Meg Biallas’ adopted home of Washington, D.C. has a reputation for being expensive. And it’s easy for recent grads to get trapped in a wallet-withering cycle of all-night happy hours and bottomless brunches. Instead, Biallas, a nonprofit professional, quickly turned saving money into a personal mission.
“One of my earliest strategies was to avoid buying lunch during the week,” she said. “You know that saying, ‘a penny saved is a penny earned’? The way I figure it, every time I don’t dine out, I’ve saved myself money.”
After learning more about food stamps in the United States by watching the documentary A Place at the Table, Biallas challenged herself: Could she live on a food-stamp budget for an entire workweek? Her self-inflicted food stamp challenge took her savvy saving to a new level, but it also had a deeper mission: to understand how 47 million Americans get by on just $4 for food each day.
Biallas isn’t the first to do try it. In 2007, several members of Congress took a Food Stamp Challenge to experience the hunger struggle faced by many of their constituents. In 2012, Cory Booker, then the mayor of Newark, New Jersey, took his own food stamp challenge, inspired by a conversation on Twitter. Booker tweeted some of his experiences, admitting that he burned his first challenge meal (a sweet potato), and uploaded a video diary to LinkedIn. “This has been the hardest day so far,” he admitted on the fourth day of his seven-day challenge. Withdrawal headaches had made his dependence on coffee apparent.
Eating on Only $4 a Day
After reviewing these experiences, Biallas set off to the grocery store with a $21.80 budget and a list of essentials: simple foods like eggs, bread, beans and canned vegetables. Over the next five days, she found herself more conscious of her dietary habits — and was lucky to enjoy an unexpected dinner during an evening meeting. Along the way, she kept a journal of her experiences and feelings.
She eventually got bored of her dishes. She found that when she was frequently hungry, she didn’t have the energy she usually had to complete her normal activities, like biking. But Biallas felt her body adjust over time, and gained a new perspective about life on an extreme budget.
“To be sure,” she wrote on her blog, “My five-day experience is in no way a complete picture of living at the poverty line.” But her temporary experiment encouraged an increased sense of gratefulness for her stable job, ample housing and generous grocery budget.
She also came away with lessons about how to preserve and extend your grocery list. Here are a few of her tips:
Spice it Up
Biallas found that limited groceries meant eating the same meal repeatedly, but that spicing it differently helped make each option more interesting.
“Using a spice collection has been immensely helpful. My parents gifted me a starter set of some of the most basic spices. It’s an amazing foundation for being able to cook creatively.”
Don’t Dread the Sandwich
“Prepping a sandwich and pairing it with a piece of fruit is the easiest kind of lunch to make. My favorite thing to do is toast sandwiches, either on the stovetop at home or with the toaster oven at work. It helps boring things like a sandwich feel gourmet,” said Biallas.
Start With the Basics
“Avoid processed items, like flavored crackers and chips,” advised Biallas. “When you buy items that are as close to their original state as possible, they are usually cheaper and healthier.” (Like this idea? Click to tweet it!)
Biallas keeps a close eye on her fridge contents to make sure she makes the most of them. “If I notice food going bad, or if I’m heading out of town, I freeze it. For example, I’ll freeze green pepper and onion slices for a future stir-fry,” she explains. “Once, I even froze orange juice using an ice cube tray; that worked out really well for smoothies down the road!”
Take an Inventory
“It’s easy to forget about things that pile up over time, and [taking an occasional inventory] forces me use up dwindling ingredients, like a few leftover cups of rice or couscous, and think of creative recipes that incorporate them.”
So, is it possible to live on $4 a day? Biallas said the experiment wasn’t fun, and the nutritional value of her meals was mediocre. But it can be done.
“I’m thankful that my income allows me more freedom and flexibility in grocery shopping and dining out than so many people do,” Biallas said. “But it was a definitely a humbling experience.”
Your Turn: Would you take a similar challenge? How do you think you would reconsider your dining habits or budget?