Saturday, October 12, 2013

What I Learned from Eating Like a Foodie on $15/Day

One week ago, I set out to see if it was possible to eat like a Dallas foodie for $15/day. I laid out the challenge parameters and the list of foods I ate in the original post. Below are the things I learned throughout the challenge. Even if you don't plan to eat this cheaply for a week, I think you'll find a few handy tips for how to reduce your food budget while eating well in Dallas:

1. You Must Plan Meticulously

  • Hopefully you paid attention in math class and have a smartphone calculator, because you'll need to calculate every cent in advance, including 8.25% tax and 20% tip. 
  • Some restaurants don't have menu prices listed online and some staff people don't know the exact cost of the food they're selling. That makes advance calculations tricky.
  • Some places either don't charge tax or have tax already included in their listed prices. For example, I did not know food truck food and pie are non-taxable food items.
  • Quick serve restaurants and food trucks are great budget savers because you don't have to tip anyone. A 20% tip on $15 is $3, which automatically means your food budget is down to around $10-11 because you'll have to leave room for sales tax, too.
  • Dallas offers some delicious foods at great prices if you take advantage of sales on certain days and times.
  • If you really plan your budget, you can eat a non-essential/indulgence item at full price, like I did at Emporium Pies or with French Press hot tea.

2. There Are Some Items You Can (Almost) Never Order

  • Having a beverage with your meal is often not in the budget, unless it's free tap water. Even a $2 iced tea (which would be a cheap iced tea) at lunch and dinner plus tax and tip is going to eat up about $5 of the $15 budget. (I did squeeze in a Topo Chico with one meal.)
  • Forget drinking any alcoholic beverages unless it's free with your meal or vice-versa (like I found at Peak & Elm).
  • You can't upgrade anything that costs extra: no $1.60 for strawberries on pancakes, no 50-cent sour cream, and no $1.50 extra to swap for a veggie side dish.
  • Meat/proteins cost extra, and that makes it tricky to eat a full meal in some places that separate out the cost for the same item with and without meat… usually with the meat cost in fine print.

3. Some People Will Look Down on You

  • If you ask a staff member how much something costs, be prepared for some people to give you a funny look, as if you're the only person who has ever asked them for a price.
  • If you press someone to find out a price—with tax—before you place your order, that funny look may turn into an annoyed look.
  • If you ask your server about a surprise 50-cent extra charge on your bill, be prepared for the server to sigh and pull 50 cents out of his/her personal tip jar because "look, 50 cents is really not that big of a deal" (to them)… even if it is putting you over budget for something he/she had wrongly told you was included with your order.
  • If you go to a place with a special food deal and order "just water" with your meal, try not to notice the server mentally rolling their eyes about their presumed loss of tip percentage.

This challenge did one thing I was not expecting: it reset how I perceive the value of one dollar. It also made me realize the need for anyone on a tight budget to make every dollar count for food with nutrients in it. Once I realized I can eat an entire delicious, filling meal with at least some nutritional value for $5-7, it feels somewhat wrong to pay several dollars more than that for just one cocktail or one dessert that causes the opposite affect of nurturing the body. Not that I still won't buy cocktails and desserts, but I'll be doing so a little less freely.

This challenge also reconfirmed something I was expecting: you really have to work to find cheap food that is real food, or "foodie" food. It is amazing how much cheap food is carbs, sugar, chemicals, and junk fillers with next to zero nutritional value. It truly is no wonder why so many poor Americans and their children are overweight and undernourished.


  1. I'm really impressed you stuck to the budget the entire week. I don't know if I could have done that... I eat a lot of food... granted, I run marathons, so I burn a lot of calories... so I don't know if $15 would have satisfied my stomach very well. I really enjoyed reading about what you expected out of this experiment and what you didn't expect. Food injustice is an awful thing and the policies in place on what is subsidized vs what isn't makes the problem even worse!

    1. Thanks Kim! I run every day too, but not for marathons. It was hard to find enough good nutrients on some days. I really had to think before I decided where to go and what to order. Subsidization is a big problem that causes other health problems!