Mastercheap: The $25 Shopping List

The key to the Mastercheap project — feeding myself for $25 for a whole week — is making the most of my limited funds. So what's on the shopping list?

Let me say up front that there are potentially lots of ways of skinning this particular cat. One obvious option is filling up your trolley in your local fruit and vegetable market and not buying anything else. Another is to cook up a gigantic mess of some kind of sustaining stew-and-carbohydrates combination and eat that at every single meal. And another is the student classic of buying all the 2-minute noodles in sight and overdosing on sodium.

However, if this kind of approach was ever to be sustainable beyond a single week, I figured it would need to incorporate as much variety as was feasible, and — to whatever extent possible — to incorporate the kinds of foods I actually like. It's much easier to stick to a meal plan that's at least vaguely appealing.

I'm a massive pasta fan, so I made that the basis of many of my meals. Other people might well have chosen rice to perform a similar role (really cheap rice generally involves buying in extreme bulk, though). Similarly, I chose a slightly more expensive (though hardly luxurious) muesli for breakfast, where the cheapest option would have been cornflakes, since the muesli would be more filling and more psychologically satisfying.

This plan does not allow for improvisation. My entire menu for the week has been specified, right down to how much milk I can have on my breakfast cereal. It's not necessarily a menu anyone else would fancy, but the principles it embodies — start with cheap goods and plan carefully — could easily be adopted to your own tastes.

Planning the list

While I only did the actual shopping this week, I started planning for this project some months ago by roaming the aisles of my nearest supermarket, identifying all the really cheap food on offer, and then working on menu options using those cheap elements.

Ultimately, I shopped at Woolworths for this exercise simply because they're the nearest supermarket to me and I don't have a car. However, cross-checking the prices at Coles, Franklins and Aldi suggested that for most of these bargain-priced, store-brand goods, the pricing was identical or near-identical.

That's not say there weren't differences. Coles had cheaper bread, for instance, and Franklins (now being merged into IGA) had cheaper teabags, but the differences weren't anywhere near big enough to justify walking for several hours to visit the nearest locations.

Aldi's tendency to supply goods in bulk made it less appealing for me as a solitary shopper, and the same applies to the local Asian supermarkets I checked. My recent trip to Perth also reinforced how much prices vary state-by-state, with many items on this list costing noticeably more in WA.

The list

Here's what I bought and how much I paid for it. For everything except the bread and cucumber, the goods are Home Brand products (since that's what's cheapest at Woolworths). (Click for a full-size version.)

Many of these are budget options I wouldn't consider otherwise. UHT milk is cheaper than fresh milk (I drew the line at powdered milk). Similarly, the eggs are caged; going free range or barn-laid blows the cost right out. And there's no room here for adopting an organic or Australia-only policy (on checking, 12 of the 18 products turned out to be made in Australia, but that was in no way the result of deliberate planning).

Fruit, veg, meat, desserts, peanuts, tea

When I first started experimenting with this budget, I figured I'd try and leave four or five bucks spare to spend at my local fruit and vegetable place, picking whatever was cheapest that week. In practice, I could never get the numbers low enough to make that seem feasible.

By far the cheapest way to buy a range of vegetables turned out to be one kilogram of frozen mixed vegetables for $1.59, so that's what I spent, and that (along with cucumbers for occasional sandwiches, tomato and kidney beans in the pasta sauces, and dried fruit in the muesli) was as good an option as I could come up with F&V wise. This isn't ideal — far from it — but it could be worse; back in university, I was much slacker, and fruits and vegetables rarely made an appearance at all.

Because the vegetables in question (carrots, potato, cauliflower, broccoli, peas and corn) are pretty bland and I was going to have to eat half a dozen serves of them, I spent a long time scouring the shelves for a cheap-ish, not ludicrously salty flavour enhancing option. Hence the mustard on the list.

It's rather less surprising how little meat there is on offer. The cheapest staple protein option was eggs, and the one meat-related blow out is a single frozen meat pie that I'm treating myself with later in the week.

A calorific logic underpinned the inclusion of two really cheap dessert options — jelly and a packet cake — and a daily handful of peanuts as a snack. I actually don't eat dessert that regularly, but those turned out to be easier ways of getting myself near the appropriate kilojoule total for most days, as well as making most of my meals nominally two-course affairs. Having a daily snack option also meant I'd have something to nibble on and hopefully crush any lurking hunger pangs, and nuts were a relatively cheap and filling alternative.

The lack of pantry staples meant that there's rather less cooking (in the creative sense) going on than I would have liked. I have no pretensions to elaborate cuisine, but in practice the most complicated thing I'll be doing for much of the week is boiling up pasta and heating a sauce to go with it.

Arguably the biggest indulgence is the box of 100 teabags. A well-established part of my writing cycle is constantly sipping on hot drinks, and the bulk supply of tea turned out to be the easiest way of incorporating that (smaller quantities of tea often cost more). I could have drunk nothing but water and spent that money on fruit, but in all honesty I don't think I'd last the week in that case. As it is, I'll be drinking black tea rather than my customary cuppa with a splash of milk.

Let the experiment begin

It's one thing to plan a weekly menu like this; it's another one to live up to it. While I don't want to abandon ship prematurely, there's a small part of me that suspects by Wednesday I'll be crazed with either hunger or boredom. The only way to find out is to do it. I'm ready, and the first live post will go up on Sunday, detailing my first day on the Mastercheap diet. As always, hints and tips are welcome in the comments — anyone got an idea for what to do with the spare 15 cents?

Lifehacker's weekly Loaded column looks at better ways to manage (and stop worrying about) your money.


    For some reason I can't view the shopping list image?

      Loading OK for me -- try Control-Shift-R to refresh it.

    Look at that poor cucumber sitting there on its own with all the Home Brand packaged stuff. I always like having lots of fresh fruit/vegies (especially tomatoes!) so I don't really envy you Angus.

    I think you're wrong about cornflakes though. Muesli is far more filling to me - I eat a small bowl of it every morning, whereas I could eat a load of cornflakes.

      I chose muesli because it's more filling and hence I need less milk!

        Right, upon re-reading your article I'm not sure how I got it the wrong way around. Good point with the milk though ;)

    I would love to see how you find the taste/eating experience of the Home Brand products compared to the named brand products you might normally buy.

      That will certainly enter into the write-ups.

    72c pie? Oh that sounds delicious :(

      Exactly what I thought... And it's supposed to be a "treat"??
      Leave out the 72c Pie and with leftover 15c you have 87c, then every 2 weeks you can probably buy a nice, $1.74, pie that will be nice to eat and will actually be a treat!

        But if I cancel the pie, that's a rather large chunk of one dinner gone altogether.

          I agree, if you left out the 0.72c pie, you could've bought 1kg of supermarket-brand flour (plain or SR) for $0.79 and used that to make a whole bunch of tasty snacks i.e. flat bread using flour, water, salt = easy! And instead of the $1.18 for Mustard, you could've bought Raisin Bread for breakfast!
          Also, Aldi has cake mixes for $0.75 but they are mostly flour so you'd be better off buying SR flour & sugar and making your dessert from scratch!
          Good effort on the frugal front though!

    This was a great idea. I'm interested to see how it goes.

    I do a chicken soup vaguely regularly, where I get six large serves for about $10 (easily stretchable to 7 serves). I use nothing more than chicken wings, carrot, celery, spuds and parsley (which you could forgo, saving yourself $1.50). Oh, and water.

    The wings are dirt cheap and create a nice, hearty, gelatinous broth. I pull them out after cooking and strip off a surprisingly large amount of meat, which goes back in the pot.

    Obviously, for Angus it would mean eating the same dinner (or lunch) 7 times, but IMO I think it would be preferable to a lot of that packaged stuff.

    So you're promoting severe animal cruelty over the sake of less than $2?

    You can get Select brand free range eggs for not much more than the cage eggs.

    But hey, try telling this dude that a lifetime of torment and suffering is worth the extra dollar-something:

      All that picture is missing is bacon

      Free range eggs, in this case are almost twice the price.

      I think "free range" is a bit of a consumer rip off myself. It shouldn't cost twice as much and there are stories, from bodies like Choice, indicating that things labelled "free range" aren't that much better.

      Although, whether or not they're actually free range eggs is a valid questions. Australia's capacity to produce free range eggs falls short of our supply of them by a fair margin.

      If you can't afford free range eggs, you can't afford eggs. Simple as that.

      I live on about $30 a week and eat really well. Cheap protein is readily available in chick peas, lentils etc and you only need a bit of salt and lemon juice to make them taste amazing! I make my own bread and gnocchi for about $3 for a week's supply, buy fresh fruit and veg that is cheap-about $10, and buy two big bag of dried pulses about every weeks for $5. Animal products are so expensive and so bad for you.

        To be honest, I'm highly dubious that I could purchase the ingredients for a whole loaf of bread for $3. And I don't like lentils. Personal preference, but there it is.

        Bread = Flour (Home Brand, 1Kg=$1.39), water and yeast (Tandaco,7gx5 sachets $2.39) plus some gas/electricity to bake and time to mix (10 minutes), raise (30-40 minutes) and bake (20-30 minutes).
        Prices according to Woolworths online
        Buying in bulk (particularly for yeast) would drop the price dramatically.

        Such ingredients would make you two big loaves (as large or larger than commercial loaves) of bread with yeast left for another 3 loaves.

          Doesn't stand as a direct comparison, since the bread I purchased was multi-grain (and thus a tad healthier than plain white bread -- though I realise this isn't evident from the docket). Would also presumably need a little salt, which seems to be a universal ingredient in bread recipes.

          And the fact remains, it would still cost me more than the single loaf I purchased, thus _depriving me of other foods on the list_. As with many of the bulk goods suggestions, I'd end up with food that was cheaper in terms of unit cost but would reduce variety.

      The price difference for free-range is, as you say, around $2. That's a big percentage of the overall budget.

      As I've said, this is largely about buying the cheapest available options. As such, I've bought the cage eggs. Other people would doubtless make different decisions. Hyperbole certainly won't change my mind.

      You want the ones that have the RSPCA sticker on it which indicates it's real free range.

    I think the no bulk buying option is not sustainable and if people really are living that way, then it's more their ignorance than strict financial rulings. I know from my uni days, if something I had learned to live off cheaply was on special, I would find a way to pay the little extra that week to reap the savings the following weeks. Basics like dried spices and stock cubes were always on hand to add to an otherwise bland meal.

    Great experiment, I don't envy you though in the slightest.

    Interesting that the ATO considers the pie and the HB PNTS thing (couldn't decipher what that was) as non-necessities and therefore charged you GST on them.

      PNTS = peanuts FYI.

    As a suggestion Angus, did you look at making your own pasta? I honestly am not sure about the cost effectiveness of it but one would imagine that it would be cheaper than buying the premade stuff.

      I suspect the flour to make a kilo of pasta would cost more than $1.19, and that's before adding the eggs.

    I used hot black tea in my mulsli when trekking in Nepal. It's tastes better then sounds, and you could use your surplus milk for a white tea hit later in the day =)

    Good luck, stay sane.

      Try cooking the muesli with some water - just like making porridge. It's much more filling and uses less milk that way.

        It's a noteworthy strategy, but one I won't be adopting myself -- purely because I don't like porridge!

    You've added an unnecessary layer of complexity to your plan by spending $25 at the most expensive supermarket of all.

    You could've got more for your buck shopping at IGA

      There's actually no IGA particularly near my house. But the couple I checked charged much more for the items on this list than Woolworths did.

    Do it next week but use Aldi instead...

      Angus already stated why he didn't go to Aldi.

    A good way to up your calorie intake is to add a good slurp of oil to your pasta. That's what I do when hiking. Not sure if you can buy 15 cents worth though.

    Maybe it's because I live in Perth, but I've only ever seen UHT milk cheaper than fresh when it's on special.
    I wish it wasn't the case, I much prefer to buy UHT for the odd weeks when I miss breakfast for a couple of days in a row and my fresh milk goes off before I finish it.

    A friend of mine did somethign similar to this - spend only $5 a day on food.

    With the left over money, you could save it up, after a year you could spoil yourself with a more expensive milk option.

    I think you could get more variety and enjoy tastier food by doing a fortnightly shop and cooking bulk. Using lentils or chickpeas as a basis would definitely help.
    E.g lentil and vegetable soup, sausage and chickpea casserole, vegetable risotto. Freeze leftovers and reheat the following week.

      Longer periods would definitely afford more variety, I don't doubt. The challenge is to see how much variety I could cram into a single week (working on the assumption of starting from scratch with no money or supplies whatsoever).

    Would be interesting to see you buy identical items at different stores and turn this whole experiment into a pricing war article.

      and then we could set up a website to publish those prices and call it GroceryWatch....oh....

    Will you be accepting any free food whilst on this, or will you try and just stick to the food you have set out in your plan?
    Also, is grabbing any herbs or fruits that might be growing in your area allowed?
    I know there are many houses around my area that grow rosemary as a feature. if you had this available, you could possible crack open the pie and sprinkle some in to kick up the taste. Although i suspect that looking inside the pie first might put you off your treat.

      No free food -- it's far too common in a working journo's life, but it's hardly a representative test if I'm getting fed elsewhere.

      In this context, I also don't think I'd go for any herbs growing in the area (not that I'm immediately aware of any).

      If this was a permanent budget, I'd undoubtedly be doing both as often as possible. But I can't answer "can I survive and not go mad solely on this budget?" if I add other elements into the equation.

    Any plans to put this in front of a dietitian and get their comments? It all seems surprisingly sustainable and well rounded, but I wouldn't be surprised if it were missing a particular, important vitamin it took a trained professional to spot.

      Will look into that (though dietary intake is more relevant over a longer period, I suspect).

    Angus, you could also use tofu as a source of proteins. It's cheap (like $1.2-1.6) and it's really good it stir-fries.
    Or you can just slice it and fry as a steak (or use some additions

      My experience of tofu has always been that it needs other stuff with it (flavourings etc.) to be palatable for me. And other stuff is in short supply on this amount of money! For instance, buying the ingredients on that linked recipe would chew up a lot of the budget -- more than I think the tofu would justify.

    Great article, I'm really impressed with how far you stretched that $25, I'd be really interested to see how much further you could stretch that budget over 6 - 8 weeks by buying some of those items in bulk....

    No salt, pepper, sugar? you need some of this as well, makes a big difference to your meals!

      I've never liked adding salt to my food, and in fact one of the challenges of buying super-cheap stuff is to keep sodium at reasonable levels. I'm running a daily total of how much sodium I consume, so I hardly need to deliberately increase it.

      Ditto with sugar: don't like it in hot drinks or on cereal. Which is indeed lucky, as it means I don't need to buy it.

      Pepper I would like very much -- but when I priced black pepper, the cheapest container I could get was $1.10. In a battle between it and the mustard, the mustard won, because it makes a much bigger difference to the frozen vegetables. But if I'd had to trim this list back -- say if some of the other staples had gone up in price -- the mustard would quite possibly have been the next thing to go.

    Speaking of pepper.. and i realise this may be bordering on the ridiculous .. but you could try one of those spice shops that store in bulk and sell by the measure.. ask them to serve out $0.15 worth of pepper and grind it up.. you could be pleasantly surprised..

      That could work. The other option I've considered is buying a rather small red chilli.

        another option is taking the free sachets of salt, ketchup, pepper and sugar from your local mcdonalds.

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