Mastercheap Raw: The $25 Shopping List

So I have $25 to feed myself for the week and I have to make more or less everything from scratch. What made it onto the Mastercheap Raw shopping list?

The Planning Process

Doing Mastercheap involves a lot of planning and research; you can’t just rock up to the shops, throw everything in a basket and hope it will add up to $25 and that it will sustain you for the week. I’ve spent several months lurking in supermarkets and other food stores, checking out prices and working out provisional budgets and meal plans, just as I did for the original Mastercheap. What I learned made quite a big difference to my ultimate plan, so it’s worth running through some of the key factors.

Pick a store brand, any store brand

If you’re shopping on a budget, there are two key lessons: you will invariably be purchasing house brand goods for most items, and it doesn’t matter which supermarket you use to purchase them. When I did the original Mastercheap, one common suggestion was that it would have been cheaper if I shopped at ALDI. But that simply wasn’t the case: the pricing for the key store brand items is identical whether you shop at Woolworths, Coles or ALDI. Want a tin of tomatoes? You’ll pay $0.69.

Prices get matched rapidly. Coles recently dropped its price for UHT milk to $0.99 for a litre (from $1.08), and the others quickly followed suit. Buying non house-brand goods is an expensive mistake in this context: if I’d done that last time, my expenditure would have more than doubled. My nearest supermarket is a Woolworths, so that’s what I used. [clear]

You can’t be fussy about provenance

Scruples are expensive. If you only want to buy organic vegetables or free-range eggs, or if you insist that everything you eat has to be sourced from Australia, you will pay more. You can argue all you want about the ethics, but if you genuinely had to live on $3.50 a day, those principles would evaporate rapidly. When I planned this list, they weren’t a consideration, and I happily grabbed, for example, caged eggs (which are, incidentally, the most popular house brand product in Aussie supermarkets).

The problem of markets

A common recommendation for saving money is to buy fruit and vegetables at a large produce market. I don’t doubt that this is a good strategy, but there are two problems. First and foremost, I don’t live near one. Secondly, the bargain deals often involve buying in bulk, which doesn’t work in the constraints of a fixed, one-week $25 budget. (Market enthusiasts do sometimes make extreme claims as well. One poster yesterday suggested that you could routinely purchase a 20kg bag of potatoes at markets for $2. That sounds highly unlikely to me.)

If you’re located near a market or don’t mind driving a distance for your shopping, I don’t doubt it’s an excellent strategy. But for the purposes of Mastercheap Raw, I decided to stick to the resources I had near me: supermarkets and greengrocers. That also makes it easier to reproduce for others. If you do live near a market, you’ll potentially be even better off.

Vegetable matters

Several weeks of monitoring vegetable and fruit prices at my local supermarket and the two nearest greengrocers confirmed what I suspected: prices vary quite widely and there’s always something on special and in season, but for standard items the pricing is often very similar. One of the big challenges this posed was trying to plan a tight budget in advance. For weeks ahead of this project, Woolworths was selling a 1kg bag of carrots for $1.45, but a fortnight ago, they went up to $1.88 (I never saw them close to even that price in my local greengrocer). The carrots stayed in the list, but those kind of planning headaches meant that I had to allow for a certain amount of unexpected variation. Potatoes had consistently been available at $2 for 2kg for several weeks prior to my doing this, but went up in the relevant week.

As it happens, I ended up grabbing all my fresh stuff at Woolworths, but only because the prices worked out competitively in that week. Many people would do that purely for the convenience, week-in, week-out. If I was living on this budget for more than a week, I’m sure the local greengrocer would come into play very often.

Needing pricing certainty was also why I ended up including some frozen vegetables in the list. Not only do their prices stay fixed, they’re also much cheaper than their fresh counterparts. Mixed vegetables at $1.59 a kilogram are far cheaper than anything else on sale, and on this budget, that matters. The only ingredients in a frozen bag of vegetables are the vegetables themselves, so they matched the raw criteria. (That said, I’m sure some people will complain about me doing this!) In the same vein, tinned tomatoes are also far cheaper (and a better basis for making pasta sauce).

I can’t have bread

Bread is one of my favourite foods. It was a staple of the first Mastercheap plan. In 2012, you can buy a store-brand loaf of multi-grain bread for $1.50 (and if you want white, it’s only $1.00). There is no way that I would be able to replicate that price when I only have $25 to spend on everything. The yeast alone would cost more. Yes, it would stretch to more than one loaf, but there’s all the other ingredients to consider, and I’m not using cheating ‘per serve’ economics.

I experimented with a few budgets and researched recipes, but I could never make bread work. For the purposes of this project, I reluctantly concluded that I couldn’t match the economics, and I couldn’t justify buying a ready-made loaf. So my carbohydrates (which I unashamedly love) will have to come from elsewhere.

The list

After all that research and planning, I headed out and did my shopping earlier this week. This is what I purchased.

Raw sugar (1kg) $1.09
Plain flour (1kg) $0.95
Quick oats (750g) $1.19
Tea bags (100pk) $1.89
UHT skim milk (1L) $0.99
Table spread (500g) $1.40
Tinned tomatoes (400g) $0.69
Tinned tuna (425g) $1.89
Frozen mixed vegetables (1kg) $1.59
Frozen beans (1kg) $1.79
1 dozen eggs $2.80
Potatoes (2kg) $3.98
Carrots (1kg) $1.88
Apples (2) $1.01
Orange (1) $0.25
Brown onions (2) $0.86
Green chilli (1) $0.19
TOTAL $24.44

Yes, I have 55 cents change. Because I couldn’t predict exactly what I was going to pay for my fruit and veg, my budget needed a certain amount of elasticity. I imagine I’ll spend the 55 cents on a single item of fruit or veg as a snack later in the week. (I’d be quite keen to purchase a packet of jelly, which costs 39 cents and would make three desserts, but it seems a stretch to call that something I’ve made from scratch.)

A few other comments: the tinned tuna is so much cheaper by weight than any other form of protein I couldn’t pass it up (and it does contain only fish and water). I know from the last Mastercheap that I’ll never survive without my daily dose of tea (and bags are cheaper than loose at this end of the market). Both the teabags and the margarine are actually much cheaper if you buy them in slightly larger quantities ($2.49 gets you 200 teabags, $2.10 gets 1kg of margarine), but on a one-week budget I didn’t have the room to include those. ‘Quick oats’ contain nothing but oats. The chilli is easily the cheapest way to get a flavour boost for my meals. The orange was a last-minute inclusion due to a special price ($0.99 a kilogram). Onions are annoyingly much cheaper if you buy in bulk, but I didn’t need (and couldn’t afford) a 1kg bag.

A few of these items appeared on the original Mastercheap shopping list from 2010. Some have gone up in price (the table spread was $1.09 back then, and the eggs were $2.29); some are identical (the frozen vegetables); and some are cheaper (the milk has dropped from $1.08 to $0.99, and the tomatoes have dropped from $0.75 to $0.69).

So that’s what I’m working with. Come back Monday for the diary and recipes from my first full day of Mastercheap Raw. Comments on the shopping list are welcome, but bear this in mind: if you suggest something else I should have bought, you’ll also need to suggest what I’ll drop from the list. (And before anyone asks: yes, rice could easily have been a choice, I just don’t like it much.)

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

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