How a Family of One Eats for $80 a Week in Tucson, Arizona

How a Family of One Eats for $80 a Week in Tucson, Arizona

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Ariel Knutson
Feb 13, 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: Rachael
Location: Tucson, Arizona
Age: 31
Number of people in family: 1
Occupation: Librarian
Household income: $39,000 a year
Weekly food budget: $80 (This includes my CSA subscription, even though I pay $132 for it in advance for every 6 weeks. I include it in my budget as $22 per week though, to help keep my spending on track.)

(Image credit: Susanna Hopler)

Day 1: Tuesday

6:00 a.m.: I'm usually awake by about 5:50, about 10 minutes before the alarm goes off. I think this probably is due to the fact that I have one of those wake-up light alarm clocks that gradually brightens the room. Or maybe it's because one of my two dogs, a fairly recent addition to my household, leaps onto my bed without fail at 5:50 every morning. Either way, I get up, feed the dogs and the cat, drink a glass of water, and get in a 30-minute workout and a shower.

7:00 a.m.: I never eat before I work out, mostly because if I do, I'll linger too long, and talk myself out of it. For breakfast, I have a whole-wheat English muffin with some leftover kale braised with oyster sauce that I made last week based off a recipe in Yotam Ottolenghi's Plenty More, a marinated egg, and bit of chili-garlic sauce. I always make my coffee at home, and usually bike to work so I pack it in a thermos for when I get in. I also grab Greek yogurt with blueberries and a clementine for lunch.

Get the book: Plenty More: Vibrant Vegetable Cooking from London's Ottolenghi

8:00 a.m.: I arrive at work and drink my coffee over the course of about an hour while I check emails and gear up for the day ahead.

1:00 p.m.: I take my yogurt and go eat outside. One of the requirements of my job is to cover our library's reference desk, a duty that I share with one of my coworkers. So I almost always take my lunch break around 12:30 or 1, and usually only take about 30 minutes. I've never been a big lunch eater, so I usually just have some yogurt like today, or light leftovers. But I always make a point to get outside and either take a walk, or read my book under a tree in the park across the street like I'm doing today.

4:00 p.m.: I eat the clementine that I packed this morning for a snack. I bike to work, and between that and my light lunches I always try to have a snack before I leave work so I don't eat a ton of snacks when I get home.

4:30 p.m.: Today is my CSA pick-up day, so I leave work and bike over to the Tucson CSA pick-up site which is a couple blocks away. The prices are incredibly reasonable, and the abundance and variety of produce I receive every week is remarkable. I've been a member for a little over a year now, and I love it so much. It has really helped change the way I budget, cook, and shop.

CSA Share

Romaine Lettuce
Broccoli
Arugula
Hanover Kale
Lemons
Sweet Potatoes
Celery
Kohlrabi

Total: I pay $132 every six weeks for my CSA, but track it as $22 in my weekly food budget to help keep my spending on track.

6:30 p.m.: I get home around 5:30 and spend some time playing with the dogs and puttering around the house a bit, and then start dinner: the celery salad with feta and soft-boiled egg from Plenty More to use up the celery from last week's CSA share. The recipe calls for about 30 minutes sitting at room temp, so I use this time to assess and put away the CSA veg.

7:00 p.m.: Once everything is put away and the salad is ready, I sit down to eat while I work on a menu plan and shopping list for the week.

7:45 p.m.: After dinner, I head out to go grocery shopping. I almost always go to Sprouts, mostly because it's the closest grocery store to my house, but also because I can always get everything I need (including bulk spices) and the quality and prices are pretty reasonable. With the CSA produce, and staples I have in the freezer (I buy meat and such when it's on sale), I really don't need that much.

Sprouts

Garlic, $0.34
Red Jalapeño, $0.06
Yellow Onions (2), $0.26
Chili Paste (sambal oelek), $1.79
Stewed Tomatoes (2), $1.98
Tangerine La Croix, $3.50
Olive Oil, $7.99
Large brown eggs, $2.79
Medjool Dates, $6.49
Beef (London Broil), $4.44
Used Bag Credit, -$0.05

Total: $29.59

9:30 p.m.: By the time I'm done shopping, putting the groceries away, packing up the leftover salad for lunch tomorrow, and finishing the dishes, it's already past 9:00. So I boil water for my nightly tea, a habit I picked up from my mom — she always had her tea before bed — and drink it and eat the last lemon bar from a batch made for dinner with friends over the weekend while I read a book until it's time to get ready for bed.

Day 2: Wednesday

7:00 a.m.: I'm up at 6 again and do my normal routine (work out, get ready). I have the same thing I had for breakfast yesterday: braised kale and marinated egg on an English muffin. I also make my coffee to go.

8:00 a.m.: I arrive at work, drink my coffee, and settle into my work day.

12:30 p.m.: Lunch today is the leftover celery salad (minus egg) and tangerine La Croix, which I eat outside while reading my book.

4:00 p.m.: I eat another clementine for a snack while I'm wrapping things up before heading home for the day.

6:30 p.m.: After getting home, walking the dogs, and relaxing a bit, I make dinner: ravioli with the arugula from the CSA and brown butter, lemon, and pecorino. I usually have a couple packages Trader Joe's filled pasta in the freezer. Shopping at Trader Joe's is not my favorite — something about the mini kids' carts and bells just drives me nuts — but I really like some of their products, so I stock up on select pantry items, pastas, and other things that can keep a while every month or so. After dinner, I pack up the leftovers for lunch, do the dishes, and pack a bag for tomorrow.

(Image credit: Susanna Hopler)

I also make some celery syrup to mix with soda water. I've been observing Dry January this year so have been looking for interesting non-alcoholic drink ideas to get me through. A volunteer at the CSA recommended this recipe, which also conveniently uses up some of the massive amounts of celery currently in my fridge.

Get the recipe: Celery Syrup from Imbibe Magazine

9:00 p.m.: I spend the rest of the evening reading, and make some tea and have the last clementine.

Day 3: Thursday

7:00 a.m.: I'm not a regular journal keeper, so I've never really noticed what a creature of habit I am, but here we are. I'm up by 6 again, take one of my dogs for a jog, eat breakfast (the last of the English muffin/egg/ kale, which, honestly, is so good I could eat every day) and make my coffee to go.

8:00 a.m.: As usual, I drink my coffee when I get into work while I check emails and get into the swing of the day.

1:00 p.m.: Lunch today is some of the leftover pasta from last night, and a tangerine La Croix which I eat outside while reading, of course.

4:00 p.m.: My snack today is two dates and some some pistachios which I have stashed in my desk.

7:00 p.m.: I took the dogs to meet some friends at the park today. By the time I get home it's getting pretty late, and I don't feel much like cooking. So I make an arugula pesto spread with the remainder of the arugula that I didn't use in the pasta last night. I also substitute pistachios for pine nuts because that's what I have on hand, and add some celery leaves at the suggestion of the CSA newsletter. I eat a bit spread on some rice cakes with some crumbled kale chips (made from last week's CSA share) while flipping through magazines that came in the mail today. Then I pack up some of the pesto and rice cakes to take for lunch tomorrow.

9 p.m.: After dinner, like usual, I settle down to read my book, make tea, and have a cookie for a little treat.

Day 4: Friday

6:30 a.m.: My doctor ordered some routine blood work at my checkup Monday, so I have an appointment to get some blood drawn before work this morning. I can't eat beforehand, so I take the opportunity to sleep in a bit. I make coffee like usual, and pack some yogurt swirled with lemon curd and berries and a bit of granola to eat for breakfast when I get to work.

8:50 a.m.: There was a long wait at the lab for the blood draw and I finally get to work almost an hour late. We have a high-school class coming in to research at 9, so I only have time to eat about half my yogurt before I have to rush out to greet the class. I'm feeling more than a little hangry at this point.

(Image credit: Susanna Hopler)

1:30 p.m.: The morning has just been nonstop. When I finally get a break for lunch (the arugula pesto and rice cakes from last night, and the yogurt I didn't eat this morning) I eat it quickly on the bench in the courtyard of my building in case they need my help inside and then go back in to check email quickly since I didn't get a chance this morning.

7:15 p.m.: It was a really long day. I finally left almost an hour later than usual. A group of friends and I have a standing appointment for Friday happy hour, but between the long day and trying to stick to my Dry January plan, I decided to skip it this week. By the time I get home, decompress a bit, and walk the dogs, I really don't feel like making anything elaborate for dinner. So I dig into my reserve of Japanese curry roux, those blocks of curry base that you cook in water to make a sort of gravy. I throw in some onions and broccoli, and cook up some rice to go with it. To drink, I mix some celery syrup I made earlier in the week with some soda water and lemon. Then sit down to watch my (not even) guilty pleasure Riverdale.

8:45 p.m.: I decide to make some popcorn sprinkled with digestive yeast and close out the day with a movie from my Netflix queue.

Day 5: Saturday

7:30 a.m.: I would have liked another half hour of sleep, but between two dogs and a cat in my house, I'm lucky I even got to sleep this late. So I get up and make some coffee.

8:15 a.m.: After I've had my first cup of coffee I dish up some yogurt with lemon curd and berries, which I eat while I catch up on the long reads I've been saving up this week. (This is my typical Saturday morning routine.) Then I get started on some much-needed house cleaning.

12:30 p.m.: I take a break from cleaning for a snack (some of the arugula pesto on rice cakes and a La Croix) and read another longer article I have saved.

4:30 p.m.: I volunteered to help another department with a beer-tasting fundraiser at work tonight. I'm supposed to be there at 5, so I'd planned to grab a quick slice of pizza at my favorite place across from the University of Arizona. However, there is a U of A basketball game on tonight and the place is packed! I decide to go to the new poke place across the street.

I order the regular poke bowl with spicy tuna and salmon, brown rice, and greens, and basically all the toppings they can fit on top. I get a diet RC Cola on the side. I have time to eat about a third of the bowl, which is actually very filling, before I have to head over to work, so I stash the rest in the office fridge for later.

Jimmy's Pita and Poke

Regular poke bowl, $13.56

Total Cost: $13.56

8:00 p.m.: I was assigned to help with at-the-door ticket sales for the event, so I'm released when we cut off ticket sales. For helping I'm given a tasting glass and some drink tickets. I know I'm technically still in Dry January, but I sample some beers any way. This is my first drink all month and there's only a few days left, so I'm not counting this as a failure. Besides, who says "no" when they're offered free beer at work? I make the rounds to a few of the breweries I've never tired, and when all is said and done probably have the equivalent of one pint's worth of samples.

9:00 p.m.: After the event, I stop by Safeway to pick up a few things I forgot at the grocery store on Tuesday, and maybe get a snack for tonight. The store is oddly packed for a Friday night, so I just grab the things on my list and decide to make some popcorn when I get home, which is probably a better choice.

Safeway:

Club Soda, $1.77
Butter, $3.49
English Muffins, $3.49
Cilantro, $0.89

Total: $9.64

9:45 p.m.: When I get home I make some popcorn sprinkled with some Valentina hot sauce (don't knock it until you've tried it!), and watch a couple episodes of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend before going to bed.

Day 6: Sunday

8:00 a.m.: I kicked the dogs out when they got up to buy myself a bit more sleep this morning. When I finally get up I make coffee and cook up a big pot of steel-cut oats. I eat some of the oats for breakfast with some brown sugar, dried cranberries, and orange zest and finish up the last few articles I have saved. I put the rest of the oats in the fridge to have on hand for quick breakfasts next week. Then I do the last little bit of my house cleaning.

1:30 p.m.: I meet a friend for a movie at our local independent theater. I'm a member so I get free popcorn, which I usually skip (I'm kind of curmudgeonly when it comes to noise in movie theaters), but partake today since I haven't had lunch. After the movie, I spend the rest of the day puttering around doing yard work.

6:45 p.m.: For dinner, I make the harira from Heidi Swanson's book Near and Far (an adaptation of the recipe is here). I add in some extra cilantro and celery stalks and leaves in an effort to use the celery that seems to be breeding in my fridge. This may be the only downside of a CSA — sometimes there's a bumper crop of something like celery, and no matter how much you use there always seems to be more of it. (Although, this really isn't a downside at all!) I make couscous to go with it, since I don't have the angel hair pasta that it calls for. I've never made this dish before, and it's thicker than I think it's supposed to be, but it is really good!

Get the book: Near & Far: Recipes Inspired by Home and Travel from Heidi Swanson

8:30 p.m.: I'm in the mood for something dessert-like, but am woefully lacking in the cookie/candy department. This is largely by design; I'm trying to cut back on sweets this year. I slice up half a Valencia orange (saving the rest for later) that I got in last week's CSA for a snack, which totally hits the spot, and make some tea and make some progress on the book I'm reading. (I'm almost finished with it!)

Day 7: Monday

7:00 a.m.: Back to the grind! I'm up by 6 and get in a workout and shower like usual. For breakfast, I heat up some of the steel-cut oats and eat them with more brown sugar, cranberries, pistachios, and orange zest. And of course, I make my coffee and pour in my Thermos to take to work.

8:00 a.m.: I arrive at the office, drink my coffee, and check emails and then go about my day.

1:00 p.m.: I take a break for lunch and head outside to enjoy the sun eat the rest of the poke bowl from Saturday that I strategically left (totally forgot about!) at work on Saturday.

4:00 p.m.: I eat the other half of the orange from yesterday for my snack before I head out for the day.

6:30 p.m.: My evening meals on Mondays and Tuesdays tend to be creative uses of the remainders of my CSA share, and can sometimes get weird. But tonight is pretty straightforward. A no-recipe recipe (h/t to the New York Times Cooking newsletter for the term): some spinach-feta chicken sausage (which I had in the freezer) and a wedge of romaine lettuce, both grilled outside and dressed with a dill vinaigrette I made last week. I eat this while I'm flipping through some magazines.

After dinner, I throw the sweet potatoes in the oven to roast for meals later this week. I think some of the leftover harira will be good on one.

9 p.m.: Surprise, surprise! I make a cup of tea and sit down to read my book until it's time to get ready for bed.

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

1. How did you set your food budget?

About three years ago, I had a year full of bad luck that resulted in some major unexpected expenses that all but wiped out my savings, and required me to take on some sizable credit card debt. About 18 months ago, after making regular payments but seeing no real decrease in my debt, with some help from my mom who is an accountant (and some pretty gnarly but eye-opening spreadsheets), I spent about four months tracking my spending habits in excruciating detail.

This resulted in a very strict budget that is always a work in progress. I started off with subtracting the amounts of my non-negotiable items (credit cards, housing, student loans, etc.) and then deciding how to divvy up the remainder to live as happily and healthily as I could. In order to keep within my budget, but also allow for fun and flexibility, I set caps, more than detailed budgets for things like food and entertainment, and often move funds from other categories based on how my week shakes out. So that means while $80 is my weekly cap for my food budget on paper, I might spend more one week, which means less in my movie budget for example. Or I might skip happy hour or eating out for a few weeks if I know there's a concert I want to go to later in the month.

I also think it's worth noting that my food budget used to be close to double, with a large chunk spent on good-quality produce, until a coworker told me about the CSA which she said was her secret for feeding her three very athletic kids without breaking the bank. And, I must say, it really has worked to cut my food budget without sacrificing any quality.

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

I have a huge collection of spices and pantry staples (vinegars, asian sauces, Middle Eastern staples like tahini, harissa paste, etc.) which I can use to make just about anything. I also usually have a selection of flavored chicken sausage and cuts of meat and poultry in the freezer that I buy when they're on sale. Oh, and various types of canned beans and tomatoes. I can always whip something up with beans and tomatoes.

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

I find myself making this garlicky chicken from the New York Times a lot. Like, weekly, some months, but I think that's largely because I really like it, and it's a quick and easy protein. Other than that I mostly let my CSA share drive my cooking, sometimes relying more heavily on those canned beans and tomatoes I always have on hand.

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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