How One Woman Eats for $40 a Week in Oakland, California

How One Woman Eats for $40 a Week in Oakland, California

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Ariel Knutson
Jul 12, 2017
(Image credit: Samantha Bolton)

Welcome to Kitchn's Food Budget Diaries series, where we show you how people around the country spend money on what they eat and drink. Each post will follow one person for one week and will chronicle everything that person consumed and how much it costs them.

Name: Cindy
Location: Oakland, CA
Age: 28
Number of people in family: 1
Occupation: Business Analyst (part time) and student
Household income: $32,000
Weekly food budget: $40 ($20 for meals, $20 for eating out)

(Image credit: Susanna Hopler)

Day One: Friday

5:25 a.m. I made an emergency run to Walgreens to pick up medicine because I woke up an hour ago feeling very sick. It seemed like a good idea to pick up some ready-to-eat food, but nothing sounded good. I turn away from everything that normally looks delicious to me, and go for an oatmeal raisin walnut Clif bar. This feels wrong, but my taste buds are an alien creature right now.

Walgreens

1 Clif Bar $1.99

Total spent: $1.99

6:06 a.m. This oatmeal bar tastes amazing, and even more so because my headache has died down. Drugs really do solve all your problems!

10:10 a.m. I go grocery shopping on my way home from the gym. I decide to make a spicy soup and buy veggies. I also grab sweet rice flour and green tea ice cream because I'm planning to make mochi ice cream next week. Very excited! I haven't had ice cream around for a few months because I usually do grocery shopping on foot, and those two things don't mix well. My grocery store is conveniently located between my gym and house, so I always shop on my walk home from the gym.

Koreana Plaza

1 pound sweet rice flour: $1.99
32 ounces green tea ice cream: $5.99
18 ounces tofu: $1.29
1 zucchini: $0.40
2 carrots: $0.23
1 head of cauliflower: $1.69

Total spent: $11.59

11:20 a.m. I reheat the rest of my leftover fried rice from yesterday. I'm not really hungry until I take the first bite, at which point my body turns on and I scarf the rest down. Someone once told me that it's best to eat within an hour of working out. I try to follow that advice — also I like an excuse to eat.

1:00 p.m. I make a big pot of Korean-style spicy tofu soup with onions, carrots, cauliflower, zucchini, and an egg. I'm working from home today, and I'm procrastinating with food. It's such a nice perk. The soup is good, but a bit too sweet. I kept adding more chili peppers, then cayenne, and even Sriracha, and it didn't seem to work so at some point I gave up.

Get the recipe: Kimchi Soft Tofu Stew from Maangchi

8:35 p.m. I'm hungry but don't want the soup, so I make popcorn instead. I have one of those old-school air-popped popcorn machines. It's amazing because it doesn't use oil or butter to pop. Fast, cheap, and healthy, popcorn has become my new default snack option. I make popcorn and toss it with sesame seed oil, salt, and nutritional yeast.

(Image credit: Susanna Hopler)

8:45 p.m. I'm going on a day trip tomorrow, and I need to pack a lunch ahead of time. Soup is not going to work so I make something with the random things I have around, which turns out to be penne pasta tossed with pesto sauce and a hard-boiled egg. Boil and mix — easy-peasy.

10:10 p.m. I realize I didn't eat anything for dinner besides popcorn and am super hungry so I eat half my pesto pasta. Oops.

Day Two: Saturday

6:45 a.m. It's too early to be hungry, but I'll be out climbing all day (I have some lingering fatigue but still want to head outdoors), and I don't seem to have a ton of food to bring, so I make myself eat a large bowl of the soup from yesterday. Not having enough food when you're outdoors all day is the worst, so I usually try to bring more food than I need. Feeling weak from lack of food is the saddest thing precisely because it's so preventable. Today I bring a decent amount, but not an excess, so I eat as much as I can stand before I head out.

11:30 a.m. We stop climbing for a break, and I eat my pasta and hard-boiled egg. It's really nice because there's a waterfall view. I try to slow myself down to enjoy it more, but after being active it's especially hard to eat slowly and mindfully.

2:00 p.m. Some people in my group are passing around snacks. I try a little bit of everything: rice crackers, sunflower seeds, beef jerky. We snack randomly throughout the day. I wish I had brought some snacks, but being sick yesterday threw me off. Dried fruits and nuts are always a good choice, but my favorite thing to bring is dried mango, or chips and hummus.

6:15 p.m. We had an awesome, fulfilling day of climbing, and we end up going to get milk tea as a treat. Milk tea is something I view as frivolous (it's tea and milk, why does it cost $4?) and something I absolutely love regardless of that fact. I get a hot organic roasted oolong tea with soy milk, no boba, and sip it slowly over the next few hours. It tastes better cold, but since I'm going to drag out this giant drink I bought, I'd rather not have the ice melt and water it down. I stick the rest of it in the fridge for later.

Normally we'd go out to eat together but it didn't work out today. This is good since I'm planning to go out for the Warriors game later this week, which will be more expensive.

Comebuy Drinks

1 organic roasted oolong milk tea: $4.75

Total spent: $4.75

7:50 p.m. When I get back to my house, I know I'm starving but I can't feel it because I'm exhausted, and because exercise sometimes does that to me. The world doesn't make any sense sometimes. But all I want is a hot shower and to lie down.

8:30 p.m. I have a bowl of the soup for dinner. I kinda hate it right now and wish I hadn't made such a big pot. It's pretty good but it ended up too sweet because I forgot that gochujang has a bunch of sugar in it. But I hate wasting food so I'll be finishing it off.

(Image credit: Susanna Hopler)

Day Three: Sunday

7:45 a.m. I wake up and have some of my leftover milk tea — it's so yummy.

7:50 a.m. I'm staring at the soup in the fridge and I just can't eat another bite. I decide to make a new soup base, one that's salty and savory and spicy, with no hint of sugar — one that hasn't betrayed me. The cost is negligible to make new soup, as it sometimes takes me years to go through bulk ingredients. I make it with dashi, dried anchovies, miso, fish sauce, shoyu, chili peppers, olive oil, mushroom stock, and sesame oil. Then I dump out all the solid stuff (the tofu and veggies) from my failed soup into a strainer and rinse it really well before I dump it into my new soup stock.

It's so much better, and I'm happy because there are about four large servings of soup still there. I eat a bowl before I head out for the day.

9:30 a.m. Shopping at the farmers market is one of my favorite things. I head to the Claremont market, which is a smaller one but has everything I need. There's a sale on cosmetically damaged and ripe fruit at $2 a pound, so I grab four white nectarines, lacinato kale, and Swiss chard. I'm surprised the veggies are $1.50 a bunch; at my usual market it's usually $2, so maybe I'll start coming to this one more often.

My partner also requested I pick up some kind of delicious dip, so I go and sample a bunch and walk away with two baba ganoush tubs (two 7-ounce tubs for $7) because it really doesn't make sense to buy one for $5. I rarely buy stuff like this for myself, but I would be some kind of frugal jerk to deny him this request. And man, it is seriously delicious. There's a John Water's quote, "My idea of rich is that you can buy every book you ever want without looking at the price and you're never around assholes. That's the two things to really fight for in life." — sub in "buy everything at farmers markets" for "buy every book" and that's an accurate description of all I need in life.

Farmers Market Haul

4 organic white nectarines $2
1 bunch organic lacinato kale $1.50
1 bunch organic Swiss chard $1.50
7-ounce container of Affi's baba ganoush (2): $7

Total spent: $12

11:10 a.m. I eat a white nectarine in between errands in the car. The super-ripe fruit is already starting to disintegrate.

12:45 p.m. I start cooking food for the next few days. I make 2.5 cups of a mixed rice blend with white rice, black rice, quinoa, millet, oats, red lentils, black lentils, and add some salt and olive oil, which makes it delicious enough to eat on its own. Then I cook up a stir-fry with a large onion, 1 bunch lacinato kale, and half a bunch of Swiss chard, seasoned with garam masala.

This is a lot of food, and I normally make half this amount, but I'm going to spend the extra time at my partner's house this week and I want enough food for him too. He hurt himself a few days ago, so I'll be spending almost the whole work week at his place to cheer him up while he's stuck at home.

2:00 p.m. I eat a late lunch because I ate quite a bit while cooking and then got distracted with chores. I have a bowl of soup and the mixed rice. I mix in some Chinese olive-flavored mustard leaves — it's a jar of delicious stuff you can add to anything, and I often add it to my rice. It's so simple but amazing; my dad discovered it a few years ago, and I've always kept a jar around.

5:15 p.m. I have a bunch of chips and salsa at a friend's house. I eat an embarrassing amount, like enough for a dinner. I guess I won't be hungry for a while.

8:00 p.m. I head over to my partner's place. His mom makes the best scones, and she gives us a new creation to share. It's delicious and filled with blueberries.

9:00 p.m. We eat a small dinner of soup, greens, and mixed rice that I brought over. He likes the food, yay!

Day Four: Monday

9:00 a.m. One more ripe white nectarine goes down the hatch. My partner and a friend finish the other two. These really won't last more than a day or two so I'm glad I didn't buy too many.

10:30 a.m. I reheat my mixed rice and greens and have a bowl. And also a large bowl of maple pecan granola, courtesy of my partner. We generally just share food when we're together. He often has snacks and I often bring a lot of meal stuff.

We eat a late breakfast together, and I reluctantly agree to watch a show with him while we eat. He likes to watch TV while he eats. I don't, but I have similar vices, like checking my phone or reading internet articles. It's not the best. Sometimes I make more of an effort to eat mindfully. At one point, I learned a practice of eating really slowly, putting down your utensil between bites, and not putting more food into your mouth until you're done with the last bite. This sounds simple, but it changes everything.

Back to the current reality: I recently started watching Breaking Bad and am totally obsessed with it, so I am OK watching it while we eat. I start working remotely after breakfast.

2:00 p.m. For lunch, more mixed rice and greens. I think it's delicious and don't mind eating the same thing all the time. After a few days I tend to get bored, so I try to only cook enough for three days max. When I'm at home, I often do little variations with my rice and greens, like wrapping it in a sushi roll or adding different sauces to my bowl. Since I'm not home, things are a little more limited, but it's no big deal.

8:45 p.m. I snack on the baba ganoush spread from the market and chips from my partner.

9:00 p.m. For dinner, I have a hot bowl of my tofu vegetable soup. He eats the rice and greens.

Day Five: Tuesday

7:40 a.m. I eat breakfast (a warm bowl of the soup) at home earlier than I usually do because I'm heading into the office today. It's almost gone!

9:30 a.m. My office provides free tea, so I have some earl grey tea with almond milk.

12:00 p.m. Lunchtime at the office is mixed rice and greens. I usually only take 10 minutes to eat.

4:45 p.m. Grocery shopping to pick up some extra treats. I want to make my partner some mango lassi (mangoes are on sale) to cheer him up from his injury. We also talked about making hummus together, so I get stuff for that. I snack on some honey-roasted cashews I just bought; they are a little disappointing. Sometimes things are on sale for a reason.

Sprouts

2 red mangoes: $1.96
1 can organic garbanzo beans: $0.99
32 ounces Greek yogurt: $3.99
1/4 pound honey roasted cashews: $1.32

Total spent: $8.26

5:30 p.m. I make mango lassi, garlic hummus, and fried rice with the leftover mixed rice, leftover greens, and some chard and cauliflower (from this week's groceries). I contribute canned garbanzos and garlic to the hummus (loosely followed this recipe). I get a lemon from my partner's lemon tree, and use his salt, oil, and tahini. Taste testing everything fills me up a bit. We'll have the fried rice in a few hours for dinner.

Get the recipe: Best Ever 5-Minute Microwave Hummus

7:00 p.m. Snacked on hummus and crackers (not mine) and the lassi all night, so I'm not very hungry for real dinner. At some point, we split a free savory cheesy scone from my partner's mom.

9:00 p.m. We eat the fried rice (with a dollop of hummus on top) for dinner while we watch Breaking Bad.

Day Six: Wednesday

6:45 a.m. I eat a quick breakfast of yogurt and granola before I leave for work. I've got a really giant tub of yogurt and am not sure how I'll eat it all before it goes bad. It seems like there's never an intermediate size of yogurt you can buy because the large ones are on sale at the same price as any intermediate size, and then you're stuck with a lot of yogurt. The granola is from my partner.

10:30 a.m. I've finished something at work and don't quite want to start my next work task, so I decide to eat about half my fried rice lunch. I've noticed that if it's a busy packed day, I just eat one lunch at a normal time. But if there's any work I'm avoiding, or some lag time, I tend to eat more small meals throughout the day. More often than I should, I eat half (or all) my lunch a few hours after breakfast. And then I'm sad. I know, I should just eat a bigger breakfast probably. Really wish I remembered to bring some nuts to work with me.

12:15 p.m. A friend walks by my area and asks if I want the rest of his fries. Uh, yes! Yes I do.

12:45 p.m. Stalling working through a tougher work assignment so I get up and make some English breakfast tea with almond milk and sugar. Completely procrastinating with tea.

2:10 p.m. Lunchtime! I finish my fried rice.

6:00 p.m. After work, my friends and I go to a pub to watch the Warriors game, and I order a mac and cheese off the happy hour menu. No beer for me tonight because I'm on a budget. I snack on a few shared things like fries, but not much. I'm with a pretty big group so they get plenty of business off us. It's a great game and we win! My total comes out to $7, but I ended up with the group tab with people paying me back, so it actually costs me $15.

Taps Beer Co. & Kitchen

Mac and cheese: $7

Total spent: $15

9:30 p.m. When I get home, I make a big bowl of yogurt and granola before I go to bed because I'm still hungry.

(Image credit: Susanna Hopler)

Day Seven: Thursday

9:15 a.m. Bowl of yogurt, granola, and honey-roasted cashews. It's really delicious and the 5% fat Greek yogurt is so luxuriously creamy. Surprisingly, the yogurt is going pretty fast, because I've been eating it constantly, and there's a few other people in the house using it too. Whew. I will make myself eat something to avoid throwing it away.

10:30 a.m. Snacking on honey-roasted cashews, yum. This is dangerous and I think about taking them off my desk … and then proceed to finish the bag.

12:15 p.m. Free tea and almond milk from the office. I often make chai when I'm at home, but I don't always have milk around like the office does.

2:10 p.m. Lunch is the rest of the fried rice, which I eat in the office's lunch room. There's only a small portion left, so I have also brought half a tub of the hummus I made and a slice of bread (from partner's stock). Weird composite lunch, but it turns out to be enough.

7:00 p.m. My partner cooks dinner for us. The only thing I contribute to this meal is cauliflower because I still have half of the massive thing left. It's veggie and fake meat stir-fry with a version of my mixed rice. He makes his rice like me now, which makes me happy. We're both conscious of getting more protein because we eat a mostly vegetarian diet. It's delicious and I'm happy I didn't need to cook.

I was originally going to attempt to make green tea mochi ice cream tonight with a friend, but we both had to postpone. At least now I've got all the ingredients ready at home.

(Image credit: Susanna Hopler)
(Image credit: Susanna Hopler)

1. How did you set your food budget?

My budget is flexible, but I am trying to spend a minimal amount while still being happy. I generally budget around $20 a week on groceries, and $20 a week for eating out with friends. I stick to the grocery budget intuitively because I don't buy any food that's processed or prepared. I buy lots of vegetables, and generally only buy what's on sale, then build my meals out around that.

I often spend about $15 a week, but the $20 is probably the true average when I consider times I buy treats or bulk items to stock. I hardly overspend — this week was an exception. The fun budget I try to keep a close eye on, because it's really easy to spend more eating out (I really love burritos). This limits me to eating out socially once or twice a week. Honestly, the hardest part is having a partner who has less frugal habits (he likes to get takeout or eat out). I deal with this by cooking more food so it covers both our meals.

The week I did my diary wasn't the most typical week, as I spent more than I usually do on food, but my partner got badly injured (a few days ago) — and doesn't good food make everyone feel better? I'll stick to buying basics next week to cover for the extra I spent this week (no more fancy hummus and ice cream for me). When I start working full-time again, my fun budget will probably double to $40 a week.

2. What are the kitchen ingredients you can't live without?

I always have rice and lentils. If I really don't have any fresh food, I just make this and season it well. I bought a 20-pound bag of rice for $6 a few months ago, and that should last me for a very long time. I buy bulk things whenever a good deal pops up. Having a bunch of staple spices also helps.

3. What's the budget recipe you always rely on?

Mixed rice and lentils, and a stir-fry of lots of veggies. I try to eat a lot of green leafy vegetables every day. Both these meals are healthy, cheap, and cover any protein concerns I have. I prefer lentils over beans because they're easier to cook (can throw it in with the rice) and because beans make me very, very gassy.

At Kitchn we believe setting a food budget for you and your family is an essential part in getting your financial life in order. Don't know where to start? We have a guide for that. Want to share your food budget diary with Kitchn? See how here.

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