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.

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.


    Buy a maccas soft serve!

      Tempting, but rather a long way from the "make it myself" ethos :)

    Could have gotten more than one chilli.

    another trick is to pay for each item instead of a group. nice times out of ten it comes lower (veggies and fruit that is)

      Yeah, extra chilli might be an option (but I'll stress again, didn't know that I'd have change in advance -- caution prevailed!)

      That only works because the supermarkets deduct the "plastic bag" weight at at the scales (as they aren't allowed to charge the weight). If everyone started doing it to the extent it was a detriment, they would allocate 2 types, one bagged the other loose items. Or worse, they could just take away in store fruit/veg bags altogether. Which might not be bad for wastage, but my local seems to use biodegradable ones now.

      Not saying it isn't a good 'hack' to squeeze more out of a $25 budget (its perfect for this really). But it realistically is abusing the goodwill of the stores.

      I'm sorry, but as a checkout operator I can tell you right now that there is no way on the face of the earth I'd permit a customer to waste my time, and the time of everyone queuing behind him, by weighing each individual piece of fruit separately.

    Haha did you feel like you were being judged in the supermarket for being a tight arse when you bought these things?

      I used self-serve :) But in volume terms, I had a lot more stuff than in the 2010 version.

        You used self serve? I'm sure some of your fruit and vege items could have had some accidental accidents whilst typing in the product. And Apple can look like an orange, especially if your finger slipped on the display...;-)

    You have flour - you could satisfy your bread desires (somewhat) with chappatis - no yeast required. And they'd also be cheaper than say pancakes as you don't need milk or egg either

      The flour is largely all assigned, and I'm not sure if melted table spread would work as well as olive oil. But I might give this a shot.

      Could also make Irish Potato Farls

        I'd never heard of those, but a quick search suggests that indeed I might make 'em -- thanks!

    In case you're wondering, Woolworths had a long term price guarantee on the carrots and a few other fruit and vegetable products which ended in the middle of July. I;ll have to start shopping around for my next bag of carrots.

    You're right about the price matching on homebrands. I used to get most of my homebrand products at Aldi until I noticed both Coles and Woolworths had pricematched most of them. Once exception I know of is Aldi eggs. Their homebrand is cheaper at the moment than the other two and they have smaller eggs if you want them. I guess for the purposes of this project it wouldn't be worth going to Aldi for one product.

    For bread do what I did when I lived alone. Go to your local Baker and ask him if he has any leftover bread from the day before. Usually they'll sell it to you at around 50c to 1 dollar max. It's not stale, its still fresh, they just can't market it as fresh and thus want to get rid of it.

      I wish this were true everywhere. My local baker seems to mix the fresh with the old and hope no one notices.

        My local baker gives it away for free - I use it as berley when I go fishing...

    You could make some decent fresh pasta with 250g of flour and a couple of eggs. With plain flour, you'll need to do a fair amount of kneading and rolling to get it nice and springy. For sauce, you could fry half an onion in marge, add half a tin of tomatoes, some frozen veg and a bit of water, and simmer. Chuck in some tuna (after the sauce is finished) if you're feeling extravagant. You'll wish you had some salt (but the cheapest is 500g homebrand for 96c).
    I was thinking an apple crumble tart for dessert. It's a bit heavy on the marge (about 175g all up) and two apples will feel a bit stingy. Make a sweet shortcrust pastry base (first result in Google for "sweet shortcrust pastry"). Roll the pastry into a pie/tart tin and refrigerate. Slice apples with sugar for the filling. Make a crumble topping out of oats, flour, sugar and marge. Bake until the crust is crusty and the crumble is crumbly.

      I am making pasta (for three separate meals in fact) and sauce. The apples have been claimed for breakfast.

        Hey Angus I didn't see the pasta on your shopping list?

          Ahhh, making pasta from scratch! Wow, awesome, I suck at that!

    some other options to live well cheaply.
    1) buy dry beans/legumes. these can be put on soak in the morning & will be ready by the time you return home.
    2) no rice? are you mad? I survived many years of artschool on tuna, rice, chilli & garlic.
    3) garlic? a little bit goes a long when with adding flavour.
    4) tofu/dried mushrooms & many other cheap tasty treats can be found @ cheap asian groceries.
    5) spend that .55c on a pack of 'mee goreng' noodles; go on lash out!!

    best of luck. I like seeing you take these food challenges.

    I know it goes against the spirit here, but you really shouldn't buy cage eggs. As I read somewhere last year - "If you can't afford free range eggs, you can't afford eggs".

      Someone said that last time too. Egg sales figures suggest most Australians don't actively agree.

        You'd be right to call me an asshole, but my empathy for animals basically ends at chickens. They are so f'ing stupid that I don't care how people treat them.

          +1 internet

            Agreed with Cameron. I'm not sure what the fact that most Australians buy caged eggs has anything to do with anything other than the fact that most Australians must be ignorant at best and cold-hearted at worst? Whoopee...

            Chickens are stupid? I'll assume you haven't seen many chickens outside of disgustingly overcrowded cages. Chickens have just as much intelligence and personality as any other domestic pet. My empathy for humans ends at Thom.

              I grew up on a farm (not a cage farm by the way). Don't romanticise it, they were bred to be docile and a bit dopey. There are researchers who say they are as smart as cats and dogs (Chris Evan at Macquarie Uni for instance), but I debate the definition. They certainly have some clever attributes, but, I've seen a complete lack of basic preservation intelligence - you can line them up for slaughter one after the other and they won't cotton on to the fact they are next. They get stuck in bizarre places because they have basically no spatial reasoning.

        Angus, for an intelligent guy, that is a poor argument for buying caged eggs.

          I agree there are other options. I asked around and got eggs from a friend :) free range and cheap.

        That's an atrocious attitude really - because people are ignorant, stupid or just don't care, neither will you?

      Having kept chickens I have a bold new answer to the egg thing.

      Chickens DESERVE cages. Fuckers will literally peck each other to death out of sheer spite.
      And yes, if you take the 'henpecked' chicken from the bottom of the 'pecking order' (recognize those two) and put it in a different place where it's no longer the bottom rung, it pecks whoever it can.

      Buy cage eggs, chickens are evil.

    regarding the bread issue, if you were having to do this for a length of time, you could make a sour dough 'mother batch' with just flour, water and time. You capture wild yeast from mixing flour and water while walking around the yard for a bit. You then just have to add flour and water periodically to keep it going. Best example I have seen on how to get this going was done by Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall in 'River Cottage Everyday' - Bread'

    I'm not sure why you bothered with the tea bags, sugar and table spread...

      All will be revealed on Monday when I start cooking. There'll definitely be spare sugar, but virtually of the table spread is going to be used. And as for the tea bags: I like hot drinks, normally have several a day -- it'll make up for a relative dearth of snack options (though I have factored some of those in).

    I agree with what your saying about Aldi not being cheaper than Woolies and Coles home brands, BUT its home brand is much, much better quality. In fact, many of their products are as good as name brands. For example, that woolies bag of frozen vegetables you've bought is absolutely revolting - real bottom of the barrel stuff. The Aldi equivalent is like 10c more and is as good as McCains.

      Thom's right -They're fine if included in a (bad) pasta sauce but I wouldn't wish those steamed on anyone.

    Nearly $2 on tea bags? Really? Flat bread requires also no yeast. I'm amazed you haven't gotten rice which is a staple for a huge percentage of the global population. Home made pasta, a clove of garlic and the green tops of proper carrots would keep you going.

      When I've tested them (and I've done that quite a bit), I haven't noticed that difference. Tastes differ though of course; if you're happy with ALDI, I'm not saying don't shop there.

      Home made pasta is definitely in there. When I did Mastercheap last time, I drank 7 cups of tea a day. I can't think of any other way of spending $2 which would match that level of satisfaction.

        Does anyone know if you can buy green tea that cheaply?

    no salt??

      I don't use salt in my regular diet (plenty already in food), so that doesn't bug me at all. Pepper featured in many of the provisional budgets, but condiments just don't work well at this restricted price level.

    Eeeek just the tuna for maybe 2 or 3 main meals, then what? Scrambled eggs, poached eggs an omelette and then a vegan for the rest of the week The problem here is you are starting at scratch, where in reality one has basic supplies already in the pantry . The key is constantly over time saving money and eating well.

    Sure you can survive on $25 of staples but yuck what a diabolical attack on ones palette.

      I feel like the tuna's a luxury, to be honest. At this price level, you just don't buy meat. And of course I'll be spreading out the egg meals, as you'll see.

      Point taken that yes, people build up staples over time. (Even at the end of the week I'll have some leftover items.) But I'll say again: if it's doable in this utterly restricted way, it can only get better if you have more flexibility.

        It's alright, home brand tuna is disgusting unless it's cooked into a tuna bake or similar.

    One MAJOR problem is for celiacs, they can't buy half the stuff on that list (full of gluten), and the gluten free equivalent cost 5 to 10 times the price.

      Yeah, that's true with most of these sort of diet challenges (half the reason I won't ever do live below the line) but if you look at the list, the only things that aren't GF are the flour and potentially the milk and oats, depending on your stance on oats. I am gluten free, dairy free, sugar free and salicilate free and I live on a very strict budget.. more than $25 a week but not by much. It doesn't take much to make a gluten free diet cheap by avoiding foods marketed as gluten free and sticking mainly to fruit and vegies. A pot of pumpkin soup goes a long way!

    Interesting challenge Angus. If nothing else you may lose a kilo or two!

    Good article Angus. I can feed myself for a fortnight wih only $50, at the end of that fortnight i'm sometimes forced to throw out goods that have expired. Eating healthy and on the cheap is easier than most folks might think.

      My partner, my son and my self, live off of a $150 a fortnight budget. We eat well also, it includes meat as well but mind you we are chefs and she is the budget master.

        We fed 3.5 people off a 90/week budget, and that was with a boarder/guest so we were cooking fancier meals than we would normally eat. I'd say our weekly budget for 2.5 is about the same as yours at $75/week.

          $75 for 2.5 is slightly higher -- $75 for 3 would be the same. As I mentioned in the first post, no question it's cheaper per head if you're feeding more people.

    you have all you need to make latkes, for breakfast you could probably chuck in some oats, or for dinner throw in some cooked veggies

    I can tell you that Homebrand Cheese, Cream and UHT products are devondale, "Fresh" milk is Pura, and the eggs are pace farm. At least here in Victoria.

    pfft on the rants about free range eggs.
    free range doesn't mean anything.

    Use the self serve and put avacados through as onions

    It might be a location thing, but I track grocery prices of things I buy regularly each week and I can tell you, tinned tomatoes are cheaper at aldi.
    Aldi - $1.73/kg
    Coles - $2 /kg (only when you buy 3 tins so unit price jumps when you want less)
    Woolworths - $2.50/kg

    of course, name brands are usually more expensive, and the Woolworths and COles home brand varieties have the benefit of a ringpull included - no need for a can opener. There are also times when name brands at the commercial stores work out cheaper - A month or so ago a brand name of tinned tomatoes was 68c at woolworths ($1.70/kg), working out cheaper than aldi. Yeah, one cent isn't much but on a restricted budget it adds up.

    I suspect it's more to do with personal tastes, but I'm surprised that there aren't legumes here. From a health perspective, it's definitely something that anyone on a super tight budget should consider. They're not everyone's cup of tea, but things like lentils and chickpeas are an acquired taste and the cheapest way to get protein in a diet. In fact, some lentils don't need to be soaked and a handful can be chucked in the pot with whatever else you're cooking without even noticing.

      I got 400 grams of tinned tomatoes for 69 cents at Woolworths. That equates $1.73 -- exactly the same as ALDI, which is what I said. I have no idea where you got the $2.50 figure from -- perhaps the Select option. But it's simply not accurate to say ALDI is cheaper for tinned tomatoes (nor to say the Home Brand option has a ring pull) in my experience. The pricing matches every time I've checked.

    Keep some seeds from that chilli and plant them in a pot on your balcony, doesn't need much space. I've had a couple of chilli plants for over a year grown from the seeds of a red chilli from Woolies and they've produced 50 or 60 finger sized chillis in that time. As they ripen I put them in the freezer as I can't use them as fast as they grow. Tried drying and crushing into flakes but that takes some work and its much easier to freeze them.

      I do things like this as well. chilli's, capsicums, tomatoes, old potatoes and sweet potatoes, snow peas and fresh beans. I saw a Jamie Oliver episode once where he suggested to do this, and I always make sure there is space in the garden for things I want to grow. If it's the wrong season, I have a few bits of glass I can set up as a mini glasshouse.

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