Q&A: 100 Days, $100 for Food, and Lots and Lots of Coupons

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This week, a blogger successfully completed a self-imposed challenge: For 100 days, he allotted himself a daily allowance of $1 for food. To fill in the gaps (and his belly), he used coupons—ones available to anybody in Sunday newspapers and the Internet—and he used them creatively, at one point using a coupon to buy tampons in order to get some free peanut butter. His biggest struggles actually didn’t involve getting enough food or going over his budget. Throughout the challenge, he wound up donating tons of surplus purchases to food banks, and, toward the end of the experiment, money wasn’t much of an issue. By Day 96, for example, he’d only spent a total of $76.11—for stuff that would have cost $1,473.94 at retail price.

The blogger in question, Jeffrey Strain, who posts at GroceryCouponGuide.com and shows photos of both his meals and his shopping receipts, began his experiment as a one-month thing with strict rules such as no foraging for food and no eating what comes out of his own garden. After the first month passed, he allowed himself to utilize his garden, and he occasionally went out picking blackberries and apples where he could find them for free. But mostly, he used coupons and worked the system for cheap and often-free goods in supermarkets and drugstores, and he wound up eating a healthier diet than you’d imagine.

Strain hasn’t yet gotten around to posting about the final few days of the experiment, but he tells me that Day 100 has come and gone. Rather than celebrate or indulge or do anything special, he treated it like just another day of getting by with a $1 food budget. He’s stopping the challenge at 100 days, but he says he’s going to continue using coupons and now wants to see how much he can donate to local food banks. Strain answered my questions a bit before he’d reached Day 100.

How and why did you start writing about eating on a tight budget? Did it spring out of necessity, as a lark, or what?
JS: Sibling rivalry! I had started another project attempting to turn a penny I found on the ground into $1 million worth of food for food banks. In trying to do this, I had been learning about super couponing and had started to have some success with it. One day I was bragging to my sister at how much I had been able to purchase (I had just purchased 672 boxes of cereal with a retail value of $2376.28 for $81.68) and made the comment that I thought I could eat on $1 a day. She gave me one of those “yeah, sure, whatever looks” that only a sister can give a brother which made me state even stronger that I was serious. Thus the ground rules where laid out, and the challenge undertaken.

(Read: Eating on $1 a Day: A Blogger Proves It Can Be Done for More than a Month)
So 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)?
JS: The original rules were pretty restrictive. I loosened them up after the first month when readers of the blog said they wanted me to continue. If there was any debate during the challenge, the questions was put to the readers to determine what would and wouldn’t be allowed.

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?
JS: I am the last person that anyone should ask about food. I had no idea how to cook when I took up this challenge which is something that I should have really considered — although it ensured plenty of entertaining disasters along the way. Getting plenty of food was never a problem for me during the challenge (I am well under budget and can buy basically anything I want at this point), but turning that into something edible beyond just me (many readers were calling me “palate challenged” after the first month) was (and still is) a huge struggle. While my cooking has improved, it is still pretty weak.

I also approached eating on a restricted budget a lot differently than others that have done this before so I didn’t focus on what was cheap in the traditional sense (what you can find at a low price at any store), but what happened to be free / almost free when sales and coupons were combined. These two things tend to be quite different because the foods that are traditionally cheap hardly ever go on sale or have coupons.

(Read: How to Eat on a Dollar a Day)
Any notable or surprising successes in the kitchen (recipes or dishes that worked out really well) you care to share? For that matter, any notable or surprising failures you care to share?
JS: I never attempted anything too complicated. My morning fruit smoothies have probably been the greatest success and something I will continue — and the peanut butter banana ice cream (only frozen bananas and peanut butter), since a minor theme of the entire challenge has been my love of peanut butter and banana sandwiches and my sister’s opinion that they don’t constitute a “real meal.”

As for disasters, pick almost any day and you will find at least one…

(Read: How to Eat on $1 a Day, Part II)
What has been the hardest thing to do, or to go without, since you started cooking and eating on a super tight budget? What are you dying to splurge on and eat right now?
JS: By far the hardest thing has been cooking for myself — especially the time it takes with my busy schedule. I am probably the worst person to attempt something like this — I do a lot of traveling and house sitting which means I am constantly on the move and have to drag all my food along with me. It is those inconveniences that have been far more of an issue than food. In fact, there isn’t really anything that I crave and I could actually probably buy anything that I did really want and still stay under budget at this point. I would like to go out to eat simply not because I crave the food, but I crave not having to
make the meal myself.

The first few weeks were also difficult. Since I started with absolutely nothing, I was at the mercy of whatever I happened to be able to get with coupons which was very limiting until I could build up a stockpile and get a bit more choosy in the foods I purchased.

When you told people about your food budget, what sort of reactions did you get?
JS: Most people thought that I wouldn’t have enough to eat and what I did have would be processed junk food. That, fortunately, has not been the case for the most part. In fact, I was able to donate a large amount of food to food banks along the way while still staying well under budget.

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?
JS: That I will buy tampons to score free peanut butter. There are a lot of misconceptions about coupons and grocery shopping. I actually hate both and do my best to spend the absolute minimum time doing them and people are often surprised that I spend very little time doing this. Most people do not shop in their best interest; you really do need to learn to cook with what you have and buy the best deals rather than buy what you want that night if you want to be shopping in a beneficial way to yourself rather than the store. My list of 10 things I learned sums up the knowledge I gathered.

More interesting consumer experiments:
Q&A: 365 Days, 365 DIY Dresses, $365
Q&A: What I Learned By Not Getting into a Car for a Year
Q&A: The Year of No Clothing Purchases
Q&A: A Blogger’s Year of Getting Discounts Just By Asking for Them