It turns out that eating on $2 a day is more than possible.
I know because I tried it in January. I was inspired by a young Elon Musk, who challenged himself to a minimal food budget as a teenager to see if he had what it takes to be an entrepreneur.
I don’t recommend this tedious lifestyle if you can help it (and neither does Musk), but if you decide to take the "Elon Musk challenge" — or if you’re looking to lower your monthly grocery bill — here are my nine best tips.
1. Where you shop matters.
Luxury or organic grocery stores are out of the question — that’s obvious. I also learned to stay away from certain, major supermarket chains. During week one, I popped into Gristedes and Food Emporium to do a bit of price comparison. While I didn’t look at many products, there seemed to be enough of a price discrepancy between them and my go-to spot: the famously affordable Trader Joe’s. Pasta, for example, cost about $1.60 at Gristedes (compared to $.99 at Trader Joe’s) — and with a $2-a-day budget, every cent matters.
If you have an accessible Aldi, that chain tends to be even cheaper than Trader Joe’s. Also, if I were to do it all over, I would’ve looked for steals at local markets, which I’ve heard have unbeatable prices.
2. Use cash.
When you have to stick to a tight budget, ditching your plastic cards for cash can make a world of difference. For one, you get a better idea of exactly how much money you’re spending and how much you have remaining in your budget. Plus, there’s something about physically handing over bills — watching your money disappear right before your eyes — that causes you to value it more.
At the start of January, I set aside exactly $62 in cash. After every trip to the grocery store, I would count my bills and ensure I was at (or below) my budget. The strategy worked — at the end of the month, I even had $1.07 to spare.
3. Stick to the basics.
Don’t expect to whip up complex (or savory) meals. Pasta will quite literally mean plain pasta and oatmeal will quite literally mean plain oats. If you want enough calories to subsist on, flavor enhancers probably won’t fit in the budget, so you might as well accept that everything is going to be considerably bland.
That being said, I did splurge on a $2.99 package of butter. A serving of butter (1 tablespoon) ended up costing just $0.10 and the package lasted the entire month. Plus, it provided a few more calories to my day-to-day diet.
If you’re going to make room in the budget for a flavor enhancer, and you’ll probably want to, choose something versatile — like butter or salt — that can be used on multiple foods.
4. Don’t divide your dollars by days.
I took a big picture approach to the challenge, thinking about how much money I had to spend for the entire month, rather than on a day-by-day basis. It’s important to buy for value, which often means buying in bulk, so sometimes I would spend $8 at the grocery store for supplies that would last several days — other days, I spent nothing.
Of course, if you take the big picture approach, you have to be diligent about tracking exactly how much you’re spending to ensure you don’t run out of money down the road.
5. Accept that you’ll be eating the same thing over and over again.
I purchased only nine items during the month-long challenge, which I ate repeatedly. I probably could have switched things up a bit more than I chose to, but the point is, there isn’t a huge selection of dirt cheap food products that I wanted to eat.
While I predicted the monotony of eating the same things day after day would wear on me, it never did. One of the reasons I didn’t get tired of my staples was because I allowed myself the occasional "luxury item": a sweet potato or egg. Not only did this strategy offer relief from pasta and oats, but it also put luxury into perspective — I’ve never appreciated something as simple as a baked sweet potato to the degree that I did last month.
6. Buy food you won’t get tired of.
If you’re going to be eating the same things day in and day out, you have to like what you’re eating. I learned this the hard way during the food-stamp challenge. Everyone told me to buy beans — they’re cheap and nutritious — but I hate beans, so much that I refused to touch one of the cans I bought, despite dealing with hunger pains and fatigue for most of the week.
I’m don’t recommend you buy sirloin steak for the month — you still have to be smart about what you buy — but don’t fall into the trap of buying just for the cheap price tag.
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