Eating on Two Dollars a Day: Intro and Day One

by Chris Holcomb —

I started my next experiment on a Thursday and finished on a Sunday. My goal for these four days was to obtain all of my food on only two dollars a day. Once again, it was part of an effort to learn what I really need.

Why did I pick two dollars? It’s often a reference indicator for worldwide poverty, yes, but that number takes into account all expenses. However, I did some analysis from several vantage points. One was taking the figure of $7,000 dollars a year, roughly the average world income, and doing a budget with my actual expenses. For the other, I took the number of $730 ($2 a day), and did some cost of living analysis between India and the U.S. (as the experiment was partially inspired by these guys) to figure out how much that would equate to living in the U.S. For this one, I couldn’t count my current rent rates, and just put it at 25%. At the end of the day however, both calculations came within a dollar per month of $60 on food. So, I decided that two dollars a day was a good place to start.

Why did I decide to do this? Truthfully, part of it was selfish motivation, as it can never hurt to cut down on expenses when setting one’s budget. For the most part, however, the experiment was motivated by my desire to see what’s possible on such a limited budget, and to test the bounds of what people need. In addition, I have been trying to take some steps towards living more simply. It’s easy to spend a lot of money on great tasting convenience foods, but is that really the best way to go? I wanted to see if I could still enjoy good tasting foods, but make these foods myself from healthier and cheaper ingredients. So I did it. For four days, the cost of the food I ate totaled exactly eight dollars. A good portion of that food was bought in quantity at a lower price per serving, so I meticulously measured and calculated the entire weekend, making sure I had the right price per portion and ate the right amount for the cost I attributed to it. My other major focus was to make sure I survived nutritionally. I found the USDA’s SuperTracker to be an excellent tool for tracking my daily nutrients based on the foods that I ate.

Finally, the exciting part: how did I do it?
I worked off of several advantages in this experiment. The first, and perhaps most important, was the fact that the Mustard Seed House, where I’m staying, has a massive garden. This allowed me to get a wide variety of vegetables and greens for an extremely cheap price. (For the sake of the experiment, I counted one cup of garden produce at 5 cents apiece.) The second benefit of living in this house is that it has on stock a good amount of foods in bulk, foods like rice and flour and oats that are shared by the community. Even so, I had to exercise a lot of care and resourcefulness to succeed.

Day One:

home made breadThe first major breakthrough for me was learning how to make homemade bread. I could take a cheap bulk good like flour and make it into a very good product with minimal work and at minimal cost. (For Christine’s post about me making bread with the inclusion of the recipe, click here) So, on day one, I had several slices of bread with a little bit of natural peanut butter. Bread, peanut butter, and bananas would become my go-to combo for the weekend, as they are all fairly cheap, healthy, and delicious.

For breakfast I had homemade granola with yogurt and a banana. Luckily for me, Christine makes a great homemade granola from oats and a small amount of nuts and dried fruit. It packs a great nutrition punch, but it ended up being a little pricey, so this was the only morning I had it.
For lunch, I stole a fantastic idea from my mother: putting bread, banana, peanut butter, and milk all in a bowl and eating them as a sort of bread pudding. It’s pretty delicious. Add to that a handful of snap peas from the garden, and I was good to go.

Chris dinner For dinner, I had the picture at left: Salad from the garden and a combination of rice and lentils that was partly leftovers from a previous meal. However, in my calculations for this meal, I royally screwed up. I made twice the normal serving size, thinking that it was just one serving and the cost was much lower. As a consequence, I ended up being 15 cents over for the day… Maybe I should have listened to my stomach when it gave me the “full” alert halfway through the meal. I paid the price for gluttony, having to skimp on a later day.

Carrying on in my ignorance however, I thought that night that I had money to spare! Therefore, I made myself some rice pudding to finish off the day.

Stay tuned for the next post on Monday, as the folly continues on day two…


Chris HolcombChris Holcomb is an intern this summer with Mustard Seed Associates. Hailing from from Elkhart, IN, Chris will be a senior this year at Purdue University majoring in Economics with a concentration in Statistics and minors in Sociology and Environmental Politics and Policy. This post is the second in a series he’s been doing on his experiments with simplicity and human needs. You can also follow along at his blog, The Llama and the Cow.