Feeding yourself on a dollar a day

When debts start piling up, two teachers decide to drastically reduce their grocery bill
Julia McKinnell
Feeding yourself on a dollar a day
Photographs by Jessica Darmanin

Looking for ways to save on groceries? There are plenty of tips in a new book written by a pair of California schoolteachers who detail their month-long experiment to live on just a dollar a day. For 30 days, Kerri Leonard and her boyfriend Christopher Greenslate lived on oatmeal porridge for six cents a serving and lunches of homemade bread filled with five cents’ worth of peanut butter, and a favourite dinner dish, chana masala, a kind of chickpea curry that came in at 25 cents a serving.

In their book, On a Dollar a Day: One Couple’s Unlikely Adventures in Eating in America, Leonard writes that “car payments, mortgage payments, and credit card payments” drove them to attempt the project. Her proposed solutions to economizing, she writes, “ran along the lines of more reasonable grocery lists and better planning. That was when Christopher volunteered the information that a portion of the world eats on a dollar a day or less. ‘Why don’t we try it?’ he asked.”

The couple embarked on the project after purchasing an out-of-date copy of a book called Eat Well on a Dollar a Day. The book is older than the couple, who are both in their thirties, yet it outlines “key strategies for making every penny count,” writes Leonard. “Buy in bulk, shop around, eat smaller portions and forage.”

To start, the couple “walked around using our cellphones as calculators” at a large, local discount store. “We bought a 25-lb. bag of rice, jars of peanut butter and jelly, and a large bag of yeast for making our own bread, as well as several industrial-sized items. The can of tomato sauce was so big we had to use both hands to carry it.”

Back home, “we weighed every item to find out the cost, and we bought a food scale to make sure we were as accurate as possible,” writes Leonard. “Christopher and I have the space to line one wall of our kitchen with buckets of flour, beans, rice and cornmeal.” Leonard advises others to make a pantry, “whether in the kitchen or in the closet.”

For meal variety, Greenslate writes, “we did some brainstorming—we looked at Mexican, Chinese, and Indian cuisines for inspiration about how to avoid the mundane.” Soon, the couple was mixing and rolling their own tortillas at a cost of six cents a piece. “If you have flour, shortening, and water, and you have time and you’re interested, it’s definitely worth doing,” Greenslate told Maclean’s in an interview last week.

Tortilla dough takes 10 minutes to mix, he says. “The next step is rolling out each individual tortilla. You break off walnut-size balls of the dough, roll them in your hand, then roll them between wax paper until they’re super thin.” A double-batch takes an hour to roll, and the batch lasted the two for a week. “When I realized that burritos would be possible during our project, I knew I would survive,” writes Leonard.

But beyond saving money, writes Green­slate, “the most noticeable benefit was that, for the first time in our lives, we knew exactly what we were eating.” For instance, store-bought tortillas list as many as 30 to 40 ingredients. “You’d need a dictionary or the Internet to try to figure it out,” he says.

For soup, Leonard saved vegetable scraps and simmered her own stock at no cost at all. For dessert, the couple dined on peanut butter. “We had each spent 91 cents,” writes Greenslate, describing a typical day, “and the remaining nine cents was burning a hole in our stomachs. As I stared into the open cupboard, wondering where to expend the last few pennies, it dawned on me: peanut butter. For five cents a tablespoon, this plastic tub of high-fructose corn-syrup-sweetened goodness was the shining light in the darkness of our barren pantry.”

The couple’s blog, One Dollar Diet Project, is still up with a list of all their costs and recipes—for instance, potatoes, 10 cents each; spaghetti, five cents an ounce. They’re not recommending the diet, though. One frequently asked question is: “Will you share your month-long menu with me so that I can do this, too?” The answer is, “No. We don’t recommend you replicate this experiment. It isn’t healthy, and could be dangerous.” Greenslate lost nine pounds on the project. “It was not enough to have a balanced diet and maintain physical stamina. It even put a strain on our relationship, as tempers ran high and intimacy declined,” writes Leonard. However, after further experimentation, they’re living healthily and happily, they say, on a daily budget of $2.36.