Mastercheap Raw: Cooking For A Week On A Total Budget Of Just $25

The Mastercheap project is back! Once again I have to survive with a total food budget of $25 for a week, and to add an extra challenge, this time I have to try and make everything from scratch. This is Mastercheap Raw. There will be many potatoes.

Picture by ripplestone garden

Long-time readers will remember that I conducted the original Mastercheap back in July 2010. The idea was fairly simple: I had a $25 food budget for the week, and I had to feed myself as healthily as possible on that sum.

$25 was chosen as a round number that roughly equates to a cup of coffee a day. It was also an absolute constraint: I couldn't use any pantry supplies that I already had, and I couldn't use any form of proportional budgeting (buying a $5 bag of rice and then saying I had only used "$2 worth" wasn't on). The $25 was all I could spend, no trickery.

Mastercheap was an interesting experience, a great success and attracted a lot of comments. Fundamentally, it demonstrated that you could have a reasonably varied and nutritious diet with three meals a day while spending no more than $1.20 (on average) for each meal, and that you didn't have to live on nothing but 2-minute noodles to achieve that. It wasn't the most spectacularly varied menu, but it wasn't the same meal for lunch and dinner 14 times either. And despite many dire predictions, I didn't starve. I haven't lived on that budget since, but I have adapted

That didn't mean it couldn't be tweaked or improved. One common objection raised at the time was that many items are even cheaper if you buy them in bulk; that a budget for a week was less useful than for a month; and that it would be cheaper if you were cooking for more than one person. All those assertions are true, but they somewhat missed the point. I was putting myself in the toughest, worst-case scenario. If it was doable at that scale, it would be even easier (and offer better choices) when you could buy in bulk, cook for multiple people, budget over a month, and accept meals from friends or work when they were offered.

The other comment that came up quite frequently was that it should be possible to spend even less and have a more varied listing by buying more fresh ingredients. The original Mastercheap shopping list wasn't actually that heavy on highly processed foods: the only thing I think really fell into that category was a frozen meat pie (which I wouldn't buy again) and a packet cake mix. But it was often suggested that if I baked my own bread or made my own pasta or cooked my own cakes or just bought lots of vegetables that I could have come up with a better and healthier menu for the same money.

I wasn't totally convinced initially, but after a little research, I figured that trying something more like a raw food approach might be an interesting twist on the original experiment. With two years having passed, I also wanted to see how much prices for bargain-basement food had changed in the interim.

So next week I'm doing Mastercheap Raw. It's the same basic rules and $25 budget, but everything I buy has to be, in essence, a single ingredient. If I want bread, I'll have to make it myself. Ditto pasta, or anything else. All the other restrictions apply: no dining out; no begging meals from friends; nothing but what I can prepare myself.

One point I'll make in advance: this menu, like the one before it, is designed to suit my tastes. You can't eat steak on a miniscule budget, but if you really don't like lentils, there's no point using them as an alternative. Whatever the budget, if you fill your shopping list with items you don't actually want to consume, you won't stick to it. That also means there's no universal menu everyone should adopt. Others faced with the same challenge would doubtless make different choices. I don't imagine too many people would adopt the exact list I'm trying this time around (or the one I took up in 2010), but there should be ideas for money-saving in there which everyone can adopt.

Tomorrow, I'll reveal my full shopping list (I even got change!). The full diary starts next Monday. As ever, comments and suggestions are welcome.

Lifehacker’s Mastercheap Raw experiment sees editor Angus Kidman living for a week with a food budget of just $25 and only basic ingredients.


Comments

    Excellent, I am looking forward to this. I enjoyed your first MasterCheap.

    My house mate and I are about to embark on the journey also, a little competition between us to see who can create the best menu for the week on $25.

    "cppled my own cakes"

    Small typo. Assuming baked?

      Actually, shift the 'p' and 'l' one spot to the left on your keyboard and 'cppled' becomes 'cooked'. :-)

      You've never cppled before? :)

      Cooked, actually. Thanks for the spot, fixed now.

    Why was the photo of the $25 doctored? What are you trying to hide?

      Nothing (the pic is actually from the last run, and the only "doctoring" is the orange background).

    the potatoes look like the ones used by Granma and Jack in Pamela Allen's "the potato people" hope the budget allows fresh produce. Good luck.

    Looking forward to this too!

    Thanks to being a lazy sod I buy my lunch practically every day - but I could save a heap of cash by doing a $30 or $40 version of this.

    Making me think about food plans now... hmm...

    Love your master cheap experiences! Good luck. Lentils are heavy and cheap fyi

    Sounds like this raw-food couple from Brissie might be able to give you some recipe ideas, Angus.

      Alas, I fear their choice of ingredients is a tad expensive (and then there's the organic thing, which just doesn't work on a budget of this size).

    Interesting, I usually spend around $25 for groceries and that usually lasts for 1.5-2 weeks, but that's because of my cuisine though. I'm pretty sure $20 is pretty sufficient for anyone if they changed their cuisine to something Asian.

      Quite possibly. It would definitely be cheaper for me to buy noodles or pasta than make them myself, but that territory got covered the first time around.

    I would like to see an article for people trying to uh, maintain a certain physique. I do a lot of weight training and must eat a few meals a day, and while I have got this down to around $70-$80 a week (Woolworths), but to really consume enough food for proper muscle building, it would cost me almost double that each week. This includes 99c packets of Oats, 99C cans of peas, asparagus and 'riced cream', with bread, pasta etc out of the question... My point is, it is difficult to eat for muscle building and save money at the same time when Pork, Chicken and Fish are on the menu. But hey, this might be a necessary trade-off... Just curious, very much looking forward to this though!

    As a Backpacker in Australia, I'm pretty interested about your experience, as living in couple, we don't spend more than an average of 70$ for the both of us without really caring, but we also count on bulk items and specials to save.

    Long time readers... back to 2010... pfffttt... keep going back in years when the only option we had was the US version.

    If in Sydney, Paddy's market, $1.50 bags of egg tomatoes (at least they were last weekend), huge $2 cauliflower, cheap potatoes of all sorts, and $1 boxes of capsicums, fennel bulbs, pears, apples or green beans FTW. It took me months of living here before I got into the groove of going to Paddy's once a week. Now it's a point of pride for me to have a variety of fresh fruit or veg EVERY DAY, whilst not breaking the budget. This week it's been cauliflower, corn cobs, egg tomatoes, sweet potato, 2 kilos of cherries, a couple pomelo's, fennel and radish (you grate the latter two and make a salad). The $5 green paw paw (makes about 4 salads when combined with other somewhat expensive ingredients and 2 hours of julienne peeler time to shred it) is great if you like pawpaw salad, but might be a bit pricey with all the other raw materials required to make it. Paddy's is one of the things keeping me from moving out to the suburbs.

      I would seriously question the quality of that food. It comes direct from China, right? If so, its probably loaded with fertilizers and chemical pesticides and watered with polluted water. Just a thought for those of you trying to avoid cancer.

    Can I as a relatively new Sydneysider ask what is normal for a food budget for one person here? I'm sure it's not $25, and I don't think it's $150 (I don't THINK it is...). I spend about $100 including a lunch or two out and a pub meal or casual thai meal a week. Is that high, low, or about normal for a single living alone in the city?

      That is relatively normal IMO. $100 - $120 for a single person.

    I see you have a '77 Silver Jubilee 50c piece, and an '82 Brisbane Commonwealth Games 50c piece. Yeah, I went to the mint last week...

    Most veg markets have 15kg and 20kg bags of potatoes for $2. That should see you for the rest of the week... unless you're a ravenous eating machine.

    Invest in a tub of duck fat as well. Potatoes (and most other food) taste *really* good with duck fat!

      I have never seen potatoes anywhere near as cheap as that (certainly not in the areas where I shop). But won't be going the duck fat in any case: too expensive.

    I just finished the "enforced" $25 diet. Been unemployed for 8 months. I start work in Monday (in IT). - in a past life I own a resturant or 2. I found we (yes feed the wife and I) - ate much healthier - and took great pride in presentation and what I presented. It stretched to my wife's work lunches as well. I discovered many great things ( using a Fish smoker was one of my joys) - amazing meals for under $2.00. Even had a dinner party. I won't miss it - but many things I will do it again. Doors close - windows open. Viva la petite menu.

      Hello. I'm really interested in knowing did you do this challenge for 8 months?
      The dinner party would have been a good evening as everyone would be eating a menu if 2 aud and as a chef no one would have known?
      I'm saving to move over 2 years that's why I'm asking. I thought if you did it for 8 months 2 years won't hurt either.
      Thanks.

    Is it better to eat processed food to absorb the maximum nutrients because it has been processed already therefore your body needs waste less energy doing the processing?

    I'd appreciate another variant: Mastercheap Quick - just $25.00 and 25 hours per week for the shopping & cooking required. Perfect for the busy single person juggling work, studies, and a rapidly diminishing social life.

      The original Mastercheap definitely fits that bill -- no way did I spend anywhere near that time for the shopping and cooking. Come to that, I doubt I will this time, even with the pasta machine included.

    For what it's worth, I find selectively shopping at different stores, both the big chains and some small independent once can make up to a 50% price difference, also sticking to what is in season which almost goes without saying.

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