“Have you eaten lunch?”
I was in the home of a mega-bestselling author, who had just contracted my company to run the online marketing launch for his newest book. The book, a soon-to-be bestseller centered in the world of food and cooking, was a follow-up to his #1 bestselling tome about health, fitness, and dieting. The man was not only one of my favorite authors, but a certifiable health guru and bonafide foodie—I had just picked up his lunch which consisted of duck confit and a Moroccan bean salad.
Well… this is going to be awkward.
Setting aside any shred of social tact, I replied to his lunch query. “Nah, I’m alright. I have some Top Ramen in my backpack.”
I was lying. It was knock-off Top Ramen. Actual Top Ramen wasn’t in my price range.
He raised a quizzical eyebrow. I took a deep breath and launched into my well-rehearsed spiel. “I’m doing this experiment where I give up something new every month. This month I’m giving up unnecessary spending, so I only have $8 a day to spend. Hence the, uh, Top Ramen.”
He laughed, shook his head, and walked over to his kitchen. He reached into the cabinets and with a wry smile, handed me a jar of protein powder.
“Take this. I need your brain to work this month.”
I thanked him profusely. But while working at his dining room table later, I still sheepishly munched my raw block of noodles sprinkled with yellow chicken seasoning.
November was my first legitimate brush with poverty. I was born extremely lucky. My parents are two working professionals who loved and provided generously for their two sons. I never went to bed on empty stomach. Never had to worry if there would be any presents under the tree. Never felt crippled under the weight of student loans.
But even with a privileged upbringing, my parents still instilled a sense of financial cognizance and responsibility. I’ve saved in a bank account since I was in first grade. I would never be caught dead wearing designer jeans, driving a Range Rover, or drinking Fiji water. In fact, my dad, who frequently asserts the superiority of generic-brand food items, insists that Grey Goose is for “wimps” and proudly consumes cheap, plastic-bottle vodka—Vitali, Gordon’s, and Popov—which you’d be more likely to find at a frat house than a suburban home.
So it was armed with my dad’s ingrained frugality that I strolled into the grocery store on November 1st with a $40 weekly budget and a head brimming with confidence. I knew that this trip would be different from my vegetarian buttfucking in February. I love grocery shopping, which coupled with a degree in mathematics, meant that I was ready to make Safeway my bitch.
As a clarifying sidenote: the rules for this month were to spend an average of eight dollars a day, or $240 for the month This did not include my rent, utilities, or bus pass. To those of you who kneejerk react with “that’s cheating—you’re not following the rules!” I respond thusly: Bitch, I make the fucking rules.
I needed to consume at least 2,000 calories a day, so arithmetic inferred that each dollar spent had to net at least 250 calories. This invoked hard dietary restrictions.
First to go were fruits and vegetables. These food groups, lauded by health professionals as a “nutritional necessity,” were an unjustifiable caloric luxury. My mom was less than pleased about this development. My inner nine-year old was stoked.
Next to go were all name brands. Later Nabisco, see ya Hillshire Farms, and suck it Kraft. I stuck purely to Safeway brands.
As I walked through the aisles, I did more nutrition-fact-checking than an overbearing yoga mom. In one instance, I cataloged the number of calories on 10 different cheeses, setting each down before I found the golden ticket—an unassuming pack of Safeway-brand American Cheese Singles.
My cart filled as I meandered through the rows. A five pound hunk of ground beef here (600 cals/$). Four packs of spaghetti noodles (1500 cals/$) and two jugs of generic spaghetti sauce (237 cals/$) there. I picked up, debated, and begrudgingly put back a 4 gallon tub of vanilla ice cream, even though it was an astonishing deal at 900 calories per dollar (I was poor, not a fatass). Cans of beans (450 cals/$), marble slabs of watered-down ham (137 cals/$), squished loaves of bread (600 cals/$), and the aforementioned knock-off Top Ramen (470 cals/$) rounded out the rest.
Ninety minutes later, I strolled out of Safeway with two bags, a few coins to spare, and a victory pump. However, the high from my super savings trip crashed once I set the bags down at my refrigerator.
Well, now I guess I have to eat this shit.
I put away the bags and got to work, whipping up a gigantic vat of spaghetti sauce and a web of noodles. This would be my dinner… for tonight, and tomorrow night, and five more consecutive nights following. When I felt like I splurging, I sprinkled on bits of American cheese.
It was boring, but effective. Lunch, in contrast, couldn’t have been less monotonous.
When the month started, I knew that I didn’t want to concede my downtown San Francisco workday lunches. The place is a food mecca, with options that are diverse, healthy, and—if you bring your Yelp A-Game—goddamn delicious.
I very well could have just brought a ham and cheese sandwich in a paper bag lunch and called it a day, but I had something in mind. A mini-experiment…
If I was truly going to do this poor thing, I had to penny pinch with the best of them. Other than schizophrenia, it’s rare that homeless people are the best at anything, but when it comes to getting a deal at a fast food restaurant, they’re at the top of the pecking order. And after taking Safeway for a ride, it was time to show the lower class how it’s done.
I embarked on a quest. I wanted to find the tastiest cheap deals at every major fast food chain. So over the course of 22 weekday lunches, I tried them all.
SIDEBAR: After I surpassed 750 words dissecting fast food minutia, I realized that I required an appendix. So if you choose, I highly recommend reading the aptly titled “Alex’s Guide to Cheap, Shitty Fast Food.”
If I had to condense 750 words of fast food wisdom into one, I would just say this: McDoubles. Goddamnit I love McDoubles. At a ridiculous 390 calories per dollar, they’re not an only absurd deal, but are sumptuously delicious and contain 5 of 5 food groups (if you’re poor and/or homeless, ketchup counts as a fruit and pickles as a vegetable).
I can’t pretend like I made it through November only with frugal spending. I had help. A lot of help.
My friends were incredibly supportive. They picked up my tabs, treated me to lunch, and bought me enough alcohol to get a hippo hammered. One friend (hi Nico!) paid for an entire night’s worth of food, transportation, and drinks. My cousin gave me $20 to Whole Foods with the instructions “eat some vegetables!” The aforementioned author constantly loaded me up with food from his pantry. Their generosity was humbling, even if I cashed in on years of favors in a quick 30 days.
Not everyone was supportive, however. One friend, who had justifiably grown quite sick of my shenanigans (we’ll call her—oh, I don’t know—“Julia”), refused to let her then boyfriend buy me a late night slice of pizza. And then got in a fight with him when he bought me one anyway. The moral of the story is that pizza always wins.
To be fair, I didn’t necessarily return all the goodwill flying my way.
Midway through November, I got blasted on drinks exclusively bought by friends. The night ended in a haze.
Next thing I knew, I woke up on a friend’s couch with the glaring sun piercing my bleary eyes. I had a splitting headache, a queasy stomach, and was not enthused about the prospect of moving.
I explained this back in January, but marijuana is the undisputed champ of hangover cures. And like a sign from God, roughly one foot from my face was a bubbler and a Tupperware container of weed.
My friends, however, were asleep in the other room. I was faced with a dilemma. My own personal supply had run dry and I couldn’t exactly afford to allocate a portion of my monthly budget towards weed. After an internal battle, I realized what was happening:
Am I really about to just… steal drugs?
Yes. Yes I am.
I looked left. Looked right. The perimeter was clear. I cautiously opened the container and scooped out a nug of weed. When I went to put the lid back on, I hesitated, thinking, “well… I might as well play it safe and replenish the supply.” I scooped out a few more buds, snapped the top back on, and slipped out the door like a thief into the night.
To the illustrious list of accomplishments from the “Alex Gives Up” experiment, I can now add “was poor; stole drugs.” From my friends. Who are girls. And didn’t tell them until a month later.
Although I took frugality to new levels–like never paying for group taxi rides, groveling for drinks, and consuming the same bland but efficient dinner 7 days in a row–I still had a couple splurge moments. For example, I blew $2.49 on a Colt 45 Tall Boy because I wanted to day drink with my friends. And then gulped it out of a paper bag. Talk about living the high life.
It was little moments like those–the pleasure that only a deserved sip of malt liquor brings–that made November my favorite experiment of 2012. Each dollar saved, each penny pinched, brought a little jolt of adrenaline. I went entire days spending exactly $0. It was fun–a diversion from the financially reckless lifestyle of the common American twenty something.
It was also humbling. At Safeway, I got stuck behind a family paying for their groceries with foodstamps. The mom–a middle-aged black woman–stared straight ahead as the cashier took 15 minutes totaling everything while her kids fidgeted with increasing intensity. Although her head was held high, the mother’s tired eyes betrayed a harsh reality: I chose to limit my spending. Many had no choice.
With two days left in November, I still had $50 in my wallet. I had saved vigorously, and I wanted to buy something I could put on the mantle–a trophy of my second successful month of the year.
So I blew a three day paycheck on a ferocious toy dinosaur. I fucking earned that stegosaurus—it was one of the most satisfying purchases of my life to date.
After the last poor supper (aka two delicious McDoubles), I still had $22 left to spend. With newfound wisdom, I recognized that the pathway to success was through reasonable judgment and big ambitions, so I deposited the rest into my bank account.
Just kidding. I bought lotto tickets. Twenty two of ‘em!
I could see the headlines: “Man attempts social experiment and wins big.” The classic rags to riches story. I rubbed my hands together, preparing to make it rain. Dollar. Dollar. Bills ya’ll.
I woke up next morning and giddily checked the winning numbers. I grabbed my first lotto ticket. No dice. Next one? Nothing. Each ticket brought a little bit more disappointment. In a matter of seconds, my entire stack lay on the floor, discarded and dejected. One ticket actually won $2, but I was so disappointed that I left it crumpled on the ground.
But now was not the time for disappointment. I spent 30 days clawing tooth and nail, and I ended the month at a net of exactly $0. By any objective standard, I dominated November.
Read the appendix: Alex’s Guide to Cheap, Shitty Fast Food