Real Life Hunger Games: I’m Feeding Three People for the Cost of an iPhone Family Plan

According to the USDA, a man, woman and 6-year-old child spend $476.30 on groceries -- on the “thrifty” plan. So at $129.99, I’ll be putting my unconventional money-saving philosophies to the test.
Publish date:
June 6, 2012
money, food, budgeting

Biggest shopping trip of the month. 14.97.

I don’t have an iPhone or even a cell phone. I don’t drive; I’ve never owned a car. I have one pair of pants. But I’m not actually poor. I’m just cheap. It’s sort of like my hobby. I can’t sing or dance, but I can wear the same pair of skinny jeans for six years. This is my gift. To demonstrate my talent, I vow to feed my family of three for the month of May on $129.99 -- the monthly cost of an iPhone family plan.

The last time I tracked my monthly grocery expenses, I shelled out $240. Now that figure is pretty low -- we’re vegetarians. By comparison, my neighbor spends over $1,000 to feed her family of four. According to the USDA, a man, woman and 6-year-old child spend $476.30 on groceries -- on the “thrifty” plan. So at $129.99, I’ll be putting my unconventional money-saving philosophies to the test. I don’t believe in cutting coupons, planning menus, or shopping at big warehouse stores. Coupon queens live on pennies a month, but they’re eating free boxes of Rice-A-Roni and cans of stew. I’ll aim higher.

A while back, writers and politicians were trying out the “food stamp challenge,” in which one person budgeted $31.50 a week (so about three times our monthly allotment). The comments on the resulting write-ups were predictable: Try doing it in a dense urban area, shopping out of a bodega that only carries spray cheese and Doritos! Try throwing out everything in the freezer and cupboards and never going to any events with free food and doing it for a decade! Try doing it with five kids with allergies! Perhaps framing it as a “food stamp challenge” raised readers’ hackles. I know there’s no way I’m going to replicate the experience of someone truly struggling to pay for food, but I still hope it will be a valuable pursuit.

My only big concern is that my penchant for penny pinching is in direct conflict with my other pastimes, which are eating out at restaurants, drinking wine and buying fancy coffee drinks. But I’m ready.

Week one. My first goal is to rifle through the cupboards and use up any forgotten stale tortilla chips and cereal dust. Some may think this is cheating, but let me explain. I don’t have a walk-in pantry or basement freezer -- just a cupboard of odds and ends. On average, Americans waste 25% of the food they buy. So if you ring up $400 in groceries, you’re throwing $100 in the garbage. I hate wasting food, but I’m just as guilty of it as anyone. I’ll let something sit in my cupboard until it fossilizes or sprouts fur and only then will I grant myself permission to toss it.

Case in point: the can of sweetened condensed milk marked “Best before September 2005.” I ask Facebook if they would eat it. Facebook says to bury it in the backyard. Ignoring prophesies of death and crippling stomach cramps, I whip up a batch of “recycled cookies” out of old cereal and cracker crumbles, drizzled with the old sweetened condensed milk. I feed them to my writing group, and they don’t die. Emboldened by this success, I go on to concoct a Russian apple charlotte out of two old frozen raisin or blueberry bagels, saved up apple slices, dehydrated milk, and the remnants of two jars of jam.

Cheap thrills.

Week two. My vegetable box arrives on Monday. Every other week, a local company brings a box of organic vegetables to my doorstep for $33. I decide to keep it for the project, meaning that over half of my $129.99 will go to organic vegetables. (To keep things fair, I canceled April 30th’s delivery, so I didn’t start out with a stockpile of radishes.)

I’m keeping this service during my month of cheap eating for two reasons: 1. To up the stakes, baby! 2. To fly in the face of the myth that you can’t eat well on a tight budget. Asparagus and mushrooms are the new Ramen.

The veggie delivery, $33

Organic produce at my doorstep is not the frill you may be imagining. They deliver all over Portland, Oregon, so you don’t need a car to transport you to some upscale grocery store or farmer’s market. They even accept the Oregon Trail card (i.e., food stamps) as payment.

Here’s what a typical day of eating looks like. Andy doesn’t eat breakfast, though he does take advantage of the free fruit and coffee at his job. Audrey and I will have toast or oatmeal or pancakes. (Cold cereal is out -- too expensive!)

Lunches: I eat leftovers and pack Audrey a peanut butter sandwich and some carrot sticks plus a cookie. Andy packs his own lunch. I cook dinner about four times a week, usually big batches of something vegetable-based, like a “main course tabouli” salad that yields seven servings. This involves bulgur of indeterminate age, chick peas, and about eight different vegetables. Other nights one of us goes out and we’ll scrounge around for something.

Main course tabuli salad

On a Wednesday morning, I ride the bus to southeast Portland. My friend Heather and I walk a mile to the Reed College campus. We snip the tips off of stinging nettles with scissors. The forest and surrounding neighborhood streets offer us dandelion greens, mustard flowers, salsify, mint, wild onions, bay leaves, and rosemary. That night I make a quiche with mushrooms and my assorted leaves and flowers. The dandelion greens are bitter and terrible, so I pluck most of them out. Fingers crossed that I didn’t just waste six eggs and a stick of butter, not to mention a day foraging and washing greens. My hands tingle from the nettles until the next morning.

Heather and the stinging nettles.

Week 3. Halfway through the month and $59.51 left.

I’ve arrived at an age where my social life revolves around book and writing groups held in people’s living rooms. This challenge would be difficult or just plain miserable as a single person who depends on bars and coffee shops for human interaction. I’m also not sure if I could pull this off without the time and ability to do a lot of cooking and baking, though I suppose we could survive on oatmeal and salad.

For my first few meetings I brought a half batch of homemade cookies ($2.25) instead of my usual bottle of wine ($4 -- in times of prosperity). I gained three pounds in one week and started bringing raw vegetables (under $1) or edamame ($.85). When I hosted my writing group at my house, I served a huge bowl of popcorn popped on the stove with canola oil ($.29). If the other groups members bring wine, cheese and chocolate, you can skip dinner. And everyone enjoys carrot sticks and celery as much as wine and chocolate. Right?

After our meeting, next week’s host informs us that he will be providing “ample snacks” and that the rest of us should bring wine. I joke that I was planning to make bloody Marys out of an expired can of tomato soup, foraged dandelion greens, and cooking sherry. He says, “You are hereby excused from bringing anything. Seriously, please don't.”

Nine days and nine dollars left.

Week 4. One week to go. Unfortunately, all this time Andy has been attempting to thwart the experiment with his kale addiction. Every night he packs his lunch and brings it to work. He’s been buying bags of prewashed spinach and kale, feta and sunflower seeds with no regard for our quickly disappearing dollars.

His gluttony has forced me to the fields to work. On Saturday I help my sister weed her garden in exchange for the thinnings, just like that kid in the Boxcar Children. I bring home one pound, twelve ounces of various greens -- enough to keep Andy from another kale bender. On Tuesday I repeat the same exercise in my friend Sarah’s garden, except I forget the part about helping her pull weeds as repayment.

I should buy new pants

But it turns out Andy might not be as wasteful as I thought. My calculations reveal that the price difference between bagged Trader Joe’s spinach and kale and Fred Meyer’s bunches is negligible. Still, at up to $4.80 a pound, kale is expensive stuff. We can’t keep living like this!

Three days to go. I’m out of a few luxuries too dear to replace, like loose leaf black tea. I’ve been drinking up random old bags of herbal crap. I go through our now almost-empty cupboards and make the tough decision to throw away three cans marked “best before 2003.”

I inform Andy and he stumbles backward in shock. “Did you at least open them, compost the contents, and recycle the cans?” he sputters. I had not. Though, to my credit, I had considered it. He says he was going to eat them, one of these days. I say he is still welcome to, hoping he’ll take me up on it. This would make great copy for my article! I imagine him dumpster diving for those nine-year-old cans, spooning the gray sludge into his mouth, dialing poison control . . . But he doesn’t do it.

Finished! The month ends with $2.14 to spare. Eighty-five dollars, or 65% of our total budget, went to fresh vegetables. I bought four dozen cage free eggs and two gallons of regular milk. Splurged on some cheese and a loaf of bread. Flipped a lot of pancakes, ate too many cookies. I didn’t miss eating out as much as I imagined, replacing the brunching and drinking with sustenance-gathering activities like baking and looting from other people’s gardens.

Urban foraging

You may be thinking it sounded like I had a lot of time to bake strange desserts and ride buses all over town to pick a few chard leaves. That is true. I’m a college instructor and the semester ended at the beginning of the month. But I spent less time cooking than I expected -- an average of 23 minutes a day. That includes prep and clean-up but not dish washing (we have a dishwasher).

My cupboards are almost bare. I wonder how long I could keep this up: another month or two? Indefinitely? Under $129.99 for three people is an amusing challenge in May when my work load slacks off and my friends’ gardens are exploding with free food. Drizzly January would be a different story. After a few more months on such a tight food budget, I have no doubt I’d start feeling deprived rather than self-sufficient as I gulped down that 15-cent dinner of macaroni and weeds.

On June 2, I go to the store. Maybe I’ll run up and down the aisles with a shopping cart, sweeping boxes off the shelves, pouring bags of candy straight into my mouth. I go a little nuts and spend $48. To place a cherry atop the sheer debauchery of the experience, I buy a tall latte at Starbucks on the way out. I won’t say it tasted better than all the lattes I’d frittered away in the past (because I try to resist such corny melodrama in my writing), but I will say I enjoyed it (because I did).

So much time and energy goes into our food -- whether it’s our time and energy or someone else’s. That became clear to me in my month of cheap eating. I’ll continue to be vigilant about not wasting what we buy. Since so much of our money goes to organic produce, I am resolving to put more effort into my own backyard vegetable patch.

But I learned that an anemic food budget doesn’t have to mean scraping by on rice and ramen. It doesn’t have to mean you never see friends, eat organic or indulge in artisanal cheeses, alcohol, or caviar. Only some of those things are true. You can’t have caviar.