Guest Post! Living on a food budget of $2/day

Today, I’m very excited to present you with our first ever Money and Megabytes guest post! Our dear friend Lauren had a pretty awesome experience that also happens to be very applicable to this blog and life in general. Thanks, Lauren, for sharing this! I hope you all will enjoy reading it as much as I did:


How much did you spend on groceries last week?

Better yet, how much did you spend combined between groceries and eating out last week?

I spent a year living off a food budget of $2 per day. Nope, that’s not a typo, but it’s actually not quite as dramatic as it sounds (more on that below). In general, cutting your weekly food budget can be an easy and effective way to save money each week. More than that, however, it’s a great opportunity to reexamine your way of eating and living. A $2-per-day budget is honestly impractical for most, but there are useful lessons that I gained from this experience and would like to share with you.

So where did this $2-per-day business come from? After college, I did a yearlong service program called Amate House (side note: check out amatehouse.org if you care about people and the world and might be interested in spending a year in service). I lived in community with 8 other volunteers, and we each volunteered full time at various nonprofits and schools around the city of Chicago, in exchange for modest room and board. We were each allotted about $2 per day to cover all of our meals. The 9 of us pooled our food money every week, assigned two people to cook each dinner Sunday-Thursday, carefully planned our meals, and created a shared grocery list. The assigned grocery shoppers for that week would head to the store, adding up each item on a calculator as it was added to the cart. More often than not, they would have to put a few items back before reaching the check out. It was certainly a challenge, especially the first few weeks, but we definitely found a good groove. I’ll share some of the habits we picked up:

Eat less meat.

This is probably the biggest difference-maker on this list. There are lots of other sources of protein (see #2 below), and this can save you a significant amount of money each week. Or at least try using meat as the supporting actor in a meal rather than the star—just a little bit can add a significant amount of flavor and texture without breaking the bank. My community and I committed to eating meat for dinner once a week only.

Beans and rice.

Beans and rice. Beans and rice. These items, especially when bought in bulk, can be incredibly inexpensive. Importantly, there are a surprising variety of ways to prepare them in order to avoid feeling like you’re eating the same thing every day. Try black bean soup, slow cooked red beans and rice, black bean burgers, chili, curried lentils, bean-and-rice-stuffed bell peppers, bean tacos, or many others (this list hasn’t even broken into chickpea territory, if you can believe that!). Buying dried beans in bulk instead of canned can also save a few dollars each week—I would typically cook a big batch of dried black beans in the crockpot every few weeks and freeze can-sized portions to pull out for cooking. Another similarly inexpensive and versatile item is eggs—a quiche or frittata or even breakfast tacos can make a great dinner.

Find cheaper places to shop.

I’m a huge fan of Aldi and would definitely recommend it if you live close to one. I don’t know that we could have lived a year on that budget shopping anywhere else—they tend to have by far the best prices I have seen. Their selection is a bit more limited, but the Aldi generic brand is great, and they typically have good deals on produce as well. Another good option is international or ethnic markets, where you can often find great deals on things like beans, rice, and produce.

Think about what that money could get you.

Considering spending an extra dollar for the name brand instead of the generic? That’s barely more, right? Nope. That dollar could also buy a dozen eggs (at Aldi, anyway), which provides multiple meals. Or it could buy an additional snack or treat that will make the whole community excited when you unpack it at home. And it may seem obvious, but each extra dollar really does add up over time.

 

Obviously, being a more frugal grocery shopper can save you money, which is important. I would argue, however, that there are actually much bigger benefits. Learning to live more simply and with intentionality can be life-changing. Eating, cooking, and grocery shopping can all so easily become mindless activities. Being suddenly restricted by a very tight budget forced me to put more thought and care into how I was living. I found that I became much more aware of my habits and more importantly, more grateful for the seemingly little things. Knowing that we were having chicken tacos—aka actual meat—on Thursday night became something I would look forward to all day. Going out for ice cream or even a full meal with a friend felt like a downright luxury and something I could really appreciate. Gathering around a table for community dinner every evening to enjoy a home-cooked meal—a meal that we had put thought into and that two of us had taken time to prepare—was honestly the highlight of my day every day.

Ready to give it a try? I’d recommend starting small. Set a weekly budget for yourself—nothing too restrictive, just something that might require you to cut out a bit of your current spending. Pick a habit to try to implement—maybe cook at least one meatless meal a week or pack your lunch every day. Just once, try adding up each item as you add it to the cart at the grocery store—you’ll start to realize how just a few extra items add up. As you go and try to incorporate new habits, you’ll find the best way to make them work with your own lifestyle. And regardless of how you do it, here’s the important thing: Live simply. Be intentional. Notice and appreciate what you have. And spend time making and sharing food with friends.

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