A single food-stamp recipient in Central Florida receives $162 per month; I usually spend at least double that on food. But then, I don’t buy a lot of processed foods, I try to buy organic, and I tend to buy luxury items like Hass avocados, wild blueberries, kalamata olives and lots of nuts. All those factors drive up the price of groceries. Also, my boyfriend is a vegan, so shared meals often include things like Morningstar faux chicken tenders or Gimme Lean soy sausage, and fakes can be more expensive than the real thing. And I eat out (especially lunch) regularly.
So I wondered if I could subsist for 30 days on the food stamp allotment without resorting to Wal-Mart, Hamburger Helper or the drive-through dollar menu. I put $162 in cash in an envelope and started the experiment.
First shopping trip(s) I haven’t really thought this through, but I need to get started, so I go with some old standbys: veggie couscous, quesadillas, beans and rice, and Top Ramen, of course. Guilty secret: I actually like ramen, or at least I remember liking it in college.
I go to Publix and buy tortillas, two cans of black beans, two packages of shredded cheese (on sale), green onions, cilantro, salsa, a six-pack of ramen, a box of couscous, a cucumber, grape tomatoes, a green pepper, feta cheese, frozen broccoli, organic instant oatmeal packets, strawberries (on sale), a ginger root, Smart Balance microwave popcorn (on sale), a bag of Texmati rice, a lemon, two cans of chickpeas and an onion, going for store brands or stuff on sale whenever possible (total: $43.06).
I also go to Sacks (6013 Edgewater Drive, 407-447-4495), which specializes in ultra-cheap, close-to-(and sometimes past)-expiration date foodstuffs. It’s usually a great place for canned goods, but you never know what you’ll find. I got a can of soup, two cans of black olives, a jar of honey, a box of linguini (a fancy Italian brand I can usually only find at Whole Foods), three onions, three heads of garlic and the biggest score: a box of frozen tilapia fillets with artichoke-and-pistachio pesto that usually goes for $7.29 at Publix (I’ve bought it before), here only $1.88 – I later figured out that it was because the package design had changed (total: a whopping $7.45).
Out of my $162 allowance, I have $111.49 left.
Day 1 (Monday) Breakfast: oatmeal packet. Lunch: quesadilla (two tortillas, cheese, black beans, salsa, green onions, cilantro). Dinner: veggie couscous (couscous, cucumber, green pepper, tomatoes, feta). So far, so good.
Day 2 B: oatmeal packet. L: veggie couscous leftovers. D: ramen. I was wrong about liking it … it’s OK, but no treat. Also, eat some strawberries while watching TV.
Day 3 B: veggie couscous leftovers. Yeah, that’s right, I eat leftovers for breakfast. L: quesadilla. Burn one side, but eat it anyway … can’t afford to toss it. D: tilapia fillet, broccoli, strawberries. The fish is great, but I would prefer fresh broccoli.
Day 4 B: oatmeal packet. Making oatmeal from scratch would probably be cheaper, but who has the time? OK, I’m lazy. L: quesadilla. Definitely don’t usually eat cheese this often. It’s making me feel sluggish, and my stomach hurts – not in a gross bathroom-issues way, more of a burning-pit-of-stomach way. Perhaps my body doesn’t use these particular digestive enzymes very often. D: the other tilapia fillet, broccoli, strawberries.
Day 5 B: oatmeal packet. L: ramen. I cut up some green onions in it this time. Still blah. Snack: bottled Starbucks frappucino from office vending machine ($1). I was strong for four days, but the old snacky habits overcame my willpower. Now I have $110.49 left. D: chana masala (chickpeas, onion, a bunch of spices from my pantry – is that cheating? – cilantro, lemon juice), rice, strawberries.
Day 6 Saturday … wake up late. Biggish lunch ends up being my first meal: quesadilla, rice and beans with green onions. Urg. D: garden rolls with peanut sauce (free). A friend comes over to watch DVDs and brings takeout from Anh Hong. I don’t pay for the rolls, but I share some microwave popcorn after dinner.
Day 7 B: I go to Ethos for brunch, order biscuits and gravy and coffee ($7.70). Feel guilt; I’m not supposed to be eating out. L: the last of the quesadillas. (There are still a couple of tortillas left.) D: ramen, sort of. I doctor it up by draining most of the water and mixing broccoli and peanut sauce left over from yesterday’s garden rolls (thrifty!) into the noodles.
Day 8 (Monday) B: oatmeal. L: chana masala with rice (leftovers). Afternoon snack: “office mocha”: I mix a packet of (free) hot chocolate into a cup of (free) coffee. D: can of soup, last of the strawberries.
Day 9 B: oatmeal. L: Publix sub ($5.29): I forgot to bring my lunch and didn’t have time to go home and make something. D: chana masala leftovers.
Day 10 B: oatmeal. L: last of the chana masala leftovers (no rice). Sad me. This is not a lot of food. Supplement with “office mocha.” D: ramen, broccoli on side. This time I add toasted sesame oil and sesame seeds from my pantry. Cheating? Don’t care.
Time for another shopping trip. I have a lot of stuff left over from the first one, but for the next 10 days I buy a can of tuna, a block of tofu, a small jar of capers, a loaf of sandwich bread (whole-grain; I just can’t bring myself to go total cheapo), store-brand Swiss cheese (8 slices), two Nancy’s frozen quiches (on sale, two for $4), a jar of pickles, two sticks of butter, a bag of apples (12), more instant oatmeal, four Roma tomatoes, frozen spinach, mustard and raisins. I also buy some red lentils, but I have to go to Chamberlin’s for them. Total: $32.65. I have $64.85 left (gulp).
Day 11 B: oatmeal. S: apple slices. L: grilled cheese sandwich with mustard and dill pickle. A childhood favorite. (I live close enough to work that I can go home to make lunch.) D: linguini with tuna, capers, garlic and black olives.
Day 12 B: oatmeal, cup of Earl Grey. (Tea: another office freebie.) S: apple slices. L: pasta leftovers. D: grilled cheese, pickle. S: popcorn.
Day 13 B: tofu scramble (half-block of tofu, half-box of spinach, garlic, caramelized onions). Eat half with slightly stale tortilla, toasted. L: grilled cheese, pickle. D: I go to Bikkuri for dinner: tempura shrimp roll plus half avocado-asparagus-cucumber roll; boba tea (a splurge at $10.99).
Day 14 B: leftover tofu scramble with last tortilla. L: grilled cheese, pickle. D: dal (red lentils, onion, tomato, fresh ginger and various spices), rice; dessert: baked apple with raisins and honey.
Day 15 (Monday) B: last of the pasta. Yes, leftovers for breakfast again. L: grilled cheese, pickle. S: apple. D: leftover dal, rice.
Day 16 B: oatmeal. S: “office mocha.” L: last of the dal, with rice. S: apple. D: grilled cheese with tomato (need to use ’em up), pickle.
Day 17 B: Chick-fil-A chicken biscuit, hash browns, coffee. My inner junk-food junkie is howling after two and a half weeks, and these coupons came in the mail … the biscuit was free with purchase of hash browns and coffee ($2.29). Skip lunch (fried food for breakfast is plenty calorific; no “food insecurity” here). D: stir-fried tofu and broccoli with ginger, rice; dessert: baked apple with raisins and honey.
Day 18 B: oatmeal. L: leftover stir-fry. Not a good leftover. It’s limp and nasty, even doused in soy sauce. I toss it and hit the vending machine … S: pretzels (75 cents), can of ginger ale (50 cents). D: grilled cheese with tomato, pickle.
Day 19 B: “office mocha.” Breakfast of champions! L: last of the grilled cheese sandwiches; this may be infantile of me, but I’m not even tired of them. S: apple. D: I get Garden Café takeout: vegetarian lamb satay ($8.95). Budget blown?
Last 10 days: I have $41.37 left. Tons of stuff left over from previous shopping, though. I buy some granola, a quart of milk, another can of tuna, a pint of grape tomatoes, four red potatoes, cauliflower, a lime, a red onion, a can of coconut milk, store-brand frozen blueberries (on sale), frozen broccoli and a big splurge: a loaf of olive bread from the bakery (total: $25.16). $16.21 left in the envelope. Yikes.
Day 20 B: granola, milk, blueberries. L: leftover lamb satay from night before. D: red-lentil soup (lentils, red onion, fresh ginger, coconut milk, lime), two slices olive bread. No hardship, this is one of my favorite meals. S: apple with honey.
Day 21 B: buttered toast with apple slices, honey. L: lentil soup. D: Again, a friend comes over with dinner. I don’t pay, but I contribute “bruschetta” (toasted olive bread slices, chopped tomato, garlic, red onion, olive oil).
Day 22 (Monday) B: granola, milk, blueberries. L: open-face tuna sandwich (one slice olive bread plus tuna and diced pickle mixed with a couple of mayonnaise packets surreptitiously lifted at 7-Eleven). D: lentil soup, one slice of bread, sautéed apple and onion.
Day 23 B: oatmeal. L: leftover tuna on one slice of bread. S: Raging PMS commences. I buy and scarf down a small can of sour-cream-and-onion Pringles ($1.19). D: ramen. MSG is important when you’re broke. S: Around 9, still feeling bingey, I walk over to 7-Eleven and buy a $1 package of almonds and a big Cadbury toffee bar off the markdown table (79 cents … that’s a lot of chocolate for the money).
Day 24 B: oatmeal. L: Still craving salt and sugar. Use another Chick-fil-A coupon for a free chicken sandwich with waffle fries and drink ($2.77). I don’t agree with their politics, but they make a damn fine sandwich. D: lentil soup, last two slices of bread. S: the other half of the toffee bar.
Day 25 B: granola/milk. L: lentil soup, rice. D: frozen quiche, broccoli.
Day 26 B: granola/milk. L: Forgot lunch again. Go to Empire Szechuan ($5.25). Five bucks and change left, three and a half days to go. S: apple slices. So sick of apples. D: last of the lentil soup. S: last bag of popcorn.
Day 27 B: granola/milk. L: “tato mato” (a recipe from the cookbook I Like Food, Food Tastes Good contributed by John Darnielle of the Mountain Goats, comprising potatoes, tomatoes, rice and cauliflower fried in butter. Basically a sautéed starch sludge, but it’s true: Butter makes everything taste good). S: last apple. D: last packet of ramen. I’ve eaten a lot of food in packets this month.
Day 28 B: end of the granola, end of the milk. L: last quiche, end of the broccoli. D: tato mato leftovers. S: blueberries. These blueberries are tasteless ice blobs compared to the wild ones I usually buy.
Day 29 B: oatmeal. L: Forgot lunch, too busy to leave work. Order in sandwich from Pita Pit ($5). D: tato mato with spinach mixed in. Sick of it, but with this budget there’s no abandoning leftovers because you’re sick of them, or “forgetting” them in the back of the fridge …. S: blueberries.
Day 30 B: oatmeal. L: last of the tato mato. D: Cupboard is bare: buttered rice with spinach and honey, blueberries. (Dickensian!)
It wasn’t pretty, but I did it with a bit of change left over. Although I probably snacked less (or more healthily) and definitely ate out less, the budget drove me to fast food twice – it’s cheaper than Veggie Booty. (Also, probably thanks to all those grilled cheese sandwiches, I gained a couple of pounds.) If I hadn’t eaten mostly vegetarian, I’d have been screwed; beans and lentils and cheese constituted most of my protein this month.
I really missed stuff like hummus and walnuts and asparagus, which were way out of my price range. Still, I splurged at the market now and then (organic granola, bakery bread), and I ate out or got takeout eight times. In fact, I expected this experiment to prove how difficult it would be to live on the food-stamp allowance, but all it did was make me ashamed of myself for habitually spending so much – this wasn’t exactly a hardship diet. There are plenty of thrifthounds online, obsessively documenting their frugal, ultra-balanced meals, but I’d like to think this diary was bit more realistic. Sometimes your boyfriend buys dinner. Sometimes you skip breakfast. Sometimes you eat junk food … that’s life.
If you're interested in any of the (extremely frugal) dishes I lived on during my monthlong food-stamp challenge, visit our new food blog, Salivation Army, for email@example.com