elsewhere for the rest of this month. (She was invited; no one is aware of our circumstances.) Many of your ideas helped me figure out how to squeeze something out of nothing! You helped me realize I have a can of Swanson chicken broth (33% less sodium!) left over from Thanksgiving, plenty of rice, eggs, some frozen chicken breasts, some beans, and a pound of frozen ground beef. A neighbor brought us leftover pie tonight, so she wouldn’t be tempted, so now we’ve got a couple evenings of desserts, as well. It sounds like with some cheap veggies, we should be able to make this work! (1) chicken rice soup; (2) beans and rice; (3) scrambled eggs & cheese; (4) PB&J; and (5) stuffed baked potatoes. A couple things, like potatoes, will need to be bought, but at least this will get us through – if only mostly one meal/day. We’ll make it. Again, my thanks.

  • YepItsMe

    Oh! You just reminded me of a couple other things we have left over! I have one package of Madras Lentils (basically chili with lentils added), a couple frozen hot dogs, and one box of Mac & Cheese! Thanks for the reminder! Since potatoes are very cheap where we live, I could make chili-stuffed potatoes, and chopped hot dogs!

  • Heather

    You paid too much for bread. Day-old store sells all types of bread 3/$1. I’ve fed up to 7 people on $300 a month. I still can’t bring myself to pay full price for bread. We would get bagels or cinnamon swirl bread for breakfasts, High-end whole grain loaves for lunch and french baguettes to serve with dinner. My bread store prices everything the same and it is all on rolling carts but some of the nicer places have it set up like a retail store (you can expect 2/$1 in those places). I’ve never seen ground beef under $2 a lb but chicken leg quarters are consistently under $1 a lb. I’ve seen 10 lb bags as low as 33 cent a lb.

  • KerbalSpaceProgram

    Certain vegetables can be extremely cost effective – nearly every meal I cook is bulked up with cabbage, carrots, and onions. The two latter can be bought in large sacks and all three have long shelf lives.
    Most grocery stores will have a “deformed/ugly” produce stand where they sell off sacks of perfectly edible but weird looking fruits and veggies for a fraction of the price.
    During Thanksgiving season in America, buy as many turkeys as your freezer can hold. They’re extremely cheap per pound of meat, and pretty easy to prepare (just takes a long time in the oven).
    All my spices come from my favorite Indian grocery store. If you’re lucky enough to live in an area that has one of these, check it out – you can buy most spices by the pound, as well as find lentils and root vegetables for cheap.
    I have never bought rosemary from a grocery store. In California, at least, it’s commonly used as a shrubbery. It’s pretty easy to find a bush decorating a parking lot or public building.
    Canned green beans are delicious.
    Don’t go to coffee shops.
    The freezer is your friend.

  • Bman70

    This trend of not putting dates on posts, to try to keep them relevant, is really annoying. They are still dated posts, just misleading the audience about it. Especially ones about tech which changes so fast.. but yours includes food cost, which also change over time. At least include some polite note like “These prices were current as of 2009.”

  • Awesomkia

    This is where I am right now in life lol. I’m deep in college debt so until I can pay it all off I can’t afford anything.

  • valerie

    wat things were cooked

  • valerie

    where do you get the noodle from

  • valerie

    how do you make it in the crock pot??

  • Sue Braun

    Check out second harvest. In NYC they go around to all eateries and take whatever is not sold for the day to be distributed to those who need it. Wonderful program

  • Sue Braun

    Uncalled for remark. Shame on you.

  • Anoma Hansen

    This is awesome! I was in a similar position when I was in college too (’06)! Apparently I wasn’t nearly as creative as you were, my menu was oatmeal for breakfast, a scoop of lentils for lunch, a baked potato for dinner, and two slices of homemade bread for snacks. Grand total for the month was usually about $25-$30. I was vegetarian at the time, so that helped. Now, whenever I pull a $20 out of the atm for fun money I think to myself, “Damn, girl, you doin’ all right!”

  • Frank Frankly

    That’s mighty kind of you.

  • Chet Darkley

    Where in Rhode Island? Maybe we can meet up.

  • Plyman Cunk

    Literally the top result on that search says that it’s bullshit.

  • Prathamesh Joshi

    That’s how India survives!!

  • Slipguard

    My dad told me about how in college he would sometimes make condiment soup with relish, mustard, and ketchup + hot water or broth. I’ve tried it and it’s not so bad.

  • stilltheft

    The article was about “how to eat on a budget”, not “how to steal food if you’re out of other options.”

  • Yon

    The top result is ALWAYS the most reliable and factual result of any search, right?

  • Brandon

    I majored in health. Stop with the microwave ignorance. They aren’t bad

  • Ericka

    I’m in college and what I do is buy fresh vegetables and when they are used, you can replant them. You can replant: romain, onions, potatoes, carrots, chives, some herbs, celery and more. you don’t have to be a green thumb for any of these, all you do is have to place the ends in water. There are videos all over online.

  • Sue

    Homemade Mexican cornbread filled with hamburger, creamed corn and spices. a square of that with a can of soup can be a filling and tasty lunch.

  • Rocky

    I would get free lunch and dinner for doing homework of a rich kid. Turned out to be a win win for both of us. For breakfast, I would have water lol

  • Holly

    I would just like to say that this thread is hilarious. Thank you for this.

  • CS

    $36 a month.. wow I spend on average $36+ a meal!

  • guruurug

    I’d like to see somebody in today’s economy pull this off ha ha, never going to happen. Whenever you read some article about how to live cheap, it’s always crap unhealthy food like ramen. You can’t live cheap in an expensive high cost of living economy, sorry.

    Every year the cost of living is going higher and higher. The end is coming folks, get ready for it.

  • guruurug

    Eating too much lentils will kill you.

  • guruurug

    If that’s true, leave your food in there and see how it tastes after.

    Microwave Food = Nasty Food

  • guruurug

    8 years ago a pound of ground beef ha ha ha ha ha

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