Thursday, February 04, 2010

Eating While Broke

Trying to find the Value in the dollar meals

While not always a participant, I have always been a student of how people eat cheap. When in a lunch room I was interested in what people brought from home. The first recollection of my food voyeurism was in the employee's cafe at Macy's in San Francisco, my first job after arriving in the bay area. I would eat whatever special the cafe had. One of my coworkers always brown bagged a lunch normally consisting of two hard boiled eggs and assorted raw vegetables. I knew he made great money but was extremely frugal. He owned one suit and three shirts but always looked well dressed and successful. I finally asked him why he did not spend money. He explained that he and his wife had a plan. They worked extremely hard for eighteen months and spend as little as possible. Then they would take two years off and and live in different countries, work free. Their forced minimal lifestyle allowed them do what they really wanted, travel. He was broke by choice.

I thought it would be appropriate to in today's hard times to explore different ways to eat while broke. I began doing research and asking friends about their experiences. It became clear that each had different perspectives and resources. It would be an assumption on my part to present only one way to eat cheap. One may not have access to cooking and refrigeration. There may not be extra funds available to buy in bulk and save. Transportation is always an issue and those of us that are electronically dependent may not have computer access. Shudder! Each circumstance would change dramatically how you ate. My friend "off the grid Ric" advises me to use critical thinking, look at what you have and adjust accordingly. During my military training they called this "field expedient;" making the best of available resources.

In between runaway weekends, restaurant reviews, cruises and sundry travels I plan to inject "eating while broke" into my repertoire of blogs. The first exploration is the highly advertised fast food, value/dollar meals. The fast food chains are scrambling for your business in this economy. If you watch any media at all, they beckon you with their value. Here are some of my experiences:

"Price and participation may vary" is a disclaimer that always follows most of the fast food touts. I have already found that in my neighborhood with high rents that prices are higher and participation limited. My observations are based on individual visits to fast food chains here in Novato, Ca.

Burger King Vintage Oaks
They have a fairly complete value menu here. You have to look to the right of the colorful menu board to find it. When I asked the cashier he gladly announced my available choices. I ordered a double cheeseburger, fries and iced tea off the dollar menu. My total with tax $3.29.

The burger was warm and tasted of broiling. The fries were fresh, hot, crisp and salty. The iced tea came with a fresh lemon slice, a nice touch. The place was immaculately clean including the restrooms. The dining room was occupied by a group of the nearby Target store employees, mostly male. They were not eating off the dollar menu. Most were eating huge double burgers, tubs of fries and large vats of soda. My modest meal exceeded a thousand calories. I don't even want to know what those big boys weigh in at!

Taco Bell
Seventh St.

I took two visits to this place because on first visit I fumbled with my camera and came up with unusable pictures. On the first visit the value menu was posted in clear view, on the second visit it was gone. The items are still available but hidden on the menu board. The replacement sign pitches the new Drive-Thru Diet. I tried the the soft taco, hard taco and five-layer bean burrito. Thumbs up to the tacos with addition of the Fire hot sauce. The five-layer burrito did not work for me. I think it was a textural thing, soft like you could eat it without teeth. The cheapest drink here is $1.69. The tacos were under a dollar but with drink and tax I paid $3.95. The place was very clean and doing a land office business at lunch time. I noticed a small "homeless" group with shopping carts nearby eating from Taco Bell takeout bags.

McDonald's Redwood Blvd.

I arrived at 9:30 a.m. for breakfast and found a long line and dining room full of mostly senior citizens. The dollar menu was clearly posted with available options. They even have a "healthier" selection of yogurt with berries. I chose a sausage McMuffin, hash browns, and small coffee from the dollar menu. I did the math in my head and expected to pay $3.29. When my bill came in at $2.93 it took me a minute to realize that I had received the senior price for the coffee. Hence the dining room full of seniors who nursed discount coffee and socialized. The food was hot the surroundings bright and warm.


With limited resources one could obtain enough calories from these value menus to survive on. If you ate three meals a day you would in be in the $10-$12 range. These meals are cheap and require no preparation. I personally would not want to eat like this daily. High salt, fat content and lack of vegetables would eventually take a toll. I will continue to search for better, healthier, cheap strategies to eat while broke.

If any of you have ideas, strategies or experiences you have used to eat while broke please e-mail me at Thanks.


Zoomie said...

When I'm feeling poor in the city, I go to Em's in the 100 Block of McAllister Street, near the Civic Center. Their breakfast sandwich on an English muffin with nice, crispy bacon, which is made fresh to order, is still only $2.25 and it is delicious, filling and fresh. Here's a link to my post about that: Nice folks, too.

Rev. Biggles said...

Oh cool! And yeah, was going to mention the coffee action.

I usually don't eat out when I'm attempting to not spend any money. Will get some brown rice, beans and a pork shoulder, make something tasty. Then eat it day after day until I can't stand it any longer!

I didn't look last week, I wonder if Popeye's chicken has a value menu?

xo, Biggles

cookiecrumb said...

Beans! Home cooked beans. You can do so many things with them, even add judicious amounts of cheap meat or sausage. Also rice. Rice and beans, sitting in a tree, k-i-s-s-i-n-g. And grow a pot of something green, chard or kale. Just harvest leaves a few at a time.

Greg said...

Zoomie- the city seems to have an abundance of really good cheap options. Thinking about walking Chinatown looking for bargains.

Rev.Biggles- I thought I would start with eating cheap at restaurants and go on from there. I got my first "senior" discount at age 41. White hair is a blessing and a curse ;)

Cookiecrumb - Beans seem to be a universal cheap food. I've been cooking a one pound bag and freezing what I don't use right away in single serving packets