How a Family of 2 Eats for $125 in Helena, Montana

How a Family of 2 Eats for $125 in Helena, Montana

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Ariel Knutson
Apr 10, 2018
(Image credit: The Kitchn)

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: Elizabeth
Location: Helena, Montana
Age: 27
Number of people in family: 2 (myself and husband, Alex)
Occupation: I'm an attorney and my husband is a landscaper.
Household income: $80,000/year
Weekly food budget: $125

(Image credit: Susanna Hopler)

Day One: Friday

5:30 a.m.: Alex is up and eats two eggs, two pieces of toast, and a coffee before heading out for work.

7:30 a.m.: I've been up and puttering around wasting time since 5:30 and I finally get my act together to get ready for work. I make a tea to go, find some fruit salad I made earlier in the week, and pack both up to take with me.

8:30 a.m.: Settled in at my desk, I begin working and drinking tea. I'm not much of a breakfast eater.

10 a.m.: I eat a yogurt that I swiped from my hotel continental breakfast yesterday. It is not good. I don't like Greek yogurt or flavored yogurt. But free is free.

11 a.m.: Grazing on fruit salad.

12:30 p.m.: Home from work. I don't typically work Friday afternoons because of my travel schedule. Alex and I split a spinach and mushroom quesadilla, which I supplement with some goldfish crackers.

1:30 p.m.: We're dog-sitting a very high-energy border collie so we decide to take her on a hike up Mount Helena.

4 p.m.: Home. Ruby (the dog) is tuckered out and covered in ice balls. I eat a string cheese and then have what I intended to be a snack-sized bowl of leftover bean chili I made earlier in the week with rice and cheese. It ends up being basically a full dinner-sized bowl, but I have no shame and it's very good. Alex helps with the chili and also eats some leftover pizza from my work trip.

5:30 p.m.: We meet a friend at a local brewery. We're grabbing a growler fill for another friend's birthday party. We get a free beer with the growler fill and buy one more. We pay for everything with a gift card we got for dog-sitting. It was a little over $12, but because it was a gift card I'm not going to add to my full budget.

6:15 p.m.: Our friend hosts a birthday party dinner and serves a ton of different appetizers and vegetarian (and non-vegetarian) sushi. It's an impressive and delicious spread and I eat an unacceptably large portion of what is available. I also consume a second beer and then take over the cake icing process and do about as good of a job as you would expect. The cake is also delicious and we each eat a slice before heading home around 9 p.m.

Day Two: Saturday

5 a.m.: Alex gets up, has coffee and toast, and heads to work.

6:45 a.m.: I finally let go of the illusion that I'm going to fall back asleep. I drink a glass of lemon water and then take Ruby out for a nice long walk.

8 a.m.: Back home. I feed Ruby and then move on to my own breakfast. I make Aeropress coffee, soft-scrambled eggs with green onions, and reheat a frozen croissant that I made last weekend.

12 p.m.: Ruby and I are back home after a rousing hour-and-a-half of frisbee. Alex is home eating a quick burrito before heading out for more work. I make another mushroom and spinach quesadilla and lightly burn it while getting too engrossed in grocery and coupon planning. I've be very in to coupons for the last couple of weeks. I eat only half of the quesadilla and then walk over to my friend's house.

1:45 p.m.: My friend serves coffee and homemade cookies while we chat and watch some TV.

5:45 p.m.: I walk home and run into Alex who is driving home from his friend's house. We run out and grab some groceries.

Super 1

Jasmine rice, $6.64
Minneolas, $2.98
Lemons, $1.96
Limes, $.76
Carrots, $.41
Peppers, $1.96
Asparagus, $.96
Tomatoes, $1.55

Total spent: $17.22

Safeway

Frozen hash browns, $1.26
Can white beans, $1.19
Head of cabbage, $2.03

Total spent: $4.48

6:45 p.m.: At home I eat a few scoops of cottage cheese with crackers. Alex finishes the rest of my quesadilla. I open a beer and begin preparing loaded mash potato bowls. Alex makes roasted broccoli with lemon and garlic. Super tasty and we eat in front of the television like truly sad individuals.

Get the recipe: Loaded Mashed Potato Bowls from Budget Bytes

9 p.m.: We're curled up in front of the TV with Ruby and cups of hot chocolate.

Day Three: Sunday

8 a.m.: We're finally up and walking Ruby. Sunday is the only day we are both off so Alex and I tend to sleep in a bit on Sundays.

8:30 a.m.: I start washing the dishes from last night while Alex gets to work on coffee and a hobo skillet for breakfast. We're trying to break in a new cast iron pan so the eggs get a little messy.

Get the recipe: Hobo Skillet from The Food Network

10 a.m.: I mixed up some oatmeal raisin cookies while Alex was finishing off the skillet. This is the recipe I use because I am not fancy. They don't cook up totally, right? One sheet is underdone and one sheet is overdone. Despite watching all of The Great British Baking Show several times over, my practical skills lag dramatically behind my theoretical knowledge when it comes to baking.

Get the recipe: Vanishing Oatmeal Raisin Cookies from Quaker

12:15 p.m.: After taking the dog out for some more quality frisbee time, I meet my friend and her son at the local science center for their Women in STEM weekend (free admission, baby). They're providing free doughnuts so I partake in half a maple bar.

1:45 p.m.: Home and I'm very hungry by now. My half a maple bar didn't fill me up. I also don't really want to eat lunch now because we are having that same friend over for an early-ish dinner. I settle on eating a couple oatmeal cookies, some cottage cheese with saltines, and a tea. Alex has a burrito from things he finds in the fridge.

5:45 p.m.: Dinner is served and very delicious. It's golden coconut lentil soup, naan bread, and lemon pepper roasted asparagus. We top the soup with fresh-squeezed lime juice which is seriously next level, folks. My friend contributes a growler of beer and some fudge. We spend the evening playing cards with her son and having the kinds of wild conversations you can only have with someone who is both very smart and has only been alive for 2 1/2 years.

Get the recipe: Golden Coconut Lentil Soup from Budget Bytes

9:30 p.m.: The dog is walked, fed, and settling into bed. Alex and I haphazardly throw together pumpkin oatmeal in the slow cooker and then go to bed. My day of work tomorrow is going to be very grueling so I am hoping I can sleep well.

Get the recipe: Pumpkin Pie Oatmeal from Around My Family Table

Day Four: Monday

6 a.m.: Out of bed and I begin preparing breakfast (coffee and oatmeal) and lunch (cottage cheese, crackers, two minneolas, some oatmeal cookies, and an emergency Clif bar) to take with me on the road. I head to the office around 6:45. Alex will be on Ruby duty today because he is off work. He also has oats for breakfast.

7:30 a.m.: I am on the road and have added some old pizza from the office fridge to my lunch selection. I consume my breakfast behind the wheel like a true American.

9 a.m.: I stop in Great Falls, Montana, for a coffee.

Coffee Shop

Coffee, $2.25

Total: $2.25

11 a.m. I arrive in Havre, Montana and I have several calls from my client and the court. I also realize I left my water bottle on my desk. I stop at a gas station and buy a huge bottle of water and a candy bar for good measure. I consume both while making calls in my car and then get back on the road.

Gas Station

Water & candy bar, $3.78

Total: $3.78

11:30 a.m.: I arrive at the courthouse, deal with some last-minute emergencies, and eat the old pizza while working in a meeting room in the courthouse.

2:15 p.m.: I'm finally out of my hearing, which turned into a completely messy nightmare due to the incompetence of my opposing counsel. I work exclusively with survivors of domestic violence, which mean my cases are typically very demanding and often frustrating. My clients, however, are amazing people and it is one of the greatest honors of my life to be able to stand up and represent them in court. I get back on the road back to Helena and try to peel an orange while driving 80 miles an hour down the highway. Safety first.

2:45 p.m.: Stop in Havre again and buy another water bottle. I should have just refilled the old one at the courthouse but I really didn't want to be looking like a huge dweeb struggling to refill a water bottle at the drinking fountain while also laden down with 600 pounds of various work supplies right after my hearing.

6:45 p.m.: Finally back home. I ate a few more cookies and a few more bites of cottage cheese on the drive but I'm now very, very hungry. I finish the remaining half beer left in last night's growler and begin making mashed potatoes for potato bowls again. Alex stops on his way home from skiing to pick up a jalapeño and sour cream. He reports that he ate a burrito for lunch and had a beer at a friend's house after skiing.

Grocery Store

Jalapeño pepper, $.15
Sour cream, $1.79

Total: $1.94

8:30 p.m.: Watch some TV, drink a hot cocoa, and throw the ball endlessly for Ruby.

Day Five: Tuesday

6 a.m.: We're both up. Alex eats breakfast (leftover oatmeal and coffee) while I walk and feed Ruby.

7:05 a.m.: My Ruby work is done. I drink a glass of lemon water, putz around the house, and prepare oatmeal and tea to take to work.

7:55 a.m.: I got immediately pulled into a meeting at work and didn't take my food or tea with me.

9:15 a.m.: Finally, finally, finally seated at my desk and drinking my delicious tea. I spot my container of oatmeal cookies from yesterday so I eat two of those instead of my pumpkin oats. It's still oatmeal, so eating cookies for breakfast is perfectly acceptable.

(Image credit: Susanna Hopler)

11 a.m.: I get around to eating my pumpkin oats and also realize I have meetings all through lunch so I ask Alex to bring me something. He brings me cottage cheese and crackers and a minneola.

12 p.m.: I eat my minneola at my desk to get pumped for meetings.

1 p.m.: I decide to eat my cottage cheese and crackers during this meeting because I'm extremely hungry by now. I also have a cherry Coke from the work fridge that has been in there for six to eight months, so I decide it is fair game. I'm not a big soda drinker and I'm reminded why.

3:30 p.m.: I leave work so Alex and I can go view a house that just came on the market. Alex reports that he had a slice of Costco pizza for lunch.

Costco

Pizza, $1.99

Total: $1.99

4 p.m.: We liked the house a lot and decide to go to a brewery ($8 on a gift card) and talk about it and decide if we should put an offer in. After rehashing the same points over and over ad nauseam, we decide we do want to put an offer in. We head home to get our real estate agent on the phone.

5:30 p.m.: Alex makes more rice and we have leftover coconut lentil soup and talk to our real estate agent. I'm feeling very nervous and can't eat all of my food. We spend the rest of the evening communicating with our agent and doing our Ruby work.

Day Six: Wednesday

5:45 a.m.: I slept surprisingly well given how anxious I am about buying a house. I drink my lemon water and then Alex and I walk Ruby. It's pretty cold out (10 degrees) so we get a hustle on and don't walk too far.

6:30 a.m.: I clean dishes while Alex makes coffee and scrambled eggs and reheats croissants. We eat our food while reviewing documents from our real estate agent. I can't finish my coffee because my stomach is very sketchy from all the nerves.

10 a.m.: My morning has blown up work-wise when I get a text from our real estate agent saying our offer was accepted. Guys, I'm freaking out here. I'm both so excited and so anxious and I can't eat anything. I do start chugging water. I have a theory that all aliments can be solved by drinking a glass of water ... it does work sometimes.

(Image credit: Susanna Hopler)

12 p.m.: Home completing more home buying-related tasks and trying to eat a spinach and mushroom quesadilla Alex made me. I only can eat about a quarter of it but also drink several more glasses of water. Feeling stress (even relatively positive stress) has always made me lose my appetite. Alex finishes my quesadilla and also has a slice of pizza he picked up at a local bakery with a baguette.

Bakery

Pizza & baguette, $7

Total: $7

2 p.m.: Back at work and continue my crusade to drink all the water in the world. I also consume the two remaining oatmeal cookies.

3 p.m.: Eat a few saltines.

5 p.m.: Alex picks me up and we go take Ruby for some serious frisbee time. We run a few errands on the way home including going to Costco and Safeway.

Costco

Bread, $4.99
String cheese, $9.49
Eggs, $6.39

Total Spent: $20.87

Safeway

Bananas, $1.35
Beer, $8.99

Total Spent: $10.34

(Image credit: Courtesy of Author)

6 p.m.: Alex makes crostini and cleans the kitchen while I make asparagus bruschetta, inspired by a recipe from the Super 1 circular, of all things. I add and subtract from the recipe to suit my taste. In particular, I add a can of white beans to the mix to make it a more substantial dinner. It's delicious and very summery, which is nice in the freezing dead of winter. Alex also supplements his dinner with chips and salsa.

7 p.m.: We each drink a couple beers while discussing this huge life change we are about to have and throwing the ball for Ruby.

Day Seven: Thursday

6:20 a.m.: I slept in a little today, which I really needed. I drink my lemon water and head out on a walk with Ruby.

7:10 a.m.: Back home and I'm freaking starving, probably from not eating nearly enough yesterday. I decide I can't wait until I'm at work to eat. I reheat the last of the pumpkin oatmeal and eat that with a glass of orange juice. Alex has several slices of peanut butter and banana toast with a coffee.

12:30 p.m.: I have a busy morning and don't have time for snacking. I eat yet another quesadilla for lunch. Clearly, I have a pretty set lunch routine. It's easy and I like it so, I eat it a lot! I have Alex drive me back to work and first the store to get La Croix and an apple for a snack.

Grocery Store:

La Croix, $3.79
Apple, $.70

Total: $4.49

3 p.m.: I eat my snack at my desk while doing advice calls.

4:15 p.m.: Leave work early to go to the bank and sign a bunch of documents. We also stop at the grocery store yet again to get egg noodles. My brother-in-law is coming into town tonight so I need more noodles than I originally thought.

Grocery Store:

Egg noodles, $1.67

Total: $1.67

5:30 p.m.: Alex and his brother go to wax some skis while I talk to my mom and make halusky for dinner. I've been cooking from Budget Bytes a lot lately because she has such delicious and cheap recipes.

Get the recipe: Halusky Budget Bytes

7:30 p.m.: We eat our dinner, drink a beer (or more than one for the boys), play with Ruby, and catch up.

9 p.m.: We're all feeling snack-y so the boys have some burritos and chips and salsa, I find some leftover mashed potatoes and eat them with a dollop of sour cream. Then, bedtime!

Total for Week: $96.28 (20.25 on gift cards)

(Image credit: Susanna Hopler)

1. How did you set your food budget?

I aim to spend $500 a month on food. I don't have any specific methodology to support that choice — it just seems reasonable for two people. This week was unusually low spending just because I was using up a lot of stuff we already had on hand. I'll often spend more time cooking elaborate meals because I enjoy it. I just didn't really have the time this week with all the time we spent on house tasks and dog tasks.

I'm pretty flexible with the budget and usually go over, but I focus more on having a good selection of nutritious, relatively easy-to-make and cheap dishes that I sort of just make over and over again. It's pretty easy to avoid eating out just because there are not a ton of great vegetarian places to eat out anywhere in Montana. (Although that is changing.)

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

You could probably guess from the diary but tortillas, beans, Mexican cheese, tortilla chips, salsa, and eggs are probably our most consistent purchases. Also, I cook Indian food a lot so I'm very reliant on my stock of spices to make delicious dishes (curry powder, turmeric, cumin, coriander, crushed red pepper, etc.).

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

We eat super differently depending on the season. (I get a CSA share in the summer, and we don't have air conditioning, so summer is lots of variations of dishes that involve no or minimal use of the oven/stove).

In the winter I rely a lot on soups, or variations of beans and rice. A huge favorite is a simple Santa Fe salad. I don't have a specific recipe I use, but I basically just sauté diced peppers, add two cans of beans (drained and rinsed) and a can of corn, then add two cups of cooked rice and however much salsa you like. Heat it all together and serve with Mexican cheese and tortilla chips or romaine lettuce.

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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