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. andrewhyde Avatar

    Yeah, love lentils! They would be on the list if I knew their greatness at the time.

  2. Paulina Avatar

    Stews are a pretty great way to save money too, all cheap produce, potatoes and broth.  Serve over rice for an extremely cheap meal (with tons of leftovers)

  3. Toi Avatar

    haha I’m currently in college & I spend about $35 every three weeks.
    My biggest trick? The food from lunch meetings.
    No seriously, I do most of these things. Snacks are always tough because i usually skip buying them but then I eat a bowl of cereal for snack.
    I rarely buy meat but if I do it’s ground beef for chili (lasts a week of lunch) or chicken thighs.
    the $1 frozen vegetables are amazing. A little seasoning and rice, it’s filling.
    My staples are Pasta, Pasta Sauce, Rice, Frozen Vegetables, Potatoes, Cereal and Milk.

  4. Paola López Plascencia Avatar

    Actually, I live on a $30 a month budget. It’s definitely possible as long as you are willing to cook Every. Single. Meal. I do not buy frozen dinners or anything pre-made. Yes, it’s a pain to cook and prepare everything but the savings are worth it.

    A good example would be potatoes. You can get a 10lb bag for $2.99. A bag of frozen potatoes run $1. The 10lb bag saves me $7 since a pound of fresh potatoes averages 29¢.

    Another thing I found works for me (since I don’t have time to cook everyday), is that I cook one big meal once a week, freeze the leftovers and eat off them as the week progresses. I can buy in larger quantities (save money) and not worry about it spoiling.

    I also save a lot by making my drinks from scratch (no Starbucks lattes or name-brand sodas for me). I make my morning coffee and afternoon iced tea or lemonade (when lemons are cheap). I know that everyone in the US is afraid of tea but you just have to find a type that works for you. Usually, I go for Hibiscus (if you’re afraid of it, ask for a Passion Iced Tea at Starbucks – it’s Hibiscus).

    The key to cheap iced tea is to buy it from the grocery section of the supermarket in it’s original leaf or flower form, boil it in water, drain it, add sugar to taste, and place it in the fridge (it’s a lot like making Kool-Aid but MUCH healthier). Don’t buy the tiny bags (too expensive) or purchase them in “powder” form since they’re not as healthy (you’re basically buying tea-flavored Kool-Aid).

  5. Aldi's Lover Avatar
    Aldi’s Lover

    Try shopping at Aldi’s if there are any there. Name brands make spin-off brands for much cheaper. I’ve found prices lower than that price per unit there. Instead of regular spaghetti for that price per unit, try cheaper, better for you whole grain spaghetti from Aldi’s (yes, it is more expensive than regular at Aldi’s, but it sure is cheaper than regular at the normal store!)! It is just a delicious, too!

  6. Casey Avatar

    You forgot sprouts. With a jar or other container you can sprout cheap bought (from the Vietnamese markets-Denver has a lot of them) and eat sprouts for any meal veggie.

  7. n0r3p1y Avatar

    when you have much time and no money you should grow your own vegetables 😛

  8. WiseKat Avatar

    Oh I can remember when I used to eat for about $40/month before I met my honey! He can eat the store out and of course I have picked up some of his bad eating habits too! Never used to eat snacks except maybe a yogurt in between lunch/dinner. So I’m just going to add that being single you will have better odds 😀

  9. Terri Avatar

    Hit a local Farmer’s Market recently, bought a bag of pastured beef bones for $3 and made an huge stock pot full of Beef and Barley Soup for about $.36 a bowl. Put the whole pot in the fridge and let the fat float to the top and harden. Then scoop it off and store it in the fridge… it’s lard. Use it for frying things at high temp.

  10. andrewhyde Avatar

    Wow. You are a hero.

  11. Morgan Allen Avatar

    Unless you live in an on-campus apartment with limited sun to the balcony! Believe me, I’d do this, and it’s killing me that I can’t. I’m lucky there’s enough sun in one corner for my Meyer lemon tree to get by.

    My roommate and I have joked about planting a community garden of tomatoes and squash in the courtyard. Wish it was possible!

  12. Morgan Allen Avatar

    If you’re afraid of produce spoiling, then you need to do some baking! I usually buy bananas to eat throughout the week for breakfast or lunch. I always buy a big batch, and when they get too ripe and brown to eat, I make banana bread. Sometimes my grocery store will also sell giant bags of over-ripe bananas for $0.50– TAKE ADVANTAGE OF THOSE DEALS! It’s cheap and simple to make this bread with no special ingredients required: flour, eggs, butter/oil, sugar, baking soda are you main basic elements, the bananas or what ever other main ingredient follows suit. With that loaf of bread I can get a very filling breakfast for more than a week. Not to mention this is probably one of my most delicious meals. You can also make breads out of raisin bran, apples, pumpkin, and… more! There’s lots of recipes out there for not letting produce go to waste, but I enjoy breads the most.

    Here’s some links for you:

  13. Melissa Hahn Avatar

    I am a poor college student and i shop aldis on a daily they are so much cheaper than all of the chains i have here in upstate ny

  14. Danjul Watt Avatar

    like a prostitute you mean?

  15. Dawn Casey-Rowe Avatar

    Love this! It’s been my gospel forever because I have learned to do better myself. I’m in RI, so every ethnic store is–well–RI doesn’t fit too much, so it’s all right there. I go for the ingredients in the store where they culturally fit, which usually translates into a cheap price. Sometimes I’ve made mistakes in translation, other times I’ve discovered goldmine ingredients that became part of my staples.

    I love the look on my friend’s faces when they see me drinking home brewed ice tea out of a mason jar, spreading home-made cheese or jam on my daily loaf of bread. Fantastic. Because these things don’t grow in Aisle 3 of the grocery store and they’re easy as pie to make.

  16. naner allen Avatar
    naner allen

    If you can find them shirtake noodles are amazing, theyre 0 calorie but they’re super high in soluble fiber and around$.25 a serving they absorb flavors amazingly, so throw in a boulion cube around .5 cents a serving with a teaspoon of peanut butter and soy sauce (you can get a bottle of low sodium at a dollar tree) both amazingly cheap, and a few frozen veggies around .20 a serving and you have a protein packed healthy take out style meal for under .75 a serving.

  17. benjamincgessel Avatar

    I’ve found that my favorite budget foods are the following (also are very nutritious, filling, tasty, convenient/fast/easy to prepare, some are not too perishable, etc.):

    1.) Potatoes

    2.) Carrots

    3.) Eggs

    4.) Rice (go with brown or basmati brown)

    5.) Can of Nalley’s Thick Chili (often just $1 at Fred Meyer)

    6.) Quinoa

    7.) Apples

    8.) Canned Tuna in water (NOT Albacore)

    9.) Frozen Vegetables (generally peas, broccoli, cauliflower, green beans, spinach, or corn-these are some of my favorite frozen veggies)

    10.) Peanuts (big bags, peanuts in the shell at Albertsons are GREAT)

    11.) Chicken (filling and generally not too expensive)

    12.) Onions

    13.) Bananas (I don’t like how they quickly turn brown sometimes… NO need to buy organic)

    14.) Romaine Lettuce

    15.) Celery (is very good for bones)

    16.) Hot Cocoa (Swiss Miss, no marshmallows. A cup of cocoa with added calcium/Vit. D is a GREAT drink in the winter/when its cold, and its pretty darn cheap, esp. compared to juice, etc.)

    17.) Beans, Lentils

    18.) Almonds

    19.) Walnuts (generally not too expensive)

    20.) Sunflower Seeds

    21.) Grapefruit

    22.) Oranges (I always check these babies out thoroughly, I HATE a tasteless orange…)

    25.) Raisins

    26.) Rice Cereal (a good cereal covers the bases nutrition-wise for the morning)

    27.) Grapes (green grapes are often more economical, but I like reds and blacks/purples better-grapes are a fairly inexpensive/moderately priced “tasty” food for me)

    28.) Pineapple (canned is often cheaper than fresh, but fresh does taste better…)

    29.) Avocados (when on sale, they can be moderately priced, and they are FILLING!)

    30.) Cheap herbs/spices (VERY nutritious and flavorful): Cinnamon, Paprika, Salt, Garlic, Thyme, Basil, Sage, Dill, Chives, Savory, Marjoram, Oregano, Yellow Curry Powder, Cilantro, Coriander, Cumin, Tarragon, etc.

  18. A.J. Avatar

    I live in upstate NY too! I just graduated and am currently unemployed which means that I have to save every penny I can. Thanks for the Aldi idea. I am going to go check them out next week instead of shopping at Price Chopper.
    PS: Great article and awesome discussion/helpful tips in the comments!

  19. cheapmeals Avatar

    I am a student in college and am on a VERY strict budget. I make about $300 a month after taxes, so I know how it feels to live cheaply. I am lucky enough that I have a very good friend for a roommate. He was looking for someone to live with (besides his girlfriend) and I needed a place to stay. I told him I didn’t make anything for money, and we made a deal that I could do the cooking, cleaning, and various other tasks like finishing a back room, or finishing remodel the house (he owns it), and pay him what I could. I cannot stress enough how important those FREE snacks are during the day. Take all you can get. I hang around the skinny volleyball girls at lunch time because they never finish their entire plate and are always willing to share. Plus, they are very pretty and are a joy to spend some time with. 10lb sacks of off-brand Bisquick have become a favorite of mine. You can make pancakes, waffles, biscuits, and many other things from this and its CHEAP. I also like to hunt, so during the winter months we fill our freezer with deer, rabbit, and pheasant meat. The local day-old bread store is also a favorite of mine. You can literally get an entire pickup load of bread-stuffs for less than $20 (even less if it’s spoiled, which the dogs seem to love. In this case it can be free). Canned foods can always be found on sale for next to nothing, plus it never hurts to eat some vegetables. Ramen noodles are a favorite of mine, I use them as an ingredient to add some “filler” in other meals. Eating them they way they are packaged isn’t so terrible either. There are MANY cheap recipes out there, and a little bit of creativity never hurt anyone either.. My roommate and I are both considered to be poor, yet we both manage to stay alive and pay our bills every month (sometimes a day or so late if we’re waiting on a paycheck, but sometimes it just happens).

  20. N Avatar

    I would buy a pack of flour tortillas, a large can of re-fried beans and a chunk of cheese. Those burritos would constitute my dinners for the week…..

  21. Think Magazine Avatar
    Think Magazine

    I just bought a black leather couch from Ikea with the money I saved on groceries for 3 months! The key to a good low cost budget is to look at what they eat in the third world, like Indian, China, South America, even Africa. Many of these dishes can be made in bulk and are quite tasty and VERY nutritious. Here’s a staple for me, its called Kitchari and is big in India. Mungo beans and basmati rice, its a great detox and can be varied in flavour with different spices and sauces. My fave is thai chili sauce, half an avocado and sesame seeds. Save money for the important things!

  22. David Avatar

    Anyone have any idea on cheap meals in europe? (specifically here in Holland)

    I heard that it’s possible to live off of just Potatoes and Butter (mashed I’m guessing), but will I get all my nutrients and things from it?
    And are potatoes really the cheapest food sort I can buy?

  23. healthynut Avatar

    I’ve lived in Boulder for 20+ years. You can eat cheap here, but I’ve never been able to do it for less than $100 a month for a family of 4. Maybe I could if I grew much of my own food, but I don’t garden. Never have and really don’t want to. My neighbor does in the summer and she gives me basil and tomatoes, but that’s all she grows. Perhaps I’m just too picky when it comes to food quality. Don’t shop the Farmer’s Market until the very end of the day. Unfortunately, most of the good food is gone by then, but it’s often free too. I’ve never seen avocados for less than $0.75 each anywhere here, so I only buy them on rare occasions. Even at the Mexican markets, they aren’t cheap here, at least not that I’ve ever seen! I buy lots of foods in bulk and what’s on sale, and try to stick to only organic foods. I only cook about once a week or less, now that the kids are grown up and not living at home. Cook large quantities and freeze. I’ll make two soups, and a stew on weekends and divi them up into single or double servings. I try to skip potatoes though. Really not a healthy food.

  24. 1949girl Avatar

    Lard is very bad for your arteries and heart. When you have cold broth, skim off that fat and throw it away. Your broth will then be “low fat” and still taste good. For any frying I use spray oil- not cheap- but it lasts forever because you only need a little bit.

  25. Juan D. Bell Jr. Avatar

    I like the way you think!

  26. Dokkodo Avatar

    I live in Cleveland which has a SIGNIFICANTLY lower cost of living than NYC, and I still haven’t seen foods close to these prices.

  27. Bryce Peterson Avatar
    Bryce Peterson

    Like, short-range, one-way time travel. I know someone who did this for a few months. On top of eating 3 meals every two days, he wasn’t doing too well near the end of this.

  28. Former poor student Avatar
    Former poor student

    I used to live on maccaroni and cheese and ramen when I was in university, since not only was I low on money, but I didn’t have much free time to spend on cooking

    For ramen, cheap brands cost less than $0.25 a bag. Good for a quick lunch since all you need to do is heat up the water, pour in a bowl with the noodles and wait a few minutes. The mixture also has some dry vegetable like peas and flavored beef/chicken, depending on which brand you buy.

    As for maccaroni and cheese, the no name brand only costs like $0.50. A box is good for 2 meals, and you can use a bit of water instead of milk to mix up the powered cheese. Result? A good tasting dinner that fills you up, for only $0.25! It’s also really easy and quick to make.

    For breakfast, I would usually just eat a toast with margarine (again the cheapest brands), or sometimes a banana when they were on discount, since it’s healthier.

    Counting the tax it’s about only $0.30 per meal. That dropped my food budget to $30 a month, plus it only took me a few minutes to make my meals.

  29. Susan Avatar

    Time consuming bread can be made in a crock pot. Not so time consuming that way.

  30. GirlOnTheMoonXx Avatar

    I’m a poor college student and I make chili a lot . . . $3-5 of chili ingredients can get me by for almost a whole week

  31. Nancy Avatar

    I’m not sure why you would think that everyone in the US is afraid of tea. It’s almost as common here (Portland Oregon) as coffee.

  32. ZaniesXD Avatar

    It was a great post until you brought up dumpster diving for food. Not only is this unsanitary but it’s trashy, no pun intended. Suggesting that just gave you less creditability. You really think people here are going to start going through their neighbors garbage looking for food? Some people have standards…

  33. Andrew Hyde Avatar

    My neighbor did this for years. Went to Whole Foods and picked up the food next to the dumpster. Day old bread and still fresh foods. She would point to the stuff in my fridge that she got by the back exit. Diving doesn’t equal actually diving in a lot of cases.

  34. nicus Avatar

    O. M. freakin’ G! Where do I start?

    First, lard is NOT “very bad for your arteries and heart”. Check what
    is currently known about the nutritional characteristics of
    lard. Hint – it’s not the commercial dogma promoted for the last 40
    years. Rendering fat yourself, either through batch rendering or
    collecting “drippings” while cooking is probably your most reliable and
    inexpensive source. Commercial hydrogenated lard is a bit worse than
    home rendered lard
    since the hydrogenation process creates trans fats that otherwise
    wouldn’t be there.

    Second, sorry Terri but beef fat is tallow, not lard. Lard is fat
    rendered from pork sources. Tallow is not terribly good for you, but
    not a death certificate either if consumed in moderation.

    Third, are you kidding me? We’re talking about living on a food budget
    of $36/mo and you are skimming off calories and THROWING THEM AWAY?
    “Fat free” and “low calorie” are foolish luxuries for people who spend
    way too much for food.

  35. nicus Avatar

    Hey Morgan! When I was a student I faced a similar dilemma regarding a
    desire to grow food without adequate available space. My solution? I
    used other people’s yards. Specifically, I consumed a lot of dandelion
    leaves and roots. Very nutritious and tasty. I even made the flowers
    into a reasonably tasty wine, though not terribly nutritious. I cut a
    deal with the owners to pay me a ridiculously small amount to weed their
    yard, asking first if they used herbicides. I passed on those who
    had. A couple hours on my knees pulling weeds gave me a LOT of greens
    and yummy roots, as well as a few extra dollars. All very welcome
    considering the budget I was living on. The best part was that in a
    couple months the dandelions were back and I had a repeat customer!

  36. Joel Avatar

    boil up some pasta, make 2 or 3 eggs over easy. Top pasta with the eggs break the yolks over the pasta salt and you have a delicious sauce for your pasta, and your protein too.

  37. Dallas Avatar

    I’m currently in college and my boyfriend and I are trying to save up for an apartment. I love to cook, but most things would be too expensive to have most days so I’ve been searching for some way to still be able to prepare healthy meals and keep the price down. This post was great and all the suggestions in the comments were amazing too! Thanks everyone!

  38. georgia Avatar

    Beans and chicken soup are great. I have a greek receipie for you from my mother in law. Cook the beans and change the water twice this way you get less problems with digestion. Do this with chicken and you get less fat and it looks better. Use are garni of carrots, onion, celery and a bit of oil in both as well. You can flavor both with lemon too. The white beans are great cold with tuna fish and lots of parsley on a salad. Red kidney beans are great on a salad of oil and vinegar as well. Pasta is a less expensive choice too with tomatoe sause made of crushes tomatoes, basil and onion. Enjoy yaisou

  39. georgia Avatar

    oops spelled recipie wrong

  40. Wanda Torres Avatar
    Wanda Torres

    Good tips, but be careful when buying food on a strap. You would rather lose the weight than feed on GMOs, salt, preservatives, artificially colored and flavored canned and frozen meals

  41. Shelley Wright Hier Avatar

    This would never work for me-fresh food and healthy food costs so much more than canned and processed foods. In order to cut costs, we grow as much of our own as we can, including our own meat. We don’t eat a lot of rice, potatoes or pasta as neither of us needs that many carbs. Beans are rare since my husband has gout. Boxed mac and cheese is so very bad for you, as are the canned pastas, and other processed foods. One hint is to make your own meat broth and freeze it for soups, adding frozen veggies and some noodles and meat.

  42. Oteka Hawkins Avatar
    Oteka Hawkins

    I regularly spend about $200 a week for my family of four. This includes all personal needs, not just food. Shampoo, conditioner, bath soap, laundry soap, dish soap, paper plates and towels, everything. This post was more than four years ago as I see a comment that old. I am not at all surprised this person could simply feed one person for the cost they are bragging about. I am not surprised this person was able to eat for $36 a month “when they were in college”, a time that is not specified. They were regularly spending $380 a month when they posted this, four years or more ago. Not impressed.

  43. Jon Hopper Avatar

    I just happened upon this and I’m a very frugal shopper and a sales hound. My only “issue” with the plan is that the prices aren’t current day prices. Bananas for 12 cents? Where? An egg at 9 cents? Also, buying things in bulk does save in the long run, but if one had to eat, they’d be stuck eating rice every day. I have done this on a smaller scale and got it down to $18 a week. I think you’d be hard pressed to find a lb of beef for $1.25/lb these days, so to eat a sufficient amount would be quite difficult on 33 cents a meal

  44. Savva frav Avatar
    Savva frav

    we make this stuff called goulash, dont know if i spelt that right, it requires rice, your choice of meat (we’d always use deer meet) and cream of mushroom soup. Tasty and filling!

  45. boobeannie Avatar

    you mean recipe?

  46. Justin Avatar

    Sticking to organic needlessly increases prices, since the studies show there is no health difference.

  47. Sarah Avatar

    Go on thinking what you will, but don’t judge others for not wanting to feed themselves or their children pesticides, growth inhibitors (sprayed on conventional potatoes after harvesting), genetically modified foods, etc. All studies show is that conventional food doesn’t kill you immediately. If that’s good enough for you, enjoy!

  48. ConnerTheMan Avatar

    Its all about the rice and beans man. I make it a few times a week for my roomies and I. We spice it up with different sauces and stuff because its alot easier living off $50 a piece with 4 people

  49. Link Porter Avatar
    Link Porter

    you must be crazy. They don’t sell anything that cheap. Not even at 80% off. Your best best is to go to a food pantry and get everything free.

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