How I ate for $120 a month as a broke freelancer

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It’s easy to spend too much on food.

Although I’ve since changed my dietary habits for the better (mostly by getting married and having a responsible wife who buys quality food and doesn’t want me to experiment with my health) there were a couple years in which I survived on less than $40/week for food.

Although it was good for my wallet (especially since I was freelancing at the time) I mostly did it out of apathy. I was fresh out of college and I hadn’t developed a desire for learning to cook new things.

I learned about the Stigler diet, a strict regiment developed in 1939 which calculated the absolute cheapest healthy diet possible through linear programming methods. By strictly adhering to this diet, it is possible to eat for a year, getting all the necessary nutrients for survival, for under $650/year. That’s around $54 a month.

Unfortunately the diet isn’t fun, but things could be worse (like starving). The Stigler diet mostly involves wheat flour, evaporated milk, cabbage, spinach, and dried navy beans and considers a 3,000 calories/day intake.

Now, I didn’t follow the Stigler diet because it sounds disgusting, but I did find that you can make some quite tasty, quick, and nutritious food out of some of the cheapest ingredients, like rice and potatoes and beans and eggs. I ended up spending around $35-40 per week on groceries. Here are some of the cheapest foods, ordered by calories per dollar:

FoodCalories per dollar
Rice2,320 calories per dollar
Angel Hair Pasta1,600 calories per dollar
Bread Crumbs1,556 calories per dollar
Potatoes596 calories per dollar
Ramen475 calories per dollar
Pinto Beans907 calories per dollar
Banquet sausages588 calories per dollar
Eggs566 calories per dollar
Whole milk451 calories/dollar

There is a common myth that spending small amounts on food isn’t healthy or that it requires a large amount of time. It’s not really true at all, since I could easily make a few extra servings and throw them in the refrigerator. Living on a 2,000 to 2,500 calorie diet involves mostly chicken, rice, eggs, potatoes, frozen vegetables, pasta, deli meat sandwiches, bacon, sausages, tortillas, cheese, milk, some fruits and juices.

I wouldn’t go back to this out of choice, but I would if I had to. Back when I was operating on razor-thin margins, spending only around $120 a month on groceries left me a lot of bandwidth to go out for drinks, coffee, road trips, and other luxuries. 

If anything, this proves that eating cheap doesn’t have to be unhealthy. Even if it’s not the world’s healthiest diet, it’s still cheaper and healthier than eating fast food.

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