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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  • Carly

    Finding good cheap groceries in Toronto Canada generally means shopping at No Frills and will be more of a challenge for someone like me who is trying to go gluten free (I am gluten intolerant), all the more for those who have Celiac disease. I’m really looking to save money and be debt free.

  • NotAnIdiot

    Sarah, there are still pesticides on organic foods. In fact, there is more pesticide. It’s just “organic” pesticide.

  • WebGal

    Great ideas here! If we really think about it, we don’t need as much food as we think. In the past I’ve had to really tighten the belt and once was able to make a month’s worth of meals for a family of four for less than $80. That was great for me. After years of feasting, I’m back to “famine” again, so I was poking around to gain inspiration for cutting back. Thanks for the tips!

  • Krystal Bass

    I love this. :)
    My vice is Sushi… But I’ve learned to stay away from restaurants and instead buy my own choice salmon and make sashimi myself – which is simply salmon shaved very thin. I can’t believe how much it saves me – I get 5 servings for the same price as 1 in a restaurant!

  • jack

    As a freelance worker doing web stuff, and I didn’t eat for several days apart from stealing my room mate’s leftovers and the government wouldn’t support me because I’m already working (as a freelancer making like $5 per hour). While, people not working at all get hundreds of dollars of allowance each month. Also on top of that crap I was constantly stressed as clients wouldn’t stop demands so I got extremely sick. Now I’m at my parents house again. The lesson learned: Never put your health at risk for the sake of independence, or anything.

  • Mary Duhon

    Can you give me couponing advice? I live on the west coast and shop at Winco bulk foods store, walmart, and the commisary on fairchild AFB.

  • Steve

    Studying in Australia (with the casual wage of ~$20/hr for a 19-year-old) Kangaroo meat is extremely good value for money. 1 patty will set you back about $1 – mixed with bulk salad from the local farmers market will set you up with a reasonable size lunch (19-year-old-male-size) for $1.20 – dressing included! Not only is it cheap as chips, but the meat is EXTREMELY lean and nutritious – even enough to sustain you through weights training, running and vigorous exercise.

  • John

    I can remember the joy of picking up a tarnished dime off the sidewalk. my fingers fidgeted sleuthing my front pockets feeling for the four smooth pennies. I knew I was going to eat Ramen that day.

    Today I make more money then I can spend yet I still take great pride knowing I can live on pennies a day.

    Good write up!

    Stop dumpster diving you’re not an animal.

  • JobHuntingStudent

    Do you have any suggestions on what food to get if you are on a very strict budget that might mean you have no electricity or gas to cook with?

  • Melissa

    If rice is a little hard from being in the fridge, wet a paper towel and place it over the rice when you microwave it, and it’ll soften it. Rice that’s old and more hard is perfect for fried rice–heat up a skillet with some oil, cook some garlic and whatever vegetables, egg, and/or meat, then add the rice, break it up with a spatula, and add soy sauce and whatever other seasonings.

  • vallorax

    What year was THIS written??? PB& J for .25!!! NOT! Rice, Noodles and a quarter to half a TUBE of hamburger is still going to cost 10.00 when purchased at the grocery store.. if you are feeding 6 people that is about 2 to 3 meals.. is that where you are getting this ridiculous cost of eating dinner for less than a dollar???even if it were $9.00 thats till 3.00 a meal!!! I thought i was going to get relevant information when I clicked on this articale. :(

  • Luna

    I wish this were possible here… I live in Hawaii and all foods are double the price of the mainland… milk is 6$, bread 6$, and eggs 5$… even at discounted stores like walmart its this high. I just skip meals a lot (never eat breakfast, eat only one meal a day 2-3 times a week, find free food where ever I can) because I usually have around 40$ per month for food if I’m lucky.. Peanut butter is something I’ve found to be a good bang for my buck though. Filling, cheap and good for my heavy college schedule. I don’t exactly have the time or skills to cook much..

  • Alex

    I am currently a student and went through two phases
    1)a 25lb sack of white rice was about 10 bucks, and a pack of GPC(cigarettes) were 2.50
    3 smokes aday and rice.

    2)When I decided to quit smoking i revamped with 2x milk 8x cabbages, 2x cartons of eggs, about 16 bucks, and supplemented with dumpster diving

  • Jennifer Masterson

    What store in Boulder has special offers on Wednesdays? I live in Colorado Springs so I was curious if that store was near here at all.

  • James
  • amy vegan

    bananas.

  • kathryn

    I have just started living the CRON (calorie restrictive optimum nutrition) lifestyle, and I entereded your sample meal, from above, into my cron o meter (gives calories/ nutritional value) and I was amazed at how healthy it was. It’s great to hear it doesn’t cost a lot to eat healthy .Well done!

  • Rose petal 35

    My mother had 6 children and my father was working a job making almost nothing. We would eat chicken, rice and dumplings a lot. She got the baby rice cereal free from commodities and/or a family friend who didn’t need it anymore. A couple of cans of chicken broth and chunks for $1.00 because they expired or were over stocked. Then a bag of self rising flour at the local commodities also. She threw in some salt and pepper and some homemade butter from a local farmer that always made more than she could sell before it spoiled. Best chicken and dumplings ever and barely cost anything! Mmm

  • jon

    this is one of the most ridiculoud things ive ever read.

  • jon

    ridiculous

  • jon

    I typically live off my own semen for about 20$ a month. I drink insane amounts of water to produce insane amounts of semen, and the Volume Pills are the only hard thing entering my mouse besides my own Cak, which sustain me pretty well for 20$ a month.

  • Emma

    I was eating for about $20/month a couple years ago because I had an equally thrifty boyfriend–teaming up and splitting costs actually was a huge advantage. Stuff I couldn’t afford on my own (cheaper by quantity but only available in a larger quantity) I could afford with someone to share!

  • Emma

    Great post! A few tips –
    1) Know yourself. I know if I eat 3x before noon, I can eat three small meals and feel full, whereas if I wait until noon, I will need to eat three large meals and still won’t feel satisfied/will get headachy. Not the same pattern for everyone, but everyone has a pattern.
    1b) I can and do have yogurt every single day so I have a yogurt maker and that works out cheaper than buying yogurt already made, but if you don’t like yogurt that much, the machine would be a waste of space/money.
    2) My college was in a rural area; I have an interest in agriculture and befriended some local homesteaders. Sometimes I was able to help out a bit in exchange for some really excellent quality organic food (eggs, once some ground mutton in exchange for helping with the butchering).
    3) When I’ve raised chickens, I’ve asked local organic food stores for the produce they throw out–this is dumpster diving minus the diving–and very often the food is good enough to share with the hens!
    4) This is harder for college students (but can still be done)–when fruit is in season, stock up and can it. Initial costs (of the jars especially) but ask around–ask church groups as they will often have older people with canning supplies they don’t use very much (or older relatives).
    5) Know what is in season around you! I’ve been able to harvest gallons of blackberries from bushes at my college because no one else was paying attention; likewise some friends and I found some pumpkins growing by the side of the road where evidently some pumpkin seeds had been dropped the previous year and we made a great pie for practically nothing.
    6) Buy flour in the biggest bags you can store. Homemade bread makes everything taste better and helps you fill up (just don’t rely on it for nutrition).
    7) Give food to others as much as possible. Whenever you find yourself with excess–maybe bread that will go stale, veggies that are about to turn–try to make something you can share with others in your community and they will probably share with you in return. (I used to give away a lot of fresh bread I made and in return some of my roommates would swipe me into the dining hall, stuff like that–both of us giving away stuff that was personally low-value but had a higher value to the person on the receiving end.)
    8) Meat is expensive, and meat you can feel good about eating tends to be even more expensive if you have to buy it outright, so think of it as seasoning in your cooking. Cooked mushrooms are a good substitute for meat in many meat-heavy dishes (and are way cheaper).
    9) The best meat animal to have on a budget is a rabbit–they will dress out to around 45-60% of live weight (compared to ~35% for beef) and obviously they take way less space than basically any other meat animal (except maybe chickens, but they are much easier to take care of than chickens, and less smelly!). Plus they are easy to breed and simple to butcher.
    10) If you can find a good deal on a whole chicken (‘frame’), do it, and use every last bit–bones are good for stock, etc. (This is also a good time to use bartering if you have time/skills and can hook up with a chicken killer!)
    11) Always have something you can eat quickly so you’re not tempted to blow money on fast food or something. I used to always have a ton of gala apples in a bowl by the door so if I was in a rush I could grab one of those instead of spending more money on a vending machine splurge or fast food or something. I love chipotle as much as the next guy, but you can’t get out of there without spending at least $5 and my bag of apples was around $3.
    12) Combine trips so you don’t spend gas money just on grocery shopping (if possible). Even better, combine walking/biking/public transit options. Transportation to get the food is part of the cost.

  • Jaclyn Galinis

    so basically its $36 a month based on the price per serving. not that you went into a grocery store with $36 and bought enough food for a month.

  • Andy

    I am a little puzzled by the article and especially the comments after it. All this time and effort to find leads to get the cheapest crap to eat. All this running around the markets searching what day has the 50% discount on canned lentils, seems like a lot of work. Wouldnt your time be more productively used looking for a part time job?

    When I was a student I was getting $310 a week by doing tutoring work at
    the university. Not a lot but enough to avoid diving into the dumpster
    in search of leftovers.

    I dont recommend trying to save money by eating rubbish. Clothes yes, equipment yes, entertainment certainly. Food – no. Eating out of the trashcan will not save you money in the long run. Its “good” for getting ulcers, avitaminosis and intestinal infections. Medical bills are a lot higher than food bills!

  • aussieellen

    Quick tip which I find helpful living on my own and renting on a crap wage. I love brown rice, but it takes about 30 mins to cook and I’m lazy and impatient, so, what I do is cook about 5 cups at a time, then portion it into ziplock bags and chuck it in the freezer. 5 cups of brown rice gives me about 12 portion sized bags of rice. 12 meals. You can then thaw in the microwave or in boiling water. For a quick yummy meal, I add a can of tuna and a spoonful of wholegrain mustard. But you can add whatever you like to that rice. Easy peasy.

  • yousoundlikeadick

    you sound like you’ve got something stuffed pretty tight up you bum. maybe you should come down off your high horse and take a look. not everyone can afford to eat but they don’t belong in jail. besides who the fuck cares about stealing food from a CORPORATION. i mean shit if i could steal from walmart and get away with it i sure wouldn’t feel bad.

  • Jamie

    Popcorn is something I really enjoy, but ALWAYS forget about!

  • Jamie

    I totally forgot about this place, too. We have one of these out here!

  • the troll

    I live under a bridge and eat what ever I can find dog food cat food. I cannot work due to epilepsy ,
    Sleep apnea . So I stay awake so no one will take my place.

  • Abraham

    $36.00 is too expensive for me for one week. My goal is to keep under $21.00 or $3.00 a day.

  • Cayareida

    Has everybody forgotten mashed potatoes? It’s my fave cheap food. A box migh cost anywhere from $2 to $4 dollars and it can last forever…ok not forever, but about two weeks of lunch. Spaggetties cost about .88 cents to 1.50 here, and they are filling, taste great, and a box lasts for 3-4 lunches (thinking one or two people in the house).

  • linksage

    and you’d be amazed how many things could pass as technically ‘organic’. It’s really no different than the ‘all natural’ crap. Technically corn syrup is natural, but we all know that isn’t great for us…

  • linksage

    the price of basic baking supplies have gone up so much that this isn’t even worth it anymore :p

  • linksage

    5+ years ago if you’d look at the oldest comments :p

  • linksage

    kindly take your elitist ‘when I was your age jobs grew on trees’ bs and shove it. I actually HAVE a full time job that isn’t even minimum wage, relatively cheaper than average rent, no cable/internet costs, and yet I STILL need to spend as little as possible of food because my basic bills (student loans/car payments/car insurance/rent/ect) come out to about wage I make every month. With the student loans being a whopping quarter of my monthly salary. I came to this article for tips, to see if there’s anything cheaper than rice to live off of, but unfortunately this article is five years old and it’s SHOCKING how much the cost of even basic groceries has grown since it was written.

  • Deidre Kawata

    Hope you make sure it is sushi grade salmon!!!! Or cured or frozen properly!! You could VERY easily get parasites!!!

  • Deidre Kawata

    Hear hear!!!! And after awhile you KNOW when and where things are going on sale so a little initial time and effort = long term savings

  • Heather

    My walmart has them for .15 for each one. If you peal them and mash them and store in air tight container they freeze really well!! For a long time too.

  • Keith

    I’m still in the process of cutting back on my food budget, but I’ve honed my diet to such that I primarily live off of pasta, apple sauce, peanut butter, milk, and a random type of fruit. That costs me about 15 dollars a week, although that’s not including the premium iced coffees that I buy every couple of days.

  • bob

    look on the internet for eat the weeds -and be more ready

  • randomchickeneater

    normaly i make chicken and rice (rice still very cheap i pay roughly 10 bucks for 20 pounds) then my chicken i get from a outlet store in town (before tax its 4.25 fo 3 pounds of boneless skinless, or the sale i got a few weeks bone in thighs were 2.50 for a 4 pound bag) i usely season the chicken salt pepper and mcormic spices and then have rice plains of course i break the budget once in a whiel with soda (normaly i just have iced tea but sometimes i just realy need a soda lol)) unsure if this is super cheap but its the way i save a few bucks here and there

  • Hestin

    Thank you so much! This is gonna be a really huge help for me, because I have to move out from a home where I am renting a room. The family here always let’s me eat whatever is in the fridge.now that I will be moving alone to a studio the $36 a month will have to be it for me. :)

  • Bill

    This post makes no sense. How do you do it? He breaks down the items and the costs but not HOW he actually was able to find these deals. For example, he mentions buying salads out of the bin… ? Huh? What bin? What does this mean? Was this basically coupon clipping on steroids?

  • Ivy

    Finding deals is a huge part of eating cheap. One of my best trips was when my twins were little til about 20 months of age we were only feeding them organic, but I was also on a very tight budget. Our local Kroger marked down the organic infant/toddler dinners to only $0.15 a jar (down from $1.50). I bought all 300 of them, and 200 jars of fruits / veggies for $.10 a jar (down from $.80 each) Except for milk and finger foods like cheerios it kept them fed for an entire year! Another time they had marked down bacon wrapped filet mignon for $1 a pound! I bought all they had, about $16 pounds.

  • mattie

    Printable list on how to get your year supply/food storage for 5 bucks a week! – http://pinterest.com/pin/540994973961123450/?utm_source=android_share

    I did the math and it comes out to about 71cents a day. Pretty incredible and if you have the money to spend a year before college to do this, you could live for a year off this food. Afterward, you could live off the 36$ a month. Just a thought because im a penny pincher.

  • bultak23

    eggs, milk, block cheese, tunafish, rice, large tub of yoghurt, dry pasta, tinned tomato paste, bread, home brewed coffee, and home filtered water. if you do it yourself, you pay yourself in savings.

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