Living on $7 a Day

Three basic rules make it possible.

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My friend Zack generated some controversy when he shared his method of living on $7 a day last year. Some people didn't believe him and others thought $7 a day sounded like a lot of money. Zack says his goal was never to "beat" $7 a day, as some readers had suggested.

Since it has been about 10 months since that post, I asked Zack for an update. He's still living in New York with his girlfriend and practicing the same frugal techniques as before. Here are his three main rules:

  • Bring lunch to work whenever possible. This means cooking larger meals for dinner and using leftovers. Zack estimates that leftovers usually cost at most a couple dollars per meal. You can't buy lunch in New York City for less than $5, and typically it's more like $8. So you're more than doubling or tripling your lunch spending every time you go out. If you go out to lunch just one less day a week, that's $24 after one month (in Zack's scenario) and nearly $50 after two months. That could pay for a date at a nice restaurant. (And bringing lunch doesn't have to be unappetizing. Zack buys high-quality bread, like the Texas Toast at Trader Joe's, which tastes so good that he looks forward to peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.)
    • Limit the amount you eat out at restaurants. (Sorry, chefs.) Zack plans his meals for the week on Sunday to resist the temptation for take-out midweek. He and his girlfriend make big grocery runs so they have a fully-stocked kitchen, which also makes it easier "to resist the siren call of restaurants," as he puts it. And when he and his girlfriend do go out, they usually get takeout. "Obviously, it's cheaper and we often prefer eating in the comfort of our own apartment," he says.
      • Buy groceries at a bulk retailer. Zack calculated that it saves him at least $200 to go to a bulk retailer in New Jersey instead of smaller grocers in Manhattan. He can buy large containers of condiments like olive oil and salsa, which cost more (per ounce) in smaller sizes.
      • Zack adds that he continued these strategies even after landing a decent-paying job, because simply getting through a tight period was not the point. "It's about being conscious of how you spend your money in general (and avoiding traps that waste your money). Obviously, it's especially relevant during a recession but I find it's much easier to live frugally during rough times if you adopted that kind of mindset when times were good."