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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  • Cheryl L

    are usually good one of those really super long things of hamburger meat and divided into little bitty bags holy bags not even sleepy time and freeze it and you can also use the bag system like this lock bags and sandwich bags to divide of the other very cheap ingredients for meals such as rice and potatoes and things like that instant foods seasonings you can freeze some things some things don’t have to be frozen you could learn to make your own seasoning stretch by mixing them with lesser price ingredients seasoningsbut unfortunately many times when you are trying to live life on a shoestring you will not always have the nutrients that your body needs so you will probably need to also invest ina multi vitamin bottle or something like that.. because if your diet is a lot of carbs and “filler foods” then you it you may be lacking in some ingredients for a healthy body including protein but the good news is that your body doesn’t need all that much protein to thrive but you do need to kind of keep an eye out for iron and B vitamins. I think that taking some regular tea bags and then some more expensive herbal tea can be mixed together and then drink sparingly so that you feel like you have a little luxury out of life now and then .
    just learn to take something that’s less expensive to mix with the more expensive sometimes like these things better who knows good luck and God bless. ????

  • Judge Judy

    I can’t help but feel like there’s a weeeee bit of judgement coming from your direction…

  • Jen

    I like cheese with rice. Just regular boiled white rice and then add cheese while it is hot and it melts on. Sounds weird? Try it…its actually really good.

  • Peter Solomon

    .15 cents .38 cents for sandwich..where the hell do you live? In Timbuktu?

  • Nutmeg and Snowball

    I’ve read almost all the comments, and have seen that lots of people understand what this article is really saying. Look for the cheapest deals and make them stretch the best that you can. Sure, prices have gone up quite a bit since this was posted, but if you really sit down and do a meal plan and look at the sales you can cut your costs down quite a bit. I have fed a family of 5 on only 198.00 a month. So all you doubters out there, figure that one out. :)

  • Jyoeru

    One chicken = ten meals (give or take). Eight bucks. Ten meals.

  • TanyaRN

    Wow, awesome article! Thank you for sharing these tips.

  • Zanny Belle

    I worked the midnight shift in a deli-bakery during college. I never had to buy food. We were allowed a free meal during our shift and that along with testing our end products was more than enough to fill me for the day. My husband worked at a place where all meals were provided. I don’t think we used the refrigerator or stove in our apartment except on Thanksgiving.

  • mreha

    Along similar lines, the standard Japanese breakfast is really inexpensive, healthy, and filling. Steamed rice + miso soup. The packets of miso soup are a horrible deal, but if you make it yourself (which is literally as easy as boiling water in a kettle and pouring it over the ingredients in a bowl) from miso paste, nori, and pressed tofu it comes out to around than $0.60 for a large bowl and has lots of protein as well as being probiotic, and the rice will keep you full all morning. I like to add a scoop of kimchi (not Japanese, so not totally authentic, but still good) over the rice to get a bit of veggies (and more probiotics). Good stuff…and the Japanese have the longest life expectancy in the world, so they must be doing something right.

  • Jonesy

    I would love to know how to do this without the dumpster stuff, and without really begging for freebies. I just want to learn how to live an American life with the cheapest bought food.

  • Frustrated beyond belief

    I’m poor, I live on disability and I know how hard it can be….I buy what is on sale and don’t bother to check if it’s organic or not….if an apple that is organic costs .75 I’m and one that isn’t costs .25 then I’m buying the one that isn’t….I would never judge those that buy organic but at the same time I really wish they’d stop judging me and others like it for not buying it…I’m 50 now and the organic fad has only been around for a short time compared to how long I’ve been eating….health wise when it comes to eating my doctor says I’m doing great and so are my children and they to eat the none organic foods…maybe if it’s so healthy and good for a person they would think about marketing it cheaper so us poor folks can actually enjoy it

  • Lynn

    Some pretty good tips but one thing that pissed me off was when it said “if you are $ poor you might not be time poor.” Excuse me, but in what universe is this true? You think my friend who is a single mom with three kids, working full-time and trying to go to school to get a better job has so much as ten minutes to herself?

  • Oz

    Under eating on 36 USD a day. Drink water so you don’t feel hungry. Because–you know–it’s not like hunger is a sensation for a reason, right?

    In the end, nothing will beat proper portions that meet your body’s need–be that in calories, vitamins, protein, and the like. Still, you do what you have to do in college.

  • guest17

    Sounds like starving to me.

  • anon

    An awesome addition to this is a little honey on the rice. It mixes up flavors if you eat as much rice as I do. Also the mix of salty and just a tad sweet is a great day starter.

  • Bruce Nguyen

    I have a high metabolism and even though I’m small I eat twice as much as someone double my size (some people, not everyone). I’m not overeating at all and I’m really skinny. I would literally be dead trying to make this crazy “no meat” diet of yours work. …now it’s time to go hunt a dinosaur or something….

  • anonymous

    I thought this was a great article to read, I’m planning to move out soon and didn’t know what was reasonable for food, this has been very enlightening haha.

  • canning granny

    been doing the cheap eats thing for many years. some of my favorite discoveries include sprouting beans, seeds, etc and adding them to your diet; bone soup; saving everything salvageable for the ongoing stock pot to create FREE food; learning my local forage foods (eating weeds and parts of plants that are not normally used as food widens your options); learning to cook rough fish & learning how to fish using minimal equipment; leaning to preserve any surpluses; getting a cheap used freezer for $50 and ‘take it away’ simply because it was huge and unwieldy (it ran good for another 30 years after I got it) then shopping the food sale cycles and buying in bulk; finding a local canning company store where they sold dented cans of veggies (they inspected them to make sure they were safe) for – get this- $6 for 24 one-pound cans; gardening in teensy places and indoors (sweet potato vines – those old houseplant stand-bys- are absolutely delicious!!!).
    I have even gone to the local parks dept. and asked permission to pick apples and other nuts & fruits from the trees in the park so I had extra food to can for later eating.
    They did not even know that mulberries were edible, let alone delicious! (I do admit to thanking them with some homemade mulberry jam later…). In the spring when gardening types are thinning out their beds and pruning their bushes you can get free plants for your own garden and yard. Pick edible landscaping types to increase food choices.
    Needless to say I have not paid full price for any food items for years, which allows me to save the money to purchase in bulk when the sales come along (roasts in the summer, pork in the fall at slaughtering time, turkeys when they are marked down for thanksgiving, and hams when they are marked down for Christmas. Oh yes – buy as big a turkey as you can fine (better meat to bone ratio) and have the meat man cut it in half or quarters. You can cook only part and freeze the rest if you have a freezer. Otherwise cook 2 turkeys (as long as the oven is on anyway) and bone out & freeze or can up the extra one. Then make turkey bone-soup (out of this world delicious) or stock and can that up to. Canning is easy to learn and I have found working pressure canners at the thrift shops for as low as $10.
    I could go on and on….

  • Zach

    just make sure that you cook it in glass, not the tuperware, lol. as for there is 10x more BPA distributed into your body after plastic heats up!

  • mama4

    i have four kids , we make our own noodles and all sauces ex ranch bbq thous island dressing, we make our own laundry soap, have a garden tomatoes peppers onions carrots spices cucumbers zucchini potatoes , make our own ice cram with canned milk, we use home made cleaners. for a family of six i spend $60 a week flour sugar t.p. milk 3 gals, eggs., meat, razors, borax vinegar and kibble

  • darknessra

    since I’m beind in bills… I have $39.71 to my name for the next 23 days… I also already have loads of can foods and frozen foods in the freezer that I’ll use to my advantage and the under $40 I have I’ll only use when I really need it… I plan on making some homemade stuff like chili since I found lots of different cans of tomatoes, chili beans, kidney beans etc… and also found some frozen hamburger meat and also found that I had a taco kit so I could have tacos at some point in the next 3 weeks! I’m look forward to the challenge since it works out that if I did use my money for the next 23 days, it would be about a $1.72 a day! (just under $2 a day)

  • Shane

    You forgot to mention the plethora of churches that you could visit that gives out free food. Even if you have zero faith, the churches do and God literally commands them to feed the hungry. Over 200 bible scriptures on helping the poor.

  • Phoebe Prentice Terry

    In England we have alot of Asian supermarkets and when I was a student I used to always buy dried chickpeas I would soak myself for simple curries with potato or broccoli. I also love black eyed peas and have recently moved to France where everyone is crazy for lentils and although they cost 5 euros for a ready made 100g pot the dried ones are a euro for a pound, I probably get about eight servings for me and my partner or 25c for two people. One of my favourite dishes at the moment is green lentils cooked in chicken stock, then you stir in oil, balsalmic vinager, a touch of honey, soy sauce and mustard. Add some fried sausage or diced bacon and serve with a few poached eggs on top. Yum!

  • Rachel

    When I was in college I worked on an organic farm 30 min away. Not only did they pay me 8 dollars an hour (I usually only worked 8-16 hours per week) but I could have as much produce as I wanted. I went home with greens, sungold tomatoes, chinese long beans, squashes, peppers, garlic, leeks, pears (oh the heavenly taste of a freshly plucked tree ripe pear), fresh herbs, and chestnuts when they were in season. I also ended up house/farm sitting for the owners which made me more money as well as fresh produce. I was an ag major, but honestly anyone who doesn’t mind a bit of labor and sun in exchange for a weeks worth of produce could do the job.

  • Michael

    I live almost the same way as you except with a slightly bigger budgets. Most of my buys are deals are usually whatever is in season and on clearance.

    While I prefer organic foods I couldn’t bother with the price differences since you save so much more. Majority of the elderly did not spend most of their time eating organics but have lived to be above eighty.

  • Marie

    What about the cost of vegetables? I eat bulk oatmeal for breakfast, usually with a banana. My dinner is always lentils and rice, both of which I buy in big bags. I complete my diet with eggs, milk, peanut butter, canned tuna and popcorn (that I buy in bulk and pop myself). I don’t buy meat nor prepared/packaged food because it’s too expensive. So far I shouldn’t ruin myself. However, I want to eat 5 portions of vegetables everyday. I look for vegetables that are on sale, I’m not picky, but I try to get different colors for maximize my nutrients. My grocery bill ends up being almost $400 every month.

  • John Ogle

    I don’t think I ever did it THAT cheap, but I have been able to make it on less than $50 a month and still eat very healthy while noticing people who spend $200+/month are obese and unhealthy. For me, the real difference-maker was lentils.

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