An Experiment in Cheap Living

Earlier this week, I shared some of the highlights from three years of GRS articles about saving money on food. Brett from The Art of Manliness, who knows that I collect old self-help books, sent me an excerpt from Dio Lewis’s 1872 volume, Our Digestion, or, My Jolly Friend’s Secret. Here Lewis describes his “experiment in cheap living”, during which he spends just 54-1/4 cents for a week of food. This makes for some amusing reading. Enjoy!

It is now Saturday afternoon, and I will tell you in confidence, my dear reader, a little of my personal, private experience during the past week.

On Sunday morning last, I thought I would try for a week the experiment of living cheaply.

Sunday breakfast, hulled Southern corn, with a little milk. My breakfast cost three cents. I took exactly the same thing for dinner. Food for the day, six cents. I never take any supper.

Monday breakfast, two cents’ worth of oatmeal, in the form of porridge, with one cent’s worth of milk. For dinner, two cents’ worth of whole wheat, boiled, with one cent’s worth of milk. Food for Monday, six cents.

Tuesday breakfast, two cents’ worth of beans, with half a cent’s worth of vinegar. For dinner, one quart of rich bean porridge, worth one cent, with four slices of coarse bread, worth two cents. Food for Tuesday, five and a half cents.

Wednesday breakfast, hominy made of Southern corn (perhaps the best of all food for laboring men in hot weather), two cents’ worth, with one cent’s worth of syrup. For a dinner a splendid beef stew, the meat of which cost two cents. A little extravagant, you see. But then, you know, “a short life and a merry one.”

Perhaps you don’t believe that the meat was purchased for two cents? But it was, though. The fact is, that from an ox weighing eight hundred pounds nett you can purchase certain parts weighing about one hundred pounds, for three cents per pound. Two-thirds of a pound made more stew than I could eat. There was really enough for two of us. But then, you know how careless and reckless we Americans are in regard to our table expenses, always getting twice as much as we need.

I must not forget to say that these coarse, cheap portions of the animal are the best for a stew. The very genius of waste seems to have taken possession of me on that fatal day. I poured into my stew all at once, slap-dab, a quarter of a cent’s worth of Leicestershire sauce, and as if to show that it never rains but it pours, I closed that gluttonous scene by devouring a cent’s worth of hominy pudding. Food for Wednesday, eight and a quarter cents.

The gross excess of Wednesday led to a very moderate Thursday breakfast, which consisted of oatmeal porridge and milk, costing about two and a half cents. For dinner, cracked wheat and baked beans, two cents’ worth of each, milk, one cent’s worth. Food for Thursday cost seven and a half cents.

Friday breakfast, Southern hulled corn and milk, costing three cents. For dinner, another of those gormandic surfeits which so disgraced the history of Wednesday. Expenses for the day, eight and a quarter cents.

This morning when I went to the table I said to myself, “What’s the use of this economy?” and I made up my mind that for this day, at least, I would sink all moral restraints, and give up the reins to appetite. I have no apology or defence for what followed.

Saturday breakfast, I began with one cent’s worth of oatmeal porridge, with a teaspoonful of sugar worth a quarter of a cent. Then followed a cent’s worth of cracked wheat, with half a cent’s worth of milk. Then the breakfast closed with two cents’ worth of milk and one cent’s worth of rye and Indian bread. For dinner I ate half a small lobster, which cost three cents, with one cent’s worth of coarse bread and one cent’s worth of hominy salad, and closed with two cents’ worth of cracked wheat and milk. Cost of the day’s food, twelve and three-quarter cents.

In all of these statements only the cost of material is given.

Cost for the week, fifty-four and a quarter cents.

Of course I don’t pretend that everybody can live in this luxurious way. It isn’t everybody that can afford it. I could have lived just as well, so far as health and strength are concerned, on half the money. Besides, on three days I ate too much altogether, and suffered from thirst and dullness. But then I may plead that I work very hard, and really need a good deal more food than idlers. Not only have I written forty odd pages of this book during the week, but I have done a large amount of hard muscular labor.

By the way, I weighed myself at the beginning of the week, and found it was just two hundred and twelve pounds. Since dinner today I weighed again and found that I balanced two hundred and twelve and a half pounds, although it has been a week of warm weather, and I have had unusual demands for exertion of various kinds.

But let me feed a family of ten instead of one person, and I will give them the highest health and strength upon a diet which will cost here in Boston not more than two dollars for the ten persons for a week. Let me transfer my experiment to the Far West, where wheat, corn, oats and beef are so cheap, and the cost of feeding my family of ten would be so ridiculous that I dare not mention it lest you laugh at me.

And so far from my family group being one of ghosts or skeletons, I will engage that they shall be plumper and stronger, healthier and happier, with clearer skins, brighter eyes, sweeter breaths, whiter teeth, and, in addition, that they shall live longer than your Delmonico diners, each of whom spends enough at a single dinner to feed my family of ten for a week. And last, but not least, they shall enjoy their meals vastly more than your Delmonico diners.

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