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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  • andrewhyde

    I did a chick pea lamb stew the other month, lasted forever and was tasty as can be.

  • andrewhyde

    to me that just isn't comfort or nutritious. Personal tastes I guess.

  • andrewhyde

    That sounds like a classic college meal, the pita pizza.

  • andrewhyde

    I had a decent amount of storage, but it isn't a ton of food to buy. The freezers in the states are larger than ones I have seen in the UK, so I know where you are coming from.

  • andrewhyde

    Link didn't work, would love to check out the recipe!

  • andrewhyde

    I am much closer to that these days!

  • andrewhyde

    There are deals to be had!

  • andrewhyde

    One of the perks of the food industry job.

  • Mike O.

    In college, I loved the dorm cafeteria. Lots of folk didn't, and would post their meal-tickets for sale on bulletin boards, usually for 1/2 or even 2/3 off the original cost. Came out to an average of less than a dollar per meal.

  • andrewhyde

    Oh no! Not fun!

  • andrewhyde

    Not something I do, but some love it.

  • http://www.AndyTolbert.com/ Andy Tolbert

    Alot of my friends and my husband hunt, so there's always venison, turkey, and fish in the freezer… really helps the budget!

  • heyrich

    Yep. The serious physical training will really put a strain on your food budget! It's still possible to manage it, though.

    I was on a super low budget in college. When I first joined the rowing team, I lived in the dorms and had access to the cafeteria, where every day was an all-you-can-eat bonanza. In my Junior year, I moved out of the dorms and was on my own for food. Talk about sticker shock! I wound up finding a local market that had amazing artisan pumpernickel rye raisin bread. After a few weeks of perfecting my timing for when they set out the discounted loaves, the baker started just setting 'em aside for me.

    Artisan bread, friendly bakers and caloric density FTW.

  • heather

    Whenever we're really broke and have time, we hit a circuit of stores that offer free samples . No kidding, if you time it right you can fill up all day for free. I live in Portland, OR so I can go by Zupan's, New Season's, Whole Foods, farmer's markets and Fred Meyers and they usually have a nice smorgasbord of samples available. Many deli counters will let you try a salad sample (like prepared salads, not lettuce-salads) or have olive bars, soup bars, etc where you have little cups available to try samples.

    We would also go by pizza places and other faster-food type of non-corporate restaurants around closing time to see if they had extra food they were going to throw out.

  • heather

    yes! I second this. Especially if you live in a place where there are a few of these continental breakfast type of places. In my gutsier youth, I've also invited myself to events, conferences and wedding receptions–but you have to dress the part too–you can't just walk in regualr street clothes. If there is a buffet you can fill a plate and take off and enjoy your *free* gourmet meal.

  • http://www.cabinwood.blogspot.com/ Marc

    You could try getting a part time job. The “education system” owes you zilch. There are thousands of opportunities just waiting for you, if you would just look.

  • kit308

    Perfect lunch or late evening meal: One onion, one tin of corned beef. Leftover rice or potatoes. Fry the onion diced up, maybe add some tabasco or worcester sauce to taste. Fry the corned beef in slices or mashed up. Add the spuds to fry or rice just to heat up. This feeds two easily for about 1 pound sterling or 1.50USD probably much less as food is expensive in the UK-this includes the original potatoes cost. If you have a spare tomato add that in near the end. Allow the beef to crisp up before adding the potatoes. Also try the Paupers Cookbook – its amazing.

  • Hil

    One of my favorite cheap foods to make is sweet n sour barbecue sauce. It's just 4 parts white vinegar, 1 part ketchup and 1/2 to 1 part honey (depending on what you use it for) plus a drop or two of mustard simmered until your preferred consistency, and you can put it on almost anything. The way I make it it comes out to about a dollar for a quart. You can use it for almost anything (rice, add to beef to make sloppy joes, add to beans/bean soup etc). Definitely makes bland, cheap meals more appealing week after week.

  • annielin

    some additions:

    * make use of every last scrap if you have the tools, resources and ability to cook.
    * if you have nearly-expired bread, make it into bread pudding.
    * if you have wilting veggies, stir fry them in some oil and fold them into an omlet.
    * if you have leftover pasta, chop it up and mix it into a salad or bake it into another dish.
    * if you have leftover oatmeal, make some cookies.
    * if you must eat cereal, buy the plain kind and dress with seasonal fruits.
    * always buy fruits in season and on sale. if you live near your local chinatown or other street market, fresh fruits and vegetables cost a lot less than they do at grocery stores. for example, a flat of strawberries might cost $1.50 versus $4.99.

    i've always found baking to be a straightforward method of food preparation that doesn't take too much time or attention: mix the ingredients, pour them into a bake pan, set a timer and walk away until dinner or dessert is ready.

  • andrewhyde

    Great additions!

  • Ann

    I knew someone in college who would buy large bags of dry dog food and snack on it through the day. He said it tasted OK and he seemed to thrive on it. He bought low cost brands and ate it through four years of college, supplementing with small amounts of other foods.

  • andrewhyde

    That sounds horrid.

  • Emily

    Well I'm moving to the US in 2 weeks for a year so I'll revel in the freezer space. Definitely going to take some tips from this as I am not going with a lot of money and I really want to save as much as I can for travelling in the Uni holidays and food and alcohol are probably my 2 biggest expenses here.

  • jane

    I can't believe people are advocating stealing, which is basically what you are doing if you carry food out of a buffet or eat breakfast at hotels when you haven't purchased a room. You can be arrested for that behavior–I've been in a restaurant when the police have been called for this activity. The woman had kids and it was not pretty.

    If you can afford it, a chest freezer is a great investment. Then when perishable grocery items go on deep discount, you can buy enough to last several months & freeze. Almost everything can be frozen, including milk and eggs. One local grocery store has been running a special where if you buy a freezer from them you get several hundred dollars worth of food, off setting most of the cost. A used one might increase your power bill, so you have to take that into account when shopping around. Scratch & dent sales are an option for new-but-cheap.

    Also, if you have the space, as someone else noted a garden is another great investment. You can can, pickle or freeze fruits & vegetables to eat through the fall & winter. At the minimum, make friends with a gardener…they usually have more squash, zucchini, and tomatoes than they can eat and are willing to give it away.

    Finally, the Tightwad Gazette book is a great resource for cutting costs. She explains in great detail how to comparison shop (is that 80% ground beef really cheaper than 90%?) and determine the cost of items per serving or use. One great tip: if you are buying produce priced per item or per bag rather than per pound, weigh the bag/item and make sure you are getting the heaviest one.

  • andrewhyde

    The stealing bit was a surprise to me.

    I learned how to can when I was growing up, wish I had the time a drive to still do it!

  • mjwolf

    Eat cabbage instead of lettuce. It's cheap, nutritious and lasts for weeks in the frig. Every Sunday I make 2 quarts yogurt and a big tub of steel cut oats for the week.

  • http://chrisyeh.blogspot.com/ Chris Yeh

    I worked on a $1/day food budget when I moved to Boston after college (circa 1995). My staples were bulk purchases of rice, oats, black beans, and lentils. I would also splurge on pasta sauce and salsa, and if I was feeling particularly frisky, tortillas.

    Rather than spending money on milk or juice, I would buy powdered milk and frozen orange juice.

    The crazy thing in all of this is that I was working for a hedge fund and making more money than any of my old classmates–I was just obsessed with being cheap!

  • Kath1213

    I love your rice/bean/cheese/avocado concotion- so delish!

  • Me

    When i need to save money on food i visit one special store near my flat in city where i'm studying. It's specialized on expired stuff. From things that will expire in few days to ones that expired year ago. good is that their sortiment is changing from day to day. as well as prices…

  • neighborjen

    dumpster diving is really where its at. this past winter i spent approx $40 a month at the grocery to supplement the abundance of the dumpsters w/ staples like olive oil, and bulk grains.

    ok, so it can be gross at times. but usually there is perfectly fine (organic) produce in there. this is all due to the systems of the stores needing to make room for new shipments, rather than items being spoiled, old or bad. i recommend diving in the late fall to early spring portion of the year, and then garden or volunteer at farms for the growing season. when it's cold out, food in the dumpster doesn't spoil like it does in the summer.

    the most important parts of dumpstering are knowing *how* food goes bad, clean up after yourself (try to un-tie bags at the knot, rather than tear them open and make a mess), work fast and quiet, watch for cops (you are trespassing), and process food fast, before it goes bad. oh, and it doesn't hurt to check the FDA recall page (updated daily!)

    i usually came home after a dive and made a large veggie roast or pasta sauce. i also put a fruit juicer to work w/ so much produce and made 1/2- 1 gallon of juice at a time. i also peel bananas and put them in the freezer for smoothies. you can clean produce with a 1:3 vinegar to water dilution.

  • adriaanb

    Amazing! I did it once for 2 weeks, when travelling Australia…never ever gonna go down that road. But lots of respect and I think you should write a book about this stuff. Lots of people can really learn from this and have a rather healthy meal.

    I had to survive for 2 weeks and had around 10 to 15 dollar. So I bought tinned food, like spaghetti in sauce and beans and all the most horrible stuff you can imagine. Ranging from 20 to 50 cents a can. So with some bread and a hot sun or small fire, I had the time of my life. But that first burger with a lot…was very very tasty!

  • Teej

    Wow, looka all the good stuff. Many of my secrets! (Some of this might repeat what others posted.)

    I'll add a staple for me, quick & very filling: 1 cup rice + 1 15-oz can beans (kidneys OR garbonzo/chickpea, $0.79/can on sale) with soy sauce. Toss in some veggies and/or leftover meat scraps or whatever. 12 minutes and I'm STUFFED.

    Buy in bulk (freeze if needbe) when stuff's on sale. (The best price is often the *middle* size, if you don't have cost/pound info.)
    Pork chops, chicken breasts, hamburger (divvy packages up into meal size, store in recyled bread wrappers – masking tape wrap w/contents written with a felt pen). Great sale on instant oatmeal? Buy four, save all year. One minute to fullness.

    I buy crackers (four pack sale $1.49) snack a whole pack for $0.37, filling.

    POPCORN: try to find big bags, buy in bulk. GOOD for ya (fiber city), very filling.

  • TJ

    It's easy to get all down on somebody's morals if you've never been hungry and without prospects. Some of the posters here might not have the luxury.

    SO while I generally don't think it's wise to steal (going to jail bites), if you gotta you gotta. (Meaning: no food bank, nobody will give you a helping hand, your begging didn't bring in enough, no soup kitchen nearby, dumpsters are already expertly picked … and you're HUNGRY.) In which case, if the alternative is sticking somebody up or starving, the hotel choice is a better one.

  • TJ

    Agreed, ALTHOUGH: with the shopping opportunity, I like to buy elbow mac & *real cheese* ($2/pound on sale). I like Beethoven, this was his favorite food, so I feel I shud do it right. You can equal or better box prices (never goes below $0.80 here) & it's much tastier. No tuna, try black beans.

  • mo8

    ugh around here the cheapest 25 lb bag of jasmine rice is $16 or more and thats not at sams club. thats at asian store. If you buy it at a traditional grocery store it can cost a heck of alot more per lb for jasmine rice.

    you might be saving money but what is it doing to your body. Billy bob thorton tried to live on nothing but potatos ..grin It wasnt the best idea he ever had ..

  • http://www.billoblog.com/ billo

    Folk seem to be forgetting the most basic methods of getting food — hunting and fishing. When I was in college, I would occasionally go out to a local lake and set a “trot line.” A trot line is a rope you string across some water that has hooks every few feet. You bait the hook and come back the next day and see what caught itself. It was nothing for me to pick up 60-70 lbs of catfish meat in one weekend that way.

    Similarly, there are lots of places that are overrun with deer. Yes, it's a little work to kill and prepare your own food, but it's not expensive if you have some time. If you don't have your own weapon, then check with a local hunting club. Moreover, many hunters are happy to donate their kills to folk who need food. When I was in college, I dined frequently on venison, quail, duck, and goose.

    Adding meat you kill yourself is cheap and adds a lot of protein and nutrient to other stuff. Add that to cheap fruits and veggies from the local farmer's market, and you not only dine well, but very inexpensively.

  • Anonymous Guy

    Also note that if you put rice in Tupperware and store it in the freezer, after you've cooked it, it will pop back to life as if it were cooked fresh after a little time in the microwave on defrost.

  • CoreyinGA

    Yes, working at a restaurant can help with the budget. Unfortunately, I worked at pizza places, and while I ate LOTS of free food, I also weighed 50 lbs more at 23 than at 18!

  • TxMike

    I liked Billo's comment about taking your own game. It can be an inexpensive way to fill your meat locker. But here in Texas, deer hunting has risen so much in costs (hunting leases now run $2000/season or better) that a pound of venison can reach $40-50/pound. One way I found around that costs is to approach the farmers and ranchers about helping to rid their place of varmints that destroy crops or livestock (coyotes, crows, rabbits, feral hogs, etc) Some of these varmints are good eating in themselves and I usually get invited to take a deer or two off their place for free come deer season. Be respectful and don't shoot any of the good bucks as these are what the rancher makes his money on and you'll be expected to pay for taking one of those. A nice fat doe taste better and culling the doe herd is a necessity anyway. Also, learn to bowhunt. There is much land available to hunt that is in too close a proximity to urbanized areas to allow the use of firearms. Bows are quiet and efficient so you won't disturb the neighbors. Good Hunting and Good Eating!

  • Jay

    I'm impressed with this guy's ability to survive on less money than I did in college in the '70s (and believe me, I was on a very tight budget).

    I wonder, though, how nutritious and healthful his diet was. Generally, the cheapest foods are those that are “factory-farmed”, as well as the most unsound, health-wise and environmentally. Most of our food comes from huge corporations that apply massive amounts of fertilizers and pesticides based on petroleum, chemicals, artificial growth hormones, etc.

    I am frugal by nature and practice, but I made a long-considered decision years ago not to skimp on two things — food and shoes. Sounds strange, maybe, but I see those as fundamental. Sure, you can save lots of money in the short term by going cheap, but I suspect the long term effects are not worth it.

  • andrewhyde

    Like I said, if you have the time!

    I have always found this to take too much time than it is worth.

  • andrewhyde

    Thanks for sharing, sounds pretty dang good!

  • andrewhyde

    sounds like a crazy store, in the UK?

  • andrewhyde

    I've been thinking about doing this analysis. Perhaps the next post!

  • r_e_on_a

    Eat lots of pancakes. They don't tell you this on the box but you can make them in the microwave :)

  • duranee

    While struggling through college and graduate school with no support beyond what I could earn within the department (unlike all the guys who had wives and/or parents to help), I came upon a lovely and useful book called “A Cookbook for Poor Poets and Others” by Ann Rogers. For years I lived on food out of this book and the Chinese food my friend taught me to cook. I don't know if the book is still available, but if you can find it, it's worth it. The recipes feed the body, and the words feed the soul.

  • png73

    Hi,
    I am not young nor poor but have been there in the past.
    In reply to Jay about the nutritious value of frugality:
    In England following WW2 we were told by the Administration that the people in England had never been as healthy as we were on rationing. We were forced to eat at very frugal levels and the whole country banded together growing gardens in public parks and sharing. Obesity disappeared and ill health was reduced.
    We ate staple foods cooked at home with very few extras. An apple or orange was definitely a rarity! Life did not revolve around 'what' we would eat but 'if' we would eat!
    I applaud all of you for being frugal and getting along without being a burden. Times will improve but don't ever forget these lessons!

  • Amanda/Loki

    Boulder was horrible with prices, I remember, but they have great food. They tend to accommodate for the hungry stoners, more than the people who need cheap food. XD

  • name

    I worked at a Deli once (not really a restaurant but close) and while working there I ate very little. I ended up losing about 25 pounds in a couple months just from all the hard work and being too tired to eat lol.

  • http://www.nurta.net/ Nurta

    Think the link he was linking to was at http://tinyurl.com/ymzs69 It got messed up due to the comment system's encoding

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