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I stumbled upon a Reddit thread a few months back with someone asking for advice on how to eat with a $20 a month food budget. Although the thread was a few years old, I realized that far too many people are food insecure, and although a $20 a month budget for groceries seems completely un-doable, it’s the reality for a lot of people.
If you are struggling to eat on a $20 a month budget for groceries, I implore you to seek help. Please visit your local food pantry for assistance, and you can check out my post on what to do if you have nothing for further advice on seeking aid.
This post isn’t about helping people who are in such a dire situation. Although I feel for you, support my local food banks, and support policies that will lift people up, I just can’t relate to only having $20 a month for groceries. However, I do feel like it is a good thought experiment. If more of us gave consideration to how we would handle such dire circumstances, then maybe more of us would vote for policies that prevent people from being in those circumstances in the first place. Keep that in mind as we see how difficult it would really be to eat on only $20 a month.
How Do You Eat on $20 a Month for Groceries?
Rules of the Experiment
The first thing we have to determine when discussing our grocery budget is what exactly do groceries entail? I usually include my pet food, cleaning supplies, hygiene items, and everything else that I can get at the grocery store in my grocery budget. But pet food alone costs almost fifty bucks. That’s what happens when you have to buy dog food and cat food in the same week! So, for the purpose of this thought exercise, I’m only going to think about food. If you only have $20 for groceries, you probably aren’t thinking about the extras anyway.
Another thing to consider is how many people need to be fed with that budget. This thread was about a single person, so that is what I’m going to explore. Honestly, after looking at these prices, I don’t think it’s possible to feed a family of even two on $20. One is seriously stretching it.
However, the main question that the redditor was asking was how to eat healthy for $20 a month. I really don’t think that’s possible. With such a small food budget, you won’t be able to afford many fresh fruits and vegetables or to eat three meals a day every day. With the way prices are, that just isn’t feasible. At this price point, it’s survival mode. The real question is, how can you survive with $20 a month for groceries?
How Can You Survive With $20 a Month for Groceries?
It is possible for one person to survive on only $20 a month for groceries. You will be eating tons of rice and beans, but you will be eating. This is what I would buy for the month if I had to eat on only $20:
|Carrots or bell peppers||1|
|hot dogs or bologna or discount meat||2|
This list includes some staples – like the aforementioned rice and beans; and flour and potatoes. But it also includes a few things for baking and a few things to add flavor. You could definitely cut out the salt, onion, and bullion to get more bread or meat, but I’d prefer to add a tiny bit of flavor and variety to my meals. Maybe that’s because I don’t actually have to live this challenge.
You can make flavorless crepes for breakfast almost every day with just flour and water. However, if you mix it up and add an egg and baking powder, you can make pancakes instead! And, you can put a dab of margarine on them for flavor. It’s not as good as syrup, but better than not eating. You can even treat yourself to one or two meals of an egg, toast, and hash browns with this list! I can usually get four bell peppers for about eighty-nine cents at my local grocery store, and they last forever – so I’d add half of pepper and a slice of onion to the hash browns for flavor. You have to be careful with your eggs though, this budget only gives you 12 for the full thirty-day month, so use them wisely.
Lunch and Dinner
Your lunches and dinners will greatly depend on which items you are able to get. There are great deals available sometimes! I once got 2 lbs of chicken legs for 82 cents/lb! Deals like that are much better than the cheap hot dogs and bologna (which are the staples, if you can’t find any of those other sweet deals).
If you chose the bologna route, bologna sandwiches are great options for lunch. Unfortunately, a loaf of bread and a pack of bologna aren’t enough to last a full thirty days. I’d recommend having them for lunch on the days that you have the less-filing crepes for breakfast, and possibly skip lunch on the days you decide to go all out for breakfast. Or make extra hash browns and heat them up for lunch (a 5lb bag of potatoes can stretch pretty far)
If you are foregoing bologna in favor of the other meat options, lunch is a bit harder. You can always make more hash browns – potatoes are super filling. You could also eat leftover dinner portions for lunch. A third option is to just have some buttered toast – it’s not exactly healthy or substantial, but it will hold you off until dinner.
Your dinners are going to consist of mostly rice, beans, and lentils. But you can get all three for pretty low prices (They are generally even cheaper at Walmart than at the grocery store!) so you can mix it up. You can cook them with bullion, onion, and peppers (or carrots, if you hate peppers) for extra flavor. And, if you were lucky enough to find cheap meat options, you can add a tiny bit in each time you cook to add more subsistence and flavor.
I got four full meals out of a cup of cooked rice and two cut up chicken legs. That amounts to about twenty cents per meal! Talk about thrifty! Granted, I added soy sauce and an egg to make fried rice, but you can add a bit of salt and onion for similar results.
You can also make tons of filling things with potatoes. You can fry them with a bit of salt for homemade fries or potato chips, or you can boil or roast them for a satisfying side dish. They can also be cut up and mixed with four for potato pancakes. Potatoes are great because they are super cheap, versatile, and filing.
If you decided to go with hot dogs, you can cut up one or two at a time and mix them in with any of your bean dishes. It’s not as good as baked beans and hot dogs, but it will add a different texture and flavor to prevent you from getting bored.
Some people in such dire circumstances may opt to skip meals altogether (tons of people who can afford it don’t even eat breakfast!). Though I’m not a fan of skipping meals, I understand that it’s a reasonable option for lots of people. If you decide to regularly skip breakfast, you don’t have to buy eggs, flour, or baking powder. That will free up five bucks to buy more substantial foods for lunch and dinner.
If you decide to skip lunch, you may not have to buy bread or bologna, and you can stretch the dinners that you make a tad bit further. This would free up a little extra money for more discounted meat, or maybe another vegetable or spice for flavor.
Making it Work
As you can see, it’s possible to stretch $20 for a month of food, but it’s not easy, and not delicious. You will be able to eat (survive) but you will probably get bored of cooking rice and beans pretty quickly. Like I said above, if you are in such a dire situation, you should definitely go to a food bank or request government assistance.
If You Don’t Know the Struggle
If you’ve never had to experience living off of $20 a month for groceries, do the thought exercise with me. The next time you are at the grocery store, look at the prices. Find out what you could buy for only twenty bucks that would get you through a full thirty days. See how unreasonable that really is. And let me know how you would survive!
Melanie launched Partners in Fire in 2017 to document her quest for financial independence with a mix of finance, fun, and solving the world’s problems. She’s self educated in personal finance and passionate about fighting systematic problems that prevent others from achieving their own financial goals. She also loves travel, anthropology, gaming and her cats.