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Could you eat for $1.50 a day?

The Live Below The Line challenge proposes a 5-day grocery budget of just $7.50. Use this as a reality check for your own food bills.

By Donna_Freedman Apr 29, 2013 11:12AM

Logo: Groceries (Tetra Images/Corbis)Ben Affleck fans were all agog when the actor announced he'd be spending no more than $1.50 a day for food. Affleck and other celebrities (and ordinary citizens, too) will tighten their belts Monday through Friday this week as part of Live Below the Line, an initiative designed to raise awareness of global hunger and poverty.

The challenge is simple: Agree to spend no more than $1.50 on your daily grub from April 29 to May 3. That figure represents "the accepted global figure used to define extreme poverty," according to The Global Poverty Project, which created the challenge.

The cutback is also designed goal is to raise money for global hunger and poverty programs. Participants can collect pledges or donate on their own.

Even if you don't opt to join in, you could use this as a reality check for your own grocery bills. 

Think of it as boot camp for your food bucks, or a fire drill for your finances. After all, food is the most bendable place in the average budget. Knowing that you could eat on much less than you're spending now would mean a little breathing room if your finances suddenly go south (e.g., layoff or illness).

Obviously it won't be easy. A full seven days of below-the-line dining represents just 34% of the average weekly Supplemental Nutrition Assistance program (formerly called food stamps) benefit of $33.34 per person per week.

 

But you can eat fairly nutritious meals on a shoestring. For example, The Hillbilly Housewife's "$70 emergency menu" feeds four to six people for a week -- i.e., as little as $1.66 per person per day -- and even includes a little meat.

It just takes a little creativity and, yeah, cooking from scratch.

S-t-r-e-t-c-h-i-n-g that dollar fifty

The Live Below The Line website suggests eating lots of lentils, oats, pasta, rice, bread and vegetables, and splitting purchases with friends. A jar of peanut butter costs more than your daily allotment, for example, unless two or three of you share the cost.

Here are some tips to wring every last penny of value from that buck-fifty. Use these tips to get the foods listed below at the cost of one-tenth of a cent (or less) per calorie.

Oats.
Buy in bulk in the health-food section of the supermarket; they cost half as much than the ones in the cereal aisle, and you can buy small amounts vs. a whole box. Hint: Add a spoon of peanut butter and your breakfast will stick with you longer. Oatmeal also makes a good evening snack if you're still hungry after your 50-cent supper. Nutritional info: 5 grams of protein and 150 calories per serving.

Lentils.
Fast-cooking and versatile, this is some of the cheapest protein out there ($1.19 in the bulk aisle, $1.49 bagged). Cold lentils with a bit of olive oil, pickle vinegar, garlic, pepper and whatever vegetables you have on hand makes a good salad that's easy to carry to work. You can make a satisfying curry with a diced potato, one or two carrots, a little onion and garlic (fresh or powdered), a dab of peanut butter, cooked lentils, some curry powder (buy it for a buck at the dollar store or ethnic market) and any broth you have on hand (or just vegetable cooking water you've saved in the freezer). Nutritional info: 13 grams of protein and 180 calories per serving.

Vegetables. Potatoes are your best bet, due to their versatility and their frequent loss-leader status. (I just paid 30 cents a pound here in Anchorage, home of the Alaska Gouge.) Bake them in the slow cooker and serve with a side of seasoned lentils or other cooked vegetables. Carrots are cheapest; if you want others, buy frozen instead of canned (why pay for water?). Hint: If you boil veggies instead of steaming or baking, save the cooking water to add to your curries or soups. Nutritional info: 1 medium potato has 129 calories and 3.5 grams of protein.

Pasta.
A frequent dollar-a-pound loss leader -- and it doesn't have to be paired with tomato sauce. Tamar Adler's delightful "An Everlasting Meal: Cooking With Economy and Grace" has a recipe that uses just chickpeas (cheap when bought dried), a little oil, salt, pepper, pasta and optional garlic. The Internet abounds with non-spaghetti recipes, too. Nutrition info: 1 cup (just under 5 ounces cooked) has 221 calories and 8.1 grams of protein.

Bread.
Look for a bakery outlet in your area; I get multigrain bread for as little as $1.50 per loaf, i.e., less than 17 cents per sandwich. Peanut butter is probably the cheapest filling. Nutritional info: 2 slices multigrain bread contain 170 calories and 8.6 grams of protein.

Rice.
Add it to curries or soups, or make it a main dish by sautéing whatever vegetables you have on hand and adding cooked rice. Bigger bags cost less, especially at ethnic markets or warehouse clubs. But even a dollar-store bag equals 5 cups of cooked grain. (Incidentally, the last rice I bought at the dollar store was grown in South Carolina.) Nutritional info: 1 cup cooked rice has 205 calories and 4.3 grams of protein.

More food for thought

While in the supermarket keep your eyes peeled for "manager's special" (close-dated) milk, bread, eggs and fruit. (Meat, too, if you split an order with a friend and turn it into a stir-fry.) Some recent examples of my own:
  • Eggland's Best eggs, $1.49 for a dozen large, or about 12.5 cents each. Hint: Poach a single egg directly atop grits or leftover beans, lentils, stew or curry.
  • Six huge, day-old hoagie rolls for $1.39, or about 23 cents apiece.
  • A gallon of milk for $1.69, half of which got turned into homemade yogurt. Hint: Rice and milk makes a good breakfast or an evening snack.
And in addition to the foods suggested by Live Below The Line, I'd add these cheap comestibles:

Pinto beans. They cost $1.49 a pound in the supermarket, less at an ethnic market or warehouse club. Again, split an order with friends and you'll have plenty left over to make chili and burritos later on.

Cornmeal.
 As a broke single mom I had cornmeal mush for supper at least once a week. Call it "grits" if you want, or add some diced vegetables and a little cheese and call it "polenta." Cornbread is cheap to make and will turn a dish of seasoned pinto beans into a very filling supper. Buy it in the bulk section for as little as 99 cents per pound.

Ramen.
You just knew I'd bring that up, right? It's not particularly healthy but a Saturday ramen lunch won't kill you. Cheapest at warehouse stores and ethnic markets, but I've seen it on sale for 20 cents at supermarkets. Add diced vegetables to make it a little more nutritionally acceptable.

Frugal feasts for your financial future

Now consider this: Suppose you ate this way for one week every two months?

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture's "Cost of Food At Home" analysis, a single male under the age of 50 spends anywhere from $41.80 to $83.20 per week on food; a single woman pays $37.20 to $74. A family of two shells out $86.90 to $172.90; a family of four spends $126.50 to $287.50 (depending on the age of the children).

Eating on the $1.50-a-day plan would save you anywhere from $29.70 to $257.50. Multiply that week by six and you'd hold onto an extra $178.20 to $1,545 a year.

What could you do with the money? Lots:
  • Establish an emergency fund.
  • Throw it against consumer debt/student loans.
  • Add it to your retirement.
  • Start a college fund for your kid.
  • Take a vacation.
If money is tight right now, or if you have a specific financial goal, you could go the $1.50 route one week per month for the next year. As shown above, it doesn't mean going hungry; some mighty tasty world cuisines are based on rice, lentils, vegetables and beans. What it does mean is holding on to more of your hard-earned dollars.

Following the below-the-line regime even for a day or two this week could help you re-think the way you look at food. Specifically, you might choose to stop saying things like, "I'm starving," or "There's never anything to eat around here." Plenty of people in the United States and around the world say that every day -- and they're not exaggerating.

Readers:
Could you eat for $1.50 a day? How much do you spend now?

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48Comments
Apr 29, 2013 5:05PM
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Two rifle shells at $1.00 each bought two deer and 200lbs of prime venison in my freezer.  Heck yes I can live off of $1.50 a day and I'm eating natures most organic meat!

Apr 29, 2013 1:43PM
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The larger your family, the more cheaply you can feed them, per person.  It's more difficult to buy and cook cheaply for a single person.

Also, does the $1.50 include the fuel to cook your food?  Or the electricity to run the refrigerator to keep it?  Probably not.
Apr 29, 2013 1:57PM
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It would be entirely possible to not go hungry on 1.50 per person per day IF:

1) You cut most meat out of your diet.
2) Made lots of chili, stews, soups, pasta dishes & grains (and had proper means to store leftovers and freeze items bought @ or near their sell by dates).

My family of 4 has done it on around 275.00 per month for the past several years just using sales, rewards cards, a lot of coupons, shopping the clearance/near sell by dates and not being loyal to any one store (I shop Kroger, Marsh, Aldi, Walmart, Big Lots and Dollar Tree all of which are within a 7 block radius of one another). We buy plenty of meats and produce and due to our uber thriftiness really don't sacrifice much with exception of the time it takes us to prepare for our shopping trips.

Apr 29, 2013 4:38PM
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My parents lived through hard times when they were growing up, so they knew how to stretch a dollar when they became parents. I was fortunate to be raised on rice and cheaper meats and leftovers - and food assistance when much younger. I was fortunate to have great teachers, great schools, and caring, hardworking parents and an older brother that looked out for me. Because of all that, hard work, and plenty of luck, I've made six figures for a few years now and yet I still eat frugally. I try to make it healthier, but cheap doesn't have to mean junk. Rice and beans, lentils (beans and lentils are cheaper if purchased dry), eggs, chicken, stew meats, root veggies (carrots, potatoes, etc), frozen veggies, are the components of my basic meals. It's weird, but these are comfort foods to me, since they remind me of my childhood meals. You'll find your own way. Best of luck to everyone.
Apr 29, 2013 2:10PM
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Yes. Costco Hot dog and Pepsi, $1.50. Quarter pound plus dog, and 20 oz pepsi with unlimited refills. 
Boo Ya!!

Apr 29, 2013 1:11PM
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I eat for about $5 per day and have for a few years now. Even within that budget, I am able to eat lots of organic foods. I probably eat a lot less meat  than the average American though.
Apr 29, 2013 4:53PM
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The world we live in says its just fine that a very few among us has most of the wealth while so many try to live on $1.50 a day.I do not advocate a redistribution of wealth.I do feel that the wealthy among us should be actively working to end world hunger.It makes no sense to continue giving an endless amount of humanitarian aid.We should take the money and use it to encourage self sustaining farming and development of water and land so it can support the people living on it.In the us it is way past time to bring back manufacturing jobs and end the endless cycle of shipping jobs to countries that pay $1.50 to workers in the name of profits.   
Apr 29, 2013 5:14PM
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I live on about $3/day and I eat well!  However I only buy fruits and veggies in seaon..  I try never to pay more than 99 cents/lb for fresh fruit not including bananas.  I try not to pay more than 1.99 lb/meat.  I divide a pound of ground beef nhalf and use half for spaghetti made with homemade sauce and whole wheat noodles and the other half will go into chili or a beef and veggie soup.  Soups are cheap and healthy.  Whole wheat pastas are cheap. Eggs are cheap and sometimes I will have a boiled egg for breakfast and scrambled eggs with fruit for dinner.  There are so many ways to eat cheap and healthy mostly by following weekly advertisements, and stocking up when things like meat are marked down. We eat lots of oatmeal for breakfasts and before bed I make the kids oats with raisins, butter and a little brown sugar stirred in.  Sweet enough for a snack but still rather wholesome.  Cutting down to $1.50 a day would be hard but do-able.  More bananas for the fruit and a lot less meat!

Apr 30, 2013 5:05AM
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I am a single and I pretty much already do this, REGULARLY.  My weekly budget is $25.  It covers ALL my food, cat food & litter, paper goods, cleaning supplies and HBA PLUS 5L of wine.  I eat salad every day, veggies with lunch & dinner and a serving of fruit/day.  My standard menu is:

Breakfast:

Yogurt + fruit 2x

Cereal + fruit 2x

Toast + ? (cream cheese, cheese, PB)

Egg + fruit

Waffle or pancakes + fruit

 

Lunch:

Cottage cheese + veg 3x

Planned leftovers + veg 2x

Egg + veg

Junk food (hot dogs, pizza, ?)

 

Dinner:

Chicken + salad & veg 2x

Fish + salad & veg2x

Veg + salad 2x (pasta w/ veg, lentils, egg)

Meat (often ground beef or turkey)+ salad & veg

Apr 29, 2013 3:15PM
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Hillibilly Housewife grocery list includes $2.00 for 5 lbs of hamburger.  I don't think it's quite possible.
Apr 29, 2013 3:40PM
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Top ramen and vitamin C to keep the scurvy at bay.
Apr 29, 2013 8:23PM
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I find that going to local farmer's markets are the best place to buy food in bulk. It usually taste and looks better.

Apr 29, 2013 7:00PM
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Trying to compare what food might cost in the U.S. to a third world country is simply not possible.    In most third world countries where there is sufficient rainfall, people have their own gardens, they have fruit trees with fruit year around.  Vegetables are much less than the U.S.   They also shop everyday for the vegetables.   Most of the problem are in areas with a very arid climate with not enough rainfall for farming.   Drilling waterholes and installing turbine pumps is extremely expensive as is the fuel for running the generators.    We have a situation with simply too many people living in areas that cannot support large populations.    Rain may come for some years and people move into those areas and things go well for some years and then it  is back to normal with very little rainfall.   Simply giving the people food is not going to cure the problem, only in the short term.    If you are serious about solving the problem, then they people have to be moved to areas where there is enough water for farming.    Now how do you convince them to move and also what do you do with the people already living in those areas?  If Ben affleck is serious, then have it spend a week out in the Arizona or better yet, the Nevada desert and try to survive on any amount of money.
Apr 30, 2013 12:08PM
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Go fishing.  Make a camp fire on the shore.    EAT all you want for the cost of bait.
Jan 1, 2014 3:05PM
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A gallon of milk for $1.69!!! How old is this article?

Apr 29, 2013 3:15PM
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I can make a big pot of cream chipped beef (58 cents at Bottom Dollar), with two cups of reconstituted dry milk, a little flour, a little margarine, and a few slices of bread from Dollar Tree.  I make it for my roomies who are nuts about it.  It's very filling.
Apr 29, 2013 6:32PM
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I could possibly do it if I could pick different family members.  Some of them eat more than the others.(LOL).  But seriously, they are talking on a shoestring budget.  The recipes they are giving are actually going to cost you more.  Think about it.  For instance, Lentils- they suggest adding olive oil, pickle vinegar, garlic.  The spices alone are going to cost you unless you are growing your own.

 

Apr 9, 2014 3:43AM
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Living on $1.50 is difficult.  But while everyone is giving good advice, the fact remains, it's depressing.  I hate going grocery shopping.  Yes, I feel good when I can purchase 4lbs of bananas for .29-cents a pound because they're super ripe (I freeze them as soon as I get home).  But sometimes when I shop, I just finish and cry.

Things I purchase:
1) Ramen
2) Eggs
3) Rice
4) Dried Lentils/Beans
5) Cans of tomatoes
6) Flour Tortillas - instead of bread - I even make flatbread pizzas out of them
7) Chicken/Pork
8) Thinly sliced cheese
9)  Flour
10) Potatoes

Things that are too expensive:
1) Milk
2) Beef, Shellfish, and any meat not frozen
3) Anything pre-packaged
4) Most fresh vegetables (I do plant a garden every year)
5) Peanut butter & Jelly (I do make my own jams in the summer as fruit goes into season)

Wealthy people living this way is insulting to me - this isn't trendy or a lifestyle choice.  I wouldn't live this way if I didn't have to...but I'm making the best of it.



Apr 30, 2013 10:01AM
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NONE of you people ever lived on $1.50 per day, so your advice is worthless.  If you were that poor, you wouldn't have a computer to pound out your keyboard commando advice.
Apr 30, 2013 2:11PM
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Only if I refer back to your column of last week, about being at glutton on the free lunch samples at Costco.
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