An Experiment in Cheap Living (from 1872)

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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Baker @ ManVsDebt
Baker @ ManVsDebt
11 years ago

Haha, I couldn’t take my eyes off of this. A neat story, especially considering nothing has changed in almost a century and a half.

devil
devil
11 years ago

Yeah, adjust for inflation and add about a hundred pounds to his weight and this could be written today!

Very interesting…thanks.

Sarah
Sarah
11 years ago

…then they all died of scurvy and rickets!

Melanie
Melanie
11 years ago

Oh my, not a fresh vegetable or fruit in sight! No wonder our ancestors had shorter more sickly lives.

Sam
Sam
11 years ago

I’d add a little frozen orange juice, a leafy green vegetable and maybe some fresh or frozen carrots to that menu. Then you’d be fine, especially if you also took a multivitamin. Those three things might have been luxuries to some people in 1872, but they’re not now.

In 1872 your stew meat would have arrived at your table a lot sooner than it does today, and it probably would have been more nourishing due to not having been frozen for long periods.

dreamin2u
dreamin2u
11 years ago

It probably doesn’t hurt to also remember the life span at that time was about 20 years less than it is today. Could nutrition be playing a part in that?

...
...
11 years ago

What’s 1872’s 54 and 1/4 cents in today’s dollars?

paperfiend
paperfiend
11 years ago

@ …
According to http://www.measuringworth.com/ppowerus/, today’s equivalent cost would be about $9.87.

Adam
Adam
11 years ago

I believe that is roughly $10, using this site

http://www.measuringworth.com/ppowerus/

Joey
Joey
11 years ago

@ Melanie and dreamin2u:

The primary reason people live longer today is because we’ve made many strides in medicine (see: vaccines) since the 19th century. When you don’t have tens of thousands of children (and adults) dying annually from polio, cholera, diptheria, tuberculosis, childbirth, etc, your country’s lifespan tends to increase just a bit.

Of course, the anti-vaccine crowd is doing their part to revive the child-coffin industry for us all!

Faerylandmom
Faerylandmom
11 years ago

On the actual post: Great article! Setting aside all the nutrition issues, I love the financial aspect of it all…we really haven’t changed all that much, have we?

To Joey:

Was that last statement of yours really necessary???

I am not for nor against vaccines, but there are some legitimate reasons *some people* have to abstain from vaccinations. Who are we to judge?

MM
MM
11 years ago

@Faerylandmom:

We’re the people that they and their offspring make ill because they don’t understand the science and believe Jenny McCarthy instead of their pediatricians. Herd immunity doesn’t work when too many members of the herd get other ideas. So yes, I’ll judge them plenty.

mare
mare
11 years ago

I enjoyed learning about the Delmonico dynasty. Thank’s for the link!

Kirk Kinder
Kirk Kinder
11 years ago

It is interesting this was written in 1872. I wonder if his diet changed at all in 1873 as the US experienced a horrible financial panic that year. Maybe he got by on 48 cents instead of 54.

As far as longevity, there are numerous factors including nutrition, vaccines, technology, water treatment, and even washing our hands. Plus, our lives just aren’t as hard as they were back then. Vaccines played a part, but aren’t the only reason.

Bill the Splut
Bill the Splut
11 years ago

I took exactly the same thing for dinner… I never take any supper. In case anyone is wondering (like I was), back then “dinner” was what was meant by a “late lunch,” supper was the main evening meal. Thanks for the Measuringworth link! I’ve always been fascinated by references in old media to money, and how it relates to its modern equivalents. I’ve used AEIR, but that only goes as far back as 1913. I am in total agreement with the pro-science, pro-health, anti-“anti-vaxxer” camp, and I could write a long post about why (short version: it seems the ONE… Read more »

dreamin2u
dreamin2u
11 years ago

Close but no cigar..about dinner. Traditionally dinner was the main big meal of the day, it was eaten at a late lunch time for us. Back then peoples schedules revolved around daylight much more so than now. Supper was a light meal taken shortly before bedtime, most often to help prevent hunger from waking the young during the night. I wish i could site a definitive source for this information but it came from my great-grandmother who passed away over 30 years ago. I still miss her and the stories she told us kids about when “she was a little… Read more »

Bill the Splut
Bill the Splut
11 years ago

Close but no cigar..about dinner.

I was going from a Wikipedia article (which of course are NEVER wrong! ;D). But supper and dinner are like soda, pop, tonic and coke, regionalisms that have different meanings about the same thing in different parts of the country.

I hope that I haven’t just changed this from a debate on vaccination to a debate of the definition of dinner!

hustler
hustler
11 years ago

ew, gross! Sounds like prison food! Maybe I need to take a good look at all the unneccesary food I buy, cause I eat a lot more luxurious food than porridge.

SG
SG
11 years ago

The diet mentioned in the article would almost certainly cause the vitamin-B/niacin deficiency disease pellagra if consumed for an extended period. Back in the early part of the 20th century, public health officer Dr. Joseph Goldberger ran several series of experiments with volunteers in which he fed two groups of people two different diets: one heavily based on fatty meats supplemented with corn and sugar products (primarily cornbread, hominy, and molasses) and one ‘normal’ diet with fresh fruits and vegetables. The corn-and-sugar-diet volunteers all developed pellagra, some so badly that they begged to be taken off the experiment. Before Goldberger’s… Read more »

dreamin2u
dreamin2u
11 years ago

No debate here… I AM from the south and am too familiar with regionalisms. That was really more of an opening to come back to the point: we can still learn from the past. The dinner comment just ignited memories of a wonderful person and I thank you Bill.

dreamin2u
dreamin2u
11 years ago

I LOVE this site… you learn so much besides just financial advice!!!

ABCs of Investing
ABCs of Investing
11 years ago

Hilarious – I love the way people used to write.

Sam
Sam
11 years ago

SG, they must have been eating a lot of fatty meat and not very much hominy then. Hominy and masa harina, both indigenous North American foods, are made using nixtamalization, which frees up the niacin in corn. Pellagra was apparently unknown among the Cherokees and Aztecs, though both peoples had a heavily corn-based diet.

shevy
shevy
11 years ago

This article reminds me of a very old TMEN article on eating for $1 per week. I went looking for it and finally found it, if anyone is interested. It’s on pages 20 to 26 of an article from January 1970 entitled The Freedom Way. I must say that I’m not impressed with the changes Mother has made to the archives. It used to be that you could go to the earliest issue and read through the articles one by one, issue by issue. No more. I had to try several searches and then reorder them from being based on… Read more »

Wilhelm Scream
Wilhelm Scream
11 years ago

I think his diet sounds so boring! So bland and unappetising. I mean, cracked wheat and hulled corn are nice once in a while but not every day. It certainly doesn’t sound very healthy. However, it is most interesting that such experiments of ecnonomy were being carried out in the 19th Century.

Karen
Karen
11 years ago

Interesting and funny! It reminded me of my diet during much of grad school–boiled rice & vegetables, occasionally with cheese or a hot dog. If you literally have zero funds until payday, a bag of rice and a handful of change will get you through many weeks.

Elizabeth
Elizabeth
11 years ago

So interesting to have such a different perspective on food . . . a voice from the past so to speak. It gives the term “variety” such a new definition. Most of us are blessed enough to enjoy at least several different kinds of fruits and vegetables – often every week. Back then you may see that kind of variety over the course of a year, but depending on your circumstances, you may not. It’s important to note that if any of the grains he ate were soaked overnight they would have a much higher vitamin content (especially the B… Read more »

dreamin2u
dreamin2u
11 years ago

Sorry if I caused an informational landslide. I was just wondering aloud how much of a factor nutrition played…. NOT insinuating it was the primary or even a major factor.

debtheaven
debtheaven
11 years ago

Have you ever read Thoreau’s Walden? You may well have, but if not, you’d probably enjoy at least taking a good look at it.

Cormac
Cormac
11 years ago

A diet of almost pure carbs – it would probably kill most diabetics.

But then, a High Protein, High Veg, Low Carb diet is never going to be frugal

(goes – looks at bank balance and curses)

That Other Jean
That Other Jean
11 years ago

Cormac, A high protein, high veg, low carb diet for a diabetic is never going to be CHEAP, but it can be frugal. Read the grocery circulars, buy the loss leaders that fit the diet, and learn to cook them in a variety of ways. Hamburger, chicken, eggs, and cheese are reasonably cheap sources of protein. Green beans and carrots are generally pretty good buys fresh; frozen veggies are generally cheaper, if you don’t get the fancy sauced ones. Seasonal fruits are a good bet–we’ll be up to our ears in strawberries next month, and wading in watermelons in July.… Read more »

Cormac
Cormac
11 years ago

@ ThatOther True – I used the wrong term; I make good use of my chest freezer – buying burgers, mince, chicken breasts bacon or whatever’s on special and freezing it so that I can have an entire week without too many “repeats”. Frozen veg are a god-send when you’re in a hurry … 250g “mixed veg” (mix of sweet peas, green beans, carrots & corn) can be microwaved in 3 minutes and eaten with some fried bacon or an omelette; all for under $4.00! It’s just that bread, pasta, rice and potatoes are that much cheaper … but in… Read more »

DDFD at DivorcedDadFrugalDad
DDFD at DivorcedDadFrugalDad
11 years ago

Always interesting to see that one can learn from the past . . .

Erin
Erin
11 years ago

Loved that article. Didn’t notice too much in the way of fruit or veggies, but his diet seemed to sustain him quite nicely – even while doing “muscular labor” (love it!). Thank you for posting this!

erika
erika
11 years ago

From a frugality standpoint, I found it very interesting that after being so extreme all week, he splurged on the final day. GRS talks a lot about balance for this exact reason – if you deprive yourself too much you’ll be more likely to feel that you deserve a “treat” and spend too much to compensate for the feeling of deprivation. It’s the same psychology that dieters and frugal-converts struggle with today!

Adam
Adam
11 years ago

” hustler says:
23 May 2009 at 9:02 pm

ew, gross! Sounds like prison food! Maybe I need to take a good look at all the unneccesary food I buy, cause I eat a lot more luxurious food than porridge.”

Funny you should mention that. Lobster used to be prison food (In that region). It was seen as something only prisoners and poor people would eat because they considered it a bottom feeder.

Also, speaking from experience, yes, the high protien low carb diet is NOT cheap. Meat prices seem to have doubled in the last year 🙁

Jason
Jason
11 years ago

I think this guy must be one of Trent’s (thesimpledollar) ancestors!

Frank Stallone
Frank Stallone
11 years ago

Wonderful story, and to think I thought my $2 salads for lunch were cheap, that equates to $10 a week just for lunch alone! Oh yeah inflation. =)

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