How to Eat when it’s the Middle of the Month and All You Have Left is Twenty Dollars


Hungry? Broke? Try Ramen!

These days even working people often have more month left than money. I picked the figure of twenty dollars somewhat arbitrarily. It is enough to buy something, but not much. And two weeks can be a really long time. This food you can buy under these circumstances will keep you from real hunger, but it will not keep you really healthy over the long term unless supplemented with produce. If you have access to any kind of garden now is the time to make use of every scrap. The only protein in this diet comes from food combining and peanut butter and canned tuna from the optional category. This shopping guide is intended for one or two people. You will need to add ten dollars for each additional person to be fed.

I will now list the possible food selections. You will not be able to buy all of these things at the same time for twenty dollars, but you can pick and choose. If you have certain pantry items already it will make the choices a bit easier. I am assuming you have salt and pepper.

First of all, pick your store. Go to the biggest cheap food outlet you can find. Any place with a name like Food for Less or something similar is a good choice. If you have a Grocery Outlet go there. Places that favor food stamp recipients are your best choices, even if you are not on food stamps. If you know someone with a Costco card, you could get some things there, but you won’t necessarily be buying in bulk unless you want to eat the exact same thing every meal until more cash comes or you run out of your purchases. But if you can get a five pound sack of beans for the price of a two pound bag elsewhere that is a very good idea.

As for what to buy, the sack of beans is the first thing in the cart, followed by potatoes or rice in a four pound bag, two pounds of yellow onions and a two week supply of Ramen noodles, which should cost twenty-five cents a pack. These four items will use half your budget. After that there are choices to make. Here is a list of possible choices:

  • Peanut Butter in a small size
  • Tuna, the cheapest kind available
  • Saltines
  • Corn Meal
  • One dozen eggs, the least expensive ones
  • A small block of jack cheese
  • A little box of sugar or brown sugar
  • Hot cereal in bulk
  • Rolled oats in bulk
  • Powdered milk
  • One head of garlic
  • Cabbage
  • Green onions (scallions)
  • Tortillas
  • Margarine (or one stick butter)

These are suggestions of food items that are at the bottom of the scale. Just put them together like a puzzle till you run out of money. You may be able to get as many as five things on the list. If you buy bulk items you can get very small quantities of a greater variety. If you choose the cornmeal you also need the eggs and the sugar. Then you can make cornbread according to the directions on the box. Albers is good.

The eggs can also be hard boiled and deviled if you have any mustard already in the cupboard. The tuna can be eaten with the saltines, as can the peanut butter. You can also make a peanut sauce for the top ramen. I always throw away the flavor packets because they are full of chemicals. Instead you can drain the noodles and put a tiny bit of butter (or margarine) and some hot sauce on them, or thin out a spoonful of peanut butter with hot water and mix with the noodles for a Thai flavor. Top with diced scallions if you have them.

But the real backbone of the twenty dollar emergency food diet is the beans. The recipe is simple. Buy the freshest looking beans you can get. They dry up with age. Soak two cups for at least eight hours and throw away the soaking water. Sauté one onion in whatever fat you have available. Cooking oil, margarine, even lard will do. Put the soaked beans and the sautéed onion in a heavy pot and cover completely with water, about two inches over the level of the beans. DO NOT SALT. Not yet, it makes them tough. Cook on a low simmer till tender which will take a couple of hours on the stove top or all day on low in a slow cooker. At the end of cooking, add salt to taste and a little pepper, also the garlic if you have it and any other spices and herbs you have on hand, such as oregano or cumin. These beans will be your mainstay. Two cups of beans will yield five cups of cooked beans. You can eat them with rice, or with corn bread, or make a vegan shepherd’s pie by mashing some potatoes as a topper and browning in the oven. A bit of the Jack cheese is good on this if it made your short list.

This is not the last word on this subject. I will be writing more, including recipes to get you through the hard times. In the meantime, bon appetit, and don’t forget to slow down and enjoy your meal, however humble it may be.


7 Responses

  1. I have most of the things you listed except for the eggs. I am fortunate to qualify for a Food Pantry which has furnished almost everything you have on your list. Thanks for the hint about the salt in beans. I never knew that. No wonder I could never get them right.

  2. If you live where there is a 99 cent store (we do in S. Calif) check it out! I am amazed at how many people on a budget don’t go there.

    I can get a bag of apples or oranges for .99 or fresh tomatoes. 3 packages of celery for .99, bag of onions for 99, 10 lbs of potatoes for 99. Sometimes berries as a treat (the regular store sells the exact same brand for 4.99 a box).

    Check out the tomatoes and freeze if need be as they are often just ready to go bad.

    Target food stores are a bit odd (some foods very costly), but often they put tuna and some other canned things and dried beans on sale (l lb of dried beans recently for .89).

    One other super cheap source when you can find it is the Fresh and Easy sale section. I got a bag of potatoes there last week for .67 (yes that was 67 cents!). Again, sort of funny….you need to find out when they do their biggest mark-downs.

    A lot of the places that greatly discount fresh and healthful items do it just when they are on the verge of being unuseful–but if you chop, and freeze or turn into soups and freeze, you get healthful products for pennies.

    Again, amazing to me how many people don’t go there because they think it’s beneath them or something silly.

  3. Love your post. My stomach likes frugal/simple food the best. The husband is always buying expensive junk and fancy sauces. We get indigestion and end up throwing it out.

  4. I would definitely add a few sweet potatoes or a bag of carrots to that list. Sweet potatoes are incredibly nutrient dense– one or two a week covers your beta-carotene needs and contributes fiber (eat the skin) and vitamin C as well. Potatoes can also replace a portion of the ramen (highly refined grains… not so great).

    Cut the scallions, cheese, and sugar. Pricey for not much nutrition. Sunflower seeds (bought raw and in bulk) are way more nutrient dense and a source of good fat. They’re usually less expensive than nuts. A small bottle of olive oil would also be preferable over cheese/sugar if you can fine one. Olives, if bought in bulk from middle easern groceries can be affordable too.

    A packet of lettuce or mixed greens seeds is also worth the $2 because they grow fairly easily and quickly (2-3 weeks) and will ease next month’s budget substantially if you have space.

  5. Cabbage is super cheap and healthy. Glad that it was on your list. And vinegar, especially cider, is cheap and adds flavor… plus, one head will last a week or more. If an option, the purple cabbages have more nutrients in them than do the green – so they would make a better nutrition choice.

    To add nutrition, dandelion greens are also healthy and free (just check that the area hasn’t been chemically treated first) and are good sauted with onion and garlic.

  6. This probably won’t work where stores are open week-round (as I understand they are in the US) but over here in Austria, where stores have to be closed on Sundays, vegetables are often marked way down on Saturday afternoons, since anything that’s not sold then will have to be thrown out.

    And as green said, dandelions, or other edible wild plants – it really pays to know a bit about edible plants! I’m making an effort this year to forage more, which I haven’t done since I was a kid.

  7. I eat a lot of beans. Yes, they’re cheap, but mainly, I love them. I’ve done a lot of research on cooking beans, and found there is no evidence that throwing out the soaking water improves their digestibility (translation: amount of gas they produce). But research also finds that the more you eat beans, the better your body adapts to them. So instead of throwing out the soaking water, just eat more beans!

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