Extreme personal finance: Eating well on one dollar a day

Last Thursday, Ron Lieber (who writes the “Your Money” column for The New York Times) posted an innocuous little tweet:

This person will have book deal & Today show slot in 5 minutes. RT @marypilon Personal finance blogger eats on $1/day. http://www.grocerycouponguide.com/articles/eating-well-on-1-a-day/

To translate into plain English, Jeffrey from the Grocery Coupon Guide blog undertook a little experiment last month. In response to a challenge from his sister he “ate well” on just a buck a day, thanks largely to his awesome shopping skills and couponing prowess.

Because I love stories of extreme personal finance, and because I haven't highlighted one in a long time, I decided to take a closer look; I spent an hour reading about his project. Holy cats! This fellow's shopping abilities are insane.

If you don't have time to read the entire series, at least check out day one, in which Jeffrey documents the things he bought to get the project started. He photographed everything he purchased and every receipt, and describes exactly how you might be able to find similar discounts. It's great stuff. (Near the end of his introductory post, he gives a sort of table of contents for the project so that you can jump to the day you want.)

On that first day, he picks up two boxes of instant oatmeal, some cream cheese and some sour cream, ten apples, four boxes of wheat thins, a jar of peanut butter, two cans of pork and beans, a bag of rice, and two packages of tortillas. And he spent just $4.49 for all of this.

Here's Jeffrey's list of the ten things he learned while eating on $1 a day for a month:

  1. Grocery shopping is a game. If you're willing to learn the rules of the game, you can save big bucks.
  2. You can eat more than junk food on a dollar a day. Yes, more money lets you make healthier choices, but you can still make good choices on a tight budget.
  3. Drugstores can be a great place to get free food. Because it's so easy to save money playing the drugstore game, you can often score food for free.
  4. If you don't know what a catalina coupon is, you don't know about the most powerful discounts available. These coupons, which print at the cash register, can offer tremendous savings.
  5. Generic and store-brand items aren't as cheap as you'd think. Their regular price may be less, but you're not going to find coupons and discounts on them like you will on big national brands.
  6. Most people don't know how to shop to save. They decide what they want and then go to the grocery store to buy those things. To truly save, you need to build your meals around what's on sale (and what you have coupons for).
  7. It's possible to donate a lot of food while only eating on a buck a day.
  8. It doesn't take nearly as much time as you'd imagine. Yes, there's a learning curve, but once you know what to do, it's easy.
  9. Finding coupons is the key. The Sunday newspaper inserts are great, but Jeffrey says that the coupons you find in the stores themselves are often even better.
  10. Anyone can do it. And once you learn, you'll save big bucks every time you shop.

On the final day of his project, Jeffrey summarized his purchases. During the month of May, he spent $27.08 to purchase $597.96 worth of food. And because of the goofy rules he agreed to with his sister, he ended up donating a bunch of stuff to his local food bank. (The last post is entertaining because of the mistake he makes and then corrects; it had me laughing out loud.)

I like that Jeffrey has a realistic attitude about this project. While he thinks that anyone can do the same thing he's doing, he also recognizes that living on a tight food budget puts you in a precarious position: “The problem with eating on a limited budget, when the unexpected happens…is that you can't just stop into a fast food joint and grab a bite.”

Jeffrey was so pleased with the challenge that he decided to continue it. For the past week, he's been chronicling his continued efforts to eat well for less. (Though he's loosened some of the arbitrary restrictions he agreed to when he was trying to prove a point to his sister.) I think it's fun that his readers have started to give him tips and suggestions for finding other great bargains, which helps him keep his costs even lower!

Note: Here are some past GRS stories about extreme personal finance: One month as a freegan, How to pay off your mortgage in three years, The man without money, and the king of extremism, Don Schrader, who lives on $10 a day. Also welcome Lifehacker readers!

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Budgeting in the Fun Stuff
Budgeting in the Fun Stuff
10 years ago

That is crazy! I was just so proud of my husband and me going from $600 a month last year to $400 a month this year and this guy is eating for less than $28 a month…wow.

I joined the grocery game a few months ago but just couldn’t get motivated to organize as much as I’d need to be. The weekly time requirement and necessary shopping schedules (during sales from day X to day Y) lost my interest.

More power to everyone who pulls this type of couponing off on a regular basis!

JB
JB
10 years ago

I don’t know if I’d really go for this…I tend try to not let the perfect be the enemy of the good in budgeting, and I’d be afraid that something like this could blow a whole budget. The sheer psychological effect of going over budget on one item can infect the whole budget (you suddenly have less respect for your plan, and break things more often). And let’s face it…the vast majority of people are going to want a nice meal that’s not on sale every so often, or get steaks for their 4th of July cookout or the like.… Read more »

Nancy L.
Nancy L.
10 years ago

I usually don’t care that much for the extreme frugality stories, but I really enjoyed his story. I think I enjoyed the way he laid out his methods without sounding like a complete zealot most of all. Thanks for sharing it!

Khaleef @ KNS Financial
Khaleef @ KNS Financial
10 years ago

This is a very inspirational story! I can’t even believe that this is possible! I have never heard of the drugstore game or the grocery game – guess I have a lot of reading to do!

Andy Hough
Andy Hough
10 years ago

The dollar a day challenge has been around for a while. I tried it a couple years ago and didn’t quite make it and I didn’t eat as well as he did. Maybe with applying some of his shopping techniques I could do it but I don’t think I’ll try.

mmeetoilenoir
mmeetoilenoir
10 years ago

This kinda smacks of saving money over having any kind of enjoyment. I don’t know about everyone else, but the one thing I splurge on is food. I try my hardest to eat well, and I’d rather not let the supermarket dictate my menu for the day just to save some cabbage, lol. I’ll pass on this.

Lily (capital L)
Lily (capital L)
10 years ago

“I don’t know about everyone else, but the one thing I splurge on is food. I try my hardest to eat well, and I’d rather not let the supermarket dictate my menu for the day just to save some cabbage, lol. I’ll pass on this.”

I agree. His meals generally look unappetizing and not so filling…

Eating Well on a Buck
Eating Well on a Buck
10 years ago

I have to admit I tried something like this several years ago, but gave up. At the time I was really tired of frugal personal finance bloggers who did not care at all about their health and ate terrible food because of the cost. While I wasn’t as successful as I thought, it is definitely possible to eat well on a budget without eating crap.

J.D. Roth
J.D. Roth
10 years ago

Yeah, I should have mentioned in the post that I could never do this. At least not while I can afford to do otherwise. I’m not advocating that others try this, either, nor (I think) is Jeffrey. He’s just trying to show that it can be done, and that coupons can generate huge savings when used correctly.

If only there were coupons for comic books… 🙂

Steve
Steve
10 years ago

I agree that the deals he got were impressive. I’m still not sure on a per-hour basis it would be worth my time.

I don’t think anyone claims that store brands are always cheaper than name brands after sales and coupons – just that they are cheaper than name brands, and so buying them will save you money vs. buying the name brand without a coupon. It’s the Pareto Principle applied to coupons – 80% of the benefit for 20% of the effort.

Early Retirement Extreme
Early Retirement Extreme
10 years ago

Sounds like fun if not time consuming(?) I went for “boring” to beat those numbers in terms of dollars and time.

Total monthly cost: About $20. Total monthly cooking time. Less than 3 hours (includes doing dishes!).

Note that I don’t take any particularly joy in eating, cooking, or shopping, and just want to get those over with.

For those who have similar priorities, the method (see post below) is a pretty ruthless way of implementation.

Here’s the post http://earlyretirementextreme.com/2007/12/cooking-for-6-days-in-30-minutes-for-less-than-4.html

Philip Brewer just posted some traditional diets on wisebread that will beat even that.

AC
AC
10 years ago

He and I have radically different definitions of “eating well.” Yeah, he’s got some produce in there…but not much. And, at least in my area, the drugstore game isn’t going to get you anything other than over-processed crap.

Interesting experiment but as a long-term exercise in frugality, buying low-quality food isn’t the answer.

Christina @ Northern Cheapskate
Christina @ Northern Cheapskate
10 years ago

There’s actually already a book (been out for a year):

On a Dollar A Day: One Couple’s Unlikely Adventures in Eating in America by Christopher Greenslate and Kerri Leonard

This is an excellent book that talks about what we place values on, poverty in society and much more.

You can read my review here:
http://www.northerncheapskate.com/2010/02/book-review-on-dollar-day/

I think it is possible to live on a dollar a day – but you have to ask yourself if the time spent and the health costs are worth it.

S
S
10 years ago

This week, I am getting .89 Gillette Fusion Proglide Power razors and .33 bottles of John Frieda Shampoo/Conditioner (thanks, Walgreens). Last week, I purchased $7.50 worth of yoghurt (6 x 4 packs on a BOGOfree sale so 3 x 2.50) and had $7.05 in coupons – that is .45 for 24 servings of yoghurt. Yesterday, I went to the bread outlet store and bought namebrand, fresh bread for .50 (Roman Meal Wheat) to $1.50 (Miltons Multi grain 2lb loaf) each. .50 for 8 Dandee hamburger buns. There are huge savings to be had with no more than maybe 1 –… Read more »

Tyler Karaszewski
Tyler Karaszewski
10 years ago

That’s creative and all, but I was sort of hoping it’d be about someone more like this guy: http://www.vbs.tv/watch/far-out–2/heimo-s-arctic-refuge-1-of-5 He lives in a remote part of Alaska and gets all his food from hunting, trapping, and fishing. This just seems a lot more down-to-earth to me than playing elaborate coupon games. The coupon games work, but they feel too much like the crazy CDOs and other financial creations that helped to damage our economy so badly over the past few years. They work out for someone (in the coupon case, you) but still, someone is producing things and shipping them… Read more »

Suzanne
Suzanne
10 years ago

For me, the value in this story is that he’s thinking outside the box. Maybe I can’t live on $31 a month (and would never try), but it’s a good reminder that I should certainly be able to eat on less than $200 a month if I really try.

Nicole
Nicole
10 years ago

@12 Christina: Nice review! Sounds like a really thoughtful book.

chacha1
chacha1
10 years ago

I agree with Suzanne, and especially given that this is not Jeffrey’s general way of life but a response to a challenge, I think he went about it with commitment and integrity. There must be people out there who NEED to keep their food costs under $100/mo, who CAN’T grow/hunt/fish their own, and this is proof that it can be done with some work and ingenuity.

Adam
Adam
10 years ago

I would love to see a Canadian version of this! Although I don’t think its possible!

jim
jim
10 years ago

I’d be interested to know how much time he spent doing it.

Steven@hundredgoals.com
10 years ago

This is a really timely article for me, I have needed some inspiration to bring my food spending down! In the past I have tried a $10 a week for dinner “experiment” and I did okay, though I was over a couple of dollars on the budget. A dollar a day is a huge accomplishment! Thanks for sharing this, I will be checking it out to see what I can apply to my own situation!

Paula  Tokar
Paula Tokar
10 years ago

This is awesome! I use thegrocerygame.com – and it is a lifesaver!

DreamChaser57
DreamChaser57
10 years ago

Food is a constant budget buster for my household, irrespective of whether its groceries or take out. It’s always interesting to see how people save. I try to consistently get the Sunday paper for the coupons, although sometimes I forget. I typically save $2-$10 per bill, which is not chump change. Only problem is that coupons compel you to buy in bulk. I pay just want two Yoplait yogurts, instead of six or eight, etc. Maybe I just want a bag of pretzels instead of two bags. This is the only drawback, buying more than what you need can cause… Read more »

TiffanyW
TiffanyW
10 years ago

This in a nice story. I’m interested in knowing how many hrs a day he spent searching for coupons.

forty2
forty2
10 years ago

The problem here is failing to see the forest for the trees. Healthy, unprocessed natural/organic foods are occasionally on sale, but there are never coupons for them. Coupons are for processed branded junk. So go ahead and keep filling your carts with garbage “on sale”; it’s still garbage. You would be better off eating the coupon. Consider the long-term repercussions of eating manufactured food before you think it’s such a good deal: diabetes, heart disease, stroke, and more. Is my life worth more than $1 a day? You’d better believe it. I would prefer to live out what’s left of… Read more »

me
me
10 years ago

That’s impressive. I’ve wanted to get into the coupon queen madness but haven’t found the time.

One thing I do is have “a pantry/fridge week.” For one week out of the month I eat nothing but what’s currently in the house.

I find it’s been a good way to clean out the cupboards and the fridge. Plus you save on one week worth of grocery bills.

Lindsay
Lindsay
10 years ago

That is a pretty great story. But I feel like it’s been done before. The real challenge, like forty2 says would be to eat responsibly on $1 a day. Local food, grass farmed meat – is a little bit pricier than what you’d find at a normal grocery store. For the record though I don’t know that I’d pay more for organic fruit or free range chicken at Whole Foods. The organic food industry is industrial too you know. It has its own vices. The most environmentally friendly things tend to be the most expensive. Whole Foods didn’t get the… Read more »

Stephanie
Stephanie
10 years ago

forty2, you are my hero. There is not much of anything in this dietary plan that I would personally put in my body. Oatmeal, crackers, and tortillas? Really? This is a recipe for hyperinsulinemia and all of the lovely conditions that arise from metabolic derangement. There is very little you can clip a coupon for that is any good for you at all. Fresh lean grassfed meats, fish, organic fruits and veggies, nuts and seeds are all you need for a good, clean diet. This stuff never is cheap. And never would I suggest my clients eat anything but this.… Read more »

Kestra
Kestra
10 years ago

@ 24 – Forty2 – I completely agree. If you don’t have to scrimp on food, why do this? Food is one of the most important factors in health and well-being. Why wouldn’t you spend more on something that important? I also eat mostly organic, cooked from scratch, lots of local produce, etc. It costs me more but I’m supporting local agriculture, the organic growers and my own body. I’m buying in line with my values. Sure it could be cheaper, and I am pretty close to $8 a day, but that’s still cheaper than restaurant food, and I’m happy… Read more »

Kristin
Kristin
10 years ago

My husband and I are both PhD students. I’ve been couponing for 4 years. We save roughly $4,000 a year combining sales with coupons, stockpiling, etc. Over the course of 4 years–that’s $16,000. It takes about an hour a week, and it’s totally worth it! And no, our diets are not filled with processed junk as a previous commenter mentioned. (We are both marathoners and know the value of eating well!) There are most definitely coupons for healthy foods out there, and we take advantage of the healthful bargains!!!

finallygettingtoeven.com
finallygettingtoeven.com
10 years ago

My husband and i eat on about $20 a week, that’s 3 meals a day. I am a vegan so i live on mostly grains, soy & fruits/veggies (and no i haven’t died in 27 years from lack of variety or nutrients) I stockpile the grains, rice, soy, etc when on sale and shop from the ‘expiring produce’ cart each day at the local grocery. I also grow a garden, eating fresh in summer and freezing any extras. Hubby eats whatever i find in the reduced meat section and i round out his meals with grains, pasta, fruits/veggies. Chicken and… Read more »

John
John
10 years ago

How much $ and time did you spend playing this coupon game? How much fuel did you burn going to the different stores? How much wear and tear did you put on your vehicle? Also, time is money so do not forget to add those costs to the equation. Your Return On Life (ROL) is also a measure of this time. He spent X numbers of hours shopping this week, but only spent Y hours with his children.

Cooper
Cooper
10 years ago

The menu is pure junk food. To eat a truly healthy organic diet, my partner and I spend at least $600 per month.

I don’t believe in saving money at the risk of your health.

jeffrey
jeffrey
10 years ago

Thank you for all your comments as I always find what people think of this episode interesting. First and foremost, I would never suggest anyone do this as a way of life, but for me it was a good exercise to seeing what I could actually do and not do. I would hope that people that read it can look at what I was able to do on $1 a day and think about what they really could do with their current grocery budget with a bit of creativity while shopping. I actually spent very little time on the couponing… Read more »

Austin
Austin
10 years ago

For what it’s worth, right after reading this I did a quick google search for coupons and took a quick glance over the weekly ads for the supermarkets. I chose the store which had the most matches with the coupons. I was able to reduce my grocery purchase from $27.85 to $9.30 which is more than 60% in savings. It is a small financial victory but I think the valuable lesson is that even a small effort can produce significant savings.

Wendy
Wendy
10 years ago

This looks really interesting – certainly thinking outside the box. Now for a British version – we don’t have coupons like you guys do, although one lady did manage to eat for 50p a day (involved interesting tactics like eating nettles and 1001 ways to cook a lentil). The supermarkets do markdown the fresh meat/veg at the end of the day but unless you live right next door to a supermarket and can be there at the exact second they mark things down, you miss out.

Michael
Michael
7 years ago
Reply to  Wendy

Wendy – it’s worth investing the time to work out when your local supermarkets do the big reductions. You can easily get a generous week’s worth of food at about 75% off, so it is a viable way of eating, and you can include loads of fruit/veg/salad. Tesco in particular does crazy reductions at around 8pm every day.

Roger
Roger
10 years ago

To be honest, I’m suspicious of these sorts of claims about extreme coupon savings. Coupons seem to be at best an endangered species in the Sunday papers. What used to be newspaper coupon inserts are more like collectible offer inserts now – lots of offers for items of pretty dubious value, but few coupons. When there are coupons, they are more often than not for items we would ordinarily purchase. I suppose I should look at the online coupon sites more often, but my past experience is that the range of coupons offered on those sites does not even come… Read more »

Jason B
Jason B
10 years ago

I think some people may be missing the point. It’s clearly labeled as an extreme, so it merely illustrates what can be done. And saving money on your food CAN be done even without going to this extreme, and without sacrificing the healthy food you want in your diet. None of us is Lance Armstrong, but that doesn’t mean we can’t ride bikes and get exercise benefits from it. If you’re just throwing money at your grocery bill to try to ensure that you are eating healthy, I can’t say I agree with your tactics.

Lily (capital L)
Lily (capital L)
10 years ago

Adam: it’d be hard in Italy also. It looks like in the US there are coupons for everything – here you can’t find them in the newspapers, and the ones issued by supermarkets are getting rare too. They tend to announce the occasional special offers on some items and that’s all. I just bought some “get 1 free” stuff and I saved 18 euros, but as I said such occasions are rare. i wish we had more coupons here… 🙂

Mike
Mike
10 years ago

As I read this article and the comments, I wanted to look and see how this whole situation could be implemented into my family. We are currently a family of 4 (me, wife, son (3), and daighter (1.5). We are planning on expanding to a family of 6…yup, we want 2 more kids. So grocery bills are always a concern for us. My wife and I are both runners and we want to bring our kids up to lead healthy and athletic lives (if they so choose). So I try to take something out of every post I read. While… Read more »

fairydust
fairydust
10 years ago

I loved his final day mistake correction dialog with the guy at the store – that was priceless 🙂 I’ll have to go back and read the whole month – thank you for posting this!!

Kevin M
Kevin M
10 years ago

I’ve yet to see coupons for fruits, vegetables, meat and most dairy products. This is an interesting story, but it might be somewhat penny-wise, pound foolish when you consider eating this way long-term.

Slackerjo
Slackerjo
10 years ago

Coupons must work very differently in the US because I have never seen anything like this in Canada.

Chickybeth
Chickybeth
10 years ago

Katy at the Non Consumer Advocate is doing a food stamp challenge for June http://thenonconsumeradvocate.com/

Not as extreme, but still a good way to push your limits and creativity.

Ryan
Ryan
10 years ago

Thanks for the link–though I found his entries poorly written and hard to follow to a certain extent. An interesting idea nonetheless, though.

Andrew
Andrew
10 years ago

oh man, my wife and I spend around 700-800 dollars a month on food (restaurants and groceries) for just the two of us.

This is unfathomable.

While some people may like to save money for clothes or shoes or traveling, my wife and I just really like to eat, and eat well. (we like a lot of variety)

Katy @ The Non-Consumer Advocate
Katy @ The Non-Consumer Advocate
10 years ago

Very interesting. I’m currently in the middle of a “June Food Stamp Challenge” on my blog, The Non-Consumer Advocate. Readers are trying to spend just $101 per person for the month, which is the average amount that a food stamp recipient receives here in Oregon. Almost 20% of Oregonians are currently on food stamps, so this is a HUGE issue here. My family of four usually spends around $450 per month on food, which includes eating out, so it’s not much of a stretch for us. However, I am hoping to come in significantly lower than $404. I am asking… Read more »

Jennifer
Jennifer
10 years ago

If you read his posts closely you will see that he uses “overage” at Safeway and other stores to purchase produce and meat. Overage results when the value of a coupon is more than the price of the item. He used the overage from buying Kraft cream cheese and cereal to purchase more healthy items. So, although he didn’t have coupons for the produce, the coupons for the other items helped pay for bananas, apples, etc. This a a good strategy to reduce your budget. Also, he donated unwanted or surplus items to the food bank.

bp
bp
10 years ago

I spend $200/month on groceries for just myself, so Jeff’s story is incredible! However, I wonder how ethical it is for him to take multiples of those “bleepy” and “peely” coupons (the ones in machines in the aisles and the stick-ons). I am glad he donates a lot of those items but still…

Also I know for some of my local supermarket chains, they no longer accept internet coupons due to fraud.

Shara
Shara
10 years ago

I read the whole series and I find it fascinating. I’ve got a couple points to make: 1) He doesn’t cook. He is up front about the fact that before this challenge he had never used a broiler. It appears that boiling water is about the extent of his skills. Due to this at the end of the first month his sister (whom he made the bet with) says he didn’t meet the spirit of the challenge. The 31+ days are a lot more nutritionally sound and rounded. 2) I believe in many ways he is eating MORE healthy. Yeah,… Read more »

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