I was having a nice lunch with my friend Chris 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 $1.50 with enough for three meals. Repeating meals saves money because you can share ingredients. Also, if you are really hurting to make due, ask your friends to cook for you. Bring what you can and help clean up.
The bulk section (generally the biggest rip off) can have some great snacks (granola ~$.15 a handful). Carrots or produce can be cheap, shop the deals.
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.
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!
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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