Could you eat for $4 a day?

I did. To write my current MSN Money column, “Three meals plus snacks for $4 a day,” I was asked to eat on what the government considers a limited budget:

  • The average weekly food stamp benefit of $33.34 per person per week, plus
  • Another $20.52 for the 9.8% of net income that the average American spends on food, based on the income that qualifies a person for food stamps (130% of the federal poverty level)

I had no trouble doing it; in fact, I spent about 52% of my allotted funds to produce three meals a day plus snacks. I bet some of you could do it for less. In fact, I could have, too – but I was trying to show a varied diet vs. the usual one-pot-glop on which I often subsist.

I’d be interested in your feedback, as it were.

In other news:

I’ve also got a column up at Get Rich Slowly. “Discounted gift cards: The new coupon” explains how to use plastic scrip the same way you’d use cash. The big difference? You’re getting an extra 3% to 40% (or more) off every time you shop.

These cards are easy to get and never expire – and they’re not just for cute shoes and bonbons. Got a dog or cat? Look for cards for stores like PetCo and PetSmart.

Working on your house or yard? Save with cards for Home Depot, Lowe’s, Sears and others. Committed techie? Go with Apple, Best Buy, Dell, Radio Shack, Staples, Office Max, Office Depot…

The column explains how to get the cards and how best to use them. Again, feel free to leave your thoughts, either here or over at GRS.

Finally: There really was a winner in last week’s giveaway. I just neglected to publicize it. Carson, the one whom the random number generator loved best, scored a $25 Office Depot gift card.

This Friday’s giveaway will be a book. I’ve narrowed it down to two possibilities. Stay tuned.


  1. Remember, people on food stamps automatically qualify for food banks. That food can supplement food stamps and save cash. Most cities/counties allow people to go to more than one food bank each month. I know a city that holds the food bank each week at a warehouse and has an abundance of fresh fruits/vegs, milk, ice cream, bread rye, pumpernickel, etc, pastries, canned goods. I just wish I lived in that city…lol. People need to get over pre-conceived notions of what a food bank carries. There are differences.

    I can do all you did except: Oreos, no fresh green vegetables, crockpot. Aaaack, Oreos and that yucky white filling! I must have the fresh vegetables. I am afraid of leaving a crockpot on while I am gone…okay, crazy?

    My bread thrift stores sells bread with four days left on the use by date. I picked up a loaf of bread that I wanted with yesterday’s date and commented to my friend I would eat the old loaf first. The woman who worked there walked over to me and took it away. She refused to give it back because they don’t sell bread after it’s “use by” date. I begged her to give me back the only loaf in the store that had 100% whole grain, plus no hfcs, and had no preservatives. No luck.

    Comprehensive article. We all can and should address the problem of food deserts in our areas.

  2. Why is mine the only comment when I just read a dozen?

  3. You probably read it over on MSN and then posted here instead of there.

  4. christy

    You know I use to make most of my meals from scratch, after getting a stack of lean cuisine coupons and combining them with a store sale I filled my chest freezer with them. I think I calculated that even with buying frozen lunches/dinners I am spending less than $6.00 to eat my three meals, plus snacks, that includes yogurt or oatmean and fresh fruit and eggs. It is much easier to portion control what I am eating. I have lost seven pounds in a month sense starting this :)

  5. I love your article on MSN! As I’m fairly young with not a lot of cooking experience under my belt, would you consider sharing some of your easy, homestyle recipes (including ones for the crockpot)? Maybe one long post or one recipe a week? I have a really hard time finding recipes that aren’t too fancy and don’t require 10 or more ingredients. No recipe is too basic for a beginner 😉 I know this isn’t a “foodie” blog, but it’d sure be nice!

  6. ali, thanks. I suppose that is what I did.

  7. Holly Samlan

    $4/day is WAAAY too expensive for me for just food. I allow myself $25/week but that also includes ALL cleaning supplies, personal care stuff, paper goods and cat food & litter.

    I am NOT eating junk. I probably spend near $10/week on fresh fruit, veg and dairy. I am not a vegetarian but I probably can cook chicken 100+ different ways. Do I eat good steak (NY strip or rib eye) – probably 1x/month. Do I eat shrimp – probably 1x/month but a BUNCH of fake crab. Do I eat beans and lentils – probably 2-3x/month. Do I eat pasta- as a main course about 1x/week and as a side 1x/week. I also eat tuna (1-2x/month) and canned salmon every couple months.

    I do eat 1-2 servings of fruit, a LARGE salad (those bagged ones that sat serve 3 are 1-2 servings for me) and 2-3 servings of veggies. I practice careful portion control eating 3 oz of cooked protein 2x/day. I also eat eggs (<$1/dz here) 2-3x/week.

    do I eat some junkie foods. Sure, I LOVE pizzia, italian sausage and hot dogs but that is a 1x/week treat of one of them.

    Do I ever eat out – Sure but on a deal/coupon (Jimmy Johns today for the $1 deal) but my limit is $15/month so its usually carry out.

    • Donna Freedman

      @Holly Samlan: As noted in the post, I could have eaten a lot more cheaply than that if I’d eaten the way I usually do. But I wanted to show more variety in the menu. Perhaps I’ll keep track of how much (or rather, how little) it costs me to eat from week to week, and write about it here.
      With regard to toiletries et al., I spend little to nothing on them thanks to coupons and in-store rebates.
      Thanks for reading, and for leaving a comment.

  8. Sarah L

    loved your article, I always enjoy your food ones, for some reason. The mindset is very simmilar to the mennonite, or amish way or doing food. I always love reading, and cooking from their cookbooks. One I’d love to suggest, with fantastic east, hearty and inexpensive meals is More With Less by Doris Longacre. Since it’s summer, and sooo hot I’m trying to convert a few of the “put it all togethe rin a cassarole and bake for 2 hours” dishes into the crocpot. So far, the ones I’ve tried have turned out good. The book also makes for interesting reading, about how important it is not to eat too much, and not to waste any. Something, we always tend to do with our produce. :(

    • Donna Freedman

      @Sarah L: The Internet abounds with slow-cooker info. I’d definitely recommend the Crockpot 365 site, but you can also just do a search for easy slow-cooker recipes.
      I really like baking potatoes in the crock pot. It doesn’t heat up the kitchen in the summer, but it gives you the makings for potato salad. Sometimes I bake winter squash that way, too; very good with a little butter, cinnamon and a sprinkling of brown sugar (although I bet maple syrup or honey would work nicely as well).
      Thanks for reading, and for leaving a comment.

  9. Elizabeth

    I spend between $100 – $125/month on all groceries and HBA for a household of one. I try to control spending in all areas of my life, but I’m not skimpy with what I buy food-wise, and that includes plenty of fresh fruits and vegetables. I try to buy whichever is in-season, both to keep costs low and because they tend to be the most flavorful. Although I go out to eat a couple times/month, I then often end up throwing away milk/fruits/veggies that I didn’t get to eat in time, so easily the budget covers a full month with never eating out.
    I also enjoy all your writing – thanks!

  10. Jae-Jae

    I really enjoyed reading the article. I’ve consistently been eating for less than $100 a month, good nutritious meals. & even had company to eat occasionally. & I’m always looking for new ideas. All your posts are very interesting to me.

  11. Mary H

    Cabbage is a good nutritious and inexpensive fresh produce choice easily available for most everyone. It’s easily prepared for raw and cooked dishes.

  12. SherryH

    @adoseoftlc, as a starting point, you might check your library for cookbooks. I like Betty Crocker pretty well. Joy of Cooking has a lot more detail than you might want every day, but is great for breaking down technique. The Fix-It and Forget-It Cookbook is so-so, but has helpful tips in boxes under the recipes. Also, sometimes more than 10 ingredients, but usually not a lot of steps. If you can, try before you buy.

    An off-the-cuff “recipe” for slow-cooked chicken legs: pour a thin coating of BBQ sauce or marinade (any flavor you like) on the bottom of the cooker. Skin the chicken legs and place a single layer in the cooker. (I freeze the skins and render them later; YMMV.) Pour on a little more marinade and continue adding layers until you are out of chicken. Cover, turn on low, ignore for 4-6 hours.

    The chicken comes out juicy and tender and the mingled sauce and juices at the bottom of the cooker are excellent over rice. Add a veggie or salad or both, and you have a meal. This can be done with any chicken parts, but bone-in and dark meat work best.

    Donna – reading your MSN article now. Loving the tips on strategic cooking & meal planning. I think you’d feel right at home in my kitchen!

  13. I read this article and now off to the next one.

  14. zzzzzz

    Thank you for the article. I’m very glad to see demonstrated something I’ve contended for a long time: food stamp benefits are far too generous.

    My family of four spends about $110 to $120 a week for food, about 58% of the average food stamp benefit, and we don’t deprive ourselves. We buy organic milk and eggs, as well as fresh produce every week. Our spending also includes non-essentials such as snacks, treats (e.g., ice cream and sodas), and even an occasional bottle of wine. We could easily get down to your 52%, or even lower, by cutting out the non-essentials.

    I’ve read there are about 44 million people on food stamps, with an average benefit of $215 per person per month. That’s over $100 billion per year. As you’ve demonstrated, that’s about twice what is needed to not just not starve, but to have a varied, healthful diet. Cutting benefits to a more reasonable level could reduce our spending by $50 billion a year.

    Several million of the savings could be used to educate recipients on how better to feed themselves within that budget.

  15. I not only did it, I blogged it. After 40 weeks, our average was $2.33 per person, per day.

    I’m planning to do it again this fall and see where we end up since inflation has caused the price of food to rise so dramatically.

    The caveat is, I know how to cook. I’ve come to realize recently that this is a rarity among my peers (30 something moms) and that makes it so much cheaper to eat healthy.

  16. Hey Donna-

    My fiance and I both eat on $50 a week/$250 a month including all toiletries, cleaning supplies, and food… So I could survive on $4 a day. :)

  17. Donno if I could last for more than 3 days spending only $4 a day! Good on yah!

    BTW, just realized you highlighted my “How To Get Girls If You Live At Home With Mom & Dad” post on MSN. Thanks so much! It just goes to show you how often i check my Google Analytics i.e hardly ever!

    Hope all is well.

    Best, Sam

  18. Whew! Some of those people who comment at MSN Money are even crazier than I am. And that’s sayin’ somthin’!

    Very interesting article. You ate pretty generously, I’d say, on the budgeted amount. If I counted ONLY my food in the grocery bill (my bookkeeping entries for grocery stores & Costco tend to include household supplies and personal products, too), it probably wouldn’t be far off that combined food stamp/poverty level budget figure.

    For one thing, it’s surprising how much you can save on food by eating in instead of out. As Milehimama points out, the trick is being able to cook. An awful lot of my friends and, I’ve observed, my students seem to depend heavily on microwavable convenience foods, which don’t save a whole lot over restaurant food.

    I’m also with Practical Parsimony: can’t deal with the thought of Oreos…haven’t been able to manage those since about the age of 12. And don’t much care for the boiled flavor of crock pot cooking, though browning onions before adding beans or (also browned) meat seems to solve that issue.

    A great way to save grocery money is to bake your own bread. It’s SO good and, once you figure out how, very easy. Comparable loaves in the market or bakery would break you up in business. 😀

  19. While the price of food is often regional (I’ve been told the $4 a gallon I pay for whole milk is actually considered a low price in some areas of the country), we’ve learned to subsist on way less than $4 a day per person. Our monthly grocery and toiletry budget is $200. That’s for two adults and a two year old. (We use cloth diapers, so diapers are not part of this budget. We probably also qualify for a limited assistance from WIC, though we haven’t applied). It isn’t always easy, but as previous posters have said, being willing to work from scratch and learning to cook creatively go a long way. I’m making yogurt as we speak. Much cheaper than individual yogurt cups and my daughter goes through a 32 oz container every few days.


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