Eating on Budget Doesn’t Mean Buying off the Dollar Menu

I feel like, for the most part, I’m pretty good with money. I don’t go out and drop truckloads of cash on designer clothes, or pimp out my car with every cool gadget the body shop has to offer. (The giant subwoofers in the trunk came with the car — I swear.) But when I went to pay my credit card bill at the end of last month, I was met with a nasty surprise.

My first instinct when presented with the triple-digit bill was “Are you kidding me? Someone must’ve stolen my identity!” Even as I scrambled for my phone, intent on calling the bank, calling my mother, calling Santa — calling anyone that could help — I stopped mid-freak out when I actually looked at what I had purchased. I couldn’t find one item that I didn’t remember swiping my card for: $7.21 at Los Primos, $3.45 at In ‘N Out, $6.25 at Hi Thai. The list went on and on.

Conveniently, Wells Fargo lets you itemize your purchases into clever little categories like “shopping,” “gas” and “food.” Much to my surprise, over 82 percent of my monthly spending went towards food. It had never occurred to me how often I was eating out, and how quickly it added up.

It’s not just that takeout is more convenient — though having freshly prepared potato skins handed to me over a counter is an easier guarantee than trying to work my oven solo. The truth is, eating out is a social thing.

This is especially useful when you’re in the awkward phase of a friendship, where you want to hang out, but you’re not quite comfortable sitting on the couch in pjs and watching TV while you do homework together. In this phase, every such occasion for hanging out starts with the same over-used conversation:
“Let’s go out this Friday.”
“Sure, what’dya want to do?”
“Well, we can always grab dinner.”

I had to change, and change fast, before my bank account ran out on me. I made the decision: Not only was I going to (temporarily) stop eating out completely, but I also wanted to see if I could survive off $20 a week compared to my usual $100 or so.

The first day I embarked on this seemingly impossible mission, the Hare Krishna tent in the Old Student Center was serving up mouthwatering curry that I could smell a mile away.

But despite temptations — my coworker asking if I wanted anything from Shogun, my roommate eating Red Robin — I knew I really didn’t have any other choice. Unless I wanted to call my mother for money at the end of the month, $20 was all I had for the week.

Over the course of one of the longest weeks of my life, I learned a few things:
First off, Bisquick is your best friend. When you’re living on a budget, the giant $4 box of Bisquick from Costco becomes the Inspector Gadget of foodstuffs. Just grab your waffle maker, add some feta, garlic and basil and you have a delicious savory for waffle lunch or dinner.

Secondly, you’ll surprise yourself at how creative you really can be when it comes to scrounging together a meal. When I packed my car and headed down to San Diego at the end of the summer, my mother wouldn’t let me leave without sending a trunkful of food with me. Mom-fare has gone largely unnoticed for the last three months, but last week, those awkward canned artichoke hearts made for a perfect complement to my $1 bag of pasta.

The third, and most exciting, discovery is that fresh fruits and vegetables really aren’t as expensive as you think. I read a study in Michael Pollan’s Omnivore’s Dilemma about how there are more low-income obese people in America, because fresh veggies are too expensive. My own experience tells me otherwise; at Trader Joe’s you can pick up a giant bag of salad for $1.29.

Although the week was long — and painfully included me brown bagging it to work — I was able to successfully live off of $20. Of course, I’m not going to be withdrawing a single 20-dollar bill for food every week now, but I like to think I found a happy medium. I am eating at home more often, while still occasionally splurging on a bowl of rare beef pho at Pho La Jolla. Eating out all the time doesn’t sit well with my wallet, and eating on such a tight budget doesn’t sit well with social life. But when you’re in a pinch, it’s possible to make those $20 bills stretch.

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