OMFG: Eating on a “Severe” Budget

by Little Miss Attila on February 1, 2010

Some food writers apparently take an annual food challenge in which they endeavor to eat on a food stamp allowance that is way more than my husband and I spend on groceries these days, even though we don’t get food stamps. (We are certainly eligible, but we don’t apply, because the husband would be against the notion on general principle; he wouldn’t even let me apply for unemployment when I got laid off back in 1999.)

No wonder they have to increase the difficulty level by using stores within walking or public transport distance, or buying only locally grown, or whatever. (I’m with Reynolds: I’m pro-local for reasons of superior nutrition [that one is my own] and “robustness” of the food production/distribution systems, but against it using what he calls “ideogical” rationales. By that I suppose he means faux-environmentalism and parlor socialism.)

I mean, is my arithmetic off? The food-stamp dalliers confine themselves to $7 a day, which is $49/week for an individual, and therefore $98 for a couple. I mean, I get that they probably aren’t getting eggs after church at a coffee shop on Sunday, but they also aren’t having to budget nonfood items like toilet paper and laundry soap into that figure, either.

(And Rin should be dropping by to give me a lecture on the rising rates of “food insecurity” in the U.S. in 3, 2, 1 . . . She has clearly never seen the questions that are used to evaluate food insecurity—most of them apply to anyone who has ever had “too much month left at the end of the money.” So, basically anyone who is trying to live on a budget and has discovered that there are boll weevils in the spaghetti in the pantry has food insecurity.)

Right now we’re living on that one weekly after-church outing and its leftovers, plus a lot of brown rice and lentils/navy beans. And ramen for me. And eggs, plus store-brand cold cereal.

I’m not complaining, but I’m truly astonished at what constitutes deprivation among media types: their “food stamp” budget is what I spend when we are flush.

UPDATE: It isn’t quite as ridiculous as I thought: the allowance for a two-person household is $12 a day ($72/week), and in addition to not using any food in the house (duh), one cannot use any existing spices other than salt and pepper–so one would have to get new sesame oil and so forth. No pre-existing beverages, needless to say. Also, Alice of Savory Sweet Life is forgoing not just comparison shopping, but the biggie: menu planning for Frugality Week. This seems to me to provide a much fairer basis for helping working people. Other restrictions that might make it easier for those who are on forced budgets to get some good tips from the exercise would be to skip using one’s costly appliances, as some are doing.

UPDATE II: The husband responds: “$24 every couple of days? That used to be my budget for an entire week.” Yes, but that was in late-1980s/early 1990s dollars. And he smoked. So unless one is going to budget for appetite suppressants as well, it isn’t quite fair.

Of course, one cannot achieve perfect fairness without also giving up one’s semidecent kitchen knives, and one’s cutting boards. This, I will never do. Not to mention that I should increase spoilage by releasing cockroaches into the kitchen to wreak havoc, and I don’t intend to live like that ever again.

UPDATE III: Another way to make the exercise more meaningful would be to either

1) shop only once a week, as I did when I worked at Petersen Publishing Company. That was because of time constraints: I shopped every week, on Monday or Tuesday night, when it was least crowded. Later on, I relaxed the rule to to allow for a “produce run” in the middle of the grocery cycle. (Now, I shop whenever a reader sends me some money, or I find an old jar full of change that I can redeem at the Coinstar kiosk and buy whatever’s most urgent on the list.)

2) buy only, at any given time, a single bag of groceries. Not to be European, but to reflect the fact that some people have to pick up their food on foot, and/or on the way back from the subway station. I used to do that when I lived in West L.A.: shop at the local Hughes, and walk home. (Joya simply called one of our friends, and asked them to drive to West L.A., pick her up, and take her home. Habitually. Different strokes.)

UPDATE IV: Another link from Al Dente: this one focuses on the parsimonious virtues of home-baked bread. Cynthia has been trying to sell me on this for some time, even going to far as to suggest that one can earn back the cost of a bread machine in a short period of time, if one uses it. That, of course, is the rub, since I don’t do much of anything domestic when I’m working steadily at an editing client’s digs, or when my depressions run amok.

UPDATE V: Ah, so we’ve seen people do this for only five days (I thought it was a week—five days is nothing), and go “hungry” part of the time. (No word on whether this meant skipping meals, or whether this is American “hunger,” which means eating slightly less than one would prefer.)

But no compromises on “buying local.” After all, we’re willing to live like the common folk, but we don’t want to get carried away. As I’ve said, I think eating local is terrific for a bunch of reasons, but to do it exclusively is not too healthy for the economy.

UPDATE VI: Too funny. It turns out that the challenge is hard if you buy organic blueberries. Guess what? It’s a challenge if you buy any fresh blueberries. And yet, one wants to get antioxidants, so to the freezer case we go, if the prices aren’t good enough at the local farmer’s market and/or the Mexican grocery store (my secret weapon). And/or Costco, using my mom’s membership.

And things like grapes are a big freakin’ splurge, but we have to do it sometimes, or there’s not enough variety—so I wait for a not-so-bad price. I get them several times a year (usually in summer, natch—fortunately, there are fruits that are grown south of the border that are available for less). Otherwise, the husband eats raisins. Fortunately, he likes those.

UPDATE VII: This one is kind of cool: there’s more of a challenge for those who are on special diets for health reasons such as food allergies, epilepsy, diabetes, and the like.

The comments make it, though.

I don’t always do well buying in bulk, since I always forget where things are until they’ve gone stale in the back of a closet somewhere, but I should certainly look into joining a local food co-op. It would be lovely to buy food without all the packaging, even if I’m not buying any more than usual.

{ 8 comments… read them below or add one }

William February 1, 2010 at 5:01 pm

I didn’t realize how stupid this was until I clicked on the article. They’re avoiding locally grown food markets to prove that this isn’t enough money? Essentially, they’re avoiding living cheaply to prove that others can’t?

I guess if your ideas on being frugal match Paris Hilton’s, life would be tough.


retriever February 1, 2010 at 5:41 pm

I can’t get the link to work. But I remember feeding myself on $9 a week in grad school and after. I couldn’t afford a car, and would ride my bike to the local hippie bulk foods store (there wasn’t Whole Foods then and no Trader Joe’s nearby and a large cheap grocery store was ten miles’ bike ride away I think). I ate well (I was training for marathons so had to eat a lot). Lots of dried beans, nuts, brown rice, cheese, eggs, and no meat, lots of veggies.

I waste a lot of money on food right now because my husband and teen son are carnivores, junk food junkies, and the boy kid has a hollow leg and drinks a couple of quarts of milk a day.

We have two kids in private colleges and aren’t eligible for aid because we own our house, have no debt, etc. so I struggle to save money on food any way I can. I’ve always grown veggies, made bread and most meals completely from scratch. I really prefer home cooked to eating out.

The key thing for me has been only buying groceries at loss leader prices, hopefully w coupons as well, buying as few processed things as possible, and stockpiling and freezing with moderate organization so things don’t go to waste…

But I end up wasting stuff all the time, or making “health” meals the VIsigoths hate.


Jenn February 1, 2010 at 5:42 pm

I have to ask why he wouldn’t let you collect unemployment? That is insurance that is paid by your employer by not collecting you give the state free money.


Little Miss Attila February 1, 2010 at 6:08 pm

R: My Visigoth converted; there was no other option for keeping his weight down (though he still indulges in a bit of salty/crunchy junk food, with stricty-strict portion controls).

And in my house, I’m the liquid milk predator, though I may convert back to powdered milk–THAT transition takes a while.

J: Pure irrational maleness, with all due respect for the estrogen-challenged among us. (Wait . . . which Jenn is this? Well, you underSTAND, anyway. I’m not a total sexist. I don’t think.)


Little Miss Attila February 1, 2010 at 6:13 pm

William: I don’t think the intent is to prove that it can’t be done, but 1) to raise one’s individual empathy level for the poor/working class among us–and, in some cases, to harness the power of food writers’ ingenuity to generate money-saving tips that those on severe budgets might be able to use.


Farmer Joe February 2, 2010 at 4:31 am

For several months back in the early 90’s my food budget was $8/week. It royally sucked, but I was able to live on it.


I R A Darth Aggie February 2, 2010 at 7:16 am

$49/week for an individual

I could eat like a king for that much food money.


Foxfier February 3, 2010 at 4:11 pm

#1 aid in once-a-week-max bulk shopping without a car: get a sea bag, assuming you’re hale enough to pack one on a bus. Packing can take some skill, but it’s outstanding exercise.


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