At a certain point in my young adult life, I reached a crossroads of intense poverty. Although I was working and going to school, I literally had no extra money to spare with the engines of tuition, supplies, and rent grinding me down. I lived in a tiny apartment with only running water, a hot plate, and a small number of pans for supplies, and I had reached the point where I was literally looking for money in the streets on my way home from work or class and trading in aluminum cans for their nickel refund. During one month, I was reduced to only spending $10.71 total on food (I actually raised more than this through aluminum can returns), a fact that I recorded studiously in my journal. Yet I wasn’t malnourished, I did not resort to dumpster diving, and I didn’t actually steal anything, although I had to ask for a few free things along the way. We’re not talking about a few days until the next paycheck, we’re talking about the edge of poverty. How did I do this?
What follows is a list of twenty suggestions and tips on how to eat well and survive with very little money. Some of these tips apply in the city and others in rural areas, but many apply to both. Obviously, using such things as homeless shelters for a warm meal is always an option, but many people have too much pride to do such things, so I’m excluding anything that is an obvious handout.
1. Cook at home. Never eat out. Dining out is so much more expensive than eating at home that the two are incomparable. Stay at home and make your own food rather than eating at a restaurant. It’s often more work, but it’s also money in your pocket.
2. Stews and soups are miraculous. A big pot with boiling water and whatever you can scavenge dumped in together is the staple of the poor man’s diet. You can dump in whatever you’ve got, along with those free salt and pepper packets, and turn up with something edible and at least remotely nutritious.
3. Keep a hen or two. This seems somewhat silly, but female chickens are very good at producing food. You can unabashedly feed them whatever scraps you have and they produce eggs very regularly. If you’re careful, you can keep them in a small cage in your own apartment; a friend of mine kept one in a pet porter for several months. Just be aware of the smell; you should line their living area with paper and expect to clean it a lot. You can do this by using scavenged newspapers and rotating them daily, but leave the papers that the chicken scratches together for a nest alone.
4. Dress as well as you can and keep yourself clean. If you don’t do this, you’ll feel worse and you’ll also be profiled, both consciously and unconsciously, by those around you. It’s much easier to scrape together some food if you bother to keep yourself reasonably clean and presentable.
5. If you live in an area with a recycling policy, take advantage of it. Finding four aluminum cans can quickly turn itself into a meal. Finding twenty or thirty cans can be a bonanza. States in the United States that offer cash for each returned can include California, Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Iowa, Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, New York, Oregon, and Vermont; nations with such programs include Austria, Belgium, Canada, Denmark, Finland, Germany, Luxembourg, Netherlands, Norway, Sweden, and Switzerland.
6. Get some exercise. Don’t sit at home and bemoan your situation. Get out and walk around a lot. See what there is to see within walking distance. Not only might you find some opportunities for food, but you’re training your body to process what you do eat more efficiently, and most of all, don’t worry about the caloric loss, because the efficiency you’ll gain will over the long run counterbalance the excess calories you’ll burn.
7. Grow some of your own vegetables. Even when I lived in the city, I would fill up large pots with dirt and use them to grow my own vegetables. Since you’re on a rather restrained diet, foods with plenty of starch are good; try growing potatoes, as they’re heavy in starch and are very easy to grow. Just cut up a single potato into smaller pieces (six will work) and bury them deep in the soil, water them occasionally, and wait. You can find usable dirt and pots in all sorts of places if you keep your eyes open.
8. Time your visits to the grocery store for the times when they re-stock the perishable items. If you time things well and know some people, you can usually get stuff at or near expiration date for free or for a pittance. They often restock milk at two in the morning on Tuesdays near where I lived, for example, and there was a friendly guy who would look away while I grabbed a gallon or two of near-expired milk. I wasn’t alone in doing this.
9. Join a church. Quite often, congregations will have a free meal right after church and then another meal on a weeknight, usually Wednesdays. Even if you’re not a believer, you can get away with two free meals a week. If you attend two churches, you can sometimes score as many as four a week (Sunday breakfast and lunch and two weeknight dinners). I usually felt bad about this, so I would volunteer to do some minor work around the church (cleaning, etc.), but that’s up to you to decide. I might also argue the point that spiritual guidance may also help you in other ways, but I’m advising you on how to eat, not what to believe.
10. Don’t fear the leftovers. Leftovers are your savior. Don’t be afraid to make a large quantity of something and then eat it for three or four days. Also, don’t throw away even small amounts of anything if it’s still edible; you can quite often add it to a stew the next day.
11. Have friends over for a potluck dinner. Make something inexpensive for your dish for the spread. Most of the time, people will leave their leftovers behind, not wanting to deal with them, and you’ll have a wide variety of food that will last for days for the cost of only preparing one dish.
12. Don’t be afraid to swap some odd jobs for a meal. This works well in local restaurants, particularly of the truck stop or greasy thumb variety; it does not work nearly as well at chain restaurants or upscale ones. Just walk in and ask to speak to the manager, and offer to wash some dishes in exchange for a meal. This usually works best if you’re presentable; just explain that you’re really hungry and down on your luck this week. Usually in local restaurants, the manager is related to the owner (or is the owner) and, if you look decent, will usually agree to this trade. I’ve found that truck stops will regularly do this.
13. Ask for leftover bones at a butcher shop. A good excuse is to claim that they’re for your dog. Expect to hear a lot of “no,” but boiling these bones for a long time can provide a good deal of protein, particularly from the marrow.
14. Join some clubs. This is particularly true if you live near a major university, as they will regularly have meetings where food is provided. This is particularly true during the first few weeks of classes in a given semester. There are often civic clubs that do the same thing, but you’re much less likely to find out about them. The best way to find out is to go to the local post office and examine the bulletin boards, and ask the person behind the counter there for locations to find civic calendars and postings.
15. Attend farmer’s markets. If you pay attention at a farmer’s market, you can usually come home with some free food. There are several methods of doing this:
+ Look for samples. Often individuals marketing new or unusual items will offer small food samples. Always try them.
+ Strike up conversation with as many people as possible. Talk to a seller for a while before even suggesting a purchase. Find out about them and what they do, but don’t harass them if they’re busy with other customers. Compliment them on the quality of what they’re selling and express regret that you can’t afford any (it’s true, so you shouldn’t feel bad about it). Often, a nice person will slip you an ear of corn or something. Don’t forget who did this favor for you, of course, as you might have the opportunity to pay back their generosity.
+ Wait until the end of the market and approach people for things that will perish. Look for people who have items that will perish quickly, or whose items are near perishing. Stop by their booth when they’re packing up and offer to dispose of it for them.
16. Look in discarded newspapers and circulars for coupons. There are a lot of coupons out there for free or extremely discounted items if you keep your eyes open. I’ve had complete meals for free at fast food restaurants, received small items for free at local grocery stores, and once was able to purchase an enormous box of Kellogg’s corn flakes for less than ten cents that I was able to eat for a very long time.
17. Always attend grand openings of stores, as well as any events with free drawings. Over the years, I’ve won hundreds of dollars in shopping sprees and have been handed tons of door prizes simply because I’ve shown up and milled around. Grand openings are particularly great because quite often the store is giving away a good number of things. Even if you don’t get food for free, you might win something else of value that you can sell elsewhere or trade to someone.
18. Inspect your local grocery store very carefully for prices. Look at their prepackaged soups, such as their ramen noodles. Examine the prices on their canned vegetables and fruits. Learn when there are sales, and buy those things when you know it’s a bargain.
19. When you have to go to the grocery store, use a shopping list and stick to it. Stores are designed to psychologically convince you to buy unnecessary things to increase their profit margin. To combat these psychological techniques, prepare a shopping list before you go and know exactly what you need to get, then when you go to the store, only get what is on your list. Even if you want it badly, buying anything else is throwing money away.
20. Get free stuff at fast food restaurants. If you’re going to be eating dirt cheap, it’s not going to be flavorful. Get free condiments where you can, and occasionally you may get some free food out of the deal. Some recommendations:
Taco Bell or Taco John’s: hot sauce in a variety of flavors. Many Taco John’s have switched to not distributing their sauces in packets, however, making this somewhat more difficult.
McDonalds: ketchup, mustard, salt, and pepper. This also works at Burger King, Jack in the Box, and so forth
Long John Silvers: mayonnaise and tartar sauce
Fazoli’s: Enter the restaurant, sit down at a table, and wait, and someone will eventually give you breadsticks.
I remember the hardness of the days when I had to do these things in order to be able to continue to pay the rent and afford to educate myself at the local university. It wasn’t an easy time, and at times I had to resort to dumpster diving. If it wasn’t for the things I learned myself or heard from others, I simply would not have made it; something would have given and I would have had to put my education on hold or else starved myself.
Poverty isn’t a game. I hope that at least one of these ideas will help you through the poor moments.