I grew up with a single mother who made $12,000 a year, which means for most of my life, Vienna sausages and the bologna with the red ring around it were a luxury. My sisters and I never saw a dentist until we were teenagers, or a real doctor before we were nearly 20. And yet, as a full-grown adult, having to support my partner and kid on a $50-a-week food budget was harder.
Harder still? Hearing politicians continue to express sheer ignorance about the realities of eating while poor—or that pulling off a budget like mine is somehow doable and fair.
That was the case when Canadian politician Philippe Couillard spoke recently in a radio interview. When the Quebec Liberal Party leader was asked if it were possible to feed a family of three on $75 Canadian a week (that’s $58 U.S.) — even if it included two teenagers, known human garbage disposals — he said he “would think it is” possible. Oy.
As someone who spent a year feeding a family of three for around $50 U.S. a week, I can chime in here: It is possible. It just really, really sucks.
We did it with two adults and a 1-year-old who was partially nursed, meaning we were providing the equivalent of birdseed for at least one of those people. And — this is crucial — it was temporary. We were only doing it for a year by choice to avoid putting the kid in childcare, and until the job market looked up for my partner. With one person not working, there was also time to cook, which is a luxury. In many other families, both parents work and there’s still a limited income.
We did it by following a couple hardcore rules.
Make a Fucking List
Rule one of living threadbare is that every dollar must be earmarked for something, and the grocery bill is no exception. If you don’t have a list of exactly what you need and only that, you will go in ready to stage a hunger strike and come away with three packages of Nutter Butters.
Make It Specific
The list can’t just be breakfast-y things like eggs and bagels. It has to anticipate all 21 meals and snacks, including what ingredients are needed to prepare it, and what scraps can be used elsewhere. That means butter and cream cheese, and whither the fruit? Strawberries (too pricey) just turned into cantaloupe, and yes, you will be cutting it up yourself. Hot tip: Do it the second you get home, so that you don’t forget until it’s soggy and rotting.
You will be extending everything’s lifespan, actually: Who needs one entire bagel when one half will do just fine? Frozen fruits and vegetables are a travesty where I’m from, but they are easily half as cheap and last longer. No meal is just a meal, it’s tonight’s dinner and tomorrow’s lunch, but let’s be real: It’s the next night’s side dish, too.
The Question of Meat
Meat is a luxury already, but really good meat is unheard of on this plan. Unless you can chop up one Japanese Kobe Beef steak into seven meals, you’re eating chicken and rice, pal. But the trick is, unless you’re going to track coupons, which many thrifty budgeters advise against because it’s too time-consuming, you never know what meat it will be until you roll up and see what is on sale. This is a totally fraught experience that ironically offers the only excitement there will be in this endeavor.
If you take a gander at this woman’s $25 a week budget for two (!), you will quickly see that it’s pretty much just chicken. Breakfast every single day is oatmeal. Lunch every single day is peanut butter and jelly. Dinner is beans and rice, chicken and rice, baked chicken on rice, chopped chicken and rice, chicken and refried beans, chicken and rice, and leftovers—which means more chicken and rice.
Hope You Like Leftovers
One word: chili. Another word: twice. Another couple of words: Probably more like three times. It’s not that you can’t mix it up and make a variety of things when you’re dirt poor or dirt broke. Beans and rice are a staple around the world for a reason, and they’re easy to make quite delicious. Pastas are also pretty cheap and can be varied by simply changing up spices and sauces, many of which can be homemade. If you can whip up homemade biscuits, sure, you’re ahead of a lot of folks. But when you’re forced to it’s different from when you want to, and anything can get old after a while, and cooking every single meal gets old, and so eventually, even some of your most beloved cheap dishes wear out their welcome (like chicken and rice).
Cheap Beats Good
Brand names typically become a luxury, unless they just happen to be on sale or discounted. Brand names aren’t all they’re cracked up to be and are often little more than packaging. But pretty soon, you stop scanning for familiar packaging and just look for the rock-bottom prices. That means organic anything can fuck right off, and you may as well redirect your grocery route right past the deli meat.
Three Grocery Stores Only
In order to live on $50 a week, we had to go to three different grocery stores. Trader Joe’s to pretend we still had a little money, a nearby Ralph’s to get the stuff Trader Joe’s didn’t have, and a Mexican supermarket for all produce. That’s not an option for everyone, but in L.A., it is an embarrassment of riches where everything costs a fraction of the price it does at any larger chain, and much of it, like fresh-made tortillas and insanely low-priced produce, is as good or better as the selection anywhere else. Same with Asian markets, which offer rice and produce at a heavy discount.
But again, in a small rural town, even ethnic groceries are a luxury. Many folks in such places will split their groceries between their most affordable chain and whatever dollar store is closest.
Become Psychologically Bulletproof
The more you restrict yourself of anything, the more your brain will start to obsess with or overvalue whatever it’s missing. In psychology, it’s called a scarcity mindset, and it’s why crash diets make people binge-eat, or why right after the holidays we may splurge on crap after blowing tons of cash on gifts.
When you have to live super-lean and hard, you will find yourself fantasizing about all the stuff you nixed, like brand-name coffee creamer, almonds or avocados. I thought a lot about salads that year, which require too many specialty ingredients to make any good (or into a proper entree) on that sort of budget.
Again, this is much easier to do when you know it’s temporary. You have to adopt a hardcore, absolute-values sort of thinking. If it’s going to suck, it’s just going to really suck, and your mantra is that there’s light (salad) at the end of this tunnel (chicken and rice). But again, that’s not an option for people whose jobs already limit their budget and there’s no end in sight.
Get Ready to Fight
Money is already the most stressful thing in a relationship for most people, but even when you’ve agreed you’re going to spend it in a certain way, it doesn’t make you immune to disagreements. One of us was “better” at keeping to the exact $50 than the other, and one of us tended to get really upset after a while when they just wanted a nice coffee. One of us was fine slogging it out on chicken and rice five times a day and one of us would not eat the leftovers after a certain point even though it was clearly right there on the meal plan. Hitting up three stores is also time-consuming during your only leisure time.
Failing to understand groceries is a classic rich-person gaffe that reliably paints politicians as out-of-touch. But it’s horrifying for the rest of us when the lawmakers who could ease our suffering refuse to comprehend it.
After considerable blowback, Couillard conceded that living this way would not give a family a very varied menu (or meat), and that it would be “very, very difficult.” The average Canadian family spends between $140 and $250 per week on food, and Montreal food bank director Wendy Gariepy clarified that is only if every single meal is cooked at home without any special ingredients (no saffron, folks). Gariepy said the families they provide food for need about $75 (Canadian) worth of food every three to four days, and that is no meat, just milk, eggs and produce.
What happened to us? Eventually, my husband got work, our incomes adjusted up and we could finally go back to our “normal,” which meant shopping within a budget. We still tried to curb any excess, but without constant stress or pain.
The weekly cost? About $150. Give or take some Nutter Butters.