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.

If you are into startups, you will love The Founders, a video series focusing on this years TechStars teams.

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  • Bom Ducci

    Hi I live in Rhode Island, what market were you going to?

  • Beau Daniel

    This is the only google result that is actually frugal. A really cheap food is cous-cous. If you put curry powder or Mediterranean spice in it you have a filling supercheap carbohydrate to fill a third of your plate.

  • John W Powell

    Sprices, its all about the spices. You can make a simple bowl of rice taste uniquely different every night with a fully stocked spice rack.

  • Pete Deiler

    I am using PLAIN bagels instead of bread. I figure a minimum of 3 slices of bread to equal ONE PLAIN BAGEL. (I GENERALLY USE 4 SLICES OF BREAD HOWEVER.) That leaves the bagel lower in every category except calories and sodium. SUGGESTIONS? MAYBE COMMENTS. MY STORAGE SPACE is extremely limited. SO the reduction in STORAGE space for food is important

  • Elizabeth

    Super Cook is an awesome website for this. You type in every ingredient you possibly have on hand, including spices and condiments. It then gives you all the recipes in which you have the ingredients for. I’d never know what to do with some things if it weren’t for that website.

  • IIlI

    it was a highly walkable city – is there a reason why you kept this a secret?

  • bloodykraven528

    I’m moving to LA within the year for school, and rent is my highest expense. I am so glad I saw this because now I can afford to have a bed AND eat!

    Thanks :D

  • ElleMental

    Miso seems kind of pricey at first look, but it is a fermented food with loads of nutrition, you only use about a tablespoon, so a container will go a long way. Miso soup-hot water in a large mug, clove of garlic pressed into the cup, heaping 1tblsp. Traditional red miso. stir and drink. It is full of protein, antioxidants, and tastes great. Ror more bulk add some left over cooked noodles, bits of grated carrots and onion. Meal in a cup and it is great for taking with you since miso is fermented and is safe to keep unrefrigerated for the day.

  • Steezus Kanobi

    Thanks mane bomb post!

  • Sarah

    Thanks! I loved this article. Glad your budget got a little bigger but it is cool to read about ways that real people are frugal!

  • William Jesse Miller

    can’t imagine how small these servings were..

  • Pamela

    I would say this is more beneficial when you have most of these things already. I am trying to save as much as I can because Christmas is near and I need most of my income to be saved for that purpose. Even shopping at Aldi isn’t as cheap anymore.

  • Dino Kukic

    Awesome post and I can co-relate with some things. It’s actually not that hard to live with a little money, but it does require plenty of discipline. And apparently, there is also a way to live without money for food at all: http://the-survival-bible.com/how-to-eat-with-no-money/

  • Lea Birmingham

    Great, minus the PB&J sandwich every other day.

  • Megan Shenefield

    My son has a horrible allergy/intolerance and as he doesn’t have a gluten intolerance per say, he does have to eat more gluten and preservative free foods. I know where we live (in Ohio) as long as you are diagnosed by a doctor with a special dietary need you can get extra help and a tax credit for having to buy pricier foods. I’m not sure where you live this is an option, or if this is something that is nation wide, but it might be worth checking into!! :)

  • jackgoldman1 .

    I was born to a 16 year old mother and we were dirt poor growing up. As I grew up I found my father wanted us to live on nothing. This was a great gift to learn to be able to live cheap. I had a cheap Dad and a rich Uncle. My Uncle taught me how to make a lot of money so I didn’t have to be cheap. Now I can have what I want. Always remember, making money is another option to living cheap. I respect frugality. Too much water and we die in a flood. Not enough water and we die in a drought. The secret is the middle path, living well. Good luck.

  • skywalker

    You do darn well! Free range chickens, wild edible greens, gardening and going fishing help. I stayed down in Mexico with a family that at Beans and tortillas three meals a day with a vegetable such as radishes, sour cream, jalapenos and salsa. Sometimes they threw in a fried egg.

  • Par-chan

    Lololololololol.

  • B.Z. Zsa

    Winco is hands down the cheapest place to bag your own beans, legumes, pasta, rice, oats, seeds, baking essentials, and spices ( aka the bulk foods).

    ____________________________

    *Slow Cooker Lentil Soup (can be made in bulk, separated, and frozen)*
    1/4 lb Lentil
    half carrot in chunks
    half can crushed or stewed tomato W/ liquid
    5 cups water
    salt

    Optional
    1/8 lb ground turkey (ground turkey its soo much cheaper and healthier!)
    chopped onion
    garlic powder
    Cayenne powder

    Just throw it all in the crock pot on low for a few hours and your good to go.

    Variation
    use less water & add some beans and tomato sauce. Eat on top of rice or with bread.

    I usually make a big batch of these once a month then separate and freeze.

    ____________________________

    *One Pot Pasta*

    pasta (any shape)
    crushed tomato or red/white pasta sauce
    hand full of spinach
    ground turkey or sausage cut in slices

    Boil pasta and turkey/ sausage slices together
    drain
    add sauce/ crushed tomato
    once hot add spinach and serve

    variation
    Substitute or supplement spinach with zucchini, squash, and or bell pepper.
    Just throw them in to boil with pasta and meat.

    ____________________________

    *Green Smoothie*
    spinach
    kale
    yogurt (i like plain greek)
    banana
    ice
    water

    optional
    chia or flax seed
    sugar/ agave/ stevia
    strawberry
    blueberry

    You want to blend the kale, spinach, and seeds with a little bit of water first. Add ice to blender last. They are surprisingly filling but do not store well, so drink quickly.
    If youre new to them they may flush you out. I suggest starting on a work or school free day.

    ____________________________

    *Crock Pot Chicken Soup*
    chicken drumstick
    vegetable broth or water
    peeled and quartered potato
    half carrot
    salt

    optional
    chopped celery
    rice
    cayenne powder
    garlic
    zucchini
    squash

    Throw drumstick ( bone = flavor), potato, carrot, spices, and water/ broth on in crock pot for a few hours. When you notice meat can easily slide of the bone, remove chicken and separate from bone ( dont forget about that tiny sharp one). Add other desired veggies now and cook for a short while longer until tender.

  • Brian Pipes

    You are missing out on a great benefit. Eating pesticides will keep you from getting a tapeworm.

  • Amy

    With four kids, no job(atm) and a budget gone array from lack of income, I have been effective at feeding everyone healthy meals for roughly $12 a week, including milk, coffee and Creamer (cause I may die without coffee)! It is an extremely humbling experience, but have learned what we can go without and still be full! One day I hope to not need to do this small food budget, but I would like to still keep doing it as much as possible when I get back on my feet!

  • Mike

    I do a similar thing (cook up rice for the week). In addition, over the summer I’ve potted cilantro and green onion. When the rice is cooked I add chopped cilantro and green onion. The herbs add a nice texmex flair to the rice.

  • Todd Russell Smith

    This article is spot on. I was teaching in Spain and lived on less than 40 euros a month. I ate mostly dried beans, eggs, oatmeal and pasta. I lost 70 pounds in 15 months and learned to save when I returned to the US.

  • Sin Vraal

    After losing my job at IBM in Boulder, I had 3 months (I always paid rent in advance rather than ‘saving’ it!) to make $100 last. I stocked up on bulk rice and beans, some spaghetti pasta, some butter, and a dozen eggs. I went to McDonald’s during their $1 anysize drinks and got a drink and a $1 mcdouble every few days for extra calories and sugary caffienated goodness and drank it up like a sponge while there. It worked out very well, and i’ve never lived cheaper. Didn’t go hungry and stayed relatively healthy- no obvious problems anyway!

  • Sin Vraal

    Organic is generally 40-600% more expensive, depending on item. Interestingly it is also recalled much, much more often than regular and GMO products due to pests and contamination resulting from their refusal to use proper anti-pest chemicals, disinfectants, and proper washing and treatment.

  • Sin Vraal

    If you can, try asking to talk to a manager at a Taco Bell and put in an app, tell them you want to work very part-time, just like 4-8 hours a week to help with cleaning, for minimum wage. They are very likely to hire you versus someone who wants full hours. You still get employee discount (1/2 off any order under $20) so you can use this small work-time to make a smidge of extra income AND score some tasty food on the cheap. Best value item are the burritos in terms of calories/$ without being all fat and no nutrition. Worst value are cinna-twists, taco salad, and most sides.

    When I was a manager at taco bell (and crew before that) I pretty much ate 2-3 meals a day there, and often took some home for my roommates too. It cut back food costs dramatically!

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