The Lifehacker Mastercheap FAQ

The Lifehacker Mastercheap FAQ

The plan for Mastercheap was pretty comprehensively covered in the original announcement post and the shopping list, but some issues keep popping up in the comments (and when I meet people in the real world). Here’s a concise summary of what I’m doing, what I’m not doing, and why.

What are the rules for Mastercheap?
I have to feed myself for a week on a budget of exactly $25, eating three regular meals a day. I can’t use any existing supplies in my pantry, and I can’t assign costs proportionally (no saying “I’ve spent $5 on rice but I’ll only use $1 worth this week”).

Within those constraints, I have to try and get as much variety as possible (while sticking to foods I’m personally prepared to eat), and I have to try and eat as healthily as possible. In particular, I have to aim for 9000kj a day and at least 55 grams of protein, but ideally no more than 1500mg of sodium or 90g of fat.

Couldn’t you feed yourself on that budget just by buying lots of 2-minute noodles?
Yes, I could: but it would be repetitious, overload me with sodium, not do my health any good, and not give me many useful lessons to pass on to others.

Wouldn’t you have gotten a better deal shopping at Aldi (or anywhere but Woolworths)?
In short, no: I did extensive research before this project, and for budget-price items all the major supermarkets charge the same price. Woolworths is my nearest supermarket, and that’s why I chose it; had it been a Coles or a Franklins or an Aldi, the outcome would have been pretty similar. See this much more extensive discussion on that point.

Surely people living on a tight-budget would do better to buy stuff in bulk, not just on a week-by-week basis?
Bulk goods are certainly cheaper — but buying in bulk assumes an initial availability of cash which wouldn’t necessarily be reflected in practice for those in poverty. If I was sticking to this budget for a long period, bulk goods would certainly play into it more. However, I wanted to see how much variety I could achieve in a single week, which buying massive quantities of a single item rather works against.

Are you accepting free meals at work events or from family or friends?
No. I want to see how effectively you can eat as a single person with this budget, with no supplemental means of support. So no free meals, coffees, drinks, or anything else, whatever the source. And no grabbing condiments from restaurants or take-out joints.

But surely anyone on this budget for real would grab every free item they could get hold of?
Yes, they would — but they probably wouldn’t get as many opportunities as I do. In any case, what I’m enacting is a worst-case scenario. If that’s manageable (and all the evidence suggests it is), then any free options could only represent a further improvement.

Can you add herbs or fruits or other stuff you’ve picked in the wild?
No. Mostly for the reasons described above, but also because there really isn’t anything like that near where I live.

Wouldn’t it have been cheaper to make your own pasta/bake your own bread?
I’m not convinced the ingredients would necessarily be cheaper, especially for multi-grain bread; by the time you factor in power for the oven, I’m even less convinced. And that’s leaving aside that the results would be considerably less tasty. Also, I figure a budget that doesn’t make those demands might have more to impart to students or others who are forced to live on this kind of money.

Isn’t this budget completely unethical because it includes cage eggs/goods imported from China/store brand goods/jelly?
The short, harsh and true response? People genuinely forced to live on this kind of budget often can’t afford those kind of scruples. Given the choice between not eating enough and eating an egg from a battery hen, I’ll pick the egg.

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


  • By the way, Angus, you might want to check your local fruitmarkets for special deals: they often offer a discounted price for the items which expire soon or don’t look good enough for sale.
    For example, I often buy a pack of celery sticks for $1, a bucket of bananas for $2, a pack of beetroots (3-5 pieces) for $1.5-2, a quarter of cabbage for $0.50, etc.
    And these fruits/veggies are actually absolutely edible; they may just not look perfect 🙂 Thus you will increase your daily fibre intake, which is undoubtedly good for your health.

    • I’d happily consume slightly dodgy-looking vegetables — assuming there was any money left in the kitty! Between the museli and the 150g of veg and the multi-grain bread, I’m not worried about my fibre intake, I must say.

  • … and continuing generating ideas 🙂
    You could cook a huge saucepan of soup and it would be your nutritious dinner for 3-5 days.
    I have a bunch of various soup recipes, and the budget for each pot is around $5-7 (calculations based on standard prices from my local fruitmarket and their specials as well)

    • I’m certainly thinking about food more than I normally would, but I can’t say that’s making it heaps more challenging. I think this is where the variety factor is important: if I was eating exactly the same thing for each main meal, I’d be much more conscious of how restricted my options were.

  • Hey Angus,
    I currently support 6 people on a weekly budget of about $85-$100 depending on the week and we get by fine. We are saving up as we have just moved interstate from some very bad financial situations into a group situation. Once we save some cash up we will bulk buy from Costco/Online stores and save on all the little costs but at this point the situation closely reflects your test. We live mainly on larger quantities of pasta and low grade pasta sauce. This is very do-able and while it does not have the variety which one needs for a balanced diet living on it for a month or so has not been too bad. We should have enough money to get some bulk items in the next fortnight. We also have to go by what is closest as we do not drive. In Victoria there is a store called Not Quite Right, or NQR for short. This sort of store can provide those missing bits and savings.
    Best of luck.

    • Any target would be somewhat arbitrary. I wanted one as _low_ as possible, $25 was a nice round number, and it roughly equates to one take-out cup of coffee a day.

  • Man you need to just go to South Melbourne markets on the weekend, you will do that easily…

    Bag of carrots – $1
    Bag of Veges x3 – $3
    Bread – $2
    Bag of Pasta – $2
    Milk 2 litres – $2
    Mixed Cereal $4
    Crushed Tomatoes – $3
    Yoghurt – $2.50

    There you go…. thats your budget I have you in under $20 go get yourself a twix or something and live wildly. but if you eat heaps of meat you are going to die…


    • Interesting, thanks very much for the data.

      I’m presuming (for the sake of discussion) that the quantities here are the same as on my shopping list — if they’re not (e.g. if the pasta is 500g, which seems to me the most common retail size), then it doesn’t stack up. But presuming that and leaving aside the fact I don’t live in Melbourne :-), some observations:

      * There isn’t anything to spread on my bread
      * There’s no eggs, and hence a lot less protein than in my version. Also not clear which veges might be sandwich fillings and which ones are separate meals and how much they collectively weigh.
      * There’s nothing in the way of desert other than the yogurt (not clear if that will last a week, and very repetitious even if it does)

      On the whole, I’m sure that this wouldn’t give me the same variety of meals as my own list, and I’m not entirely sure it would fully cover the meal count. It self-evidently won’t cover the protein requirements, and I suspect it wouldn’t cover the daily kilojoule count. A bag of lentils would solve both issues to some extent, to be sure, but I’m personally not keen on them. Adding eggs would also help, but would also push the price up by at least $4, I’d think.

      It does suggest that a similarly priced list could be constructed via market shopping — but by the time you deal with the notes above, it’s still going to come in at a similar price, I reckon. It would definitely be a more appealing list for people who don’t want pre-packaged food, and a starting point for contemplation for those who do live near a market (I don’t).

      • I should also point out that at supermarket prices, the cereal and pasta are cheaper and the milk is only a few cents more (albeit UHT). And if the crushed tomatoes is just a jar of passata, that’s much cheaper at the supermarket too.

  • Overall Mastercheap is just a great idea. I’m very glad you went down the healthy/varied route, it makes it a lot more useful than if you had’ve just bought mi goreng in bulk.

  • I can recommend looking at what I like to think of as ‘not quite mexican’ just a few spices (paprika smokey and hot, cumin), some red kidney beans, water, stock (i use powder), capsicum (admittedly not cheap at this time of year), tomato, and whatever the hell else you want to add you can make a pretty respectable meal for yourself for about a week, and it freezes and reheats quite well.

    I also make things like dhal using red lentils, some spices, ginger, garlic, a can of chopped tomatos. Again this makes heaps and can be frozen easily.

    I often live off $25 a week, and by cooking that once every so often and eating as much/often as I can stand before I freeze the rest.

    Red kidney beans, white beans, lentils, etc are cheap (in a can about $1.60, or a huge bag of the dried variety for $2ish) source of protein for when you can’t afford meat.

  • Personally I think you should be budgeting for a fortnight because if your being paid any amount of money it is usually fortnightly and also what you buy one week may last into the next week.

    I myself budget myself per fortnight cause of this very reason and makes budgeting a lot easier because you know what you have and how much is left and if you need to buy more of it. I guess an example of this could be cheese. Maybe you buy 500g block for a week, you might have some left over during the next week. But say you do eat 500grams of cheese in that week buying 1kg block of cheese during a fortnight is going to be cheaper than 2 blocks of 500g cheese over 2 weeks.

    So maybe you will find that budgeting for a fortnight could be much more money efficient than week by week

    Anyways I love reading about this sort of thing as I am always looking for ways to improve my own budgeting skills

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