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.
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.