Nourishment on a Desperate Income

A single pennyAt 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.

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  1. David says:

    Dont forget Costco and the like…you can go in and eat breakfast lunch and dinner by walking around tasting samples!

  2. Tricia says:

    You can add Subway to #20. They have Mayo packets ;)

  3. Speaking of Costco, while you are there, they have great condiments like crushed red pepper and parmesan cheese packets for their pizza (which is amazing good). I’m sure that the red pepper would give those stews quick a nice little kick.

  4. To go back to the Costco thing, you usually can’t try the samples unless you are member. You can usually scam a one day membership, but this might not be repeatable all the time.

    However, you don’t need to be a member to use their mini-restaurant with the condiment packets I mentioned.

  5. moom says:

    I’m confused. Your “financial armageddon” posts go on about how you spent too much money, but now you say you only had $11 left one month for food?

  6. Trent says:

    That’s completely correct. When I was in college, I took out tons of student loans and worked as well, but then I’d spend the money on stupid things – plus I went through a pretty bad gambling addiction. Even with lots of loans, there isn’t very much money for college students, so I’d often find myself without any money for food because I had already spent all my loan money. I thought this was actually pretty normal at the time.

  7. Great post! Don’t forget Ramen, which can be nicely dressed up or chicken necks — wicked cheap — for soup.

  8. Rocky Hinten says:

    I will add a suggestion or two to this. My wife and I got married in college, and we lived very cheaply on her little $8 and hour job in a tiny apartment.

    Some grocery stores have a bulk food section where you can get stuff incredibly cheaply. You can get many different kinds of pasta there cheap. We used to make abundant cheap meals by cooking up a bunch of noodles, add cream-of-something soup, maybe some peas or tuna, and there ya go!

    One of the other ones that works in bulk is oatmeal. You can buy a few pounds of the plain instant oatmeal for a buck or two. Get some brown sugar to add when you make it, and you’ve got dirt cheap breakfasts for weeks. I actually just had that for breakfast this morning.

  9. Lance Bartoff says:

    Don’t forget art galleries! On the first Friday of each month, every art gallery in my city has a show opening reception with free food. It looks like this happens all over the U.S.

  10. Erik says:

    I’d like to add a couple of things:

    Open houses- With new neighborhoods or even individual houses, they’ll provide free food to drum up some publicity. Hot dogs are pretty standard. They usually don’t mind you being there, as long as you look presentable.

    Independently owned bakeries/donut shops- This fringes on dumpster diving, but look outside the front and back doors of bakeries shortly after they close. My favorite bakery puts out a large bag of bagels outside their front door every day. You could also just talk to them a few minutes before they close.

    Waffle house- If you are really nice to the waitresses (not TOO nice), they’ll save burnt waffles and returned food for you for a couple of hours, if you stop by the same time every day. Don’t ever talk to a waffle house manager, though.

  11. Al says:

    I went to university in 1983 and a friend of mine at the time spent an average of 50 pence a day after his fixed costs. That was extraordinary.

    Great site!

  12. Arthur says:

    I must say this is very impressive. Just when you think oyu have it bad…

  13. Fred Meyer says:

    Your ideas would require as much time as a part-time job. Being a lazy starving bum is not a virtue or higher way of living. Stop planting potatoes in your living room, turn off World of Warcraft, AND GO GET A FRIGGIN’ JOB!

  14. mush says:

    I too lived on very little money for food in college. I had a bit more than $10.71, but not much more. About once a month I would invest in a whole chicken. Although a bit on the expensive side, it can be used in a variety of meals. I’d cook the chicken then cut up parts (2-4 bites) into a meal with canned tomato/vegetable/soup products over rice. Freeze or refigerate the rest of the cooked chicken for my next meals and make chicken stock out of the bones and neck. When you spread it out, 1 chicken can last a really long time!

  15. sd says:

    I found myself in a similar situation the first year out of college. Ramen noodles were like manna from heaven. And I found that one package could serve as two separate meals. Ditto canned tomato soup – I’d cook the one can and carefully split it into two servings, one for lunch, one for dinner. And if you take one piece of bread and mush it up into marbles (don’t laugh) it takes longer to chew and is a little more satisfying, along with the one cup serving of tomato soup.

    Avoid chips, candy, etc. at all costs. They are more expensive than they’re worth and don’t fill you up for very long – if anything they make you hungrier sooner.

    if you really need some sort of meat, i’d recommend getting a pkg of chicken thighs (skin on, bone in – get the ones reduced for quick sale). These are generally really cheap (often less than $2 for a pound) and are really good when stewed (better than the more expensive breast meat). If you have a crock pot, that’s one of the best ways to cook them. throw in a carrot, a potato and cream of chicken soup (or just water, salt, pepper). It’s actually very good.

  16. Gwen says:

    Those were great suggestions!

    I’ve found myself poor as a churchmouse a few times, once for 4 years because of the dot-bomb. I can’t begin to sing the praises of one supermarket chain: Aldi’s. If there’s an Aldi’s in your neighborhood, GO THERE. Save plastic shopping bags from other stores, or gather them from friends who shop other places, as Aldi’s doesn’t provide bags for free. (They do sell paper bags, but the idea is to save money, not spend it.)

    Everything there is either a house brand or something being sold as a liquidation from other store chains that couldn’t sell it. It’s all good food, but it’s cheap as hell. I fed two people WELL, with meat at every meal, for $50 a month by shopping there. If you pull out all the stops, go vegetarian on a lot of meals, you can cut that way down.

    One thing I bought early on, while I still had a fair amount of free cash, was a BIG bag of rice. A 50 or even a 100 lb bag of rice will last nearly forever and make a million different dishes, and in that kind of bulk hardly costs anything — it’s the little bitty bags that cost a bunch. Buy a 5 lb bag of masa harina and make your own tortillas, make polenta, flavor it with Costco parmesan cheese packets, mmmmm!

    Aldis had (when I needed it) packages of pressed lunch meat like Carl Buddig’s meats, but with a house brand name for a quarter a bag. A cup of rice and one of those bags, with a little soy sauce, and that’s two meals worth of fried rice with meat. Add veggies and even an egg for variety.

    Ramen noodles. I can’t look at ramen now, because I ate too much of it then. But you can cook it in plain water and drain it, then toss it in a fry pan with a bit of oil and that flavor packet and some lunch meat, or a chopped up hotdog, and it’s stirfried noodles. Cost? A dime, when you buy 10 packages of the stuff.

    Even today, when I have a good job and am not eating scraped icebox soup, I make my own soda-pop. Some ginger, some sugar, and some yeast in a salvaged 2-liter bottle…let it ferment for a couple of days until the bottle is good and hard, then into the fridge. Yum! Five bucks gets a bottle of concentrate that makes five GALLONS of soda…you add sugar to taste. And one glassful of soda made with table sugar is more satisfying than commercial stuff.

    And churches…belong to the right one, and they have food pantries. I had to do that once, or starve.

  17. Not A Recruiter says:

    I’m not pro-Bush or anything, but honestly, if I were that broke I’d consider joining the Army and pick a job in admin or something pretty simple. Then, have them pay off my college loans (which they do) while getting paid housing, food, etc. It’s a better alternative to help get you stabilized/on your feet.

  18. martins says:

    I once went to a McDonalds, asked for my meal and when it was time to pay, since I was out of cash I took my amex only to discovered McD doesn’t digg credit cards in the states (I’m from argentina, where they do). The meal was already “assembled” so instead of throwing it away they gave it to me for free. Maybe it was just because I was the only one in the McD and it was closing (around 12 am) and the guy who took my order was a nice one and noticed my hunger face, but it may worth a try if you are broke and hungry.

  19. Mark says:

    I second Gwen. In college I was very poor, and my 10-20 dollars per week food budget didn’t go very far. I always used the food pantries. For a small donation, you could get whatever you needed.

    The college I attended was in Iowa, and returning cans produced good results. I could go diving for cans, and end up with a good 10 dollars for a couple hours. Dumpster diving for food is good if you know where to look, if you feel comfortable with eating food that has been in a dumpster. Panera would toss out huge bags of various breads. The movie theater would toss out huge bags of popcorn (enough to live off of for a week). I once found 5 huge boxes of peanut butter cookies in a Big Lots dumpster.

    I also managed to scavenge packages of peanut butter from various places – not a good long term solution, but will satisfy hunger and give you plenty of energy.

    One more thing… make sure to get plenty of vegatables. It’s easy to eat cheaply when you are eating microwave pizzas ($1 per meal or less), or ramen noodles (10 cents per meal), but vegatables make things more expensive. Also don’t forget Wendy’s… for 2-3 dollars you can get a buger, a salad and a water.

  20. Johnny says:

    And let’s not forget multivitamins. While they cost a lot up-front, they pay off in physical endurance and general well-being when you’re slim-pickin’.

  21. Mr.Cytizen says:

    To the person who mentioned Aldi:

    Preach it. That place has saved my life on several occasions. Well, maybe it wasn’t really my life that was at stake, but it surely helped me get through the week on plenty of occasions where college just drained all my resources. I lived in Germany at the time and Aldi supermarkets are all over the place, there.

    These days they have a wide range of competitors and the selection is large.

    I survived for a very long time on noodles and butter. Both together cost me 2 Euro and the pack of noodles would last me for 2 to 3 days. Its a bland and boring diet but it sure helps.

    As the commenter before me said, though, vegetables can get expensive. If you have a food market somewhere close, go there to buy your veggies. Avoid supermarkets for those kinds of things.

  22. Dilbert says:

    Just get a job and steal the lunches from the fridge in the break room. Simple.

  23. rico says:

    Some of your ideas are good – growing own potatoes or trading some labor for work. Others are pretty pathetic. Other people have to pay for what you are trying to scam for free. Go to meetings where there might be food served. Pathetic. Even ketchup packets come out of the pockets of the owners of the restaurants. You write that poverty isn’t a game. Neither is work. Get a second job or cut down on your classload so in the future you won’t have to rely on your “friends” for their leftovers. Pathetic.

  24. A-Noid says:

    When I was in college, one quarter I was completely broke. I found that the local grocery store has a policy that anything that rings up wrong was free.

    Turned out that Peanut Butter, Bread, and many other items rang up wrong. I went there every few days and stocked up. It took months before they fixed the prices, so I could just keep getting the same items over and over again.

    One day, I was checking out with 15 or so items. Every one rang up wrong and was free. The looks I got were priceless as I walked out with a full bad of stuff for $0.00.

  25. Tim says:

    My town has a community garden that one can pay a small price up front to “rent” a square of the garden. Could be a good investment if you have a green thumb.

    Also, we have a “day old bread” place where you can get slightly out of date baked goods for much less money.

  26. If a family member or friend has a slow cooker they can lend or give you I would suggest looking into it. Slow cookers prevent the mistake of burning something you’ve cooked, and always keep the food warm.

    It’s very simple to make a basic soup, stew, or broth when using a slow cooker. If you have people you confide in who know your situation but you won’t want to ask for a lot of help, just accept some spices to help keep things flavorful.

    bones are good for a basic broth. Boiling vegetables in water is a great way for a vegetable broth. You can do a lot with a simple brother.

    Rice is cheap. Save up cash for a big bag of rice. Keep it in a plastic tub. A bag of rice is likely to be around $1/pound in weight. Even if you eat rice three meals a day, seven days a week a twenty pound bag will keep you going for almost three months.

    Protien can be hard to come by if you’re down on your luck. Meat and fish are expensive. Find a good Asian grocery near you and buy tofu. You’ll find it costs about half as much as it would at a normal grocer. Tofu absorbs the flavor of the spices and things you cook it with. It’s easy to prepare, and provides an immense amount of protein.

    Frozen veggies have been found in scientific studies to not lose nutrients. While they do taste a little different than fresh veggies, they’re just as good for you and keep for a very long time. Buying frozen veggies to add in with the rice and tofu, or cook in (or make) broth will save you money, time and effort.

  27. Lars says:

    My girlfriend and I went through rough times once. One day we got a letter from the Racetrac gas station that just opened in the neighborhood that had coupons for 2 free sandwiches, 2 hotdogs, 5 dollars off their dollar alley items and unlimited free soda refills. I figured a lot of people would just throw the letter away in the apartment trash cans that were by the mail boxes. Jackpot! We toured the apartments in the area and ended up with about 30 coupons for sandwiches, 30 hotdogs, and 75 bucks in free dollar alley merchandise which was food, toilet paper, stuff, etc. That was a good month. Another Racetrac opened a couple of months later down the street ;) Not sure if they still that. I’m sure we single handedly threw off their ratio of expected redemption.

  28. Savas says:

    Consider going to an all you can eat restaurant, It might cost much but it could be a treat in terms of eating large amounts. Also some restaurants provide free salads I guess you could buy a small meal and then fill your plate large with side dishes and ask for a takeaway once your full.

    I personally never got into a situation of having to live on low ammounts of money but I sure can understand it.

  29. sewdough says:

    There are also many websites that feature items you can get for a very discounted price or free with free shipping.

  30. blindsangamon says:

    One summer, I had lost my job, just gotten divorced, poor as heck. I ate like po’ folks – foraged a lot of wild stuff. Blackberries I picked by the gallon, and made jelly. Dandelion greens are full of vitamin A and C. Lambquarters are a great salad green – comparing favorably with Spinach IMHO. I lived near a corn field, and gleaned a 5 gallon bucket full of corn missed by the combine – which I used to make corn meal (in my coffee grinder) and hominy. Burdock has huge roots which you can substitute for carrots in stews and soups. Most of the neighbors knew my situation, and let me fish their farm ponds – bluegill and catfish are delicious! There was one store that every Monday marked down all meat unsold from the week before 50% – whole chickens 15 cents a pound! A lot of stores would give away unsold pumpkins on October 31. Pumpkin makes a great stir-fry ingredient, and you can get dozens of meals from one pumpkin. Buy a big box of powdered milk, and add it to everything – it is cheap protein. You can even make yogurt from it. If you know what you are doing, it is near impossible to starve. You can even eat acorns and tree bark, if you know how to prepare them!

  31. panot says:

    Here in the Philippnes, it was on the news that one family of 5 (2 parents, 3 kids) lived for PHP 20.00 per day. That’s about $ 0.40 cents.

  32. seeallhearall says:

    At the beginning you state: “… I did not resort to dumpster diving…”

    At the end you state: “It wasn’t an easy time, and at times I had to resort to dumpster diving.”

    Good article nonetheless.

  33. UtCollector says:

    Nice my brother can really use this guide.

  34. isaac says:

    wow this is really sad …

  35. snappyfrog says:

    This is inspiring in more ways than one. I know alot of people have been in these situations or worse – when you are more worried about feeding your kids instead of yourself.

    The one thing we should all consider is: now that we can afford more and better things, don’t forget those around you that are in this situation now. If you know the look of hunger in an adult or child, imagine what a quarter or one dollar can do today.

    Great post and ideas.

  36. Trav says:

    When I’m short on cash, I always eat a lot of beans and lentils. Find somewhere you can get them in bulk or get them at Mexican or Indian grocers. They are very cheap, very nutritious and filling.

  37. Scott Sherwin says:

    Hey I enjoyed the article immensely and can relate. My one tip is to add rice to any meat dish like sloppy joes in order to stretch it some. This is real cheap and doesn’t affect the flavor any.

    Scott

  38. Sidney Portier says:

    Even with 24 hours of class a week, it’s easy to work at least 10 hours.

    Work in a food place – get some free food, get paid to be there. WOAH WOAH WOAH.

  39. Chris Jenks says:

    When I was in college I strove to be more frugal than I had to be. My main staple was whatever dried grains and legumes were cheapest at the local Food Co-op. I learned that you can buy whole wheat or rye grain (at thirty cents per pound – probably cheaper if you shop around and buy in bulk) and boil it for 30 minutes to get excellent food. Adding a generous amount of vegetable oil, such as olive oil, to the food (after draining) allowed me to go longer without getting hungry, while adding little to the cost. Hot pepper and salt were my main condiments. Besides wheat and rye, oats, barley, rice, spelt, millet, lentils, and beans (any kind) were just as good. I added a lot of other goodies, but this was the main formula because I could eat healthy, organic vegetarian food for much less than $1 per meal. When buying in bulk – beware of moths and other pests!

  40. Teri Pittman says:

    The rice suggestion is the best one yet. Ramens are really pretty expensive considering what you get. Look at how poor Mexicans eat. They serve beans and corn tortillas or beans with rice. Salsa gives you vegetables. You can eat amazingly cheap this way. Absolutely the best route to go is to take any extra money and buy bulk grains and legumes. A 25 pound sack of split peas has a lot of good meals in it! Buy fruits and vegetables in season.

  41. Al says:

    great site

  42. Lisa says:

    Don’t forget Ramen Noodles. You can get these at Walmart for 10 cents a pack. You can add cheese, peas, cooked carrots,meat really anything…and you’ve got a decient filling meal.

    Times were tough, I was widowed, and raising an Autistic/ BiPolar child alone on social security. Thankfully things are a little better.

    And don’t forget Freecycle. It’s a great way to pass along stuff you no longer need, OR post for needs or wants. It’s a way to recycle stuff and it’s free. Just choose your state and local area. And if you don’t have a computer, usually most public libraries do. This has helped a great deal, not to mention great help when I was closet cleaning.

    http://freecycle.org/

    And the food banks help those in need.

  43. localbuyer gordon says:

    you should also check out coops because they throw a way a lot of organic stuff because it goes bad really quickly. they also usually have a gross food section where you can get slighty rotten food for super cheap.

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  45. wh666-666 says:

    Nice article, btw its subconsciously and not unconsciously, not being nit picky but it made me chuckle.

    Agree with the tips suggested so far. Especially flyer offers, these can save you a fortune.

    Although people have mentioned supermarkets you can feed yourself for a couple $/£ per week by going on a late night reduction shopping trip. When me and my partner first moved in together we lived on bakery items all week that had been reduced to 1p/2c per item because of sell by dates.

    If your feeling daring but dont want to dig through dump find a friend with a car. Get them to run over animals in your car and then scoop them up and cook and eat them. Pheasants are very tasty and the law states you cant kill animals on the roadside for consumption yourself but you can scoop up other animals/roadkill caused by others.

  46. mary says:

    During my desperately poor days (single mom of 4 children with no child support while attending college) I made it a rule that every penny spent on food had to go to good nutrition. I bought a lot of brown rice from the bins at a co-op but wouldn’t buy bacon, for example, even on sale because there was no real nutrition. Cutting out junk food really helps.

    I disagree with the Ramen suggestion – cheap, tasty but loaded with harmful transfats. You can do better – just buying pasta on sale is a better option.

  47. aka Brady says:

    Spices can make almost anything taste good. Look for a store that sells spices in bulk. Don’t ever buy spices in the glass jars. For something they charge $5.00 for you can get the same amount in bulk for about $0.30. I usually walk away with several months worth of spices for under two dollars.

    Also if you are in hunting season, make friends with a hunter. Most of the time they are after the trophy and if you go along you can ask them to give you some of the meat. Or if somehow you get a hunting license, you can actually use their gun to get your own.

    Duck season is usually between Sept. and Jan. and duck hunters always shoot more than they can eat, or can if you ask them to get you a couple extra.

  48. kim says:

    Some of these suggestions are great. Aldi’s has helped me out at times. I can remember spending $10 and walking out with 3 bags of food.

    I can also remember thinking the get a job if you are hungry. Then I became permanently disabled. So living on disability has definately made me more aware of how I spend money. And the fact you never know what life will bring.

  49. L A Morel says:

    A woman I once worked for routinely visited her neighborhood grocery’s deli counter each night right before closing. All hot and some of the cold prepared foods were required by law to be sold or discarded. She got tons of stuff for very little money.

  50. Dora says:

    Great advices…

    I’ll be translating this post to portuguese (adding some notes) in a few days.. ;D

  51. Costco Tip says:

    You can go into Costco, walk around all you like… you just can’t BUY anything without a Costco card. Soooo… you go up to the psuedo security guard type door keeper and say, “I’m not a member yet. May I just look around? I’m thinking of joining.”

    Works for me every time! Be nice. Be polite. Smile.

  52. Bud says:

    Just wanna chime in on “living broke,” as I’ve been in some pretty dire straits myself at times, including months-long periods of having the power turned off because I couldn’t afford to pay the bill, plus the late fee, plus the reconnection fee (sometimes totalling 800 bucks following a harsh winter).

    Anyway, I lived for several weeks on non-perishables, specifically Vienna Sausages and crackers. A little crushed pepper packet from Pizza the Hut or a free mustard packet from another fast food joint made them much more palatable.

    I also recommend highly the free plastic knives, spoons, forks and napkins you can snag from these fast food places, which usually sit unattended (this may be different in the big cities with homeless problems, but here in the sticks, they’re easily accessible).

    As far as fulfilling protein needs, a cheap (50 cents or less) can of tuna every couple of days (again on a cracker) can fill the bill. This menu is also good for people who can’t cook (because they have no electricity/gas), or who simply don’t like to cook. I wanted to make tuna salad with free mayo and relish packets, but the only place I could find them was the diner in the local casino, where I’m pretty sure they would have broken my legs if I had tried taking a few of those for free. At least the casino gives out unlimited free fountain sodas, and sometimes you can find tokens left behind in the slot machine trays, or those little redeemable “token receipts” for .01 to .03 sitting around all over. Cash in a dozen of those at the machine…free quarter!

    Then there’s the sugar fix. How about a handful of peppermints from the dish at the counter of a restaurant or store? Sure, it might be a little suspicious, you walking in, grabbing a bunch and walking out, but as long as you’re not hitting the same place every day, it’s not like they’ll call in the SWAT team about it. And 1 or 2 small mints (or just one large “striped” mint in a wrapper) can tide you over for a day or two.

  53. Daisy says:

    Pretty good suggestions. :D

    Some people may get disgusted with them, but sometimes, you just have to eat.

  54. jenny says:

    thanks so much for this post.

    I resorted to using my campus food bank one semester in college, but i was already working 3 jobs, taking a full course load and still broke. This has some useful tips for me now though, as I’ve combined households and am now cooking for 2 instead of just me.

    thanks for all the wonderful ideas. Glad you are in a better place now.

  55. 00goddess says:

    The way you recommend keeping a hen is animal cruelty. It’s also not economical.

  56. Riana Martin says:

    Just a quick note – if you do keep a chicken under the conditions outlined above, fully expect a visit from Animal Control. Whoo! Poverty and animal abuse – what a combo!

  57. animallover says:

    Newsflash: keeping a chicken crammed in a small living space in an apratment and feeding her scraps is ANIMAL CRUELTY, not to mention probably illegal in most areas.
    GET A LIFE.

  58. Trent says:

    For those who are claiming that having a hen in a cage that you clean daily and constantly provide new bedding material for and provide fresh food for is animal cruelty really, really ought to visit a chicken farm, even a free range one.

  59. jude says:

    I still do this, a frugal habit from my college years. I make Garbage Soup!
    Keep a large empty container in your freezer and add all small bits of leftovers, usually bones and veggies to the container. I usually discard the fat from meat trimmings to keep things more healthy, but if your really courting famine you can use all the available calories. Have leftover dressing/stuffing at thanksgiving? Leftover chinese? it works great! Rice is ok, but noodles tend to get mushy. Then when the container is full, add chicken stock and make Garbage soup.
    Don’t put in really spicy food; that goes into a different container. The spicy leftovers work well as veggie chili with the addition of beans and chili spices.

  60. Dave Schroeder says:

    I find that working at a pizza shop provides food very well. Even if you’re not working, if the managers like you they’ll usually let you make a pizza for yourself.

  61. Kayla says:

    That was an interesting story, most teenagers my age think that everything is just handed to them like a prize. Students need to relize that you have to work hard for what you want in life or they too will end up in proverty.

  62. Jessica and haley says:

    Dude, do you not have parents to go home to and have a home cooked meal? the chicken thing, you should be slapped for animal cruelty;How would you like to be cagged in a box and in a corner making eggs and waiting to die? Dumpster-Diving Crackhead! Your parents should be ashamed, and they probably are if THEY read this article!!!!!!

  63. Jamie says:

    Keeping a couple of hens in an enclosed space is cruel. That makes me sick, chickens need a lot more room then that. Revolting. I would be ashamed of myself if I were you. If you were reported to authorities to what you did to those poor chickens you would have been fined and lost them. I hope your parents are ashamed of you as well. When you die I hope you’re pecked to death by chickens.

  64. Kayla says:

    I agree with Jessica and Haley why can’t you ask your parents for help! And that whole chicken thing that is cruelty a chicken would not want to sit in a small cage making you food! You can always think of something else to eat!

  65. Trent says:

    I’ll repeat this one more time, for those apparently lacking in reading comprehension.

    Keeping a hen in the conditions described above is far more humane than the conditions they are kept in in virtually all large-scale chicken farms, including most free-range chicken farms.

    It is foolish to waste your time criticizing someone who takes a chicken into their home, cleans their cage daily, provides them fresh bedding, and gives them individualized attention while thousands of chickens suffer under truly frightening conditions in large-scale chicken farms.

  66. EJS says:

    I think the point is that it is cruel to the animal and just because other chickens are made to suffer in this manner does not justify the action.

  67. Beth says:

    How come it is cruel to keep a chicken in the conditions Trent has outlined yet many thousands of parrots, budgies, hamsters, rabbits and God knows what else are kept caged as pets without an outcry?

  68. mijadedinah says:

    This post had a lot of helpful information, Trent – thank you for sharing. My husband and I are doing our best to save all we can now, and it’s working out quite nicely … but it was not too many years ago that I was on my own with a $5/week grocery budget. I wish I’d had all your advice then!
    Thank you.

  69. Jason says:

    I worked a season at a ski resort as a lift operator. You get paid very little but get to ride the slopes in you’re free time for free. Anyway my friend Phil came up with “lift-op soup.”

    -15 or so ketchup packets
    -2-3 coffee creamer cups
    -a packet of the red pepper for pizza
    -enough hot water from the tee water dispenser to warm it up and thin the ketchup a little

    serve with a packet or two of crackers.

    Better than it sounds, helped us get through to the next supply run to town numerous times, along with other leftovers from the concessions.

  70. Infodiva says:

    I live on 12k a year. Well actually now I am living out of my 401k. I was making over 70k+ a year. I am single with no children. I declared bankruptcy. My Mother pays my health insurance, but I am getting by.

    Financial Education and Literacy is a very important skill to have. It should be taught at a young age. Also it is a life long learning topic. You can never know enough. Thanks for the post. Considered yourself bookmarked.

  71. K12Linux says:

    Even though you and others may never see this post on such an old article, here are a couple more tips.

    I was married with one child, going to college, and working 40 hours/wk comprised mostly of lugging 200 pound tanks up and down people’s basement steps.

    I found that quite a few of the older people we knew received way more government cheese than they could eat. They often also got things they didn’t want to eat like canned pork. Most were happy to offer to give it away but I usually tried to do odd jobs as a way to say thank you.

    Our saving grace was egg noodles which we could often get for $0.30/lb and larger bags of rice.

    Combine noodles with cheese and some milk for a kind of mac-n-cheese. (The government cheese was actually damn good cheese… then again everything tastes better when you are hungry.)

    The canned pork was actually a little nasty but if you heated it in a pan, added a little salt and pepper and flour to make gravy it was almost like a stroganoff. It was also edible over rice especially with some kind if cheap veggies like peas.

    Generic mac-n-cheese + “some veggie” + “meat” + cream of something soup + ? = a fairly nutritious, but not always tasty, meal.

    Fortunately my daughter was young and due to state aid actually usually ate better than we did. And luckily we got out of that slump pretty quickly.

    Lest rico see this post and tell me I should have gotten a 2nd job… the “cost” I might have added to an already wasteful government program is negligible and far outweighed by the lost tax revenue had I taken 1-2 more years to graduate. Something I’m sure applies to Trent’s story as well. Besides you NEED a good night’s sleep doing that kind of job.

  72. Camere IP says:

    Financial Education and Literacy is a very important skill to have. It should be taught at a young age. Also it is a life long learning topic. You can never know enough.

  73. steve says:

    RE: the chicken:

    At least the chicken in the apartment wasn’t debeaked like many commercial chickens are (cutting off their main sensory/social appendage and preventing them from exploring and interacting with their environment.)

    And it was sheltered in a relatively large and clean pen.
    While not a chicken heaven, I don’t think the chicken story is any kind of evidence of animal abuse.

    Peace!

  74. qwaychou says:

    I think this article has many good points to teach and I am grateful to the person who wrote it. These days everyone is feeling teh squeeze and the people who were struggling before are prbably in dire straights now, and thsi site helps,e ven the comments. Sinec gas is horrendous, I recommend roaming around the station every time you gas up, most have hot dog or nacho stations and coffee areas, picking up a couple of ketchup, mustard, salt peppper, or sugar and cream packets every time, not a ton, just a few will build up in yoru fridge, and they never see it any way. Try to see if anywhere you must stop will provide such packets.
    I remember a commercial about a mom sneaking into fast food places for ketchup and making soup for her children, and I remember thinking that was terrible, but you know what? I made ketchup soup for my daughter today. Times are tough and there are no jobs.
    Thank you again for teh article, I hope more people read it.

  75. katy says:

    G-d bless you, Trent. I just reread this article. thank you so much.

  76. katy says:

    ramen can be made a bit more nutritious with an egg, some leafy green vegetables, other vegetables. I also used the poverty cookbook. google it.

  77. Rachel says:

    The thing I find comical about the chicken uproar is that nowhere in the article does it say that Trent has or had a chicken in his apartment. Everyone who is attacking him for abusing a hen needs to calm down and actually read the article.

    Furthermore, if you wanted to stop pointing fingers and actually educate yourselves about this, you might try actually reading about raising chickens on a smaller, non-commercial scale, or even about someone who does, so you have a better idea what it is like to own and keep a chicken. May I suggest the memoir “Still LIfe for Chickens”? In this book, the writer has multiple chickens living INDOORS and treats them far, far better than the chickens you buy at the supermarket.

    Animal abuse, indeed…*shakes head*

  78. Heather says:

    Dear Trent,

    This is my favorite SD article! Excellent info.

    For those who have criticized the chicken keeping let me just say that the chickens we kept when I was a child roamed free and layed their eggs where ever they wanted. We couldn’t gather them and the racoons etc. would devour them before any little chicks could hatch. The chickens themselves were often eaten by racoons and foxes. Check out a bloody chichen foot in your back yard before you talk about how cruel it is to keep them in a warm, dry, cage with water. I’m not sure how much fun it is to be eaten by a racoon.

    Thanks again Trent for a fabulous article.

    Heather

  79. Anon says:

    I find it highly amusing that these people would choose the quality of life of the chicken over the quality of life for the human.

    I remember my third year of college when I had moved into an apartment to actually get a good night’s sleep and found that my expenses went up drastically. I spent one week eating pasta, peanut butter sandwiches, and apples given to me by friends who had dining hall passes.

    Remember, desperate times often call for desperate measures. No one should be shot down for doing what is in their best interest to survive. And I think that far too many people have their parents pay for everything and don’t realize that some people have to go it alone.

  80. mmeemmee says:

    Food Salvage stores…very cheap food that is dented etc. and also over the counter meds, soaps.

    You can google salvage stores to find some in your area. If you are going to grow a veggie in a ppot…try zucchini. No Fail, produces abundantly. Also, Tomatoes. If you have a friend in the same position you can each buy a different packet of seeds and split.
    Also, the “cream of something” soup addition. This is expensive. Make a cream sauce with equal amounts of a melted fat(butter, margarine, oil etc.) and flour salt and pepper and add water, chicken broth, milk etc. and you can have a cream sauce to add to noodles, rice and able to make a casserole by adding any vegetables or meat.
    the other good place for free samples is the food court at a mall. They all want you to try their chicken, it may not be a meal but it is free and takes the edge off.

  81. David Byrne says:

    Just revisited this article after two years. The tips and suggestions are as good today as they were two years ago.

  82. siobain says:

    I love all the tips!!! its great to have others finally following the frugal train! while you cant find food on this site ytou can find all kinds of free stuff! check out ecofreek.com.

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