Denver's Best Bargains

How to ditch your cable bill, buy name-brand clothes on the cheap, snag low-cost tickets for a game—and 83 other tips on living well for less.

February 2010

Cheap Eats

The test: three squares a day on $25—for one week. Could it be done?

Recently, a routine online banking assessment slapped me in the face with my food and beverage total for the week. Four lunches out, three trips to Starbucks, restaurant splurges over the weekend, pizza delivery on Wednesday. Slightly shocked, I considered ways to cut back.

First, I needed a budget. But what was reasonable? In Colorado, the average food-stamp allotment for a single person is $25 a week, and there was only one way to find out if that was actually enough. The challenge: seven days worth of breakfast, lunch, and dinner—plus anything in between—for $25. On top of that, I vowed to eat only reasonably nutritious meals, meaning no ramen or Dollar Menu items from McD's.

I started by clipping coupons. I scoured the fliers from my neighborhood Safeway and King Soopers to compare deals. Two-for-one bags of lettuce at King Soopers meant I could make a daily salad for lunch. Then I made a list of possible dinner options that included overlapping ingredients. Chicken stir-fry with brown rice. Omelet with cheese and peppers. Pasta with sautéed veggies. Chicken fajitas with black beans. Breakfast would be a banana; dessert—well, I would forgo dessert. Luckily, I'm not a milk drinker, but I also had to nix extras like OJ in the morning.

Armed with my list, I marched into the grocery store expecting to breeze through in minutes. An hour and a half later, I checked out with a total of $25.76 in foodstuffs. And it was no easy feat. How many tomatoes could I buy? Would one box of spaghetti be enough? Could I afford to get the marinara sauce I like, or did I need to buy the Kroger brand? (For the record, Kroger won out every time.)

There was no dinner out with friends that week, no latte in the morning, no midafternoon snack. But I ate three times daily and even had a few items left at the end of the week. The day after my experiment was over, I made a lunchtime beeline for the eatery around the corner from the office. I ordered my favorite gourmet panino and relished it. When I was done, I thought about the $10 I'd just spent: Almost half a budget that, I now knew, could get me through an entire week was gone in about 10 minutes. I haven't been back for an overpriced sandwich since. —Julie Dugdale