How To Live (Comfortably) on $36 A Month For Food

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.

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.

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.

I'm too cheap for food...


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.





404 responses to “How To Live (Comfortably) on $36 A Month For Food”

  1. Larkin Avatar

    This is a fascinating post to read as I complete day 2 of my juice fast. I love the food-conscious living, and the fact that you probably ate healthier than most americans and spent 15% of their budget. Thanks for sharing Andrew!

  2. Ginger Pelz Avatar

    My favorite line in the whole blog post is “The smaller your stomach is, the easier this is going to be.” Ha. 🙂

  3. rloaderro Avatar

    “add ground beef (a pound of 85% can be as low as $1.25) cheese and an avocado”

    I think you must have left out the part where you happen to have an avocado tree and curdle your own cheese.

  4. Sarah Welch Avatar
    Sarah Welch

    Invest in flavorful add-ins: vinegars, strong spices, bacon. These can change the character of the food, even if you're basically using the same ingredients. I always have bacon in the fridge but rarely eat it as actual bacon strips (unless I have awesome tomatoes for BLT's!). I cut up one or two slices to add as flavoring. One of my faves: Amatriciana – tomato, onion, and bacon pasta sauce.

    International foods in general are a good idea. A lot of these cuisines evolved to meet this problem. If you're worried about specialty ingredients, there are a ton of these things that are just simple food in different combos. Also, there are generally good regular grocery store substitutions, and when you have a little more dough, you'll be prepared to work with those more authentic ingredients.

    Always save the bottom of jars, etc. You can make a great sauce with the bottom of mustard, mayo, jams, etc. Crunched up chips, pretzels, cereal, crackers, or nuts (or some combo) make a great crust for meat or fish.

    Think of all bread as bread, not its specialty uses. Bread is one of those things that is hard to use up if there's only one or two of you. I've been known to make hot dog shaped hamburgers, because I only had hotdog buns. Bread also freezes great (and keeps longer in the fridge), so you can stock up on day-olds.

    We're big fans of some of the simpler things, too. Earlier in the week we had bean burritos: 1 can fat free refried beans, a little cheddar, and a couple of whole wheat tortillas. Dinner was done. Not gourmet, but cheap and yummy 🙂

  5. andrewhyde Avatar

    Thanks for the comment.

    I would love to crunch the numbers to see how healthy (or not) I was.

    Won't do that again. Have fun camping this weekend!

  6. andrewhyde Avatar

    Yeah, I'm a big dude and can eat an amazing amount… so that was a big part.

  7. Lucien Avatar

    Rice. I'll usually cook up about 4 cups of rice for the week. Add butter, salt and spices… and it becomes a tasty meal.. add the occasional onion, or sliced vegie for a little extra. I even will add a sauce or something to completely change it up so you don't feel like you're eating rice all week.

  8. boseiur34 Avatar

    umm. it seems to me begging would have been a much more profitable option. you would have surely got more than 40$ for food a month, more like 10$/day at least, at the expense, of course, of your dignity….

  9. andrewhyde Avatar

    Depends on the food market you are in. There was a Mexican market near my house that had 5 avocados for $1 and cabot cheese (notheastern goodness) was $2 for a 10 ounce package.

    In Boulder I couldn't come close.

  10. andrewhyde Avatar

    Great additions!

    My coworker was just telling me about the influence of spice on appetite. Very interesting.

  11. andrewhyde Avatar

    A great staple.

  12. andrewhyde Avatar

    I was in college taking a 25 credit hour term and working a job, so didn't have the time to beg…

    but looking back, the cost benefit of that would have made me eat quite a bit better… 🙂

  13. Sarah Welch Avatar
    Sarah Welch

    Cabot cheese is da bomb diggity!

  14. Edward Avatar

    One key to eating cheap is to stock up when you see a good deal (like the hamburger in your example)

    Frozen veggies are usually cheap and you can mix them in to the rest of your meal.

    Tuna fish sometimes goes on sale for really good prices, same goes for Mac & cheese, mix them together and throw in frozen peas and it isn't a half bad one dish one pot meal (two or three servings).

    I'll second Sarah's burrito meal

  15. lauraglu Avatar

    A better perk than having friends at a restaurant is working at one yourself. I spent a summer where my main daily meal was at the restaurant where I worked (and it was healthy). I'd eat lots of fruits as well. Depending on the restaurant, you can also get your coffee fix you should otherwise cut out.

    Setting a bar/drink budget really helps overall. When I'd go out, I'd bring $8-10 cash and that's it (it was a highly walkable city). I could get one nice cocktail or a couple beers. Often I'd only drink water, but as it wasn't going to happen that I cut out all drinking, I set the budget pretty low. This isn't going to work on your $36/month budget, but does help if you are just trying to be healthier or more budget-conscious. (That said, a bartender friend can be a saving grace!)

  16. daveangulo Avatar

    I was also very poor in college and even after as a vista volunteer. I learned to cook what I liked to eat in restaurants, for me I liked indian/thai food. One of the most satisfying meals is essentially lentils, an onion, a can of tomatoes and rice with a bunch of spices. Exceptionally nutritious, cheap, filling and easy to make. I've even made it for several dinner parties over the years and everyone loves it. Learn to cook what you would pay for and you can really enjoy yourself.

  17. Mike Avatar

    You forget that we live in a college town. Free food abides, and having a good network of fellow scavengers can't hurt. I'm constantly getting tips: “Free sandwiches in the law school” “free pizza in the engineering center.” I clean up, and take the leftovers home.

    Also, not to be extreme but lots of food goes to waste. It's common to find day old bread in the dumpster behind whole foods, or see some sorority girl leave half a burger on the table at a restaurant. the key is to keep it classy and not seem like a mooch when you go for the freebies.

  18. Evan Meagher Avatar

    Scope out local fruit stands. There's one in the U district in Seattle that sells leftover grocery store produce for dirt cheap.

  19. goalsguy Avatar

    Eye opening post… I'm setting a new goal to track and my food costs and keep them low. Thanks for the info!

  20. Amy Avatar

    We have been trying to get our food budget as low as possible, simply because there are alot of people starving in the world and we want to eat more simply so we can give more. I have 3 kids so it has to be healthy to grow their little brains so here's my best budget, healthy eating tips: I cook in bulk – crank out 80 burritos, wrap them in plastic wrap and freeze them, I make bean, rice and cheese burritos, curry lentil and quinoa burritoes, breakfast burritos (roasted potatoes, egg, cheese), lasagna – I buy the big cans from costco and all the cheese etc in bulk quantities and make lots at once and freeze the extra. Also we make our own bread (super cheap) and have peanut butter toast/sandwiches for one meal every day and an egg based meal for one meal a day too. There are alot more things I do but your probably already tired of reading this comment. One more thing, we also have another family living with us for a year so I am feeding 8 people on $600 a month food budget and we are able to give away $800 to people who really need food/ shelter/education etc.

  21. Suzanne Lainson Avatar

    Grits are cheap. It's essentially uncooked polenta. Throw in some cheese and/or pepper and it's quite good.

    Popcorn is another cheap, but filling, food. Buy it in bulk. Don't get gourmet or microwave versions.

    Pasta with some veggies can be cheap, too.


  22. yeahphil Avatar

    Gardening is where it's at… if you've got the space and are stable enough, you can do it quite cheaply. And once you get some zucchini, tomatoes, etc. going and make them happy, they can produce *amazing* amounts of food.

  23. davidki Avatar

    Many people in Nepal eat what they call dal bhat, twice a day, every single day.
    It's rice, lentil soup, and usually some potatoes. People eat tons of this and work hard all day. It's cheap. Plus they only eat 2 meals a day, so that makes it even cheaper.

  24. MarinaMartin Avatar

    Look for a bakery outlet. In Salt Lake City there's a Wonderbread factory outlet where you can get three loaves of bread for $1. The bread was perfectly fine but was cut wrong or the bag may have been misprinted.

    A big pot of lentils and rice or chick peas and rice last for days in the fridge and is incredibly filling (and good for you).

  25. MichaelL65 Avatar

    The old stand-by, Mac 'n Cheese can be found for .28 a box. Add Tuna, a can of Tomato Soup, and that's a tasty meal or two from one box.

  26. Meghan  Avatar

    When I was in college I lived on quesadillas. Usually just cheese, or if I was lucky, some pepperoni. I find pitas to be a great value becasue they last longer than a loaf of bread and have way more applications, especially pita bread pizzas. And I always buy spaghetti sauce and pasta when it's on sale, so it's always an option.

  27. Emily Avatar

    Wow thats pretty impressive. Did you have a really large amount of storage though? I think my main problem with taking advantage of offers is things going off before I even have a chance to eat them. I live in a house with 3 other people and we all just have a shelf each in the freezer and in fact I just have the bottom of the freezer rather than an actual shelf so it's smaller than a normal shelf and therefore I just don't have enough space to stock up which is really annoying. However I do love when you go to the supermarket really late at night and so all the food about to pass it's sell by date is reduced, I love 10p (I live in England) bread!

  28. conor Avatar

    something i did one summer when i was short on cash that helped a lot is that i would swing by la quinta inn before work and have a free continental breakfast by pretending i was staying there. generally no one asks, unless you hit the same place every day for a week or two. also, the place i worked at had burger toppings that they didn't charge extra for, so i would grab up a handful of lettuce, tomato, onion, cucumber, etc and a few ranch or honey mustard packets for a free lunch. grocery stores also have sample days, the costco next to me does theirs on sunday, if you grab a little something from every booth while purchasing your bulk goods for the week you can get a decent lunch.

  29. phil Avatar

    2 words: Bread Machine. I've been getting 50-pound bags of flour at costco for $15. My daily bread is delicious, warm, healthy, fresh, made precisely how I want, and dirt cheap.

  30. Corraghessan Avatar

    When I was in my teens I used to carry backpack filled with gallon size plastic bags to buffets. As long as you are not conspicuous. Lots of good food to take home.

  31. erica2 Avatar

    Another recipe that is pretty inexpensive (if you are willing to take the time to make it from scratch) is this one:

    Hubby and I actually use his mother's recipe (biased opinion here, I think it is better than any other), but you can change it up any way you like.

    I've become really addicted to this meal/ recipe, and if you make enough stock/broth ahead of time, it's fast and easy to prepare for future meals. Hubby's cousin told me once that her husband ate just this meal at every sitting and dropped about 20 lbs in 2 weeks. I don't know how other people would react to eating this at every sitting. But it is the kind of meal you can eat at each daily meal, if you choose to do so.

  32. bfeld Avatar

    I general eat a different way. I focus on $0.33 / minute.

  33. Juan Avatar

    Totally second this. Thrift stores always have bread machines for a couple of dollars (given as gifts and never used). I use my bread machine to mix the ingredients and raise the loaf, then I throw the dough in a pan and into the oven. It costs pennies per loaf.

  34. georgewscottiii Avatar

    Local Albertson's Grocery store has buy 1 get 1 free pre-seasoned meats if I was single that would be about 3 to 4 meals but with a family of 4 I get 2 meals out of it.

  35. Sam Avatar

    “Essentially uncooked polenta”?

    I have no idea how you eat grits, but both are made from dried, ground corn, and both need to be cooked. Main difference is polenta is from yellow corn, grits from white, and polenta tends to use a finer grind.

    Used to be you could get hominy grits, meaning the (white) corn kernels had the tough outer hull removed before grinding, but these days, it's mostly just dried and ground corn. Some “natural” brands include the inner germ– it's more nutritious, but means it will go rancid faster.

    You are right, however, about grits being quite good. I would say, “delicious.”

  36. Ethical1 Avatar

    Taking food from a hotel that offers a breakfast to their *paying* guests is theft, plain and simple. I'm sure the host of this blog did not have stealing in mind when he created the thread otherwise he would have entitled the article How To Live (UN-Comfortably) on Free Food (3 Squares are Provided in Jail, Afterall).

  37. Jach Avatar

    When I worked at a local Albertson's, I'd sometimes go to the bakery just before they closed and get a bunch of donuts. The workers would take what donuts they didn't sell that day, and then put them in random assortment day-old boxes to sell cheap. But they didn't use all the donuts, and would throw away a surprising amount of them. So I just collected them at closing and went home with a bunch.

  38. dash212 Avatar

    Eat once every other day…win. Thats how I cope with lacking food money. Thank you education system for forcing me to live like a vagrant.

  39. webmaster screenshotscores Avatar

    Okay you really had me there, until the dumpster diving, that got me all of balance. If you would have left that out, i would consider it even a healthy way of living.

  40. Keane Avatar

    i was just going to post that exact same thing…

  41. andrewhyde Avatar

    This is key and a really hard concept for some to grasp. Feast or famine on buying products based on the deal. Love the burrito meal too!

  42. andrewhyde Avatar

    I loved my years working in the food industry. So much fun and well fed!

    Great call on the bar budget as well.

  43. andrewhyde Avatar

    I just made some thai food last night, amazingly tasty and economical.

    Great advise!

  44. andrewhyde Avatar

    I didn't mention the college club meals!

  45. andrewhyde Avatar

    I'm amazed in how cheap the produce in NYC can be. It is the stuff you have to eat pretty much right away, but usually really good and quite cheap.

  46. andrewhyde Avatar

    Post how it goes!

  47. andrewhyde Avatar

    Amazingly inspirational comment, thank you!

  48. andrewhyde Avatar

    For some reason I avoid grits. Nothing against them, but I never cook them at home.

  49. andrewhyde Avatar

    My neighbor has an amazing garden that just goes nuts in the summer. If you have the time and space, this is one of the most rewarding things you can do.

  50. andrewhyde Avatar

    Oh that looks tasty!

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