How to Bring Your Grocery Bill Down to $15 a Week

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Some folks were less than impressed with a trio of bloggers featured on The Cheapskate Blog who limited their food expenditures of $50 a week. A few commenters were downright angry—outraged, insulted even at the idea of the blogger experiment. Well, maybe they’ll be more open to reading about a pair of bloggers living on a weekly grocery bill of $30 total—$15 for each of them.

I’ve maintained that the idea of eating on a budget is not a contest; it’s a conversation. I’ve asked several other bloggers who write about their low-cost food adventures to answer questions similar to those posed to the 50 Bucks a Week crew. The responses will be posted here over the next week or so, to keep the conversation going.

Up today, Philip Rosenbloom and Christina DaCosta, the bloggers behind 30 Bucks a Week. The Brooklyn couple even regularly includes photos of their grocery receipts on their blog as proof of their thrifty ways. They are vegetarians, which helps keep costs down. But don’t think for a second that they eat Ramen noodles at every meal or shop only at salvage grocery stores.

They’re big fans of their local food coop, and their blog is loaded with creative recipes. In the Q&A that follows, they reveal some of their secrets, including the importance of lemon juice and vegetable trimmings (which they save and freeze for later use), and things that I’ve heard of but couldn’t quite define, like a seitan and vital wheat gluten.

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

PR & CD: Some time last year, the Park Slope Food Coop started accepting payment by debit card. Once we started being able to put our groceries on plastic rather than being limited to the cash we had on us, we noticed that our bills started getting higher and higher. Not only that, we’d often buy a bunch of produce that we didn’t have any real plan for and it would sit in the fridge until it went bad. In an attempt to curb both our spending and our waste, we decided to start this budget project. We felt like $30 per week would be tight enough to be an interesting challenge, but enough for us to buy the food we needed to make a variety of tasty meals.

CS: 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).

PR & CD: We spend $30 a week on groceries for the two of us. For us, groceries generally includes all food that we buy to cook and eat at home. As far as beverages go, we count things like coffee and OJ (not that we usually have enough money to buy OJ), but we don’t count booze. For both alcohol and eating out at restaurants, we just try to maintain moderation. For us that means eating out occasionally – usually on the weekends – but not making it a habit. Generally we opt for drinks at somebody’s apartment rather than going out to a bar.

Honestly, the site is much more focused on finding and sharing tasty recipes with our budget than it is on accounting for every cent. The challenge of eating well for $30 is sort of an arbitrary rule — the more important thing for us is the time and attention we’re investing in being very intentional about how we eat.

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?

PR & CD: We use a lot of lemon juice – in salad dressings, to sautee veggies, to brighten up a little kick to a marinade. You can use it to brighten up pretty much anything. The same could be said of Sriracha, if you like things a little spicy. A bottle of that stuff will last you a long time.

Also, when you’re cooking things in liquid, it often pays to use broth instead of water to add flavor. We save up all our vegetable trimmings (onion skins, butt ends and peels of carrots, celery, and so on – but not cruciferous veggies like broccoli) in a plastic bag in our freezer. When the bag is full, we use the contents to make our own broth, which is way more flavorful than the store-bought stuff, and essentially free.

As vegetarians, one of our big revelations has been how easy and cost-efficient it is to make your own seitan out of vital wheat gluten. Buying the pre-made stuff can cost several dollars per serving, but if you make it at home you get more than ten servings for the same price.

More than having one or two favorite budget ingredients, I think we’ve found that keeping your pantry stocked with staples—grains, dried beans, flour, and so on—will really stretch your wholesome food dollar.

CS: 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?

PR & CD: We are cheese lovers. Despite the coop’s comparatively low price on nice cheeses, they usually won’t fit in our budget. Once in a while, we’ll get a little piece chevre or ricotta salata, but not the oozy, offensively smelly stuff we crave. That said, today Tina found a big chunk of respectably rank bleu cheese for a dollar at Jack’s 99 cent store.

CS: When you tell people about your food budget, what sort of reactions do you get?

PR & CD: Gnashing of teeth and rending of garments. Narcolepsy. Anaphylactic shock. It runs the gamut. Actually, folks are at least interested enough to ask for the URL more often than not. Some people are pretty surprised to hear that we’re not living off of ramen packets.

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 you’ve been blogging about eating on the cheap?

PR & CD: One of the biggest discoveries has been the fact that this project isn’t all that difficult. Sure, we eat out sometimes and go over budget by a dollar or two once in a while, but generally speaking we haven’t had too much trouble cutting down substantially on our food spending while still eating wholesome, delicious meals. Some commenters chalk this up largely to the fact that we’re vegetarian or that we shop at a coop, but I think there are other things to consider.

For instance, we’ve essentially stopped buying prepared and packaged foods, which in itself cuts a substantial portion out of our grocery bill. Not that we survived on TV dinners before we started the blog, but we were known to buy a bag of pre-seasoned oven fries here and there. Unsurprisingly, buying actual potatoes is cheaper. These days, the only things we regularly buy in containers are tofu and eggs.

We’ve been realigning our investment in food so that it revolves more around time and less around money. Regardless of whether the industrial ingredients that go into prepared foods are substantially harmful to your health, there is something really rewarding about knowing that it was your own effort that went into taking a bunch of separate and recognizable raw materials and making them into a finished meal. No matter how good a frozen burrito might taste (bad example?), I don’t think it can provide that feeling. So, while our budget serves as a specific parameter that provides our project with some structure, bringing as many parts of our culinary life in-house as possible has been at least as big a reward than the savings.