How to Eat on a Dollar a Day, Part II

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A 31-year-old woman in Charleston, S.C., tries to live on a seriously tight food budget: $365 for 365 days.

The blogger who prefers to be known simply as “j.” describes herself as “a beyond broke, strict vegetarian, out-of-work, on again/off again non-traditional student living in Charleston, S.C. I’m 31, though I act much younger, and would rather not share my name — for a city of 300,000-plus people, Charleston is very small. Up until recently I worked in retail, and I love to travel.” Her blog is called 365 Dollar Year, and since beginning her $1-a-day budget, she’s found herself eating plenty of sweet potatoes and cabbage, though not necessarily at the same time.

I asked j. to answer questions similar to ones posed to other bloggers living on tight food budgets, including two San Diego high school teachers who ate on $1 a day for a month, a writer who fed her 205-pound, bacon-loving fiancé on $25 a week, and another individual who challenged himself to preparing 15 meals for $15.

How and why did you start writing about eating on a tight budget? Did it spring out of necessity, as a lark, or what?

j.: Eating on a budget was something I had to do. Writing about it is for accountability. It might sound kinda strange, since this year is about buying very little food, but I LOVE to shop for groceries. When I was packing to move from Wyoming to South Carolina at the end of January I was amazed by how much food there was in my house. I’d been telling my roommate that I needed to eat it before we moved, but instead of cooking I’d get take out or pick up something fast and easy at the store across the street. I probably spent more than $200 on food in the two weeks before I moved, and the little bit that wasn’t junk ended up getting donated or thrown away.

So I obviously needed some kind of a budget. I’d read about other people eating on a dollar a day in the US, but it was always for a month. I figured I could do it too, only longer — student loans don’t get paid off overnight.

I write about it because I know that without that goal, without the pressure of having to say “I cheated” or “I give up” I’d have stopped before the end of the second week. I like junk food too much.

(Read: Why Deprivation Experiments Are All the Rage)
What are your ground rules? How exactly do you define what’s in your budget and what meets your standards and restrictions? Give us the fine print, including how you deal with beverages and dining out (that is, if you ever dine out)?

I guess the big rule is how much I’ve got: $365 for the year from February 14, 2010 to February 13, 2011. Veggies (and fruit) need to be under $1 a pound, and I am more likely to buy something if it’s lower than higher. I’m eating a lot of sweet potatoes and cabbage. I don’t drink at home (I used to buy beer, but it just sat in the fridge until someone else drank it), but I have a nasty soda habit. Last time I tried to quit a coworker bought me a 2L bottle and asked me to please just drink it. So that’s not included. Murder trials are more expensive than soda, anyway. I didn’t plan for eating out — some of my cheating has been here. But I’m a great believer in free food, and if friends or family want to take me out to lunch, I’m all for that! The same rule applies with other free food: weddings, meals provided to everyone at work, samples at the grocery store.

I’m not buying any animal products, because I try not to eat them (and they can be expensive). I’m using all the stores available to me. I have some splurge money — about $2.50 a month — that I can use to get more expensive/ desirable food.

The main thing is not overspending. I did leave a couple escape options though. I tend toward scrawny to begin with, so if I lose more than 15 pounds, I have to stop. I’d probably increase my daily allowance well before then, it’s just there as a deadline. Oh, and if I win the lottery or inherit piles of cash from some unknown relative (both equally unlikely), I end that day.

Oh, yeah, and I will not — ever again — shop at Wal-Mart.

(Read: How to Eat Well on $50 a Week)
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?

I’m in love with onions, garlic, and ginger. One thing that adds a lot to the meals is variety. I could have just pinto beans and rice for a year — it’d be cheaper. Having options like polenta, pizza, different types of beans, or even tofu means I don’t get bored with what I have.

None of this would work if I didn’t know how to cook. I couldn’t take someone else’s ideas and use them to make something new if I didn’t know how the recipe worked in the first place. That said, I add spices (and salt) to everything.

(Read: How to Cook Like a Gourmet—When You’re Broke)
Tell us about some of your experiments aimed at saving a buck on food. What worked? And what didn’t?

I tried shopping at “ethnic” markets for staples from the cultures they served. That was a mistake. Rice (and beans) actually cost less at one of the local chains. I made lists for weeks before hand, and that’s working pretty good for me. I wrote down what I liked to eat (no junk), then organized it by main ingredient, wrote out the “recipe”, and took count of what was used, and how often. This worked great for my first round of shopping because I had a list and knew how important each item was. If something was only used in one recipe, but cost $2, I knew I didn’t need it.

I also did some research online to see what the lowest average unit price other people had found was. So I know 25 cents/lb at regular price isn’t bad for flour, but that around November I should be able to find it for less. That made it easier to comparison shop. 30 cents/ lb isn’t bad, but 52¢/lb is way too much ($2.59/5lb bag — a common price around here). A couple times I’ve bought something, only to find it for less somewhere else later.

What probably cost me the most in cheating, though, was trying to quit eating junk food without replacing it with something just as fatty and good — like avocado.

(Read: How to Bring Your Grocery Bill Down to $15 a Week)
What has been the hardest thing to do, or to go without, since you started cooking and eating on a supertight budget? What are you dying to splurge on and eat right now?

Chocolate. Or mango sticky rice- I have the rice and sugar, but mango and coconut milk are way too pricey. I try not to think about food that’s priced too high. If I start making lists of what I miss the most, I’ll just quit all together. It was tough walking out of the store this morning without pasta, sauce, and veggie meatballs.

When you told people about your food budget, what sort of reactions did you get?

My step-dad left an urgent message on my Facebook — “Do we need to worry? Call me today!” I’m getting calls from friends too, asking if they can send me anything. Even total strangers on the internet have offered gift cards and money. I tell them to give to people where they are instead — there are a lot of people around who need it more than me. My mom’s proud, I think because my grocery bill’s even smaller than hers. She still tries to feed me when she sees me, but that’s a mom thing. My dad wanted to know if I needed to borrow more money, and if I was earning anything by doing it. Dad stuff.

(Read: How to Cook with Under a Buck: A Talk with the 99-Cent Chef)
What have you learned about yourself, and about how people in general consume food and function as consumers, while you’ve been blogging about eating on the cheap?

I’ve learned that I’m even lazier than I thought I was. I’m so used to heat-and-eat, or chips, or take away that a couple times I’ve waited until I was shaky before cooking. I’m starting to break that habit, at least. There are still some laziness problems I need to work on — I’m a month behind on posting receipts and it’s only the sixth week.

I’ve also learned that a lot of people have a lot of guilt about how much they spend, what they eat, and what they throw away. Shopping for food seems to be a very emotional thing. You wouldn’t think it, but how many people buy something because it’s what they like, or don’t buy something because they don’t want it — even when the one they want costs more and tastes the same? Focusing so totally on price makes it easier to see how stores play to that. Heck, I paid $0.69 for a lemon because I wanted it, when I know there’s a place two blocks away where they’re less than half that much.