Updated on 04.14.15

Some Thoughts About Living on $29 a Week for Food

Trent Hamm
chopping vegetables

If you want to spend less on food, overcome your fear of cooking and prepare meals at home. Photo: Jeff Kubina

Recently, I heard a news story about the Food Bank NYC Challenge, which challenges people to live on $1.38 per person per meal, or $29 per person per week, for food.

Although the politics of this challenge are interesting (it’s always compelling when people have a chance to understand, at least a little bit, how other people live), the reason I really became interested in this is because of what I like to call creative success through constraint.

Creative success through constraint basically means that by putting a challenging constraint on some aspect of how you live your life, you end up discovering useful new ways of living that you might not have examined before. Best of all, you’ll often end up continuing to use those new methods after you remove the constraint from your life.

So, for example, if you were to follow this challenge of spending only $29 per person per week on food in your household, you might just end up discovering some clever new techniques for cutting your food budget while also gaining a little bit of understanding of the challenges that people face when they are forced to live on that amount.

(Yes, I’m fully aware that when you choose to live on $29 a week for food, you’re not facing the same challenge as someone who is forced to live on $29 a week for food, but you can gain at least some understanding that you did not have before.)

At several points in my life, I’ve both been forced to live with a similar challenge (during my college years, when I lived off-campus and had to be insanely careful about my food budget) and also chosen to live on a tiny food budget for a while (during my financial turnaround, when I was experimenting a lot with “financial challenges” and radically altering my own spending). There were also times during my childhood when my family went through financially lean periods and our food spending per week went quite low.

Since hearing about the Food Bank NYC challenge, I’ve been thinking about those experiences a great deal, in terms of how such restraints impact others, but mostly in terms of what they taught me about being smart with food spending for myself.

What did I learn from my own “food challenges,” both the self-imposed ones and the required ones?

I actually love a lot of very cheap foods.

One of the first things you’ll come to realize with a challenge like this is that once you start cutting out the most expensive food items, your options gradually change. You’re no longer buying the items at the store with prices in the double digits. You’re buying the cheap stuff.

What was interesting to me, though, is that skipping out on the expensive stuff at the store barely cut at all into the items that I actually enjoy. It turns out that most of my favorite ingredients are pretty cheap.

I love things like rice and eggs and beans and bananas and pasta and peanut butter and oatmeal. All of those things are really cheap when you get right down to it.

In fact, I’ll go even further than that: Many of my favorite meals overall are made out of mostly cheap ingredients. I’ll happily eat a spiced-up mix of rice and beans for many meals. We have pasta at least once a week with a sauce that’s usually made out of a mix of tomato sauce, diced tomatoes, whatever extra vegetables we have in the freezer, and a few dashes of spices from the cupboards. I love a bowl of oatmeal or a couple of eggs for breakfast in the morning. All of this stuff is dirt cheap and way below the $1.38 per meal threshold mentioned above.

Most of the foods I love the most happen to be really, really cheap, which makes it easier to be cheap on the food budget.

Food preparation at home isn’t as hard as you often think that it is.

For a long time, Sarah and I had a routine of eating most of our meals outside the home. When we did eat at home, it was almost entirely convenience food, with only a few real exceptions.

The biggest reason for all of this was the perception of convenience. To us, it was far easier to just drive to a restaurant, sit there for half an hour, and have someone else make us food than to go home, prep a meal in that same time, and eat ourselves.

We often excused that behavior by saying things like “it gives us a chance for conversation,” but, honestly, we usually have a conversation when we’re making a meal together at home, too.

What about “convenience foods” that can be prepared at home? Most of the time, they’re not all that good. The biggest thing they have going for them is “convenience,” and it’s really only the microwaveable quick meals that are convenient.

The thing is, once I stepped back and looked at all of this, I realized that the thing underlying all of it was a subtle fear of cooking. I was afraid that if I invested time and effort into something, it would turn out badly, so it was just better to pay someone else to prepare it for me, which is what happens at restaurants or if you just microwave convenience food.

It was only when I forced myself to prepare more meals that I began to realize (and to remember) that it actually isn’t hard to prepare most meals. I can prepare the vast majority of the meals my family eats in under half an hour.

Many meals are greatly aided by having a slow cooker, which means I can slowly cook most ingredients for meals by just dumping a bunch of ingredients in a pot when it’s convenient and hitting a button so that it cooks slowly and is finished when I want it to be.

It’s actually really hard to mess up most simple meals, and once you do them a few times, they go from seeming complicated to seeming easy.

For me, the one thing that really helped me to cross this threshold was having a “30-day challenge” where I challenged myself to prepare all meals at home. By the end of that month, I was no longer intimidated to make anything in the kitchen and simple recipes felt almost as automatic as popping in a microwave meal.

Making most of your meals really cheap makes it easier to splurge once in a while.

When you start preparing most of your meals from scratch, your average cost per meal will drop, period. It’s just an inevitable result.

Let’s say, for instance, that your average meal before moving to more home preparation was $5. You mixed meals at restaurants with some convenience foods at home and occasionally a few really simple meals, like microwave oatmeal.

After moving to preparing more meals at home, your average meal cost goes down to $3 per meal. You’re making things like spaghetti and meatballs at home for far, far cheaper than you could get at a restaurant.

What this means is that your personal food bill has just gone down by more than $100 per month (in fact, the amount is pretty close to $200).

With that kind of savings, it’s okay to splurge every once in a while. You can go out to eat somewhere nice once a week or once every other week and still be spending less on food than you were spending before your change.

Not only that, you can really enjoy those meals because you know they’re not busting your budget or adding to your credit card balance. You can actually afford a splurge.

Here’s a more low-cost example. Let’s say your average meal costs $2, all told. You start preparing even more meals at home and use more low-cost ingredients, cutting your average down to $1.50. This means that once a week or so, you can bring home a big thick juicy steak or a nice lobster tail and still be spending less on food than you were doing before.

Convenience foods wind up being horribly expensive.

Perhaps my biggest shock when going through these food transformations was the realization of how truly expensive convenience foods actually were. Compared to the cost of making a similar – but almost always more tasty – meal on my own, the prices were at least double for the convenience food.

A tiny breakfast burrito, of which it would take two to fill me up, costs $1.09. Making my own breakfast burrito, at least as big as two of these tiny ones, costs about $1 in ingredients (three eggs, a pinch of salt and pepper, about two teaspoons of shredded cheese, and a big tortilla).

A pair of “hot pocket” sandwiches costs $2. At home, I can just make up a big batch of dough, add some simple fillings, and churn them out for way under $1 apiece (then I can toss them in the freezer and cook them for convenience myself if I want).

A pan of frozen lasagna basically doesn’t exist for under $10. Yet I can make a pan of homemade lasagna for about $6. I can also freeze it if I want. In fact, I usually make several pans at once so I can buy all the ingredients in bulk, freeze most of the pans, and save money and time.

Convenience foods are just simply overpriced for what they are.

Now, many will respond with the point that they save time. The problem with that is that they usually don’t save time over the long run. If you make convenient foods in advance, you’re not adding much extra time per meal. You’re also making it tastier, healthier, and far cheaper.

Generics are rarely different than name brands when it comes to basic food items.

For most food items at the store – and we’re talking about everything from ketchup to tomato sauce and from dried rice to flour – the generic (or store brand) version is extremely similar to the name brand version. Most of the time, the generic version is identical to the name brand version, as far as I can tell.

So what’s the difference between the name brand version and the generic version, then? A prettier label and a 50% markup in price.

I don’t know about you, but I’m not willing to pay 50% more for a prettier label. I’m actually not willing to pay a cent more for a prettier label.

Instead, I have a very simple practice when it comes to buying non-perishable goods at the grocery store. I buy the generic version first. If it works, then I just always buy the generic version. If it doesn’t work for some reason, then I’ll consider buying the name brand version.

For the vast majority of items, I simply stick with the generic brand. It does the same job as the name brand at a lower price.

There are a few exceptions to that rule, but I learned of those exceptions myself by simply trying out the generic version of the item, saw for myself when and how it failed, and then chose to buy a different version because of the failure I experienced.

The common example of this that I like to use is trash bags, where I had a lot of bad experiences with generic trash bags ripping out and leaving trash all over my kitchen. Another example that I don’t talk about as often comes from AA batteries, where the store brand literally lasted less than half as long as name brand batteries in the same item (I checked), which means I was actually paying more per hour of item use by buying the “cheap” generic batteries.

The amazing part? I can’t really think of any food items where this held true. The generic or store brand version has always been good enough for me.

You can make a lot of really good meals with just three or four ingredients.

Many of the meals that my family truly enjoys are made out of just a few ingredients.

My family loves spaghetti night. I just boil up a box of spaghetti noodles and, for a sauce, mix together one can of tomato sauce, a few dashes Italian herbs from the pantry, and either an additional can of diced tomatoes or some diced tomatoes from our own garden. Everyone seems to love it.

I’ll make tomato soup and grilled cheese sandwiches from literally four ingredients combined. I’ll put a big handful of diced tomatoes in a blender along with a quarter cup of heavy cream and blend it, then heat it up. Meanwhile, I’ll put some cheese between two slices of bread and cook that on a sandwich press. Four ingredients for a solid weekend lunch.

I’ll make red beans and rice by cooking up some dried beans, some dried rice, add just a few spices (like salt and pepper), and some minced onion and garlic. That’s it. It’s not hard.

I make my own bread all the time. It requires flour, water, yeast, and a pinch of salt. Mix the right amounts together (start with three cups of flour, a teaspoon of yeast, and a half-teaspoon of salt, and add just enough water to make it into a ball that doesn’t stick to your hand), then knead that ball for 10 minutes. Put it in a bowl to rise for a few hours, punch it down, fold it into a loaf shape in a loaf pan, let it rise for a bit longer, then put it in the oven at 400 F until the crust is light brown (maybe 15-20 minutes). Set the loaf on a rack to cool. For about $0.40 in ingredients, you have fresh bread that will blow away anything in the store.

I make ratatouille out of whatever vegetables come out of the garden. I grill really simple things all the time. Our family constantly eats very simple salads. We have lightly seasoned steamed vegetables on the side practically every meal. Some days, we just toss a bunch of ingredients in the slow cooker and hit the “low” button and come back in eight hours to find supper waiting for us. I’ll make scrambled eggs for breakfast out of three or four eggs and a dash or two of salt and pepper (and maybe some leftover diced onions or green peppers from the meal the night before).

All of these things take just a couple of ingredients and just a few minutes to make. It’s not rocket science. It’s not impossible. It’s not going to take hours or cause you to have a long grocery list.

Sure, I make more complex stuff, but that’s a “sometimes” thing, when I have time. Most meals aren’t big productions, nor should they be.

Staggering large bulk buys of common nonperishable goods saves a ton of money over time.

This is a really powerful strategy for cutting even more out of your grocery bill.

There are certain nonperishable foods that we use all the time at our house. Flour. Dried pasta. Dried rice. Dried beans of various kinds. Spices. Salt. Tomato sauce.

Because we use them so frequently – and because they have a relatively long shelf life – we know we can buy plenty of that stuff and use all of it before it goes bad.

The problem, of course, is that large quantities of anything are expensive.

Let’s say that you can buy a pound of beans for $1.09. You might be able to buy ten pounds of those same beans for $7.99, which means that it’s costing you $0.80 per pound for the bulk buy. That doesn’t mean, of course, that it’s not costing you $8.

When you repeat that phenomenon for everything you might want to buy in bulk, that adds up to a lot of money all at once. Sure, your food expenses will be lower after that, but many people can’t handle that burst of expense all at once.

Our solution, when we were really stocking up on bulk buys of this stuff, was to stagger the purchases. We might buy 20 pounds of rice one week, but nothing else in bulk. The next week, we might buy 20 pounds of flour. The next week? 10 pounds each of a few different types of beans.

After several weeks, we had plenty of these items in our pantry and our bills were lower every single time after that. Even during the period of bulk buying, the only time our food bill was much higher at all was the first week.

Meal planning makes a ton of difference.

Perhaps our best technique for keeping food budgets really low is to plan our meals well in advance. We usually know every meal we’re going to have for at least a week ahead of time.

Our process is simple. Each week, before we shop for groceries, we sit down with a grocery flyer and look at the items that are on sale, particularly the fresh items. What vegetables are on sale? What fruits? We pick a few of those and write them down.

After that, we try to figure out some meals that use those ingredients. Ideally, we figure out two or three meals that use those cheap ingredients and we pencil those in throughout the week.

Once we have meals in place, we make a grocery list. The list usually starts with those cheap items and then also includes the items needed to complete those recipes.

After that, we head to the store with a smart grocery list in hand. We trust that list, so we don’t buy much impulsively. It’s made up of a lot of items that are already on sale. It saves us a lot of money.

Final Thoughts

You can actually survive on a very low amount each month for food if you’re careful, but it requires some planning and thinking and organization.

Even if your food budget isn’t that tight, you can still use many of these techniques to shave some money from your food spending without losing any quality.

Good luck!

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