Living on Ramen (for a While)

When I was a college student, I would often buy mass quantities of ramen noodles, particularly when the local store had a sale.

Every once in a while, the store down the block from where I lived during my later college years would sell ramen noodle packets at a rate of 12 for $1. I would go in there and buy at least 60 of them, if not more.

I absolutely do not advocate eating ramen noodles on a consistent basis as a way to save money. They’re quite unhealthy. However, they are quite filling for the price and, in the eyes of a hungry college student, they seemed like a bargain. I could make two packets of ramen noodles for dinner, eat about 2/3 of them, and have the remaining 1/3 for lunch the next day. I did it regularly.

This would bring the cost per meal somewhere down into the $0.15 range, which is an incredible bargain.

Better yet, I found that if I “amped up” the ramen with things like chopped up carrots or some chopped chicken breast, I could still get a meal for a quarter or thirty cents or so, but the meal was quite a bit tastier, more fulfilling, and more nutritionally balanced. In fact, I would often eat this “super ramen” even when I had money in my pocket because I actually enjoyed it quite a bit.

I mention this because I know that, if I needed to, I could feed my family for a while on very little money. It wouldn’t be the most nutritionally balanced food, perhaps, but I could fill up stomachs for a pretty low price if I was ever in that situation.

So, let’s roll the clock forward and look at today.

Right now, Sarah and I are financially responsible for a family of five. That means we have to be at least somewhat careful with our money. We’ve learned the hard way that the key to getting ahead in the world is to spend less than you earn so that, eventually, that “gap” begins to work for you, opening up a great deal of freedom.

We manage to achieve that “spend less than you earn” maxim through budgeting. We have a certain amount that we stick to pretty closely when it comes to our food spending over the course of a given month.

Luckily, we’re in a position where, if we go over our food spending for a given month, we can cut back elsewhere. We can perhaps put a bit less in savings this month, or we can choose to tighten up other areas of our budget.

A lot of families don’t have that luxury – including us, not too long ago. We were so tied down with debts and had such a tight path going forward that we couldn’t really afford to bend our budget even a little bit. We had a pretty tight budget, too.

One of the most valuable lessons that we learned along the way is that you can always live on ramen for a week or two – or more, if you need to – as long as you’re keeping yourself on a path so that you never have to do it again. (Unless you want to, of course.)

That means that you don’t just use the money you saved to splurge in other areas. It means you take that money and use it to get rid of debts or build an emergency fund or do something else to shore up your situation.

In other words, if you occasionally and mindfully cut back to an “extreme” level for a short period in order to “boost” your financial turnaround, you can succeed wonderfully. It can provide a piece of the foundation for something much greater.

For us, this philosophy was embodied by the idea of “money-free weekends.” Most of our spending came in the form of entertainment spending and eating out, so by challenging ourselves to completely eliminate excess spending during the periods when we would spend the most, we found that it was much easier to stick to a tight entertainment and dining out budget.

Much like my discovery that ramen can sometimes be made into a reasonably worthwhile meal just by adding a few ingredients, we also found that there were a lot of things in our money free weekends that were enjoyable enough to keep around even when we were free to spend money however we wanted.

Living on ramen or doing a money-free weekend (or anything else that involves an extreme short-term cutback on a budget item) is something you can sustain for a short burst, but it’s also very valuable in terms of figuring out what you actually enjoy in your day to day life because it forces you into new experiences – and sometimes new experiences, even under pressure, are just as good as the old ones.

For example, if you cut your food budget down to the absolute minimum for a week, you might find that most of the recipes are pretty blah, but you’re still happy you did it because of the money you saved for that week. The experiment is over, but you have the money you saved still sitting in your checking account. However, during that week, you found one recipe that everyone really liked, so you stick it into your regular repertoire. Over time, this reduces the average amount you spend on meals around your home.

Living on ramen for a little while – whether literally eating ramen or just figuratively cutting back on some line of your budget – can be quite rewarding if you keep those principles in mind.

Trent Hamm

Founder & Columnist

Trent Hamm founded The Simple Dollar in 2006 and still writes a daily column on personal finance. He’s the author of three books published by Simon & Schuster and Financial Times Press, has contributed to Business Insider, US News & World Report, Yahoo Finance, and Lifehacker, and his financial advice has been featured in The New York Times, TIME, Forbes, The Guardian, and elsewhere.