Mastercheap: The Big Lessons Learned

I came, I spent $25, and I didn't starve. But what lessons does Mastercheap hold for anyone trying to get better value from their shopping on an ongoing basis?

One of the principles I wanted to adhere to during the Mastercheap experiment was variety, and as such I wouldn't use it as a week-in, week-out shopping model without tweaking it somewhat each time. Nonetheless, several readers have asked for the complete menu plan and shopping list, so I've made that available (including some notes on how you might vary it) in spreadsheet form via Google Docs. That makes it easier to adjust for your own tastes (and any specials you run into), while still keeping track of your overall spending.

Some obvious lessons I learned during this week were that I am very bad at frying eggs and cheap meat pies are less satisfying than a big bowl of pasta. But there are also some handy general principles which are worth bearing in mind if you're trying to cut your food spending, even if you're not stuck on quite such a tight budget. They're especially useful if you live on your own (which is, as I've noted right from the start, more expensive), but they apply even for larger groups.

You can shop cheaply without going to multiple stores. A couple of people have pointed me towards a US experiment which involved one man living on $31 for a whole month. That sounds impressive, but it relied on using a massive supply of discount coupons in a way that simply wouldn't be possible in Australia. It also didn't involve assessing the nutritional impact much — a quick glance at the menu for even the first day suggests sodium would be in over-abundant supply.

My biggest objection to this experiment, however, was that it involved visiting multiple grocery stores every day. That's not at all realistic for most people for simple timing reasons, and doubly so if you don't have a car. Even if you do have a car, the amount of money you spend on petrol would have to be factored in.

A related important lesson from Mastercheap is that at the bargain end of town, there's no real price difference between any of the major supermarkets. That doesn't mean you can't get cheaper fruit and veg at markets, or that specials on a favourite product aren't worth tracking down. But it does mean that you can shop pretty cheaply even if there's only one major supermarket within walking distance.

You can shop cheaply without spending lots of time cooking. No matter how popular TV cooking shows are, not everyone wants to make their own bread or prepare their own elaborate sauces. Making everything from scratch is certainly one potential way of saving money (especially if you buy basic supplies in bulk), but Mastercheap demonstrates that it isn't the only way. Not much I ate was quite as simple as whacking something in a microwave and heating it up, but neither did it require long hours spent in the kitchen. If cooking just isn't your thing or you're short of time for other reasons, you can still feed yourself without spending a fortune.

You can shop cheaply without being massively unhealthy. A risk with many processed and packaged foods is that they're overloaded with sodium and fat and short on protein. The Mastercheap menu did manage to avoid that trap: over the week, I exceeded my daily targets for protein, didn't exceed my maximum totals for sodium and fat, and consumed my recommended kilojoule intake. I'm not saying it's the perfect diet — I'd rather have had more variety on the vegetable front and added some fruit — but it shows that if you read the labels, you can avoid being massively unhealthy on a minimal budget.

You can shop cheaply without massive repetition. I ate the same breakfast every day for Mastercheap, and I did eat a lot of pasta dishes (which I would do normally anyway). But I didn't have to resort to cooking the same main meal every day for a week, and I had daily snacks and a choice of two different types of dessert. Psychologically, that made it much easier to stick to the budget.

Selectively buying store brand goods will save you a lot of money. After my encounter with the Home Brand meat pie, I'll happily agree that not all store brand goods match their branded equivalents. But my experience during this experiment suggests that many of them do, especially at the less processed end of the market. It's worth reiterating that had I shunned store brand items but bought the same quantities of food, I could easily have spent more than twice as much to get exactly the same outcome.

Planning is the key. Lifehacker as a site is a wee bit obsessed with organisation, so this should come as no surprise. But every time I go into a supermarket (and I've done that more often than usual while researching this project), I can't help noticing that the majority of people are not shopping with a list. Not only does that mean you're likely to end up with impulse buys, it also means you're not necessarily going to cover all your needs when you shop. Having a planned-out menu and a list that matches it eliminates both those issues.

Planning also extends to when you get home. One strategy that made my overall week much easier was sorting and prepping my food first thing on Saturday morning. For a small investment of time, preparing most of my subsequent meals was much quicker and easier. While I initially did this to ensure I didn't run out of anything, it made such an improvement to my kitchen activities during the working week that I'll be trying to stick to this model as much as possible in the future.

Thanks again to everyone who contributed comments and ideas during Mastercheap. There have been calls for me to run the project over a longer period; I can't see that happening for scheduling reasons, but I may offer up a month-long budget in the near future. In the meantime, your hints on food shopping savings are welcome, as always, in the comments.

Lifehacker's Mastercheap experiment sees editor Angus Kidman trying to survive with a weekly food budget of just $25.

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Comments

    not sure if its already been posted here or not, but another blog i regularly read is doing something similar to this.

    Heres the link if you want to have a look.

    http://www.thekitchn.com/thekitchn/frugality/the-challenge-eating-for-31-days-on-31-122783

      hmmm maybe i should have read the post before commenting...

    So Angus now that you're off your $25/week diet, what will you do?

    Run to the nearest restaurant and order a big rare steak? Ice cream from B&R? Burger from HJs? You must have missed something =)

    Couldn't agree more about the menu for the week/fortnight. My wife plans ours for 4 adults (3 male 1 female) with the shopping list falling-out from this. We eat very well with lots of variety for around $450-$500 per fortnight inc meat, fresh veggies and sundry groceries. She has around 70-80 recipes that she rotates through. Must admit that the expensive part of the shop tends to be the spices, herbs and condiments such as soy sauce, hosin sauce etc.

    BTW the best recipe book is the Internet :-)

    Bart

    Thank you doing this experiment.
    It made me think about my meal plans.

    Did you have much food left-over?

    is there table spread for another week of meals?

    Thank-you

      All that was left was half a container or so of table spread (so yes, if I'd continued that would have covered me), some mustard and a smattering of muesli. They'll all get used, but probably not this week!

    Great work Angus,

    Really enjoyed watching this challenge. Also kudos for answering everybodies questions.

    I do this pretty much all the time. Luckily I have two jobs that feed me (one, elaborate dinners, 1-2 nights a week, and another that provides a very healthy lunch two days a week)- I spend more on coffee & beer per week than I do on groceries! Priorities ;)

    You can reduce the sodium content of canned beans by draining the liquid, placing the beans into a colander and washing under running water until the water coming off them runs clear.

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