How to Live (Comfortably) on $56-156 a Month for Food

Tuesday Feb 24 | BY |
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Cheap Grocery Store Prices

This article is not how-to manual on how to eat for the rest of your life on the $56 a month for food. I did it in my 20s for a while, on a raw food diet, but it’s not something I would recommend to most people!

But still, there are plenty of times when spending less on food makes sense.

You might want to afford to go on an extended trip, save for something big, or simply have debts to pay off. Besides rent, food is the biggest budget eater and learning to hack your food budget is a useful skill.

My current food budget is no longer $56 — far from it, but I do spend less than many, and often go for months spending less than $150 a month on food.

In 1997-1998, I came to San Diego with very little spare change in my pockets. I initially worked for David Wolfe and Stephen Arlin, at the very start of their business Nature’s First Law. They hired me on some days of the week to help them out sending book orders, from Stephen’s mom’s place!

At first, they paid me $40 a day. I had my rent to pay, which didn’t leave a lot of greenbacks for buying groceries. But I had a creative roommate who was an expert at what he called “urban foraging.” He knew the location of every fruit tree in the neighborhood and had talked to many neighbors and asked them if we could harvest some of their fruits.

Ok, this isn’t necessarily something I would do again, but when you’re a twenty-year old raw foodist fighting for survival, you gotta do what you gotta do. This is how it went:

1) David Wolfe’s friend, “Raw Courage,” had a fruit orchard, and he regularly brought us big bags of oranges and pomegranates.

2) For a month, I LIVED in a citrus orchard, feeding mainly on those fruits.

3) The only food we purchased were what we couldn’t get for free. AND we only purchased what was deeply discounted at the Mexican or Asian markets. That meant cilantro and garlic (for guacamole), tomatoes, lettuce and greens, bananas, and a few other things. There went the $56 for the month!

Ok… so $56 a month for a raw food diet budget is a bit extreme. I did it. And I would say that it’s possible in places where you can buy food at extremely discounted prices, in countries where fruit is cheap (like Thailand), or in warm places where you can practice urban foraging.

Let’s throw in some cooked food in the mix, and you can lower your food budget anywhere.

So, what should you do if you want to keep your food budget as low as possible? 

* You may lack the funds, but you may have extra time.When I was 20, I had plenty of extra time to figure out creative ways to find free food or deeply discounted food.

* You should never pay more than $1 a pound for produce, EVER! At the very least, the food should be 50% off its regular price.

* Your main source of calories should be extremely cheap. In my case, as a broke raw foodist, it was free fruit. Otherwise, it has to be rice, beans, and potatoes. Purchase these foods in giant bags at bulk prices. You shouldn’t pay more than $1 a pound (dry weight) for rice and beans in bulk. Potatoes should cost even less (I’ve found them for as little as $1 for a 10 pound bag)

* Unless you can get free food elsewhere, every single meal should be cooked at home.

* Unless it’s free or at an extremely low price, you shouldn’t buy anything organic.

Farmer’s Markets

A hazard, except if you show up at the very end of the day. I’ve purchased giant baskets of tomatoes and apples for nearly nothing, when farmers are trying to get rid of unsold items.


Focus on cheap staples like apples, bananas, citrus, cabbage, and potatoes. Cabbage can be extremely cheap, and you can make a surprising number of recipes with it!


Yes, shopping at Costco CAN save you money but on an extreme budget, it’s not going to be your first choice. Their food is premium, and although the price is good for what it is, you’ll get better deals elsewhere. An exception will be giant bags or rice, oats, and beans, which can be purchased there if you don’t have other options.

Loss Leaders

On an extreme budget, stores won’t be making any money with you. You’ll be buying it at cost or below cost. Every week, supermarkets and grocery stores advertize their special. Typically, what’s on the first page of the flyer are their best deals — the “loss leaders.” What’s in the rest of the flyer is mostly irrelevant.


The cheapest breakfast, by far, is oatmeal made with slow-cooked oats (or steel-cut), with raisins. Add bananas or apples.

A big smoothie made with bananas, greens, and ONE other fruit is a tad more expensive but a good alternative.

Lunches & Dinner

You can eat roughly the same thing for lunch and dinner and save yourself some cooking time. Eat dinner leftovers for lunch.

Rice and beans, or potatoes with vegetables, are your best bets for calories and value. By soaking your beans and cooking them yourself, you’ll save a ton. White rice is a better value than brown rice, and some people digest it better.

Add salads, vegetables, and if you want and can afford it, a more concentrated source of protein.

Food will taste great if you season it well and include something fresh like a tomato salsa, a big salad or steamed vegetables and a dip.

A Few More Tricks

* Before you go on a new grocery run, force yourself to finish almost everything fresh that you have, and delay your shopping for a few days. Never waste anything!

* Divide your monthly budget target into a daily target. If your monthly budget target is $100, then that comes out to be $3.33 a day. This will put things in perspective when you think of buying a $4.99 smoothie! If your target $150, that’s about $5 a day.

Finally, the purpose of this article was not to convert you to a super-basic food budget, but to show you that it’s possible. You don’t have to chance anything, but if you choose to, you’ll have some ideas with which to work.

If you’d like MUCH more information, including where to get the deals and what recipes to make, make sure to check out my complete book “How to Live Well for $100 a Month on a Plant-Based Diet.” It includes much more information on how to get deals, including many delicious staple recipes you can make with inexpensive ingredients.

It’s on sale this week only. 

Please share your comments and tips on smart food budgeting below! 

Frederic Patenaude

Frederic Patenaude has been an important influence in the raw food and natural health movement since he started writing and publishing in 1998, first by being the editor of Just Eat an Apple magazine. He is the author of over 20 books, including The Raw Secrets, the Sunfood Cuisine and Raw Food Controversies. Since 2013 he’s been the Editor-in-Chief of Renegade Health.

Frederic loves to relentlessly debunk nutritional myths. He advocates a low-fat, plant-based diet and has had over 10 years of experience with raw vegan diets. He lives in Montreal, Canada.


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  1. Mona says:

    Your comment about not buying organic why?

  2. Isabel says:

    Great article and some surprising tips! For those on an extreme budget (and those of us looking to watch our budget) these ideas look like they’d really work.


  3. Halsted says:

    Purchasing rice, beans and oats in bulk is a money-saver and all the foods are fulfilling. I also discovered you can get fruit and vegetables for far less at the end of the day at farmers markets – sometimes they will even give them to you for free, especially if they get to know you.

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