How to Eat Well on $50 a Week: They’re Doing It. Could You?

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Fifty bucks. It could get you a single steak at a fine dining establishment. Or it could feed you—and feed you pretty darn well—for an entire week. A trio of writers from around the country is proving just that with the recent launch of their experiment and blog Fifty Bucks a Week.

Beyond the obvious monetary bonus of limiting themselves to a budget of $50 per week for food, the three writers are approaching the project as a challenge to their self-discipline and cooking creativity—and based on their often hilariously entertaining blog posts, which involve things like Pizza Emergencies, their attempts are sometimes less than successful. The writers love to eat, and to eat well, so the goal is for meals to be cheap only in the strict dollar sense. (In other words, they’re supposed to do better than boxed mac ‘n cheese or the other classic cheap foods recently featured in a Cheapskate Blog photo gallery.)

The experiment started a little over a month ago, and the three writer/guinea pigs who can no longer pig out as they once pleased are: Adam Pollock, who lives in Brooklyn and is working on the second season of his web cooking-dating show called The Feed Me Show; Cari Luna, a novelist and stay-at-home mom who is based in Portland, Oregon, and who also blogs at Dispatches from Utopia; and Emily Farris, a food writer from Kansas City, Missouri, whose book Casserole Crazy: Hot Stuff for Your Oven, came out last fall.

As you’ll see in the Q&A that follows, theirs is an experiment in progress, but so far they’ve already learned—or come to appreciate anew—about the importance of key ingredients like cayenne pepper and salt (big flavorful kosher crystals, of course), about how expensive avocados are ($2.99 apiece!), about how it now seems completely nuts to have been spending $28 a week on coffee, about how much food they’d previously been accustomed to wasting, and about how truly difficult it is to stick to their $50 weekly allotments. They’ve also had to deal with the occasional fantasy about robbing a cheese shop, with baguette and knife in hand.

Cheapskate: Where did the $50 a week idea come from? Did it spring somewhat out of necessity, or as pure lark or what?

Emily Farris: One day, on Twitter, Adam proposed the idea. He just threw it out there to the world. It happened to be the same day I’d spent exactly $50 at the grocery store and was telling a friend—who was shopping with me—that I could probably live on $50 a week for groceries. I replied to his Tweet and suggested we do a group blog. Within a week, he’d set it up and we were rolling. Because he was in Brooklyn and I was in Kansas City, it only made sense that we include someone from the West Coast and Cari has been a wonderful addition. Not only do we have three different regions covered, we have three different lifestyles. Adam is a Brooklyn bachelor, I’m a Midwestern blogger/cookbook author, and Cari is a vegetarian who is married with a child. While we all have different lifestyles and different tastes, we compliment each other well.

Adam Pollock: It popped into my head one night as I was leaving my desk. That was unusual. Things like this usually pop into my head in the bathroom. To an extent, it was about necessity. I had already slashed my food expenditures after the economy tanked, but I didn’t know by how much, or if I was doing it well. Setting an achievable budget, and blogging about it, looked like a fun way to approach the problem, even if it wasn’t a problem I’d thought much about before.

Cari Luna: When Adam invited me to join in on the project, I agreed mostly as a lark. I thought it would be a fun experiment, and I expected it would be an easy one. We’re vegetarians, and I love to cook and bake. Not so hard to stick to $50 per person if you don’t have to buy meat (I hear that stuff is pricey), and if you cook all your meals at home. So I joined in expecting to save a bit of money and get back my bread-making mojo and get better about cooking dinner every night, but I didn’t expect to break much of a sweat doing it. However, I didn’t factor in things like Pizza Emergencies. Pizza Emergencies (yes, they merit the caps) are no joke, especially when they spring up at the end of the week and there’s all of three bucks left in the budget and a crisper full of dandelion greens wanting to be eaten.

CS: What are the specific ground rules? Is it $50 per week per person in your household? Any other fine print rules or restrictions in terms of what you buy or where you buy it? Does the allotment include beverages?

AP: It’s $50 per adult per week. When I cook for a guest, I discount their portion, and I haven’t started budgeting for my dog, even though she could show me a thing or two. The only real restriction is that the food has to be pleasurable and nutritious to eat. I’m sure you could survive on $10 of rice, groats, and mung beans a week, or get your kicks from $50 of pixie stix, but we’re not that kind of blog. We’re about eating *well* on a budget. We’re loosey-goosey on beverages. I count coffee, but not beer and wine. I do this because it’s important to learn to walk before you can run, and because running is dull.

CL: We’ve got a weekly budget of $125: $50 each for me and my husband, and $25 for our three-year-old son. He’s hit a serious growth spurt this week, so that $25 is starting to be a bit of a challenge. Today he ate four scrambled eggs; a pb&j sandwich; a cup of almonds, pumpkin seeds and raisins; and an apple for lunch. I don’t think I can eat that much. Forget this budget thing when he’s a teenager.

We don’t drink booze at all, so that’s not an issue for us. (Buddhist. Took a vow of no intoxicants.) I live in Portland, Oregon, so coffee IS an issue. (Yes, caffeine is also an intoxicant. Shhh! I’m a complex creature.) If I brew it at home, which I do 99 percent of the time, that coffee comes out of the grocery budget. If I buy it when out and about, it counts as entertainment and comes out of my separately budgeted discretionary cash. My husband doesn’t drink coffee; he’s one of those freaky tea drinkers. The same rule applies to his tea.

EF: Basically we are to eat “well” and are only allowed to spend $50 a week on food. For some reason I assumed this included coffee, which stuck, and honestly it has been a real challenge for me. Because I work from home, walking ten blocks to my nearest independent coffee shop for a $4 skim latte was often the highlight of my day, at least socially. I still go about once a week but I’m really bonding with my French press lately. Alcohol, however, is not included in the $50-a-week budget. If we were to include it, I can only imagine what kind of crazy moonshine would be brewing on my back porch right now. But perhaps this conversation is better left for an AA meeting?

CS: How has the experiment changed the way you go food shopping and plan meals?

EF: One of the first things I did upon agreeing to this project was join my local CSA [community supported agriculture]. I’m lucky in that for $25 a week, I get meat, cheese, milk, eggs, bread and vegetables. I really only have to buy coffee, yogurt and cereal or granola. This has been fantastic for me because I never know what I’m going to get when I pick up my share every Monday and I’m forced to use ingredients I would never have bought at the grocery store or farmers market. For example, a few weeks ago I got a steak—something I had only attempted once before—which made me realize that next time I want a steak, I can just prepare it myself. However, when the CSA ends in September, all hell might break loose. But I’m working on a little vegetable garden out back, so hopefully I’ll just be forced to be more creative in other ways.

CL: Before, I would buy whatever looked good, or whatever I was in the habit of buying, and bought way too much of it. I’ve found over the course of this experiment that I like abundance. I feel safer when there’s a lot of food in the house—too much food. More food than we needed. A lot was going to waste. Now I plan our week’s meals in advance and shop according to that plan, buying only what we need. I’m still a bit freaked out by the empty fridge at the end of each week, but I think that will get easier with time. It just means I planned well.

AP: There are sections of the local supermarket, and whole specialty grocers, that I can’t even walk into anymore. Greenmarkets are hard, because they’re not cheap, and everything looks so good that, before I know it, I’ve spent $40 on things I didn’t even need. Prior planning prevents poor performance, so it would help if I thought out my meals farther ahead. I see from her entries how Cari plans her meals, and the positive effect that has on her spending. I think that’s the right direction, the disciplined direction, but it chafes against my hedonistic, improvisational bent. I have to admit, it’s weird for me. I think of cooking and eating as acts of love. I wouldn’t want to think about budgeting hugs or sex or whatever. Then again, I don’t pay for them, either.

CS: What are some of your favorite cheap ingredients or spices—you know, the little something that doesn’t cost much but adds a lot to a meal?

CL: Mirin! It isn’t cheap by the bottle, but a little goes a long way and it’s SO good.

AP: Kosher salt is great. If you get the big crystals, you get a lot of textural control for very little money. I always have cayenne pepper and dried tarragon around; for some reason, I find them pleasing together. At around $5/jar for decent stuff, neither is dirt-cheap, but a little of each goes a long way. Lately, I’m obsessed with La Morena pickled jalapeños and carrots. They’re a lot of fire for $2/can, and the brine is strong enough that you can add more vegetables to it. When I have leftover radishes, I slice them up and drop them in.

EF: For starters: salt. I know it sounds simple and you might think “Who doesn’t know that you need to use salt when you cook?” But I have friends who have, when trying to cook for the first time, paid little or no attention to the “salt to taste” step in recipes. Beyond that, cayenne pepper and crushed red pepper are must haves. A secret I discovered when writing “Casserole Crazy” was that cayenne really brings out the flavor of proteins— especially cheese. Any time I cook with cheddar, I add even just a pinch of cayenne to enhance the flavor. And sometimes for dinner (or breakfast, or lunch) I’ll fry up a few eggs and serve them with salt, pepper, a slice or two of tomato and a dash of cayenne pepper. Whenever I make a pasta dish—which is often—I use crushed red pepper. Not only does it add a ton of flavor, spicy food actually makes you feel more full than mild food.

CS: Have you cheated and gone over budget? Now is your chance to come clean and explain.

CL: I wouldn’t call it cheating so much as real life getting in the way of the experiment from time to time. We went over budget last week because we were at a community bike fair and it got to be dinner time. We were having a great time and didn’t want to leave to go eat at home, and ended up spending $17 on tofu hot dogs. We went over budget, but we hung out as a family and ate huge tofu hot dogs smothered in onions and watched tall-bike jousting on a beautiful summer evening. Totally worth it.

Oh yeah…and this week? Pizza Emergency. It was a bad one. (If ever a girl needed a pizza…) I don’t know yet if it pushed us over budget, but if it doesn’t it will be because we just squeaked in there.

EF: Absolutely. And we’re pretty honest about it on the site. Each week we share our budget analysis. It turns out we all have our vices and mine is, without a doubt, iced coffee from my local, independent coffee shop. Before we started the project, I tried to ignore the fact that I was spending $28 a week on coffee. And even when I couldn’t ignore it, I justified my coffee consumption by saying I was supporting local business—you know, stimulating the economy. Of course I was stimulating the coffee trade while neglecting parts of my life, like my health. Even though I go over budget now and then, I have managed to drastically cut back my food spending. The $112 a month I was spending on coffee alone is now going towards health insurance—something I’d been without for three-plus years. If we ever add alcohol to the mix, I might even be able to start paying off my student loans.

AP: As someone who lives in an expensive city, has expensive tastes, and never budgeted for food in his adult life, I go over budget all the time. One thing about adulthood, though, is that it leaves me with very little shame, so, when I go over on groceries, I go ahead and write about it. Restaurants are a bit different. I’ll admit to having broken the rules there a few times, but I’ve always been able to justify it as a business or travel expense. I’m a great rationalizer that way.

CS: What has been the hardest thing to do, or to go without, since you started the experiment? What are you dying to splurge on and eat right now?

AP: Cheese. Gorgeous, gooey, stinky cheese. Pearly Nevat. Majestic Reggiano. Snowy, gray-rinded Garrotxa, crystalline aged Gouda, creamy raw-milk Camembert. Good cheese is so expensive that even a nice piece of cheddar can put me over the top in nothing flat. I get like H.I. McDunnough in “Raising Arizona,” riding by cheese shops that aren’t even on the way home, daydreaming of breaking in late at night with a knife and a baguette. As much as I love venison, or oysters, or lamb chops, I don’t fantasize about them. Much.

CL: The hardest thing has been cooking when I’m exhausted at the end of a long day and all I want to do is order some damn Thai food. But then I go ahead and cook and after we eat we’re always glad we ate at home. Also, we’ve cut back on the avocados a bit. $2.99 a piece right now! $2.99! We could easily go through two avocados a day in our house, and that’s just not happening on this budget. Mmmm…avocados… If only they grew here in Portland. I’d plant three avocado trees in the yard.

EF: For the past couple of years, I’ve mostly prepared all of my meals at home, so aside from the coffee and the occasional desire to find the nearest taco truck (STAT!) I can usually satisfy my own cravings with something I have in the fridge or pantry.

CS: In the big, grand, save-the-world sense, what have you learned about yourselves, and about how people in general consume food and function as consumers, while the experiment has been going on?

CL: In the grand, save-the world sense? I don’t know yet. I’m still just trying to figure out how to work pizza into the budget.

EF: I have realized, in a very short time, how much food we waste. When I took an inventory of my fridge after the first week I was appalled at how much produce had gone or was about to go bad. Stuff I’d bought because I figured I might as well spend the entire $50. Before I might have just thrown it out, but I had most everything I needed for soup, which lasted and provided meals for another week. And my disdain for packaged foods has grown exponentially. Why in the world would I pay for overpriced, overprocessed food when I can get local, fresh ingredients that cost so much less and taste so much better?

AP: The honest, if somewhat obnoxious, answer would be, ask me in a year. We’re only about a month into this thing, learning how to organize the information, and staying mostly within our comfort zones. Insofar as it’s a blog about being comfortable on a budget, that’s fine, but I feel like we’ve only begun to innovate. That said, I have learned that it’s possible, and maybe even not that hard, to eat well by shopping as a careful consumer on $50 a week. It brings me back to an older style of shopping, of being really choosy, of buying what’s in season not for a moral reason or an ecological reason, but because it offers the most taste and nutrition for the least money. In a way, that’s a relief: it’s easier to be a moderate locavore for market reasons rather than for moral ones. But right now it’s summer, when produce is cheap and plentiful. Things will be different come winter. I think I’d better learn to pickle.