Last month, I joined the ranks of unemployed college grads. Unlike many of my fellow students, however, I decided not to move back to my childhood bedroom. I helped pay my tuition by going through the work-study program at Northeastern (including a six-month co-op at the Globe), so I felt confident I could find work. I signed a sublease in Boston and hoped at least part-time work would come my way by the end of September — and it did (a part-time coffee shop job).
This lease required some serious budget management. I paid my credit card bill in full, submitted a check for my remaining tuition bill, paid my September rent, put aside rent for October, and then realized I had less than $200 to my name. According to my budget, I had to eat and live off less than $7 a day. Realistically, I had to keep my food budget to $5 a day, so I had a little leftover for something fun on the weekends.
Welcome to my world of beans, rice, pasta, and ramen — but not every day. I’m pleased with what I’ve been doing for the last month. I developed easy ways to spruce up cheap meals. Here’s a good trick: Add a soft-cooked egg and frozen mixed veggies to a package of ramen noodles to completely transform it. Now I have a number of similar ideas, all with the notion of getting protein and variety three times a day.
This comes with understanding and supportive parents. They sent me back to Boston with a large care package. Nobody took me grocery shopping, but I did get goodies from the pantry, freezer, and overflowing garden. Additionally, I have nice friends who are happy to share or trade meals now and then. My family has been a huge help and made it easier to stick to my budget and allowed me to be under budget at times. But even without their pantry starter kit, I could have kept to the $7/day budget because I’ve done the math on the meals I’ve been cooking, including the costs of items I didn’t pay for.
One technique I’ve been using is to plan ahead. I stopped throwing out the flier that lists the weekly sales at my local supermarket. I take an inventory of my food, and make a grocery list based on a week’s worth of meal ideas inspired by items I already have. I do very selective shopping, or just look for substitutes in the cupboard.
I also shop at multiple stores. Trader Joe’s is cheap for some frozen goods, coffee, and bread. At Asian supermarkets, produce, tea, spices, and sauces are inexpensive. One item I buy in Chinatown is garlic, which is generally 99 cents for a sleeve of bulbs.
The most obvious way to save is to cut back on meat consumption. I’ve been meat-free before (I once wrote a story for the Globe about being an ex-vegetarian who loves bacon). Some vegetarian protein sources are cheaper than meat. I’ve also been eating a lot of tofu, and bean and brown-rice fajitas. A can of beans is around 80 cents if you get the house brand, and a package of tofu is about $1.30 (Chinatown).
This year, my dad bought shares of meat from a farm in upstate New York. Like others who buy shares or CSAs, he had too much. He stocked my freezer with pork chops, pork steaks, ground pork, and ground beef. Even at the grocery store, pork and ground meat are relatively inexpensive and could fit into my budget. My other go-to protein is canned tuna. I did see the report last week about young children and mercury in tuna, and I’m trying to limit my consumption. But I do like it with mayo and chopped veggies and added to macaroni salad.
One technique that’s been helpful is to make a big pot of soup at the beginning of the week and eat it for many days. My essential healthy pot is lentil-vegetable. I bought a 1-pound bag of lentils on sale for about 40 cents, and made a pot with eight servings. I developed my own recipe by combining a few different recipes I found online and mostly using vegetables I got from my mom’s garden and pantry. Kale was one of the few ingredients I went out to purchase; my mom adds it to her lentil soup and I liked the idea.
Let me take a moment to expound upon the virtues of kale. It is a cheap and tasty leafy green that is easy to incorporate into a huge variety of dishes. I substitute it for seaweed in my other favorite soup, a spicy tofu-miso-noodle bowl. I saute it and add it to a cheese omelet, or cook it with bacon and garlic. It can replace spinach, broccoli, Swiss chard, or pretty much any other green, all for 99 cents a pound (one large head, which serves four, costs about 75 cents).
I’ve made some major changes in my lifestyle. I stopped eating out. I’m not buying coffee, cold drinks, meals, or snacks away from home and I always plan ahead. I pack a meal or snack and a water bottle when I leave the house for a few hours. I stopped buying what I now consider unnecessary groceries: orange juice, desserts, crackers, and basically anything I don’t really need. I make instant lemonade in place of OJ and satisfy my sweet tooth by snacking on squares of chocolate (from my care package).
I do miss getting my iced caffeine fix while out. But I’ve been brewing green iced tea and Thai iced tea, another Chinatown find, which I make with evaporated milk and sugar. At home, these drinks cost about 25 cents a cup, or less. I brew strong coffee and tea in large batches and keep them in pitchers in the fridge to drink throughout the week. Before I leave the house, I fill my to-go cup, add a straw, and get the same satisfaction as buying a drink in a cafe.
Maybe even more, because I made it myself and I know how little I spent.