Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Eating on $25 a Week: The Experiment

To raise awareness of hunger in America, the Illinois Food Bank Association recently asked locals to spend only $25 on seven days worth of food. Several folks took the IFBA up on the challenge, and found it difficult, if not impossible to endure. When all was said and done, responses from participants ranged from “I knew I could do it, however, it's not something that I would want to practice,” to “I am starving and my husband said to count him out after day one.”

Since today is Blog Action Day, I wanted to conduct a similar experiment. I wanted to choose a random U.S. City and plan a healthy week-long menu for $25 based EXCLUSIVELY on online circulars. My thought process went something like this: “Hey, I’m a frugal food blogger. I’ll show folks how this is done. It’ll be cake.”

As it turns out, I was wrong. SO SO SO SO wrong. SO WRONG.

Let me explain what happened.

The Conditions
To make my experiment fair, and (hopefully) applicable to readers, I applied the following ground rules:
  • I assumed I had NOTHING in my pantry. No salt, no pepper, no cooking oil – nothing. I was starting from scratch.
  • My menu had to provide some degree of variety, as seven straight days of soup would drive most people insane.
  • There had to be meat included.
  • The meals had to be relatively rounded.
  • I couldn’t use coupons, but a supermarket discount card was acceptable.
  • I could only “visit” two supermarkets, and they had to be relatively close to my town.
  • I had to shop exclusively from their circulars.
Of course, in this imaginary universe, I took it for granted that I had transportation, access to the internet, and time to cook. I understand that’s not the case for millions of Americans, but we’ll have to go with it for now.

The Process
To begin, I used Random.org to generate a five-digit number. It came up with 49266. In zip code terms, that’s Osseo, Michigan, a town of 3100 ten miles north of the Ohio border. This would be my starting point.

According to Google Maps, the closest grocery chains to Osseo are Save-a-Lot, Market House, and Kroger, all located about seven miles away in Hillsdale. I chose to plan my menu based on selections from Kroger and Market House, since both had good sales and excellent web circulars.

Once my stores were decided, I started combing online deals, looking especially for whole produce, meat, and dairy. Finding good bargains on these proved to be relatively easy, and my lists quickly filled with fruit, vegetables, and lean chicken. The problems arose when I tried to fit ANYTHING ELSE into the budget. I blew the whole $25 without considering spices, oils, drinks, snacks, or other extras. It took quite a bit of retooling to find an acceptable cross-section of food. But I got it eventually.

After I had a functioning list, I devised a menu, starting with breakfasts. And? More issues. Even before I got into Day 4, it became apparent there was going to be a lot of meal repetition. Meaning, in real life? I would get bored of this QUICK.

Nonetheless, I persevered, making sure I didn’t exceed my budget or food allowances (4 ounces of green beans here, 3 ounces of sweet potato there). Despite this, my first menu, after 90 minutes of planning, was over by $3.85. My second shot, finished 15 minutes later, still registered at $26.86. It took one more go-round with a fine tooth comb (and the elimination of a bag of apples) to come up with a decent plan and final figure of $24.97.

You can see everything – calculations AND menu – at the end of this post.

Observations
And? The result? My $25 meal plan was do-able, but just barely. Among other things:
  • I’m pretty sure this would have sated me (a grown woman) for a week (er … if I’m on a diet), but I don’t think it’s anywhere near enough for an adult male.
  • Actual cooking had to be kept to a minimum, since there were no seasonings and very few extra ingredients to work with.
  • Planning took much longer than expected, and the lack of wiggle room was infuriating, to say the least.
  • It’s worth mentioning again: there is a TON of repetition. A week of peanut butter sandwiches would put me over the edge.
  • In the end, generics were absolutely key. I would have starved otherwise.
  • I was surprised to have some leftovers (bread, peanut butter, oranges). If I was to do this for another week, I’d use the extra money to buy salt, pepper, and cooking oil.
I realized I’m able to keep our current budget (The Boyfriend and I) under $50/week primarily because A) $50 is a lot more to work with, relatively speaking, and B) we have a fully-stocked pantry. Without that supply, amassed incrementally over a period of months, we’d be screwed.

In the end, next time I’ll think twice when I’m tempted to ask, “Why can’t people LIVE WITHIN THEIR MEANS?” It’s not always as easy as that.

GROCERY LIST

KROGER
$1.00 - Campbell’s Chicken Noodle Soup (1 can)
$1.66 - Kroger yogurt (5 6-oz containers)
$2.50 - Milk (1 gallon)
$1.98 - Navel oranges (4lb bag)
$1.99 - Pork chops (1 lb)
+$1.07 - Sweet potatoes (3 large)
=$10.20 for Kroger

MARKET HOUSE
$1.66 - Aunt Millie’s Old Fashioned Multigrain Bread (1 loaf)
$2.49 - Boneless skinless chicken thighs (1 lb)
$0.75 - Spartan canned diced tomatoes (1 14.5oz can)
$1.00 - Spartan canned pineapple (1 20oz can)
$0.99 - Spartan eggs (1 dozen)
$3.00 - Spartan frozen veggies (1 box each peas & carrots, green beans, broccoli 16oz)
$1.00 - Spartan pasta (1 16oz box)
$1.66 - Spartan peanut butter (1 18oz jar)
$0.50 - Spartan pinto beans (1 15-oz can)
$0.99 - Spartan Toasted Oats cereal (1 20 oz box w/$10 purchase)
+$0.73 - Roma tomatoes (3 4-oz tomatoes)
= $14.77 for Market House

$10.20 Kroger + $14.77 Market House = $24.97 TOTAL


WEEKLY MENU

DAY 1
BREAKFAST: 3 scrambled egg whites, 1 bowl cereal with milk, orange
LUNCH: 5 oz mashed pinto beans, peanut butter sandwich
DINNER: Pasta with chicken, diced tomatoes, and broccoli
SNACK: Yogurt
DRINKS: water, milk

DAY 2
BREAKFAST: 1 bowl cereal with skim milk, 4 oz canned pineapple
LUNCH: Pasta with chicken, diced tomatoes, and broccoli
DINNER: 1 large baked sweet potato, 5 oz. mixed peas and carrots, 1 roasted chicken thigh
SNACK: orange and/or toast with peanut butter
DRINKS: water, milk

DAY 3
BREAKFAST: Yogurt, orange
LUNCH: 5 oz mashed pinto beans, 1 roasted pork chop, 5 oz green beans
DINNER: Three baked eggs over roma tomatoes, 4 oz canned pineapple, 1 or 2 pieces toast with peanut butter
SNACK: yogurt
DRINKS: water, milk

DAY 4
BREAKFAST: 1 bowl oat cereal with skim milk, 4 oz canned pineapple
LUNCH: peanut butter sandwich, 1 cup chicken noodle soup
DINNER: 5 oz. mixed peas and carrots, 1 roasted chicken thigh, side of Pasta w/chicken, diced tomatoes, and broccoli
SNACK: orange
DRINKS: water, milk

DAY 5
BREAKFAST: 3 scrambled egg whites, 1 or 2 pieces of toast with peanut butter
LUNCH: 4 oz canned pineapple, 1 cup chicken noodle soup
DINNER: 5 oz green beans, 1 mashed sweet potato, 1 roasted pork chop
SNACK: orange
DRINKS: water, milk

DAY 6
BREAKFAST: 1 bowl oat cereal with skim milk, orange
LUNCH: 5 oz green beans, 1 roasted pork chop, yogurt
DINNER: Pasta with chicken, diced tomatoes, and broccoli
SNACK: orange and/or toast with peanut butter
DRINKS: water, milk

DAY 7
BREAKFAST: Yogurt, 4 oz canned pineapple, 1 piece toast with peanut butter
LUNCH: Three baked eggs over sliced roma tomatoes, 5 oz mashed pinto beans
DINNER: Baked sweet potato, 5 oz mixed peas and carrots, 1 roasted chicken thigh
SNACK: orange
DRINKS: water, milk

~~~

If you liked this article, you might also dig: ~~~

(Photos courtesy of Model Minority, Reuters, and Highlands Marketplace.)

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36 comments:

Erica said...

I can't think of a single person living within a $25/week who would separate the yolks from their eggs before scrambling them - it's extra energy and yumminess, when you don't have a lot.

Milehimama said...

Save-A-Lot is a ton cheaper than Kroger - it's like an Aldi's. You could get most spices there for 50 cents a bottle (garlic powder, black pepper, onion powder, italian, and more.)

Right now I am doing the "food stamp challenge" and am posting my progress so far tomorrow.

jb said...

I really enjoyed this post. One thing that I think made it so difficult is that you didn't start with a $100 budget for four weeks, or something similar, which would have allowed you great flexibility, e.g. you may have been able to buy some things in bulk (brown rice, potatoes, etc.) that would have stretched your dollars. Not that I'm saying it would have been easy, just that it's not very cost-efficient to buy for only one week at a time. Really cool post, though -- thanks!

Calidaho said...

It would be interesting to know the nutritional value of your week.

Kris said...

Erica, you're right. I'm an idiot. I just do it kind of naturally now, and didn't even think. Duh.

Milehimama, I can't wait to read your post, and I didn't know that about Save-a-lot. I think it's one of the limits of this kind of experiment. But if I ever move to Michigan, now I'm ready :)

JB, you're right. $100, or even $50, would have made it MUCH easier. I figured I'd stick to the $25 thing for the sake of the challenge.

Calidaho, it would. I'll see if I have time to calculate it in the next few days. If I do, I'll report back.

wee1 said...

I live in Northern California, and I'm embarrassed to say how much my husband and I budget for groceries for a week for the two of us and his son, who we provide for 2 to 4 days a week, depending on the week. This week, we actually were faced with trying to make it on $25 plus staples and completely failed. $50, also, would be a stretch.

On the one hand, thinking about what other people go through makes me want to trim, but on the other hand, I think we do a pretty good job without sacrificing what's important to us: local produce, good meat, etc. I wish other people had the same ability to purchase these "luxuries."

Anonymous said...

We are spoiled in our modern world. For centuries, people ate the same stuff over and over and over because that's all they had. This would not have been unusual, even in the 50's. Eating a peanut butter sandwich every day for lunch was pretty normal.

I'm not judging, I'm just saying. I love a wide variety of food, too!

Marcia said...

Very interesting. I did a similar thing a year ago, except I assumed salt and pepper. It was easier a year ago.

You might be interested in the following website:

http://urbanhomestead.org/journal/

It's a family in Pasadena, CA who are urban homesteaders on a small lot. I've been following them for awhile. They've had such a bad year that they didn't have the salad greens sales that they normally have - which is how they make it through the winter.

In any case, their years and years of "homemade granola", that they had 6 days a week for breakfast, has been replaced with oatmeal because of the economy and growing season. (Nuts, oil, and honey are too expensive). A cup of cooked oatmeal is about $0.10 (if you buy steel cut oats) - used to be 0.06. Now they eat that for breakfast with some homemade fruit syrups.

I might have to repeat this experiment in California.

Brit Butler said...

Kris,

I agree wholeheartedly with jb. I'd be interested in looking at things on a four week scale or even bumping up to $50 a week on a two or four week scale and seeing what you're ingenuity could come up with. :-)

Regards,
B

Chief Family Officer said...

Wow, I'm so impressed that you did this. It's a great example of why I love CHG!

Paige said...

I eat on $25 a week, every week. So it goes in the life of a college student. I live off campus, so no dorm food. A couple times a year I go to Costco to stock up on some things I couldn't afford to buy individually, spending maybe $200 a year there. I eat lots of lentils, beans, vegetable soups, potatoes, TVP and eggs for protein, seasonal fresh fruit (my #1 food expense). I can't afford to make a lot of cool recipes, even some of the ones found in frugal blogs... :) I do have a pantry, though, which I keep relatively stocked, but that's part of the 25 a week. So, possible? Yeah. Fun? Oh hellz no. The torture of walking through the aisles of Trader Joe's eyeballing the delicious goodies... must... resist...

Jenny said...

Well done! You put a lot of work into that. It makes me reconsider some of my spending habits.

One thought, I know your guideline was for minimal cooking time, but would dried beans have stretched your budget more vs. the canned?

plonkee said...

Hmm. Presumably vegetarian would be easier?

There's a British blogger (frugaltrenches.com) who lives on this food budget every week (roughly). Her meals sound really nice, but she's had time to build up a pantry.

Mimi aka pz5wjj said...

Wow, that was interesting.

Now add in non-grocery items like toothpaste, toilet paper and other hygiene products...

I feel very lucky to be able to feed my family of four on about $200 a week (average). But when the boys are older I know our budget will be out the window.

Milk is a big expenditure in our house. My 2 boys (ages 7 and 3) + DH drink 6 gallons a week. And where I live it's $3.59/gallon. I hate to think how that bill will grow as they get older!

melanie said...

My comment is similar to Paige's. When I was in grad school, my grocery bill each week was about $30. But, I did have some flexibility to stock up on bulk or sale items certain weeks and spend more than $30 and then less the next week. I also have a relatively high tolerance for eating the same foods over and over, I guess... I can't count the number of times I had spaghetti for dinner and ham sandwiches for lunch. I kept my eye out for free food events on campus though, and I had a roommate, so we would often share a gallon of milk or a dozen eggs. I live with my fiance now, and I think the idea that two people can live/eat more efficiently than one is true for us. But yeah, I think $100 for 4 weeks would be easier than strictly $25/week.

Mimi aka pz5wjj said...

Oh, I had one more comment...

Probably better to drop the oranges than apples because apples are grown locally in Michigan...

Just a thought.

Kris said...

Thanks for the comments everybody. There are some really great observations here, and I'm interested to hear more.

Jenny - I think you're right. Dried would have been cheaper, but I stuck exclusively to the circular since I wasn't sure what other items would cost in Michigan. (I'm in Brooklyn, NY. Food prices are somewhat skewed here.)

Krista said...

Great post. It is always nice to see other ideas for cutting costs.

Ok, I am going to get a little ranty here -
I will be honest, though. I have never understood the food stamp challenges. I feed my family of five - including three teenage boys - on $100 a week. We eat good, nutritious food - not the processed junk a lot of people paying with food stamps buy.

When I lived in Detroit the local Save-a-Lot cashiers had a game - guess how they are paying. 9 out of 10 times, the food stamp carts contained mostly junk and 9 out of 10 times the cash carts contained mostly "ingredients."

I really don't understand why people say it is hard to do. Food stamps are supposed to supplement your grocery budget, not be your grocery budget. You can bet that if someone handed me $100 a month per family member, I wouldn't complain.

Debbie M said...

Nice job. I like the way you did manage a fair amount of variety. I also like that you didn't sink to using white bread.

I'm lucky that I like to eat the same thing every day all week (but different things each week, and only if I really like it).

Only one hint: if you can buy spices in bulk, you can get just what you need for a recipe (say 1 teaspoon) for almost no money at all. But of course that wasn't in your flier.

When my family was on food stamps (in the 1970s), my mom said we could each much better than when we weren't. She was excited that the parents could now eat steak once a month. Things may have been different in the 1970s, and her kids were not yet teenagers, but with eggs, peanut butter, pasta and rice, tuna, bagged fruits and potatoes, powdered milk, concentrated juice, and bulk cheese, we did just fine. Oh, and generic cookies.

Nan Patience said...

Good job!

Mashed pinto beans? ack!

Egg whites? what did you do with the yolks?

any online coupons? my grocery store accepts and doubles them. Another cool thing is they put a $10 coupon in the circular I get in the mail each week, but it's not in the circular they distribute in the store.

Melanie Harvey said...

This was very interesting. I'm in Ohio, so when I saw you pass up Save-a-Lot at the beginning, I knew you'd be making your experiment harder. :-)

Since my husband was laid off last month, I've been spending $80 a week on food--for five: the parents, two teenage boys who run on milk, and a sixth-grade girl. So that's $16 a person. This week I had ten leftover. :-) It's all about meal planning, and lists, and Aldis. Nobody's losing weight, either. :-( And I'm still providing fruit and vegetables and whole grain breads.

I thought once my supplies ran low it would be tougher, but it really is all in the planning. We had salmon tonight, and fed an extra college-aged young man at that.

My Husband Rules said...

Ok, here's what I had as a shopping list based on shopping at Shop n Save in Pittsburgh. I'm sure I could find something even cheaper in a lot of cases, but I can't verify that. But I guess I feel like this is a reasonable amount of food for one person for one week:
Rice 2lbs $3.00
Dried Black Beans 2lbs $3.00
Carrots 1lb 1.75
Eggs Dozen $1.75
Pasta 1lb $1.20
Diced Tomatoes 3 cans $2.70
Tuna 2- 6oz can $1.75
Oatmeal 1 box - 10 pkts $2.70
oil $3.00
garlic box 2 cloves $0.80
onion 1 bag $2
Salt 1 box $0.33
Basil 1 containe $1.00


$24.98

I think while it would be a bland diet (I would miss Dr Pepper!), it would certainly be a good start for one week. Thoughts?

books59b said...

ok I really liked your effort but I think you missed a couple of points. One: someone else already found it as apples over oranges. Oranges won't be in season for another couple of months. What's up with the cknoodle soup? Kroger's own brand should have been cheaper and the second store would definitley have a cheaper brand. Rice over pasta. Whole chicken over those silly thighs. You could cook the chicken and then make your soup, making the canned verison unnecessary.
You have a GREAT blog though. I read it every day. Your receipes are awesome!!

Kris said...

Hey guys - thank you so much for posting. I really love reading these, and am super-impressed with everyone's suggestions so far.

books59b: you're totally right. Usually I would have gone with the in-season produce, the whole chicken, and the homemade broth. It's just - one of the parameters of the experiment was sticking strictly to the circular. To make it a bit of a challenge, I assumed there was nothing else in the store. It was harder that way, but do-able.

Anonymous said...

Your experiment failed becus you insisted on including meat.

there are many other delicious protein choices that cost less such as canned tuna and legumes. Nuts and seeds are also a good choice and if used as a topping, needn't bust the budget.

Jacob said...

As others mentioned. Dropping the meat would help. I consider meat a target of opportunity. Also, canned beans, eh? It is almost an order of magnitude cheaper to just boil your own. We buy almost nothing preprocessed (I have a weakness for certain Indian sauce mixes).
Admittedly starting from scratch is a really tough challenge.
We eat for less than $25/person/week mainly because we buy in bulk (this is key!) and we have no issues with eating the same 3-5 different meals over and over. Also we let loss leaders determine the main ingredient of the week.
You can build a lot of variation out the same staples by varying the spices and the cooking methods slightly.

Anonymous said...

Hi! I'm new to your blog. It's a good blog . It's on my favorites list.It's not all that unusual for someone to get along on $25 per week. In fact, I know of at least 3 blogs that get by on lots less. They are www.moneysavingmom.com & she feeds 2 adults & 2 toddlers on $40 per week. It's good food to, not junk.Another one that has menu, recipes & grocery list is www.hillbillyhousewife.com .She has an emergency menu that feeds 4-6 for 1 week for $45. I've been thinking about writing up my own info . We are a family of 3 adults, 1 a teenage boy who spends $200 per month. Why wouldn't you use coupons ? I have gotten several of items on your list for free with coupons. Blessings, Lisa

Thomas said...

I would challenge everyone to consider behaviors- I was amazed as I read "Mimi aka pz5wjj"'s post at her boy's consuming 6 gallons of milk a week? Why? It is easy to justify healthy habits of excess- Having grown up an only child in a household without a weekly food budget I often find myself far afield making my own; still living in a virtual unreality of culinary desires vs. what I can afford to cook. I am therefore acutely aware of consumption issues such as this. Give the children what they need for milk- if they want more, it is water, I know this is how my mother was raised, and likely why she denied me nothing, but still a plausible and well merited approach that I would consider with my own children. For the same reason I find myself spending more than $25 a week on beverages to accompany my meals- wine, beer, it all adds up fast (even when taken in moderation), so why start the cycle of consumption with milk? This is not far from my dietary habits, however the $25 is stretched further by dining some nights with friends or family- communal dining is an even better use of resources (stone soup if you will). If one were to displace cost yearly pantry costs and the benefits of summer gardening which shift expense to winter which (in cold climates) requires heartier diets.

Amanda said...

I admire you for trying this experiment - My husband and I raised a family of 9 on $60 - $75 per week (total) including cleaning supplies and toiletries. I wondered myself about the egg "whites", a can of pinto beans - they are dirt cheap dried and cook up with no real effort, boneless skinless chicken thighs (I hate looking at them now; but, we always bought the 10 pound bags of leg and thigh quarter) and I don't believe we had a box of cereal in fourteen years (very expensive).

Anonymous said...

My family has lived on less than that. It can be done. When you have limited funds, you don't necessarily care so much about nutritional value, when it keeps you from starving.

Paris Keith said...

Just to add in some perspective my husband's aunt and uncle get $580/month for food stamps and they have a eight year old daughter and are both very capable of working. And they blow it in two or three weeks. To me that Is ridiculous. I meal plan and budget and my husband and I work our butts off. We have two children 5 and 3. I spend around $300 a month in groceries and sometimes less because we just don't have it. Most people I know spend $200-$300 each shopping trip and go every week or every other.

Lisa Garcia said...

Eating on a 25$ / week budget means buying unhealthy food too right ?
Why buy cans of noodles when you can just buy noodles and make them yourself ?

dotsdots said...

I know it's an old post, but great job! My husband and I are now on Social Security only due to job losses and make just a little too much to get help with our food through the government. We've cut our bills as low as we can and are learning to coupon. We've got only $240 a month for food for the two of us, which is $30 a person for food for the week. So your post has definitely been helpful. So have the other comments about buying in bulk. Keep up the good work!

Alex said...

What Erica said. It's just ridiculous and spoiled if you want to live on a frugal grocery budget, and you decide to throw away the yolk and just eat the albumen.

People like me who have to survive on $25 a week can't afford to be overly-pampered suburbanites and waste those extra calories and nutrients because some pseudoscientific fad diet website told us that yolks are unhealthy (which they aren't).

Anonymous said...

I am trying to feed two people for about this amount. It's pretty tough we go to Save-A-Lot and get the 5 for 19 dollar packs of meat and i do check and see how many pounds each is (so i can get the most for my money, i do buy the flats of ramen on sale when it does go on sale if not i only get enough for a month, buy potatoes when they are cheap and we do try to stay away from premade foods which helps a lot. We use tons of rice and beans cheap easy to make and filling. Loads of spaghetti and also loads of casseroles because they feed my husband and myself for a good two or three days. Also we make loads of pb&j almost to the point i am sick of seeing it lol. I'll tell you this the foodstamp challenge is very difficult especially since they have chopped foodstamps down so much. I will say this i also have an amish cookbook that helps out a lot because the recipies are suppose to feed serveral people. Whatever you do, do not let any leftovers go to waste.

Anonymous said...

Great experiment, good information. Very relevant in this day and age.
I would like to propose a new challenge, with a few more complications.
1) No home, no family, no job, no
possesions,
no car, no grocery store within
50 miles not even a paved road
within 30 miles, oh, and you
are completely illiterate.
No Government Assistance
Aside from having a family, in the same situation,
Would it suprise you to know that there are more people in the world
living like this than the entire population of the USA?
2) To be kind you are provided with the following:

The clothes on your back, including a warm coat and comfortable shoes.
A fresh bale of hay for bedding and a nice spot by a small river under the train tracks.
1 fishing hook and 20' of line.
1 box of matches 1 roll of toilet paper, 1 bar of soap, a tin can and a pocket knife.
For sustanence, 1 gallon distilled water, 2 cans of sardines, 2 pints of milk, 2 small packs of peanuts, 1 box of saltine crackers and a choice of 1 apple or 1 orange.
Here's the biggie, a rickety old bicycle.
You have 30 days to secure a home, employment and of course food in the cupboards.
Anyone up for the challenge?
Let me know redplane6709@yahoo.com