How One Could Theoretically Survive on Less than $10 per Day

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"How the fuck do I even open this thing?"

“How the fuck do I even open this thing?”

Note: The author of this post definitely does not advocate that others eat the same food groups she does. She grew up in an Italian family, eating some sort of pasta six out of seven nights per week, and she has never broken the carb addiction. See your elementary school cafeteria for recommendations on healthy eating habits.

The most obvious and basic tip I can give anyone for eating cheaply at Columbia is simply not sticking with the meal plan. Sorry, freshmen.

Unless you steal at least a gallon of juice, enough plasticware for you and your friends for a few weeks, some walnuts and cranberries to munch on, and a few slices of pizza, you’re getting ripped off by dining for around $14 a meal. Assuming you’re normal and like to have at least two full meals per day, that’s $28, or almost 3 times what you could be spending.

I knew I needed to be off of the meal plan for good. I ran the numbers by my parents—”Mom, $2,210 is a lot of money. $2,050 is a lot of money. Even $1,298 is a lot of money for the crap they give us. I can eat on $10 per day, I promise. I’ll be at school for about 110 days, so there’s no reason why I can’t save half of the money that you’d be spending on the largest meal plan.” Mom acquiesced. I have a sibling in college too, and medical bills are outrageous. $10 really isn’t unreasonable, and if I were more committed, I could go even lower.

The first bump in the road was that I don’t cook, or rather, that I hate cooking and lack the time and patience for it (I would make a terrible housewife, which I’m not too sad about). However, if you enjoy watching things boil and nearly slicing your finger with the carrots, you will be healthier and able to eat even more cheaply than I can. Lucky for me, Columbia is in a big fucking city with lots of talented chefs and bakers and sandwich artists.

Step 1: Breakfast. Some people say this is the most important meal of the day. I skip to Step 2 when I disagree. Do I want something cheap? Yes, so I go to a coffee cart—specifically, the nicest guy ever on 114th and Broadway. His rather large bagels are $0.75, and a small coffee is $1.00. Do I really need more food than that when I’m going to be eating again in a few hours? I tell myself no and contentedly eat my bagel. Now I have $8.25 for the rest of your day.

Step 2: Lunch/Dinner. These are grouped together because it’s pretty damn hard to find two separate meals in New York City for only $8. I self-describe as a rather sedentary, scrawny individual, and can eat half of a HamDel sandwich for lunch and half for dinner while sticking to my budget; Milano sandwiches are a no-no. Alternatively, I buy a huge yogurt container from Westside for around $5 and have money left over to buy a healthy snack. Nussbaum and UNI have salads I customize for under $6 if I’m careful with the amount of toppings. Milano has pre-made pastas, and a 1/2 lb. or 3/4 lb. will keep me hip with the kids and under budget. Halal carts are also really cheap for a lot of food. I check Bwog and fliers around campus for free food as well. This whole plan works because I buy one main meal per day that will keep me full, and eat the leftovers and anything I find in my fridge or around campus when I get hungry (see: Snacks).

Step 3: Snacks. Let’s be fucking realistic. You can’t survive on one full meal per day, and neither can I. Some good, cheap snacks are Ramen noodles (3 for $2 at Westside), fruit (get it from the fruit stands—a banana is $0.25 on 111th and Amsterdam), yogurt (buy in bulk), and leftover $0.75 bagels from the morning. If I didn’t love carbs so much I would buy some healthy nuts and vegetables in bulk. I always stay away from MoWil (unless it’s for $5 chicken fried rice. See: Lunch/Dinner) and go to Trader Joe’s if I can, but getting there and back is half of a day’s worth of food! Gulati once mentioned something about cost analysis, I think.

Step 4: Being sociable. Let’s have another heart to heart. I know that the consumption of food does not exist in a vacuum. Sometimes I’m going to eat out with my friends or go get coffee for a meeting. This is okay if I plan accordingly. I don’t spend the full $10 most days, but rather $8 or $9, so I can “splurge” on $14 entrées. I make sure I get big entrées too, so I can take the leftovers home and eat them the next day. When I go to Starbucks or Joe’s, I choose espresso or a plain cup of coffee or tea. That’s healthier than a gingerbread latte, too. If I have to choose a location for a coffee meeting, I choose Butler Cafe because I always feel less pressured to buy their shitty coffee. But, the best part about eating with your friends? Friends with meal plans. All three Columbia dining halls have coffee cups with securable lids—I use these to carry out every sort of food imaginable without it all spilling in my bag. If you have tupperware, well, you fancy huh that will get the job done.

Can this work for you? Maybe. It’s not anything special. If you are on financial aid as well, you already know a lot of these tricks. $10 per day would be considered a luxury for many parts of the world. I’ll admit that I don’t eat particularly healthily and skip out a lot on fruits and vegetables, and that eating nutritiously is a good long-term investment (if you have the money). I’m also not particularly active, and imagine that I would be much more hungry if I had athletic practice two times per day. Do not deprive your body of the food it needs just for a few dollars. Cooking and preparing meals for the week is easier than doing what I do, but it sucks up time you might not have as a busy Columbia/Barnard student. Still, last semester I only spent around $1,000 for food, saving a month’s worth of rent for the summer. Boo yah.

Bwog trying to cook via Shutterstock

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  1. Anon4Chan  


    Go to 125th and Broadway (McDonald's):

    Breakfast: 2x sausage burritos ($2.5 ~ish)

    Lunch: 2x anything from dollar menu (same) [2x mcdouble with one bun removed makes a delicious 4 patty burger]

    Dinner: 2x anything from dollar menu (same)

    Add 1 soft drink and 1 coffee for $10.

    If you cook, it's even cheaper.

  2. i need to get out of here  

    Only at Columbia is $10/day for food considered some inconceivable sacrifice. Christ. But I'm sure you're parents are impressed you only spent $1000 of their money.

  3. Anonymous  

    Also, you could cook.

  4. Jaded Graduate Student

    It's totally feasible to survive on less than $10 a day, less than $50 a week and still eat healthy in NYC. You just need to shop smart. On a day off, take the subway down to Chinatown and go grocery shopping on Grand St.. Fresh produce, seafood, meats, and healthy grains all extremely cheap even with factoring in the transportation aspect. Consider also doing your grocery shopping in Fort Lee, across the GW. Bwog, hit me up if you want to do cheap, homestyle dorm food if all you have is a crockpot and a microwave.

  5. Anonymous  

    Not saying it's cheaper than buying out, but the math used in the beginning seems a little off. 14 bucks is about what non-meal plans pay to get into a dining hall. If you assume that a person will use all of their meals (admittedly rare), the most expensive plan comes out a lot cheaper per meal than 14 dollars. Closer to 8 maybe?

  6. umm  

    peanut butter will get you far in life

  7. anon  

    Eat for under $20 a week:
    Get a large bag of black beans and and box of quinoa. There for around $15 you have around 14 meals

  8. Anonymous  

    Lord, I *wish* I had $10 a day for food. My current food budget is $5-$6 a day. This article is unnecessarily verbose. From a poor senior to all you poor sophomores:
    -Go for real pasta instead of ramen. In the quantities that fill you, ramen will make you sick.
    -Bake potatoes or sweet potatoes in the microwave. Just stab your fork all over it and put it in for 3 minutes, flip, 3 minutes, repeat until it feels soft.
    -Buy all fruits and veggies from street carts, except frozen peas and corn.
    -Canned soup, while not cheap in this god-forsaken city, is an all-in-one meal for less than $3 and can be good for your sanity.
    -Make your own coffee. Jesus Christ.
    -Eggs! Hardboiled, sliced on a sandwich. Scrambled, over tortillas as huevos rancheros. Broken into your ramen, if you're ignoring my first piece of advice.
    -Oatmeal plus peanut butter instead of cereal.
    -Pancakes are actually super cheap to make and amazeballs.
    -Appletree has tiny cheap steaks.

  9. or  

    you could learn to cook. your body will thank you when you're old and have arthritis and osteoporosis and jaundice and rickets.

  10. for the non-cooks

    a large soup at westside is $5.99 and can last 3-4 meals. plus their soups are almost always nutritious and delicious

  11. Anonymous  

    you can also walk to TJ's
    or, for the less adventurous, use your free transfer to take the bus back for just $2.50 round trip.

  12. anon  

    you could also try not being poor or get a job for like 3 hours that pays minimum wage ($18 at least) so you can eat real people food and have some extra cash

  13. hey you there  

    that's a terrible idea. i dont know why you think of these ridiculous things, jean bean

  14. Blunts in Butler  

    What about Taco Bell? Doritos Locos Tacos. $1.39. Fuckin yeah.

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