Monday, April 27, 2015

This Is What $29 Can Actually Buy You

I know, I know. I wasn't going to do this. I'm not sure there's really any point in doing this, but last night when I saw the headline, "I lived on $29 and it almost killed me," a little something snapped (oh my gosh--SNAP--no pun intended there) in me and I just did it. This article, I should warn you, is long. I tried to be thorough, honest, and then more thorough.

I'm going to say with a healthy dose of humility that $29 didn't buy nearly as much as I thought it would. I desperately wanted to include a whole chicken ($4.15), a 3 lb bag of apples ($2.99),or a couple grapefruits ($1.18), but I couldn't. No matter how I jerked the numbers around, I just couldn't make it happen without sacrificing some essential item (though I maybe could have sacrificed that jelly if you can eat peanut butter sandwiches without the jelly).

However, I must say in all non-humility that this is a perfectly sustainable, fairly healthy, fairly tasty spread. Yeah, it'd get a little boring if you had to do it every week, but you wouldn't. Next week you'd still have some of this left and to that you'd add that chicken and some other things. Besides does eating the McDonald's dollar menu get boring, or buying the same dollar freezer meals over and over? I should think so.

So this is what we got. These are Aldi prices. In a bit, we'll talk about Walmart pricing and what that will get you.

The highlights are the $29/30 worth of stuff; the rest is what I bought additionally for my family of 6 since the $29 is a per person amount (and an estimate that varies from state to state as well). The small numbers to the right are estimations for what those food items would have cost at Walmart. 

eggs: .99
2 lb spaghett: 1.59
spaghetti sauce: .99
3 lb bananas: 1.33
mushrooms (sale): .79
tuna: .65
100% whole wheat bread: 1.39
colored peppers: 1.49
baby carrots (sale): .69
5 lb. yukon potatoes: 2.99
2 lb sweet onions: 1.89
quick oats: 2.29
gallon milk: 1.79
8 oz cheddar: 1.79
tortillas: 1.49
cream cheese: .99
refried beans: .79
can diced tomatoes: .59
can knock off Rotel: .59
grape jelly: 1.45
Natural creamy peanut butter: 1.69
tomato soup: .59
brown sugar: 1.19

In perfect honesty, this takes you to $30.03. To make budget I'd have to have bought the smaller oatmeal and/or the smaller spaghetti. This is the type of thing SNAP gets criticized for--forcing the poor to buy the smaller items that are more expensive ounce for ounce. But in reality, SNAP gives you a month's (not a week's) worth of food money at a time, so it would actually be quite easy to buy the larger sizes and spend about $1-3 extra this week. I'm not talking Sam's Club. I'm just talking picking the big thing of oatmeal that will last you through the month instead of the small one that will only get you through the week.

Also, this assumes you have salt and some kind of fat on hand. If you really really really don't and your cupboards are utterly bare, then you're going to have to sacrifice that tuna and/or carrots and buy yourself some salt and margarine/vegetable oil (not my favorite, but it'll get the job done).

Now what are you going to make with it? 
-For breakfast you'll be having oatmeal, brown sugar, and milk. Every day. I apologize for the monotony, but it IS pretty tasty. I used to crave this meal when I was in college. It was like dessert to me. Also, you can add a dollop of PB to it and that's just lovely. I make mine in the microwave (been doing it that way since college--use a big bowl to avoid spillage) and it takes less than one minute to prepare.
-For lunch. You'll be having PBJ's and a banana and/or carrots. Or peanut butter banana sandwiches. Or cheese sandwiches (with carrots on the side). Or a grilled cheese. Or a quesadilla once in a while (you can add a few mushrooms). And there's that tuna you can make into a sandwich. You get the idea.
-For dinner:
Day 1. Spaghetti with sauce (and maybe a bit of cheese) (15 minute meal)
Day 2: Peppers, onions, tomatoes (Italian diced--1/2 can), cream cheese (I call this Sunday supper) on tortillas (25 minute meal)
Day 3: Stuffed mushrooms (mushrooms, cream cheese, cheese) (30 minute meal)
Day 4: Tomato soup and grilled cheese (8 minute meal)
Day 5: Refried beans, tomatoes (Rotel knock off--1/2 can), cheese on tortillas (5 minute meal)
Day 6: Omelet with peppers, tomatoes (1/2 can), and cheese (8 minute meal)
Day 7: Fried potatoes with onion, egg, cheese, and any veggies you've got left (15 minute meal)

*Are you eating like a king? Well, no, but it's good food. I eat all these foods on a regular basis and they're pretty delicious. 
-Also, I could have gone cheaper on some items. I could have gotten the non-natural peanut butter, the russet potatoes, the beans I had to rehydrate instead of the canned, plain tomato sauce instead of a "spaghetti" sauce. There are ways to pinch even more, but I was able to add these things in for somewhat tastier (and often easier) options. 

*Are you eating your five fruits and veggies a day? Nope, not always. But you've got a solid three, sometimes four. And that's better than the average American. If you want to add another veggie each day, swap those potatoes out for a bag of sweet potatoes and add one in every day--that'll take you to four or five each day. Not good enough per the ideal, but silver star per the average.

*Are you too busy to make these meals? If you are, you're too busy to stand in line and then wait for your food at McDonald's because most of this food takes the same amount of time or less.

*Can you be on an unusual diet and make it with this budget? Maybe. But you'd have to work really hard at it. However, I think this would be just fine for many diabetics--yes, there's some bread and pasta, but very few sweets. You might have to skimp on that brown sugar or jam. To go gluten-free, you could go with more rice and more potatoes. Dairy-free--beans beans the magical fruit--load up on the garbanzo and bean salad it up. Again--it wouldn't be easy. But are special diets ever easy? Is the purpose of SNAP to make every single person's life a perfect food bliss or to provide a reasonable amount of food for those without?

*Would you be hungry? You shouldn't be unless you are used to eating a ton of food or working a very manual job (possible). But most of these foods are heavy lifters--filling and satisfying and caloric--think oatmeal, peanut butter, cheese, beans. Those things can really fill a person of normal weight and activity up just fine. Also, if you get hungry with this menu, you can add another potato to your meal or eat a sandwich or tortilla for an evening snack.

Let's talk about urban deserts. Everybody who ever writes an article about food always always talks about them. And they always always make some comment about how they in suburbia might have a car and access to grocery stores, but those poor among us who are in "urban deserts" will have to buy food from convenience stores and/or be forced to rely on fast food. It's one of those weird arguments that always makes me kind of scratch my head. Because they don't put major grocery stores out in the middle of nowhere. They put them near the fast food and the gas stations. (Or visa versa, but at any rate these things are always found in clusters.) I thought about several McDonald's in my town. Each and every one (that I could picture--five or six) is less than ONE mile away from a MAJOR grocery store--many within two or three blocks, one across the street, and many near a discount style grocery store. Also, even in a city with lousy bus access (like mine), the buses always go to the grocery stores and the downtown areas. It's like the one place in town you can actually take the bus. Is it easy or fun to take your two kids on the bus to Walmart? Heck no. (Is it easy or fun to take your kids to Walmart anytime ever. No.) But if you're headed to McDonald's anyway.... My point being that if you can leave your house to get food of any kind, then getting your butt to a grocery store is not the hardest thing to do. And if you cannot leave your house at all for food or otherwise, then you have bigger problems than food insecurity and those need to be dealt with.

Now, let's be honest. I admit that I got this food from a cheap grocery store--cheaper than Walmart. Not everywhere in the U.S. has an Aldi. But many cities have a Save a Lot or Ruler Foods or some discount grocery store. And these are often located nearer to poor parts of town. That said, they aren't always an option. I estimated some Walmart prices for what I got, and the honest truth is that several things had to go. I had to leave out the mushrooms, one can of the tomatoes (so you'd be stretching that can pretty thin, the bell peppers, tuna, the cream cheese, the gallon of milk (you'd have to go 1/2 gallon or quart), and maybe those tortillas (swap them out for an $.85 bag of rice). Your meals would definitely be more boring and repetitive. Again this isn't fun--whee--but it is possible.

picture of what I could get (estimate since I didn't actually go to Walmart today)

ALSO. And I consider this an important also--you're going to have some foods left over. This is what you could expect to have stretch into next week.
-a bit of peanut butter
-jelly, oatmeal
-brown sugar
-maybe some milk
So next week, you can add in that whole chicken (which will feed you two, maybe three times and provide some stock if you'd like for a potato soup). You could buy rice and a bag of dry beans (which can go incredibly far and are extremely filling). You can have that bag of apples and maybe some spinach or, if you're lucky, a cheap bag of chocolate chips. Again--I realize it's not perfectly easy, but it's possible. And most of these foods don't take intense culinary skills or planning power--hmm, I'll just throw that sauce on that spaghetti. Can you be a diva and live on this budget? Eh...Can you be an idiot and live on this budget? Eh... But you can be a moderately intelligent person, a person with little time, little transportation, little creativity, and live on this budget. Yes, you can. (But you can't buy 7 limes. And no I couldn't resist. The end.)


  1. Wow.. let me tell you, in Canada, you'd get 1/4 of that stufff. A dozen eggs here alone are close to $4.00. 8oz. of cheddar, $5.00, tuna $2.00 (on sale!) peanut butter $7.00, etc... You did great overall though! MUCH better than Gwenyth did! ;)

    1. Ouch! That would really hurt. Do incomes reflect the high food prices at all?

    2. I'm not Carla but I'm from Canada too and what she says is true. Incomes are about the same or slightly less than the US. A gallon of milk in my area is about $7-8 and two pounds of pasta is well over $2. A small pack of cream cheese is close to $4 and mushrooms are $2.99. The last time I bought a pack of tortillas, it was $3.69 - and everything else is at least double or triple the cost. But all in all, a good amount of food.

    3. So interesting. I'm curious--are the prices higher because Canada has tighter restrictions on food? For example, there's a lot of discussion in the U.S. right now on GMO's and labeling. Does Canada have tighter laws about that stuff--in other words are you getting higher quality food or at least more information about your food? Or are we really eating the same food and you guys are paying 4 times as much for it? This is so interesting.

  2. I'm glad you rose to the challenge! You are amazingly awesome!



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