When it finally dawned on me that my unemployment insurance budget meant not just a fifty percent reduction in income but also just fifty dollars a week for food and transit, I somehow didn't panic—at least not that I recall. In retrospect, that was probably well nigh miraculous, considering I was living in Brooklyn at the time, and had not long before thought little of dropping forty dollars on dinner with friends, after probably spending five dollars for that morning's Starbucks latté and pastry, and then who knows what on lunch. Little wonder that by the time my job in publishing ended, my monthly bills and debts left so little for food and transit.
So what was the secret to learning to eat leanly? Careful planning, faithful cooking, and cutting out almost all alcohol, meat, and restaurant meals.
Unlike life as a salaried girl, unemployment meant a small weekly check, so every weekend I'd sit down and plot out my needs for seven days' meals. Based on the prices at Trader Joe's, where I did almost all my shopping, breakfasts took one half a gallon of milk, one box of cereal, and a sixty-four-ounce bottle of juice—each three to four dollars. Total: nine to twelve dollars, before tax.
Lunch could be covered with one loaf of bread (three dollars) two six-ounce tins of tuna fish (two dollars), a couple avocados for garnish (three to four dollars), a bag of chips as a side (three to four dollars) and one box of macaroni and cheese for variety (one dollar). Total lunch purchases: twelve to fourteen dollars, before tax.
This left between twenty-four to twenty-nine dollars for dinner. Generally I planned two to three entrées, made in family-sized batches (that is, four to six portions). Menu planning evolved organically: buying ingredients to make a recipe, then finding a recipe for some great fruit or vegetable special I couldn't pass up.
After all this, I usually had a little left over for fruit, condiments and other small things, as well as the two to four dollars I always made to sure to save for one non-necessity indulgence, such as chocolate, or a four-dollar bag of dried apricots. This weekly budgeted treat provided a small sense of freedom that proved crucial to continued financial discipline.
Another essential for eating on so little was, of course, cooking. In this I was fortunate to have grown up in a family of six that mostly ate our meals together and expected the children to help with various chores, including meal preparation. By the time I left for college, I knew enough to earn the nickname "Betty Crocker" my freshman year, because of the pies and breads I baked in the dorm's basement oven.
No matter what your cooking expertise, you won't go wrong by consulting Betty yourself. Today she's available both online—at bettycrocker.com, featuring a vast database of recipes—and in print, in the classic but updated Betty Crocker Cookbook. This primer covers everything from stocking a kitchen to what all the recipe verbs (like dice, mince and sear) mean, as well as numerous basic recipes. If Betty doesn't do it for you, there is also the excellent Better Homes and Gardens Cookbook, How to Cook Everything and the classic Joy of Cooking (note that the latter two have fewer picture guides for prep; think: Wall Street Journal does cooking).
Even with careful planning and avoidance of microwave dinners, however, I did find that certain ingredients had to go . . . at least in the forms I used to enjoy them. I still managed to buy organic milk for my lattés, but meat could never be more than an ingredient (such as the two to three chicken breasts needed to make a batch of chili verde), and beer and wine were purchased rarely and then cheaply. On the upside, when I could actually afford these treats, they provided much more pleasure than when a $6 Guinness was nothing to me. It's surprising how good a Pabst Blue Ribbon can taste after several weeks of teetotaling.
Today my spending is somewhere between those Spartan times and the days of New York excess, but because of having to get by for so long on fifty dollars a week for food and transit, I learned to finally live by my wits, within my means. Skills that were once a matter of necessity now enable me to host friends for dinners "in," while saving for things I once only dreamt of, like a house of my own—for having those dinners.