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.[clear]
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.