Hack Your Budget

I left home to pursue my dream of becoming an artist, and like most struggling artists, I anticipated having very little money. But hey, I was creative right? It can’t be that hard. Wrong! You need a lot of imagination and resourcefulness to wrangle a tight college budget! I muddled through it all and eventually went on to pursue graduate school before moving to NYC to make and show my artwork.

Although I knew a lot about managing my resources, moving to the city brought even bigger challenges. My day jobs covered the rent and maybe a few art supplies, but left very little money for things like, you know, food. Somehow, I not only survived but I managed to have an enjoyable social life and eat very well. Here’s how I hacked my budget!

1. Keep your breakfast ritual at home.

Most of us like a cup of tea or coffee in the morning, but grabbing it on the way to work or class adds up! Typically anywhere from two to five dollars a day. Save it as a treat instead of a daily habit.

2. Don’t be afraid to eat your veggies.

Fresh quality produce can be purchased at a fraction of the cost of protein-centered meals. We often have Meatless Mondays and some nights simply roast a tray of vegetables in the oven with a little olive oil, salt, and pepper. Roasting brings out the natural flavor of the vegetables and is so simple to prepare that it’s hard to call it cooking. Another effortless meal we enjoy is Black Beans and Rice. Top it with some salsa, a little cheese and throw a fried egg on it. It couldn’t be easier and doesn’t break the bank.

3. Buy small amounts of rich meats.

This is a great budget tool. If you want to buy things like bacon, sausage, or pancetta, you don’t have to buy a large package. Most grocery store deli or meat departments will allow you to buy small amounts. A couple of Italian sausages from the deli will easily run under five bucks versus the cost of a large package. I like to buy meats that are rich in flavor this way and use them not as the main ingredient of a meal, but as one part of the overall flavor. Ever had bacon bits on a potato? The same concept, a little flavor goes a long way and can make your meals just a little healthier in the meantime.

4. Cooking a new recipe?  Cut it in half.

I am constantly trying new recipes that I find on the internet or in cookbooks. Seems like most of them are created for 4 people or 2 at the very least. If you are only cooking a meal for yourself and don’t want leftovers, take the recipe and do the math! Cut it down to the portion that suits you. As a result, you will not end up throwing away leftover food or waste your prized ingredients. But what if you do want leftovers? This brings me to the next point.

5. Cook in bulk.

Some meals are almost impossible to make for one person without wasting a lot of food. Take minestrone or vegetable soup for example. Once you add all the ingredients, you will have enough soup to feed all your hungry friends and maybe your neighbors too! This can, however, be an advantage. First, if you are planning to have a busy week, you will have ready-made meals and only have had to cook one time. Second, the cost per meal is much cheaper versus cooking many different individual meals.

Planning to cook in bulk can work very well too. My first year of graduate school, I was so busy that I had very little time for all my classwork much less shopping and cooking food. If I did, I preferred to spend it in the company of friends. This resulted in eating out for at least 2 meals a day, if not all. Needless to say, it got pricey fast.

As soon as Winter Break arrived, I bought a large supply of freezer containers and armed myself with three recipes I thought I would enjoy for lunches. I spent the next few days prepping, cooking and packaging meals into the freezer. It was awesome! When school started again, not only did I have my own homemade food for lunch, but I also didn’t have to worry about finding time to shop and cook. With the extra money I saved, I was able to spend more time on schoolwork and with friends.

6. Prioritize and splurge on items that count.

I love prosciutto, really nice cheeses, and fancy bread. I love dark chocolate and crab, but if I loaded up on these things every day, I’m sure I would be broke and probably morbidly obese. Being on a tight budget can sometimes feel terrible because you just can’t afford the things you really like. It’s important to understand how to prioritize your indulgences and build this concept into your meal planning. This brings me to meal planning.

6. Understand what you have to work with and plan for it.

I cannot say I have always been a meal planner, but I was forced to learn to budget living in NYC. Regardless of how much money you make, it is important to have a clear understanding of what you want to do with it.

Here’s an easy way to start. Take your total amount of income and subtract all the things your MUST pay- include things like toiletries and gas money. Divide up the remaining amount over the period of weeks before you get paid again. This should tell you what you have to work with. With this number in mind, write out what you can afford for meals for the week. It could be a week that you will need to cook less expensively or a week where you can treat yourself to dining out.

Don’t forget to include some of those little indulgences in your priorities. It might only be one small item like a really good bar of chocolate, but it can truly make a financially sparse week feel so much better!

7. Finally, a couple of things just because.

  • Don’t buy pre-cut fruit!!  It is so much more expensive than cutting your own and is notorious for making people sick from cross contamination.
  • Limit processed foods.  It may seem easier to buy microwave meals, pop open that canned soup or grab cheap fast food but it is stacked full of sugar and salt and I’m pretty sure a lot of additives you probably wouldn’t find appetizing.  Don’t get me wrong, I do enjoy my share of these things, but it is important- especially going out on your own that you don’t let them become your only food options.


I hope I have laid out a few pointers to help you get started. These are only a few ways I found to eat well on the cheap. The internet has tons of articles and resources for money management, meal planning and cooking delicious, healthy food. Don’t be afraid to use them! It takes time and practice to learn what to cook and how much it costs, but be patient. Your budget and body will thank you!

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