Thirty-Five Dollars A Week: Preface

I composed the tweet above while in the euphoria of a post-run peanut butter sandwich. The cost of my grocery run earlier in the week was right around $35. Enjoying my peanut butter on whole wheat bread while pondering that relatively small amount of money made me wonder.

That’s a great idea, and I am doing just that – writing a blog series about eating on $35 per week.

The $35/Week series is about eating on a $35/week budget. I hope through my efforts to show that eating well does not have to come with a high cost. I also hope to sharpen my self-discipline and learn a bunch of things – about food, recipes, creativity and about myself.

Another facet I am exploring through this blog is the food industry and American culture – as it relates to food.

Food is one of the few true necessities in life, yet affordable and healthy alternatives to junk food and eating out are often overlooked in mainstream thought – at least in my age and demographic. Being a single 30 year old urban professional male means a lot of conspicuous food consumption is being marketed to me every day. I also live in Boston, MA, a city with an immense restaurant, pizza place and bar culture.

My intention here is simply carve out some time and space to explore food from a practical standpoint – both nutritionally and financially.

To properly preface this series and how I will spend my $35/week, there are a few things that should be laid out.

Personal Considerations

1. I have no dietary restrictions. I am not allergic to gluten, dairy, shellfish, nuts, etc.

2. I have moved towards a more animal-free diet. This is for numerous reasons but one is simply cost consideration. Meat is expensive. That being said, I am neither vegan nor vegetarian.

3. I am a fairly serious runner – averaging 35 – 50 miles per week. This is a major difference between me and most people. If I was not so physically active I am positive I could get by on maybe $25 a week. That being said, even trying to keep very lean – I’m still consuming 1800 – 4500 calories per day.

4. Not included in my budget is $25/month for supplements. I am spending that mostly on multi-vitamins. Most other supplements are running-based: Tailwind, GU, gels. Whey Protein is occasionally part of the mix as well.

5. I am single – and the only one in my household. 85% of the time I am the only one consuming the food I buy. 15% is reserved for guests – so that is to be reflected in the cost and buying considerations as well.

6. I will likely eat out on average once per week. That will not be included in the cost. If I do eat out during the week – it will be noted.

7. I will prefer organic or all-natural to conventional (or unnatural – ha). My decision on which to choose will depend on cost considerations but I will likely spend up to 20% more to buy organic.

8. The goal is to eat with health in mind. If I wanted to eat ramen every meal I could spend much less than $35. That is not the point here.

9. I will accept and use free food. This does not mean I will take on a bunch of potential client lunches to eat for free nor does it mean you will find me dumpster diving. No, you will not find me hoarding samples at Trader Joe’s. But if there is leftover food in my office for the taking, for example, I may incorporate it. I would guess free food will account for about 2-3% of my intake weekly.

Current Inventory

It is to be noted that I am starting with the big advantage of existing food. The following is a list of food items I currently have in my cupboard, refrigerator and freezer:

Cupboard

Cuban Style Black Beans – 1 can
Tomato Soup – 2 cans
Refried Beans – 1 can
Fat-Free Refried Beans – 2 cans
Tuna in Olive Oil – 3 cans
Organic Pinto Beans – 1 can
Organic Garbanzo Beans – 1 can
Vegan Mac and Cheese – 1 box
All Natural Whole Wheat Bread – 1/2 loaf
Converted Rice – 1/2 pound
Egg Noodles – 2 cups
Tomato Basil Marinara – 1 jar
Stove Top Stuffing – 1 box

Freezer

Chicken Shu Mai – 1 box
Frozen Broccoli – 2 medium bags
Frozen Meatballs – ~2 cups
Frozen Peas – 2 medium bags
Frozen Hash Browns – ~8 ounces
Frozen Mixed Vegetables – 2 bags
Frozen Corn – 1 medium bag

Refrigerator

Lettuce – 1 medium bag
Chopped Onion – 1 cup
Cream Cheese – ~1 cup
Margarine – ~1 cup
Olive Oil Mayo – 1 jar
Ranch Dressing Dip – ~1 cup
Italian Dressing – 1/2 bottle
Organic Chia Seeds – ~6 ounces

Miscellaneous

Condiments – Ketchup, Mustard
Various Salad Dressings
Maple Syrup – 1 jar
Olive Oil – 1/3rd bottle
Frank’s Red Hot Sauce – 1/2 bottle
Sriracha – 1 bottle

Keeping my existing inventory in mind, I will be shopping at Trader Joe’s today for my initial week’s grocery – and of course, spending $35 or less. I would love to get your initial reactions from hearing about my experiment. Please leave comments!

34 thoughts on “Thirty-Five Dollars A Week: Preface

  1. The fact that you’re doing this in a major city (Boston), makes this all the more impressive. I’d personally like to see a photo of all ingredients, layed out by meal. That’s easier to ‘digest’ than a shopping list.

  2. This is interesting. My budget is $70 a week. Sometimes I do not get to spend all of that. Do you have an RSS feed?

  3. Hi Erik,

    I noticed that you are using canned beans and a lot of pre-made processed foods. Avoiding those can help save you a lot of money. If time is an issue, then cook in bulk and divide it into portions.

    Have you considered using dried beans? With a pressure cooker, it allows for simple, relatively quick, and delicious beans without the extra sodium and preservatives of canned beans, and usually for a much more economical price. You’ll save even more money in the long run by buying the beans in bulk. Most beans work great with some tomato sauce (or broth), diced carrots, and the right amount of salt thrown in.

    Also, try buying rice in bulk – those large 20-50 lb sacks of rice will save you a lot of money in the long run (make sure you get an automatic rice cooker to make things dead simple).

    Also, instead of mac and cheese – here’s a delicious alternative to the store-bought processed kind: make some plain old macaroni (the normal pasta you can get in 3 or 5 lb boxes for cheap, not the pre-prepared processed sodium-laden instant kind with flavorings), then mix/microwave a sauce of peanut butter, soy sauce, and rice vinegar (if you like), and throw in some cooked beans and/or finely chopped broccoli (or peas).

    You can also buy soy beans in bulk and make your own soy milk for good protein, and use the leftover grinds as something to add to homemade artisan bread recipes. (I like this method for making bread with very minimal effort.)

    These bulk buys can throw off your short term weekly budget, but will certainly save you in the long run. Happy eating!

    • Hello Andrew – thank you for reading! The advice sounds great, I will look into all of your recommendations. A big part of starting this blog is to evolve from what I have been doing into something better. Thanks again!

  4. Erik, great experiment to demonstrate that eating healthy doesn’t have to be expensive. I wish you well.

    We’re a 2-person household (myself and Mrs) in uber-expensive Silicon Valley, and manage to come in at approx $200/month ± $20. Or about $25/person/week. To be fair, we mostly don’t buy organic (unless it’s on sale), and northern California is blessed with fantastically cheap fresh produce. But again, we do live in one of the most expensive areas in the US, and the +$20 is usually when we buy alcohol (wine and beer mostly). We only eat out once a week or so and the meals we cook at home are almost entirely from scratch (except pasta sauce).

    Some things that work for us (some are obvious, some aren’t):

    1. Eating more fatty meals (good fats, like olive oil, whole eggs, almonds, avocados, real cheese). Fat is cheap, healthy calories.
    2. Buying rice and beans in bulk, like Andrew Wang suggests, and cooking them in a pressure cooker
    3. Shopping for loss leader grocery items (canned olives, eggs, bacon), at pharmacy-type stores (Walgreens, CVS et al)
    4. Making yogurt at home instead of buying it (real easy: just boil up some milk, let it cool, stir in a spoonful of yogurt and let it sit), and using it for delicious breakfast smoothies
    5. Bulk-buying granola, oats and other cereal when it’s on sale
    6. Buying produce in season
    7. No red meat ever. It’s terrible for you, your wallet and the environment.
    8. A great core of tasty, economical recipes (try Budget Bytes). My specialties are mostly Mexican fare: nachos, enchiladas, stuffed peppers. Cheap, hearty and delicious. Other favorites: pesto pizza (Clasico pesto sauce and homemade crust), delicious stir-fries and curries that use soy sauce, vinegar, coconut milk, rice wine, fish sauce and red curry paste for flavorings.
    9. No salad dressing from a bottle. We make our own (usually some formulation of olive oil, balsamic, parmesan cheese, garlic salt, dried oregano and Italian seasoning, feta cheese). I haven’t ever found a bottled dressing that tastes as good or fresh or is as healthy

    • Thank you so much for checking it out, Jay – and wow, your recommendations are amazing. You have single handedly provided me with a lot of food for thought – no pun intended! I’ll keep you updated when I do work some of these recs into the experiment. Thanks again!

      • Thanks. I’m glad my experiences are helpful.

        If you’re really interested, check out this blog post. It’s where we draw a lot of our food-spending inspiration from. The main idea of the post is how to hit a $1/meal food budget. The answer is healthier, and more delicious, than you might think. I’ve drawn a lot of my ideas from that post.

  5. I’m really looking forward to following this! Cooking healthy meals for myself has been something that has vexed me. It’ll be great to see how you go about it.

  6. Great. Look on YouTube how to make soy or almond milk. You can spend 50 cents on a cup of soybeans. And still keep up with a vegan like lifestyle.

  7. Last semester in college I tried to be frugal on groceries and probably averaged around $60 a week and didn’t really eat all that healthy. Most of my meals were frozen or instant, which are convenient but not exactly frugal all the time. I’ve also started running and working my way up to the 20-30 mile a week range.

    • Hi Brett – thanks for checking out the blog! I agree – convenience comes at a cost premium. Good luck with the running – I found gradually working up the mileage worked for me.

  8. Pingback: $35/Week Shopping: Week 1 | Erik August Johnson - Boston Software Developer

  9. It is scary that 2/3 of food you have is processed, and everyone agrees this is “eating well”. Is US really that bad?

  10. So is this some kind of GOP sponsored task aimed at providing justification for not raising the minimum wage? Or is it simply a fashionable dalliance into poverty? So are you now “down” with the poor?

  11. Woo! Developer/runner combo here as well. I’ll be following this blog really closely. Love the idea you’ve got here and wish you well. I’m so bad at cooking/preparing my own meals, I’m hoping this will motivate me to make some more of my own stuff. Thanks, and good luck from Ohio.

  12. I’ve just finished University, and am about to move in to my own place. Food budgeting has always been a concern, so I’ll be following this closely! It will of course vary, as I’m in the UK. But the principles are fairly similar.
    Is there a way to subscribe to new posts? You should do some sort of mailing list that notifies people when you add a new post :)

  13. As a single mom on a budget with some parts of the month “leaner” than others–thought I would offer some suggestions:

    Never shop at a health food store or a high end grocery store of any kind. Ever. No Trader Joes, no Whole Foods, never. The only possible exception: sometimes you can get a great deal on organic collard greens.
    When money is tight, never buy bell peppers, if you must, a single green pepper should be it. Red, orange and yellow are off the menu until you have more $$.
    Nothing organic, period.
    If you are lacking iron, steam collard green, buy beets and eat shredded beet salad or roast those beets. This will make it possible for you to afford something besides chicken livers. Sometimes you can get a massive bag of washed spinach on sale. Steam that, eat it raw, go crazy on it.
    Roast a whole chicken.
    Corn tortillas (er I’m on the West Coast, so those are cheap and plentiful here).
    Cheese–whatever is on sale. Cheddar, colby jack, etc.
    Buy dried beans and cook ‘em every couple of days.
    Rice is your friend.
    Green salsa is your friend.
    Canned crushed tomatoes are your friend.
    With the above, you can now make enchiladas and eat ‘em all week or quesadillas
    Bacon
    Save the oil from the bacon to cook with, makes everything taste good
    Save the butter for your toast
    Sorry, olive oil is a luxury unless you buy the lowest grade stuff. Use only for salads, don’t cook with it as it burns at low temperatures.
    Blueberries, even in season, are profoundly expensive. Go easy on ‘em
    Apples, oranges, bananas are cheap and plentiful.
    Cucumbers during specific times of year are too expensive
    Shredded carrot salad with head of chopped parsley, lime juice mixed with lots of minced garlic clove and olive oil and balsamic vinegar (cheap brand please) along with salt and pepper and cumin–this is a nice munchy treat. If you happen to have leftover specialty items like flaxseed oil left, mix that in for an omega3 boost in your salad. Good stuff.
    Plain unsweetened yogurt–you can add a sweetener or jam to make it a treat, or slice up apples in the plain yogurt. The sweet apples against the tart is pretty yum. That yogurt also doubles as base for a salad dressing.
    Cabbage–shred it with carrots, and beets and use that yogurt as a salad dressing along with a touch of buttermilk. Cabbage salad is a good thing. If you can cut up some bacon and add it to the salad it’s even better.
    Buttermilk for baking and salad dressing
    Flour
    Baking Soda–now make some biscuits!
    Baking powder
    Oats!!
    Sweetener of your choice (if you have shaved off $$ elsewhere you could maybe splurge on an “alternative” sweetener, otherwise get plain old sugar).
    You now have everything you need to make oatmeal for breakfast, or even some sort of cookie or granola bar.
    Meat…whatever you can find that’s on sale. Sometimes I find carne asada cut beef is shockingly cheap, sometimes it’s pork chops, other times we just go roast chicken for a week.

    • Amazing suggestions! I appreciate your wisdom – now going with green peppers. I’ll check out beets as well. Thank you again!

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