Mastercheap: Eating For $25 A Week

Supermarkets claim food is cheaper than ever, but just how inexpensively can a single person eat? Lifehacker editor Angus Kidman sets himself the challenge of eating healthily for a whole week with a budget of just $25 — no extras allowed.

Getting on for two decades back when I was an impoverished university student, I found myself living away from home on a very minimal budget. By the time I'd paid rent and set aside a little for other household and study bills, my total sum left over for food was just $10 a week. That was a lot less than my housemates were prepared to spend, so I had to come up with a way of feeding myself, and only myself, for that amount.

Was that doable? Yes — though it meant I didn't really eat enough, the food was pretty boring and very repetitive, and I scrounged free meals from friends and family at every possible moment. As soon as I worked out how to fit a job into my university schedule, I upped the food budget and breathed a sigh of relief.

Nonetheless, I've often wondered since if that approach could be sustained again, especially since I now know a little more about cooking and nutrition than I did at the time. Supermarkets also claim that food has become cheaper in many cases, so it should be possible to eat kind of reasonably at those prices.

That kind of thinking has led me to the "Mastercheap" project: seeing if I can come up with a week's worth of meals for $25 that meet basic nutritional requirements (enough energy and protein, not too much fat and salt) and which don't drive me completely up the wall. I won't be doing this for more than a week, but I do want to try and come up with a model that I could keep using if financial necessity dictated, and see if I can permanently adjust some of my food shopping habits.

The experiment will take place from this Saturday, July 17, through to Friday July 23. In tomorrow's Loaded column I'll reveal my shopping list for the week. From Sunday, I'll run a daily post covering the menu from the day before, how the project is going and some of the tricks I'll use to try and survive a what can only be described as sustenance diet. I'll also be posting occasional updates on the go through my Twitter account, using the tag #mastercheap.

Setting the budget

$10 a week didn't go very far in the early 1990s, and it would go even less distance these days. Apart from sounding reasonably neat as a figure, I settled on $25 for a couple of reasons. My brief experiments with trying to create a $20 a week budget suggested that was pretty hard to do without resorting to eating 2-minute noodles for every single meal. $25 falls just short of $3.60 a day, or a bit less than $1.20 a meal. That daily figure also demonstrates that buying a take-out cup of coffee every day could easily cost you $25 a week. I want to entirely sustain myself for the same amount (hence no dining out, no visiting friends or family for meals, and no grabbing snacks at work meetings).

My nutritional targets are to consume around 9000 kilojoules a day, with 55 grams of protein, no more than 1500mg of salt and no more than 90 grams of fat — all reasonable targets for a man of my height, weight and activity level. Lots of cheap food uses ridiculous amounts of salt, so that required some careful label reading. In practice, actually getting to the kilojoule and protein targets proved quite challenging.

No existing supplies

In order to replicate my student experience, none of the stuff that's already in my cupboard is allowed to be used. The main challenge this poses is flavouring: you can buy a packet of pasta pretty cheaply, but the herbs used to flavour a sauce for it can easily cost more. That certainly would make the meal more appealing, but for the sake of this exercise it has to be considered supplies (and money) I just don't have.

No bulk budgeting

On a related note, I also think it would be cheating to spend more than $25 and then just "use" $25 worth of stuff. That is, a pinch of spice might only be worth a few cents, but you have to spend at least a dollar to buy it in a packet, or a few dollars if you want it in a jar.

Recipe designers use this kind of calculation all the time. The $10 to feed a family of four recipes promoted by Coles fall squarely into this category, for instance; in many cases, they resort to saying "you'll have this in your pantry" and excluding those elements from price calculations. To draw on the linked example: you probably do have olive oil in your pantry, but you might well not have red wine. But if you're missing either, you'll be spending more $10 to make the meal.

In practice, that kind of spending doesn't matter if your budget has some elasticity. But if it doesn't — and that's the case for many people, either through force of circumstances or electing to try and save — then it's not logical to calculate costs in that way.

For our purposes, I can only spend $25, and in practice I need to eat most of what I buy. (With my particular budget, all I expect to have left over is some margarine, teabags and mustard.) If you were running this kind of budget week in and week out, you'd undoubtedly allow for buying goods that would be useable over several weeks.

Solo eating is pricier

The cheapest way to eat is to buy supplies in large amounts, but buying in bulk doesn't work if you're looking at a very restricted budget and only aiming to feed a single person. Or to put it another way: it's possibly slightly easier to feed four people for $100 than to feed one person for $25.

I live on my own, so I can't experiment with how that would work in practice, but my pre-research definitely confirmed the evident fact that most food is cheaper if you buy it in bulk. The problem with buying large supplies for my purposes is that it would instantly condemn me to eating almost exactly the same thing at every single meal, as well as reducing the impact of my food dollar on what I can consume straight away. So that won't be happening much.

Check in tomorrow to see how I've decided to spend my $25 for the week ahead. Let's go!


Comments

    Looking forward to this.

    You can go a long way by avoiding supermarkets for fresh food. Better still, go to the markets and you'll do really well.

    good luck.. try tuna, rice & chilli powder.. fed me cheaply for 3 x years of art school..

      I shouldn't be surprised but I thought I was the only one who ate this

    Would spending $50 for 2 weeks worth of food be ok? If so you could bulk buy, cook and freeze the spares (especially casserole, soup or pasta).

    Also, watch out for "specials" at Woolworths - I've caught two different stores charging full price for meat with a day left on it instead the marked price (eg $25 instead of $10).

    How many 2 minute noodles can you buy for $25?

      at aldi you could buy 115 packets of 2 minute noodles. 5 packs @ $1.09.

      And they taste pretty good too, much much better than the coles/woolies basic brands.

        Same price applies at Coles and Woolies. I haven't done a taste comparison test (though I'd actually be surprised to find they weren't the same stuff packaged differently). But as I've noted elsewhere, 2 minute noodles don't offer a varied or healthy diet.

          And if I'm being a pedant, 115 packets would cost $25.07. You'd have to settle for 110 and spend the other odd-dollar on something else. :-)

    I eagerly await this

    Interested to see the results of this one, Angus.

    There was a recent article about a guy in the U.S. who managed to spend just $30 in 30 days on food - and donated a boatload to charity while he was about it.

    It seems that the coupon/cashback thing is significantly more generous than over here. Not sure you could achieve that in Australia.

      Yep, coupon culture is much more embedded stateside -- but in any case, I figure it's instructive to work out what you can do without necessarily relying on special prices.

    $1.20 a meal? I foresee a lot of (cheap white) rice and (cheap white) bread in your diet Angus. I'd like to see how you're going to fit a decent amount of fresh fruit and vegies in on that budget too. 3 + 5 serves a day, right?

    Id like to see this experiment using real dollar values (outside just selecting $25) but taking some unfortunate persons dole money minus typical expenses, and see how someone unemployed is expected to live. Daily nutritional breakdowns would be great too.
    Both for the above & Angus' own $25 attempt.
    Can you also make mention of how your feeling, mood, lethargy, willingness to do things. As they will fluctuate esp. if u remove stimulants (sugar/coffee). Goodluck.

    Mi Goreng Box!!!

    Your local Asian supermarket will be your best friend in the coming week. The stuff in the fridge ain't so cheap, but the packaged, dry stuff is usually pretty cheap.

      True -- but it's also often in larger sizes than I want.

      Definitely agree with this!!
      and the independent street ones are much cheaper than the Miracle ones you find inside Westfields

    This will be interesting Angus,

    One approach may be to look at 4 ingredient or less recipes made popular by these ladies, http://www.4ingredients.com.au/ , there are plenty of these style recipes around.

    See how many recipes you can have that have cross over ingredients, so you are buying minimal produce, keeping the cost down, whilst still eating healthily.

    All the best with your plan.

    Please could you post your meal plan
    and perhaps your recipes??

    As soon as you get it sorted

      Meal plan will go up each day as I do it.

    very interested to see how this goes, for some i guess it could be use as an incentive to reduce calorie intake (for those who consume more than the necessary amount) as well as saving a lot of money in the long run. There should be more articles on this for uni students to make the most of their dollar, and have money left over

    I often spend around $30 a week for my groceries as a uni student. It is very feasible since i can buy rice or pasta whichever is cheapest atm as carbs. Canned tuna for around 3 dollars will serve 4 meals, Fruits and veg from local market and canned kidney beans for around a dollar at coles. I can also get 2l milk plus cereal for around 5 dollars. Drink alot of water and eat alot of fruits as snacks. Sustainable and healthy!

    I'm eagerly awaiting your menu plans - I'm participating in the upcoming "Live Below the Line" challenge (which is $2 a day for 5 days. So yes, $10 for 5 days) and I'm trying to work out my menu plan.
    I'm vegan so no canned tuna for me. I'm going to try the asian supermarket for a lot of my carbs, and green grocers for fruit & veg. Hopefully I'll be able to avoid the major supermarket chains altogether.

    Do you drink coffee? That's one thing I'm worried about. I only have 1 cup a day, but if I miss it for 3+ days I get major headaches.... Not sure how to get around that!

    I'm on a budget similar to this. I find myself eating canned tuna for lunch reasonably often. I do, however, have the benefit of cruising over to mum's or the in-laws place for at least two evening meals a week.

    I've lived on rice, tuna and 2 minute noodles ($2 for ten packs? Hell yeah!) for a long time. I can get by on $5, just eat a lot of rice and drink a heap of water.

    Not really great for you, but you can survive.

      After reading the artcile in full, I withdraw my semi-critical comments.

      *Healthy* living on $25 a week looks interesting.

        Its going to turn out to be healthy-ish, I suspect, but yes, that's the aim.

    In our household we've occasionally done a month's worth of food for two people for $400 - which works out to a similar cost. It's cheaper cause we're buying in bulk (we have a giant freezer for storing pre-boxed meals) but more expensive because there's a "delicious snack" allowance, and because we buy theoretically reusable (too lazy!) takeaway containers to freeze the food in each month.

      That still comes out at $50 per person per week though -- twice as much as I'm spending. (The only things in my freezer from the shop are the pie and the bread.)

    I hate those assumptions that I have stuff already in my cupboard. If you are going to assume that I already have cinnamon, why not assume that I also have half a cow in the freezer.

    Can't wait to read more.

      I think it is acceptable to assume you will have food in your pantry.Just have your budget start 'beginning today'.Living cheaply involves willingness to visit more than one store. We never go to get groceries, but shop for sales. Occassionally we are lucky to be at Woolies or Coles when they announce "fill the bag for $2-3" We stuff it as much as possible with fruit and veggies.Mid afternoon is when you will get meat cheapest.Some stores are better at marketdowns than others, and you will need to do research.I never consider the price per kilo, but how many meals can I get from this pkg.Recently purchased a price reduced $5 chicken.We've had toasted chicken sandwiches, chicken w/bottled stirfry sauce and rice,chicken w/gravy and veggies. The carcass has been boiled, meat removed,loaded up with lots of veggies, thickened with a bit of flour,spices. That will give us another 2-3 meals. Breakfast is a cup of store brand (.99c bag )of 10 minute oatmeal. Chop up an apple and throw it while cooking, dash of cinnamon and you have a satisfying breakfast for pennies.Go to a local bakery and ask if they have "chook bread". Usually they sell it for $5 and it will have about 10 loaves of assorted day old goods. Pancakes, made from scratch, are really cheap to make.Stewed fruit, or fresh strawberries as a topping..yumm

    I worked this out for myself, too, with a few assumptions (like I started with absolutely nothing in the cupboards, fridge, etc).

    link: http://triskaidekan.livejournal.com/811.html

    The post includes exactly what I bought for the $25, and my meal plans for the week.

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