How I Learned to Survive on a $42-Per-Week Food Plan

usda grocery plans
Jason Hoffman/Thrillist

Who used to spend $80+ per week on groceries? This guy. I'm a single white millennial male and I spent $80 per week on groceries because I could. I thought everyone did. Well, not everyone. But enough people that I didn't have to think about my behavior as an aberration.

Then I attended an event at a local bar called The Livermore. On this particular evening, oral historian Clara Gamalski had invited the community to see the findings of a three-month experiment called "Free Snacks: A Survey of Pittsburgh," during which she'd interviewed city residents about their food preferences: Oscar Mayer bologna or Citterio mortadella? Cheetos or Pirate's Booty? She presented her findings during the event and set up a station inside the bar to conduct additional interviews. While waiting my turn, I met a man named Jeff.

Jeff was an educator with two degrees. But for the past six years he'd only been able to find part-time teaching work.

"I'm on a tight food budget," he said. "Today I spent $2."

The dude was like 6'4". Thick.

"How are you surviving on $2?" I asked.

"Three-for-$1 cheese curls at the corner store," he said, "and two-for-$1 candy bars at CVS."

I was floored. And Jeff's predicament got me thinking really hard about food budgets, so I started researching.

I was worried: Could I sustain myself on a little more than half my normal budget?

According to a report by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, almost half of the city’s population lives in a food desert. The term has a technical definition which basically means that the residents of a certain area don't have easy access to a grocery store. The USDA also reports that 42.2 million people lived in households with no access to nutritious, affordable food in 2015.

In order to help people stay on track with their food spending, the USDA releases four monthly budgets called food plans, each designed to provide a nutritious diet at a different cost. Strapped for cash? Go with the Thrifty plan. If you have a little more disposable income, you can try the Low Cost plan, and then the Moderate. For the most expensive plan, try the Liberal.

The plans vary by sex and age, with a Thrifty millennial male (that's me!) getting $42.60 to spend per week, or about $6.13 per day. In other words, that's the low end of what I should be spending on food. For the high-end Liberal plan, I'd get $75.10, or $10.73 per day.

Could I -- an $80-plus-per-week spender -- eat like a Thrifty millennial male? Is that budget even tenable at most grocery stores? To find out, I spent a month shopping at a different grocery store every week: my local grocery chain, Trader Joe's, Whole Foods, and a natural foods co-op.

Each week, I bought the same simple baseline meal of chicken and shells. After that, I spent whatever I had left on the groceries that I needed to sustain myself for the week. No eating out unless it fit into my $42.60 (spoiler: it never did). And no accepting free meals or snacks.

I was worried: I teach yoga and typically run a few miles every day. I always shoot for the USDA five servings of fruits and vegetables. The rest of my diet generally consists of yogurt, eggs, and lean meats. Could I sustain myself on a little more than half my normal budget?

No matter the answer, I felt that the experiment would have strong repercussions. If it was possible to eat on the USDA Thrifty Plan, it'd mean that overspenders and under-spenders alike would have a more sustainable path toward a nutritionally dense future. And if it wasn't? Then our country needed a serious wake-up call about the affordability and accessibility of food.

grocery store
Kunal Mehta/Shutterstock

The local grocery chain: The Week That I Surprised Myself

During my first week, I spent $37.72 at Giant Eagle -- a full $5.18 less than the USDA recommends for the Thrifty Plan -- and bought the ingredients for my chicken and shells meal, plus mushrooms, peppers, and onions for omelets every morning and turkey sandwiches for lunch. Can you spend the same amount and eat organically and locally? Probably not. But that's because many local grocery stores don't often carry organic goods or stuff from small regional farms. My local chain also has a spinoff brand, Giant Eagle Market District, a different store that does carry more local and organic products. The prices are higher than at the regular Giant Eagle, but then again, when I made a concerted effort to keep down my grocery costs, I found myself with an extra $5.18. It's almost an extra day's worth of food on the Thrifty Plan -- two days for Jeff.  

Chicken and shells total cost: $12.23
Weekly total: $37.72

trader joe's

Trader Joe's: The Week That Heaven Sent

I'll be honest. Walking out of my local grocery store with all my food felt good, but walking out of Trader Joe's with the food I bought almost felt criminal. I drove home rubbing my hands together and cackling like Gargamel the Evil Wizard, convinced that I had just pulled a heist. While Trader Joe's stocks no shortage of reasonably priced pre-packaged indulgences, I stuck to my health-conscious diet of fruits, vegetables, eggs, and lean meats. For $39.68 I bought more than enough for the week.  

While this probably isn't news to anyone, it was shocking to see exactly how much I could get for $39.68. Before this experiment, I never laid it all out on a table. At Trader Joe's I got enough food to last two weeks, and good food too: I'm talking organic produce, cage-free eggs, protein bars, and semi-dried green figs. Even a round of goat cheese.

Driving past McDonald's on the way to the store, I saw that even a Big Mac and fries costs $5.69. So either I'm getting slowly poisoned and the joke is on me or Trader Joe's is a godsend for Thrifty, health-conscious shoppers.

Chicken and shells total cost: $13.34
Weekly total: $39.68

whole foods
Lee Breslouer/Thrillist

Whole Foods: The Week That Things Looked Dicey

It was only after hitting Whole Foods during week three that I got a little scared that I might not have enough food for the week. I did, but barely: no snacks, no indulgences, no mercy. Let's break it down.

Each day, I got approximately a kale leaf, a slice and a half of cheddar cheese, a slice of turkey (only when I got home did I realize that I'd forgotten bread), half a banana, two eggs, and a bowl of chicken and shells for dinner. Hardly enough to sustain an active lifestyle.

Whole Foods thrives by maintaining a monopoly on "healthy." The marketing convinces health-conscious shoppers like myself that local grocery chains and Trader Joe's offer inferior products. But do they? As I've already seen, Trader Joe's offers organic produce for less. So does Giant Eagle and Giant Eagle Market District. So why did I risk my life trying to grab the last carton of eggs from the sharp clutches of an angry soccer mom?

Unless Whole Foods can convince me of an alternative value proposition, it doesn't make sense for a person on a low budget to shop there. Yes, it offers specialty items like Madécasse direct-trade chocolate and Sambazon smoothie packs (the key ingredient in your Instagram account's favorite acai bowl), but these tasty luxuries easily slip out of reach when considering a stringent financial plan.

Chicken and shells total cost: $19.34
Weekly total: $39.35

co-op grocery
Flickr/robyn kingsley

The food co-op: The Week I Almost Sold My Kidneys

At one point in my life I lived in California, where I fell in love with Del Real organic Medjool dates. They cost a whopping $6 per carton, but they're truly one of the best things I've ever eaten: warm and squishy and tasting of caramel. I lost them when I moved to Pittsburgh, but imagine my surprise when I walked into my local food co-op and saw them, thousands of miles away from Berkeley Bowl.

When I saw those beauties at the East End Food Co-op, I ran through that place like a kid in a candy store, picking up all my favorite healthy treats. Brown turkey figs! Honey/curry powder wraps! When I reached the register, my excitement diminished. The co-op had a wider selection and the quality of the food looked -- on the whole -- better. But those advantages come with a hefty price. Sheepishly, I had to ask the cashier to restock the dates and figs.

Of all the stores I visited, the co-op proved the most expensive. This might just be the case in Pittsburgh -- co-ops vary from place to place -- but for me, it wasn't even close. And that makes sense. Basically, co-ops are grocery stores owned by customers who get a say in what the store carries and from whom it buys. Generally members join co-ops because they're interested in buying organic, sustainably produced items from small, local sources rather than large farms or corporations. And most times, smaller organizations have less efficiencies than larger ones, meaning that they charge more for their products.

Each day in the week, I got a bun, a slice of turkey, a slice of cheese, approximately two eggs, about half a honey/curry powder wrap, and a bit of my beloved chicken and shells. For the only time during my experiment, I went a little hungry.

As I progressed through the week, I felt a gnawing hunger that filled up any lull in my thoughts: I should call Nic and I'm hungry and I need to write that paper and I'm hungry and my boss just walked by shit and I'm hungry and what should I get for dinner... I'm not eating dinner; I'm hungry. I'm all for local and organic produce, but when money became my priority (as it is for many people in this country), the co-op stretched out of my reach. No Thrifty shopper in his or her right mind would shop at this type of co-op.

Chicken and shells total cost: $16.53
Weekly total: $42.97

grocery bags

Four weeks later, I'm a changed man

Strangely, with the exception of the week that I shopped at the co-op, I didn't really go hungry as I feared. Whether I spent $78.86 at my local grocery store or $42.60, I felt the same. How? When I compared my grocery bill from a normal week with one from my experiment, I saw many more impulse buys: vegan ice cream, kale chips, exotic fruits. Nothing that I needed to survive… probably nothing I needed at all. About half the "extra" food went to waste. When I recently cleaned out my pantry, I found old bags of stale coconut chips, melted yogurt-covered raisins, and molding beef jerky. I threw it all away.

If I could save $30 per week and still feel full, why wouldn't I? That's saving $160 per month, or $1,920 per year. For a family, it's a vacation or the down payment on a new car. For someone my age and gender on the USDA Thrifty Plan, that's food for almost an entire year.

Not to mention that switching to the Thrifty Plan saved $30 worth of unnecessary food waste per week, a number that can't be overstated when statistics show that we waste 40% of our food globally. In addition to the items I threw away from my pantry, I'll admit to tossing a meal or two during my $80+ shopping weeks, either because I let it get old or it wasn't anything I felt like eating. The Thrifty Plan kept me stuck on necessities and helped me eliminate my food waste entirely.

During this month, what I really wanted was proof for the myriad Americans stretched thin on their food budgets that it was possible to get by on the USDA's Thrifty Plan. And I wanted to do it in a sustainable, measured way, unlike out-of-touch celebrities who try to live on food stamps, spend all their money on garnishes, and abandon the plan after four days. This information isn't going to help Jeff or families whose need to work multiple jobs reduces their ability to cook, but it might for those looking at their options and trying to make every dollar count.

Perhaps more important, I wanted to address others like me who may not give much thought to their grocery bills. When we spend blindly, we perpetuate broken systems. With the options available, there's no reason for the average person to break him or herself on grocery bills, or waste an extra $30 on food each week. With a little planning it's easy to rein in the budget, save money, and help eliminate food waste.

At first, I was skeptical that I'd feel full. Now? Call me a Thrifty Millennial Male.

Chicken and shells at my place?

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Kenny Gould is a writer, journalist, and the editor-in-chief of Hop Culture, an online craft beer magazine. He lives in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.