Live Below the Line Day 1: Eating healthy on a $1.50 a day

Day one and writer Laura Sesana and her husband have gone shopping and spent their $15 - or $1.50 per day per  person for all food and water.  Photo: Lunch on $1.50 per day

WASHINGTON, May 8, 2012 – After our failed shopping trip yesterday, my husband and I decided to do a little research before we headed back out.  I tried to plan a menu that would give us at least a little bit of protein, vegetable and fruit every day.  I found a number of websites with advice on how to stretch your dollar at the grocery store. 

As I mentioned last night, I fear that it will be impossible to get a healthy amount of fruits, vegetables and protein on a budget of $1.50, but we are determined to try.

We went to our local Shoppers with a list and calculator in hand.  It took us almost an hour and a half of calculating, putting things back, making more calculations, and finally making some tough choices. 

We ended up with a grand total of $15.08 with taxes.  (I’m hoping to make up the 8 cents with a few things that should be left over at the end of the week). 

This is what we got:

1 2lb bag of rice

1 1lb bag of lentils

1 1lb bag of black-eyed peas

1 3.49 lb pack of chicken thighs (4 thighs)

1 loaf of sliced white bread

1 3lb bag of frozen vegetables

1 package of American cheese singles

1 dozen eggs

We initially got an onion ($1.29/lb), a bunch or kale ($.99/lb), and a bunch of turnip greens ($.99/lb), but went with the 3 lb bag of frozen vegetables instead.  We figured that with the fresh vegetables we were going to get a lot of loss from waste and cooking down, while with the frozen vegetables we would end up with almost 3 pounds after it was cooked.  

We didn’t get any fruits, fresh or otherwise.  One of the websites I looked at for advice on budget shopping suggested getting canned frozen orange pulp to mix with water and make juice.  We could not afford real frozen orange pulp, which was over $2.   We were going to have to choose between the frozen orange beverage we could afford- which was mainly high fructose corn syrup and other artificial ingredients- and a bag of black-eyed peas. We got the peas.  We also wanted mayo and contemplated peanut butter, but these proved to be outside our budget as well.

The protein was a point of contention.  My husband wanted to get two packs of chicken thighs for a combined price of $6.13 before tax while I wanted to buy one pack of chicken thighs and a dozen eggs for a combined price of $4.86.  We thought about getting hot dogs- they were  $1.29/lb- but we decided that the chicken would be healthier considering we were not going to get much in the way of fresh produce. 

I finally won out, which is weird because I hate eggs.  Right now I am learning that you are far less picky when eating on a budget.  We also chose the American cheese singles, which are highly processed, but a way to get some calcium in our diet. 

Spices and condiments are going to be hard to account for.  I think we will at least need some salt.  Giant brand salt is $.03/ounce. 

I’m thinking if I am really careful, all I will need is one ounce, bringing my total for the week to $15.11.  This is a little over one cent over the line for each day.   

If I can finish the week with two extra slices of cheese or ¼ cup of beans or lentils, I will have lived under the $15.00.

On the menu…

Our lunch today was an egg and cheese sandwich, on white bread, and a glass of tap water.  It cost about $.26 each.  I can’t say that it was extremely filling, but we got some protein and some calcium in our diet.   

Tonight we plan to grill 2 of the chicken thighs.  We will share one for dinner, and save the other for tomorrow.  I will also make 1 ½ cups of rice which should be enough for tonight and dinner tomorrow.  We will also have a cup of the frozen vegetables. 

Tomorrow breakfast will be one egg and cheese sandwich.  I’ll use the second thigh to make chicken sandwiches for lunch. For dinner I’ll cook the black-eyed peas with the bones from the chicken and ½ cup of the frozen vegetables.  I’ll serve this with the leftover rice from tonight. 

I think we are managing our food properly.  I hope we don’t run out before Friday. 

If this were not an experiment

Of course this is just and experiment and if a person is forced to live on this kind of budget permanently there are several things that can be done differently.  For one thing, I think that investing in seeds to grow a vegetable garden may be a good idea.  If I were going to do this for a longer period I would also have bought rice and legumes in bigger quantities, which would have lowered the price a bit.  You can also probably splurge on pepper or other condiments once in a while and use them sparingly. 

This first day was already pretty eye opening.  It was hard to walk by certain foods that I knew were way out of our budget.  I also realized that eating healthy is almost impossible on $1.50 a day.  A fresh fruit would be a luxury that seems rarely justifiable in light of having to forgo basics like rice and beans that last a long time and are far more filling. 

Shopping in this way also made me think of U.S. poverty guidelines and how much a person living below the poverty line in the U.S. actually has to spend on food for 5 days.  According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ 2012 HHS Poverty Guidelines, the national poverty guideline for a two-person household is $15,103. 

In a very rough calculation, this is between $20-25 per person per day for all expenses.  If you account for living, health, and transportation expenses, $1.50 for food and drink does not seem to be off the mark.


Support Laura and her brave husband in their quest to raise $1,000 for UNICEF as they take the Live Below the Line Challenge. Visit to make a donation. 


This article is the copyrighted property of the writer and Communities @ Written permission must be obtained before reprint in online or print media. REPRINTING TWTC CONTENT WITHOUT PERMISSION AND/OR PAYMENT IS THEFT AND PUNISHABLE BY LAW.

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Laura Sesana

Laura Sesana is a writer and DC, Maryland attorney, joining the Communities in 2012.  She is the author of Colombia: Natural Parks, and has also written several articles on literary criticism.  She writes about food, health, nutrition, women’s legal issues, and the environment.  

In addition to writing for the Communities, Laura also works as an attorney and legal content writer.


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