Live Below The Line Challenge: Sample $1.50/Day Menu

I’m taking the Live Below the Line challenge, which means eating for 5 days on just $1.50 a day. After a shopping trip and a few cooking experiments, here’s my menu for next week (4/29-5/3).

Rules

Even though the challenge rules allow it, I won’t be using anything that is significantly processed. That means no ramen noodles, protein powder, multivitamins, etc. Also, when calculating the cost of the ingredients, I will use the unit costs based on common supermarket sizes, not wholesale or warehouse store sizes. Examples are 5 lb bag of rice, a Morton can of salt, and a 28 oz. bottle of oil. I cross-checked all my listed prices with the USDA database to make sure they were reasonable.

Update: I misread the rules and have made some changes in order to avoid buying things like a 10 lb bags of beans, even though in reality that would be the most economical. Instead, I had to find the places that had the cheapest bulk bins. Some prices went up, but some prices actually went down. I had to leave out the onion from dinner, but otherwise the menu stayed the same and under budget.

The Menu

I wanted to make things simple, so I just planned to have the same meal for all five days. Breakfast is pretty quick and will be made each day. Lunch and dinner will be prepared on Sunday night and be reheated for the rest of the week.

Breakfast

  • Banana “crepe” pancakes
  • Ingredients per day are: 0.75 cup flour, 1 egg, 1 banana, 1 tbsp oil, and a pinch of salt. Basically mix everything together with ~0.75 cup water to make thin batter, and fry. This makes two large pancakes (see picture) and my first attempt was pretty tasty. The riper the bananas, the sweeter. Total cost of 5 meals: $1.88

Lunch

  • Lentil soup with 2 large chapatis (flat bread).
  • Soup ingredients for all 5 days are 2 cups dry lentils, 4 carrots, 2 onions, 4 cloves garlic, 1 tbsp oil, and 3 tsp salt. 10 large chipatas (2 per day) are 3 cups flour, boiling water, and 1/4 cup oil. I haven’t made the soup yet, but I fried up some chapatis and they were a nice bread/tortilla replacement. Total cost of 5 meals: $2.03 + $0.44 = $2.43

Dinner

  • Plate of rice, beans, and tomatos.
  • Ingredients for all 5 days are 2 cups uncooked rice, 2 cups dry pinto beans, 1 can crushed tomatoes, 2 tbsp oil, and salt. Pile o’ cooked rice, pile ‘o cooked beans, pile o’ canned tomatoes and diced fresh onions. I actually used to eat this anyway when in “bachelor mode”, except with canned beans and bottled salsa. Total cost of 5 meals: $3.11

Total cost for the week: $7.42

Shopping List

Here are all the ingredients that I will be using, broken down into the price of the overall package and the unit cost.
 

Ingredient Total Cost Unit Cost
Brown lentils (dry) $0.87/lb, bulk bin $0.39 per cup
(2.25 cups = 1 lb)
Onions $0.69/lb, market $0.30 per small onion
Carrots $0.75/lb, market $0.13 per medium carrot
Pinto Beans $1.01/lb, bulk bin $0.51 per cup
(2 cup = 1 lb)
White Flour $0.34/lb, bulk bin $0.08 per cup
(4.5 cups = 1 lb)
White Rice $0.52/lb, bulk bin $0.23 per cup
(2.25 cups = 1 lb)
Bananas $0.45/lb, market $0.18 per banana
Crushed Tomatoes $1 for 28 oz can.
Eggs $1.20 for a dozen eggs $0.10 per egg
Salt $0.99 for 26 oz. <$0.01 per tsp
Garlic $0.25 per bulb, or
6 bulbs for $1.25
$0.02 per clove
Vegetable oil $2.58 for 48 oz. bottle $0.05 per oz. ($0.03 per tbsp)

Banana pancake and chapati recipes are adapted from this cookbook. I haven’t figured out how many calories, grams of fat, and grams of protein are in these meals, but hopefully will get to it this weekend. Good luck to all other participants!

Comments

  1. I spend at least $500 per month on groceries and eating out for myself alone… If I had the discipline to spend only $1.50 per day I’d contribute to my savings so much faster…

  2. Very interesting to read and great to bring attention to the plight of the hungry around the globe.

    That said, your definition of “significantly processed” doesn’t seem right right – white rice and white flour *are* the poster children of processed food. The beans and lentils are great, of course. But you are really putting stress on your body’s ability to process that much refined carbohydrates. You might want to consider an affordable alternative, say, mashed steamed, frozen vegetables (e.g. cauliflower) in lieu of rice and see if you can afford to use grounds seeds or bean flour in replace of some of that white flour.

  3. I could never eat so little without being hungry all day.

  4. I find this challenge very interesting reading although I am not participating. Just want to cheer you on in your endeavor!

  5. Jonathan,

    I think if you goal is to make yourself miserable for a week you will certainly achieve it. I hope you are not trying to recreate “week in life of a poor person”. This sounds like a noble idea, but it’s really dumb (I might have the beef with the people who came up with it). Anyone can pretend to be poor for a week. After one week they will probably tell themselves “This was not so bad,” and think that poor people don’t have it so bad. This experiment leads to completely wrong conclusion.

    If your goal is to spend less on food every month, you are doing it wrong.
    I spend around $150 on food a month, without being miserable and eating a healthy diet that includes every food group (fish, meat, vegetables, fruits, dairy, grains).

    Bulk Stores are the key, since prices are 40% cheaper on average as compared to grocery store. Restaurant Depot is my favorite.

  6. That’s a challenge not only for the wallet but for the stomach as well. lol yeah, if I have the discipline to do that, it would really be easier to save. good luck!

  7. Jennifer says:

    Two questions:

    Are you feeling hungry with only three meals and no snacks?

    What would the exact same menu cost with organic food?

    Great job on not going super processed like Ramen. We go mostly organic and healthy; fresh fish once a week, whole grains, fresh organic fruits and vegetables with almost every meal and we spend about $1500 a month for a family of 4.

  8. michael s says:

    Here is a popular 2009 article from the Los Angeles Times describing the author’s similar experience.

    http://www.latimes.com/news/custom/topofthetimes/features/la-fo-stamp11-2009mar11,0,4218567,full.story

  9. Maybe I miss understood the chalange but I thought it was $7.5 total for 5 days. I don’t think unit cost is what they ment. Mainly because even if you buy 12 eggs doesn’t mean you can use them all before they go bad or get damaged. Your bag of beans already exceeds the total cost per week. The problem is that people living like this often live day to day or week to week and won’t have enough to buy like your doing. My thought was you had to goto the supper market with $7.5 in your pocket and eat for a week which was why I was so against this.

  10. Adding it up you spent around $33.28 when the goal was supposed to be $7.5

  11. Right, but if you scaled up this menu for more people or more weeks he would still be spending $7.50 per person per week. A family of four who spends $30 per week on food doesn’t give each person $7.50 and send them off to the grocery store separately.

  12. The rules of the challenge state – The full cost of all the items you consume must be included in your budget. This means budgeting for whole packages of food such as rice, pasta, noodles and eggs etc.

    Just using the unit cost makes the challenge a little bit easier since it allows you to have more variety. I’ve posted my complete shopping list on my blog. My meals aren’t as healthy but they’re easy to make and stuff I don’t think I’ll get too tired of eating for five days.

  13. Nice work.

    I think its more practical to look at unit costs. Its not like you should be expected to buy 1 carrot and one clove of garlic. But I wouldn’t be buying in large bulk either, I mean 10 pounds of carrots may be a bit much.

    Jennifer: I’d expect organic to run roughly 100% more. I did a sample of organic vs regular food prices a little while ago and its about double overall. Though it varies from food to food. The eggs would probably be 4 times as expensive but the carrots might be just 25% more.

  14. @Sweetie – I hear you… but rice, maize, and wheat are the staples grains around the world, and this is the cheapest form I can find them in.

    @J – Really? The banana pancakes lasted me until 2pm without being hungry. We’ll have to see.

    @Dee – Thanks for following along!

    @Dan – I think this diet ends up being similar to what other people eat around the world – mostly whatever is the popular carb in the area, relatively little meat, and probably not that much variety. I don’t think I’ll be miserable but I think it will show that your $150 a month budget opens a lot of doors to vegetables, variety, and just enough meat. What if that helps convince others that they don’t need to spend $500 a month on food?

    @KC – Thanks :)

    @Jennifer – I don’t know yet about #1, haven’t done the math for #2, I think for organic I’d have to do some more bargain hunting.

    @Michael S – Thanks, I’ll add to my Instapaper.

    @Jacob – You’re right, I read the rules wrong and got thrown off when they said you could prorate salt and spices.

    @Andy – Yes, I tried to keep in the spirit, but it looks like I might have to make some changes. I’m sure I could buy flour in a bulk bin somewhere, and my pinto beans are available in a 1 lb bag for more money. It just seems so unlikely that a someone with such limited resources would buy their staples 1# at a time.

    @Andy Hough – Thanks for sharing, I’ll add your link to my original post.

  15. Okay, I looked over the list and I’m sure I can still buy onion, carrots, rice, flour, and beans by the pound just at slightly higher prices. I’ll probably just adjust the recipes for less flour, rice, and beans. I’ll eat the other 2 eggs in my dozen. Garlic, salt, oil will remain prorated.

  16. I admire that you’re even willing to try this experiment. And I agree using unit pricing is a fair way to figure your costs. I’ll be curious how you’re feeling by the end of next week.
    Best of Luck

  17. Jonathan – Yes, definitely. Especially when I exercise. I wouldn’t make it to 10. I guess I’m weird.

    Just one note it’s possible that the rules don’t let you buy in bulk or whatever because a person of limited means doesn’t have the money (or storage space) to buy larger quantities of things. Not really sure.

  18. I just used myfitnesspal.com and it calculated the nutrition of breakfast to be 629 Calories, 95g carb, 20g fat, 17g protein. A bit short of 1/3rd of 2,000 calories a day. Will do other meals later.

  19. Yeah, the flour alone should be giving you about 300 calories, another hundred for the banana, probably 150 for the oil(?) … crazy math.

  20. You really just need to eat eggs and bananas which give you your full daily fat and protein fix. Cheapest foods on the planet and available everywhere. See the classic bookmonnthis Poor Economics — http://pooreconomics.com/about-book

  21. I think buying in bulk to save money is good and should be encouraged. Clearly Jonathan will not be able to accurately reproduce the conditions that accompany true food insecurity. Given that, I think an honest acceptance of the challenge means taking the parameters and using one’s own ability to do the best you can to live within them. Otherwise Jonathan’s not experiencing it for himself; he’s only imagining what he thinks it is like for other people.

  22. This sounds like a great exercise to try and live below your means. I think I might try this but not as extreme. If I set a budget well below my usual monthly budget and then force myself to try and make it work then I could possibly free up extra money for more important things. Good luck.

  23. Sir Barfsalot says:

    NO ONE DOES THIS. HOMIE GET A WICK CARD BRO!

  24. I love how thoughtful the commenters on this blog are and how every one adds something to the discussion in a meaningful way.

    Well.

    ALMOST all commenters.

    :-)

    I distinctly remember living on 7 dollars a week when I was an undergrad. Fortunately not for long periods at a time, but every now and again ‘at the end of the stipend I had some month left over’ (a popular quote then). My choices then weren’t as healthy as Jonathan’s here but for years after I knew exactly what everything costs. I bet this experiment will give you insights one way or another. Good luck!

  25. I have a little different view of this experiment. I think that gratitude is a key element of happiness (and restraining lifestyle inflation) and these kind of experiments can encourage gratitude. So I think they are a good idea.

  26. After realizing I misread the rules, I’ve made some changes in order to avoid buying things like a 10 lb bags of beans, even though in reality that would be the most economical. Instead, I had to find the places that had the cheapest bulk bins. Some prices went up, but some prices actually went down. I had to leave out the onion from dinner, but otherwise the menu stayed the same and under budget. Oh, I also switched to brown lentils which were cheaper than green lentils.

  27. This is another great post Jonathan. I took up the challenge and am copying your ingredient list this week. I ended up at about $2/day with the local supermarkets in Southern California. The lentils, pinto beans, and flour were about twice the price here. You must be a savvy shopper! I hope your lentil soup came out better than mine :-)

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