Mastercheap Raw: The Big Lessons Learned

Few people would force themselves to eat for a week on a $25 budget, with only basic ingredients allowed, no existing pantry supplies permitted either and no taking freebies from others, which is what I just did for Mastercheap Raw. But while the process might be extreme, everyone can learn something from the experience and plan their food shopping budgets better.

I've already been through the Mastercheap experience back in 2010, so I knew that it was feasible (if relatively unexciting) to eat on $25 a week. The two questions that arose this time were: (1) is that still possible in 2012? (2) can you have a better experience by making more food from scratch, rather than relying on ready-made options? The answer to the first question is a definite 'yes'. The answer to the second is, in my opionion, 'no'. But we'll get to that in more detail soon.

Lesson 1: You can eat good food on a minimal budget

The pasta dish pictured at the top is a meal I'd happily consume any time. Comprising hand-made pasta and a tomato, onion and chilli sauce, it's satisfying, not too difficult to make, and has a nice range of flavours and textures. It didn't feel to me like a meal made on a massively minimal budget. That wasn't true of everything I ate, but the notion that cheap automatically equals bland and uninteresting didn't stack up in my experience. At least not all the time. I've had enough steamed vegetables for a while.

Lesson 2: You're not forced to use lots of imported items

One concern that's often expressed about 'budget' shopping items is that they go against the 'buy Australian' ethos. That wasn't as big a problem with the shopping list here as I had anticipated. The only items that weren't from Australia were the teabags (Indonesia), tuna (Thailand), tomatoes (Italy) and frozen vegetables (China). If I wanted to go all-Australian, I'd have to pay more for all of those selections, but the majority of what I ate didn't raise that issue. To be clear, I don't think anyone forced to live on this kind of budget can afford that level of fussiness -- but if it's an issue for you, you don't necessarily have to spend a fortune to resolve it.

Lesson 3: People don't budget well

Throughout the week, commenters would suggest buying something additional or altering my choices, without recognising a simple reality: most of those options would cost more money than I had. I suspect this is where people go wrong when shopping. They don't plan carefully and factor in all the costs involved. If you're not stuck with an absolute budget, it's easy to spend just a little bit more each time, and those costs will add up if you're not vigilant. No matter what your budget is, having a list and sticking to it makes sense.

Lesson 4: Starting from scratch isn't cheaper

There's no getting away from it: I was less satisfied with this menu than I was with the original 2010 version. Foodstuffs that I liked (bread in particular) are simply cheaper to buy ready-made than they are to make yourself, and not having them made me tetchy. In the same way, while I liked the home-made pasta, it was both more time-consuming and more expensive than if I'd just purchased dried pasta myself. I'll be sticking with making my own pasta some of the time, but not when I'm exhausted after a day at work.

That doesn't mean that taking a 'basics only' approach is necessarily more expensive, or that it won't work for some people. But the notion that you'll get a better and more varied experience by doing that doesn't hold universally true. Financially, I was no worse off, but I wasn't any better off and I liked the meals less. A mixture of approaches -- starting from scratch when appropriate, but buying premade when that's more sensible -- seems the right way to go.

Lesson 5: I still had leftovers

Despite the leanness of my budget, I didn't eat absolutely everything I acquired. I still have close on half the teabags, some of the flour and margarine, most of the sugar, and more than half of the quick oats. So if I was sticking to this budget, I'd be able to shop differently in week two, since many of those items won't be replaced. If you buy in a fortnightly or monthly bundle, that effect will be even more pronounced.

One of the conceits of Mastercheap Raw is that you start with a completely empty pantry. Even when you do that, it doesn't take long for the pantry to build up. After a month of this, there would definitely be more scope for variety. And that's an important lesson in itself: even if life's circumstances force you to a minimal budget, you don't just have to live on two-minute noodles. Though I would include them as part of the mix, if only to make a change from the pasta.

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


Comments

    I make my own bread and doing the sums it comes out approximately 1/3 the price of store bought bread. The trick is not to buy flour from the supermarket, get it from a wholesaler and it is dirt cheap.

      Where do you get your flour? Do you get the protein-enriched "bread flour"? I like to make bread but always keen to reduce my costs! ^_^

      Can you supply specific numbers? Bulk would undoubtedly make a difference (and wasn't an option for me), but $1 a loaf (white) or $1.50 (multi-grain) is quite hard to beat. (Especially if you factor in power, though I didn't include that in my calculations.)

        I make my own bread, got a bread maker ($149). I make two breads per week, so if you consider the bread maker written off after two years, it is $0.72 per bread. I use selfmade sauerdough (150ml water plus 150g rye flour which is $2.50 per kg, i.e. $0.37 per bread), whole grain flour (100g= $0.22) and wheat flour (300g=$0.54). A little bit salt ($0.01). No yeast, because it's sauerdough. Total of $1.86 plus electricity, which will add only a few cents, because I dont use the oven. It's a very big loaf, 900g! You would pay heaps more for that everywhere else. You can add 80g sunflower seeds or similar and you have a big multi-whole-grain sauerdough bread for roughly $2.00!

        We buy bread flour for 80c a kg. It comes in 25kg bags but we split this up with multiple people who are also keen on making their own bread. Each loaf uses 450g of flour, yeast, salt, sugar and you can add powdered milk and bread improver if necessary. The flour is commercial standard bread flour used in restaurants and cafes around town.

        Either way the cost is less than $1.

          hey Chris - can you give us the name of the supplier for your
          flour. I buy the Wallaby brand from the supermarket but it is more
          like $2/kg.

            http://www.kerrypinnacle.com.au/ From their website blurb: More
            than 3,500 customers throughout Australia now utilise the products
            that Kerry Pinnacle distribute. From major supermarket chains such
            as Coles and Woolworth's, to franchise bakery groups like Brumby's
            and Banjo's, large plant bakeries, as well as independent hot bread
            and cake shops.

    Mate I'm a huge fan of this kind of journalism and I think you've done a great job. Can't wait for the next installment... maybe Mastercheap All Stars where you go for a month and take learning from the first two series? If you did this enough you could submit it as a feasibilty study to centrelink.

      you know they would only use it as justification to cut ppls payments, right?

    My weekly budget is about to change dramatically, and, although I probably won't be going to such extreme lengths, I have a feeling your Mastercheap series will come in handy.
    Great articles. I appreciate the efforts you've gone to, to make these informative and entertaining.

    something to consider would be mastercheap family or some such. maybe $50 for a family of 3?
    would be interesting to see how bulk quantity discounts help spread the money further or weather the extra mouth without the extra money would be a strain.

    I also like fan's idea of planning out a fortnight or month long try

    To use a textbook economics term, don't forget the 'time cost of money' in all of your decisions. Generally speaking your time cost of money is your hourly wage because it is the amount you have agreed is the cost of your time.

      I can see the sense in this, though I've always thought it is rather misleading. You may, for example, take an hour to save $10 which, on the surface, may not look like it is worth it. However, if you either enjoy that process, e.g. find making bread or whatever relaxing/entertaining, or would otherwise be sitting glued to the TV or something else unproductive then surely the money saved per hour becomes far less relevant.

      I used to be told I was wasting my time fixing my own car as I could get it fixed faster for less money than I "lost" by using my time to fix it. Two big issues with that for me - I didn't have that money to spend and I was doing it on the weekend so I wouldn't be getting paid anyway. The fact that I actually enjoy fixing things is a side benefit.

        I agree with both Bob and Graeme.

        I agree with Bob that you have to take into account how much time is spent on the actual talk to work out how much it is costing, but as Graeme says, positive externalities do come into play (i.e. saving $10 by making bread maybe more like saving $20 as you enjoy making bread and value it at $10 of "relaxation"). And also as Graeme said you can't be paid on a weekend (or anytime out of your fixed hours) so fixing your car may be worth it, and may be doubly so if you gain pleasure from doing so and the alternative is watching television or something else less productive.
        Sorry for the boring post.

      To use a textbook economics terms, don't forget the 'assets' and 'depreciation' in all of your decisions.
      Generally speaking your assets and depreciation is your health and happiness (aka employees morale) because it is the commonly agreed fact that you get sick or depressed, you need to go to doctors which costs you even more time and money, might even have something to do with the length of your life too. :)

      p.s. OT are not paid for, how do you do the calculations for those hourly wage instead of long-term increment of work performance and personal knowledge?

        An economist would say that if you found additional benefit in doing something, that you should factor that in as a monetary value too.

        How do you put monetary value on something intangible? Ask the question: "How much would I pay before I would be happy to forgo this benefit." as a general rule.

        If you don't have money, there a lot of other added costs to going into debt (i.e. stress, interest rates), so you should take that into consideration, yes.

    Great article, i remember in high school doing an assignment on living on a budget, I took it to another level and lived it for 2 weeks. Parents gave me the equivalent of a Centrelink allowance, took rent and I had to shop and pay bills myself for 2 weeks, was a great learning curve. but there is nothing like disposable income.

    I found this challenge riveting and am keen to try it. Or something similar. It would be interesting to see what other people could come up with on $25 a week.

    An oldie but a goodie. What people eat around the world in a week in 28 pictures. A few are in line with the $25/week (or even lower) but not directly comparable. Note the germanic precision at work.

    http://izismile.com/2010/07/09/what_people_eat_from_around_the_world_28_pics.html

    So what were the total kilojules, and relative carb/protein/fat content of your $25/week diet?

    My guess is that protein is the hardest to acquire cheaply, followed by so-called good carbs (low GI). I'm wondering how the cost of just meeting the weekly carb & protein requirements varies (assuming any left over cash can be spent of fats, flavours and nutrients). Rice is $1/kilo, pasta $2/kilo, potato $1/kilo if bought in large enough sacks at my local BiLo, and they seem to be around 6600 kJ/kg. So the daily carbs can be had for around $1.00 per day. And fat is pretty cheap, whether by the bottle or inside foods. But getting 60g to 100g of protein per day is much harder, requiring around 500g/day of raw chicken meat (about $2.50 for the cheapest cuts), a dozen eggs/day or a 440g tin of tuna each day to reach 100g of protein a day.

    Anyway, I enjoyed your week of budget eating. Just interested in how it measures up as a balanced diet.

      I haven't got the detailed nutritional analysis to hand, but your estimates of what protein you need seem massively on the high side. When I did the 2010 version, which had more detailed nutritional numbers, protein wasn't a challenge. Also, pasta itself is also around the $1 a kilo mark if you don't make it yourself!

        100g protein is definitely high! That said, it looks like your last meal pictured up the top has a grand total of 0.5g of protein in it, which is far too little for a whole meal. Were you hungry again 2 hours later?

    I enjoyed following this. I'm moving away for uni next year, and from what everyone says, I'm not going to be eating like a king. I won't need to take it this far, but learning about how far money can go and the best options will undoubtedly be valuable. There's no way I'm eating 2 minute noodles every day.

    Hey Angus - I would be keen to see you do a 'week 2' of mastercheap (orginal or raw) just to see the change in diet and items as well as how much 'nicer' it is... obviously you know approximately how much of each you have left now (and last time) you could easily start with that and do week 2....

    The National Health & Medical Research Council recommends 64g/day of protein for men aged 19 to 70 in order to "meet the known nutritional needs of practically all healthy people for prevention of deficiency states":
    http://www.nhmrc.gov.au/guidelines/publications/n35-n36-n37

    Other publications suggest 0.8 to 1.0g/kg of body weight for non-athletes. So the upper end of my 60 - 100g/day protein target is beyond the minimum recommended, but the bottom end is not. My guess is that even 60g of protein/day is going to consume about half your $25 budget - and the choices are pretty limited at that price point. But I'm no expert in finding cheap protein - so I'm interested in the various alternatives.

      Dried lentils FTW if you're up for the time-consuming soaking. - you get more per kg because you're not paying for the water like you are with tinned lentils.

    Um regarding "time cost" i think it should not be $rate per hour, based on your total income, this is rather near sited as most people do not derive income every hour 24hours a day.

    The better option is to take your daily average net income, and divide by 24 hours, then use this if you are considering what your cost time equals

    e.g $30 per hour times 8 hours a day times 5 = $1200 per week or $240 per day is very different from

    $240 divided by 24 = $10 or 1200 divided by 168 hours in a week = $7.14 p/h adjusted to include weekends.

    so a person who's hourly income after all deductions i.e tax of $30ph is really $7.14 once adjusted for non work hours, this means that cooking a weekly batch of food if it took 1 hour to do, would only cost $7.14 to produce in human resource cost plus any materials on top of that.

    bearing in mind that the hour is of actual work, not the time it takes to cook in an oven etc while you sit down to watch TV.

    And if you were to sell your meals to others, then you would go with a pre-tax figure p/h that is not adjusted for non working hours, as you are trying to make a profit that once taxed and calculated into total time cost, is equal to or higher then you normal "time cost" not your income per hour as it is a product (unit cost), not a service

    I loved this Angus. I am not sure how keen you are to guinea pig, but a couple of weeks on the average Austudy allowance/pension would be interesting.

    Also, where shall I send the garlic I have planted in a pot for you for your next Mastercheap? Bear in mind it can take upto 8 months to mature ;)

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