Funny Money: 5 Weird Yet Edible Foods That Got Me Through Absurd Poverty

Apple core in fridgeThere’s a certain charm to being young and poor; full of ideas and empty of experience. The hard part of winning real-life hunger games is finding out how to get by with an empty stomach and wallet.

Everyone warns you about the dreaded freshman 15, but if you can’t even afford to roll as a dollar menunaire, gaining weight is of little concern. Managing to scrounge your minimum wage earnings into enough fuel to keep you functional is the true goal.

With that in mind, I recalled five dishes I used to whip up in my salad-free salad days. Even though I am now a responsible adult with three kids and a wife who makes sure I eat like a human being, when left alone I still regress to my college ways and eat some of these old standbys. While I can’t vouch for their nutritional value, I can confirm their flavor and ability to ward off hunger pangs.

Steak Sauce & Tuna Sandwiches

While pickle relish and mayo work just as well to leaven the stinky contents of tuna cans, no additive is as manly as steak sauce. Pour enough A1 into a bowl and you can make enough sandwiches to stack in a tiny dorm fridge and last an entire week. Oddly, the more sandwiches you make and more days you wait before eating them, the better they get. It must have something to do with the chemical makeup of the steak sauce, tuna and chilled bread congealed to make a unified mass of tangy, breaded fish.

Microwave spaghetti

Take a bowl, pour about yay amount of water in there, grab some spaghetti, toss it in the microwave for four minutes and voila — instant spaghetti, sans boiling water. Microwaves are notorious for transforming pasta into gummy mush, but that turns out only to be true for leftovers. Spaghetti sauce is optional, but preferred. In a pinch, a pocketful of fast food ketchup packets will do to sauce up your gourmet Italian dish.

Frozen Delights

By “Frozen Delights” I’m talking about the sad little store-brand ice bricks that are stacked below real-deal Hot Pockets in the frozen aisle. My old roommate fecetiously named them Frozen Delights because their packaging was so unappealing, belying their hidden wonders. These all-in-one, defrostable meals lose their luster if munched for several consecutive meals, and tend to be pricey compared to other things on this list at $1 or more a pop. But as a once-or-twice-a-week treat, their cheesy processed meat bags are manna from Safeway.

Waffles and Vienna Sausages

Thanks to their disc-like portability and easy preparation, frozen waffles should be a standby of any budget breakfast-eater. The same is true of Vienna sausages, those stubby, Spam-like, cylindrical meats of wonder. Alone, both are somewhat boring, but slap them together and you’ve got the breakfast of the gods. The very poor, hungry and carb-tolerant gods. The crunchiness of the waffles and the soft mushiness of the sausages make a party of your mouth.


This, above all, is probably the reason I never had a girlfriend in my dorm days. Yes, I confess, I would recycle the milk that was left over after I was done with my cereal, pouring it back into the carton for later use. The necessity spawned from the diminutive fridge I had, which was too small to store even a half-gallon of milk upright. I had to fetch my half-pint breakfast milk from vending machines, and quarters didn’t grow on trees, so I had to make the milk last as long as possible. Sure, Aftermilk sounds gross, and it is, but take my word for it (please do take my word and leave it at that without trying this at home) that three days of Marshmallow Mateys seasoning made my aftermilk taste spectacularly marshmallowy.

What weird dishes have you concocted to eat cheaply?

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About Phil Villarreal

Phil Villarreal writes Funny Money weekly for Money Under 30. He lives in Tucson and works for the Arizona Daily Star. He's also an author, blogger and Twitterer.


  1. Wow, this post made me cringe and made me want to give respect all at the same time lol. I feel the pain, but I don’t think I’ve ever gotten in a situation bad enough to drink aftermilk…that is pretty crazy. Sometimes when I don’t want to actually cook ramen, I’ll just put in the seasoning and crush up the dried ramen noodles and snack on it. Honestly, Ichiban brand is the only ramen I’ve tried this with and it helps settle hunger pangs when you’re broke.

    • I didn’t eat Ramen because it required a stove, which I didn’t have access to in the dorms. Oddly, I was into that during high school, when I had access to real food.

      • I used to make Ramen in my coffee pot when I lived in a dorm and didn’t have a stove. Just put the noodles in the carafe and run the coffee pot without coffee in it so the hot water drips on the noodles. You just have to make sure your coffee pot is clean, because coffee flavored ramen noodles are no good!

  2. Anony-Mouse says:

    I’m going to try to keep the hostility and derision out of my tone, but I doubt I’ll succeed.

    1. Those are FAR from the least expensive foods out there. Assuming you have running water and an electrical outlet, you can live off a bag of beans and a bag of rice for a week for less than $5. Raw oatmeal is more expensive, but still dirt cheap by fast food standards at about $0.30 a meal. You can “spice it up” for another few cents with all kinds of things. “Maple” syrup packets, or my favorite go-to a cheap jar of fruit jelly/jam/preserves. An electric kettle to boil water and a pot to let it sit in cost me $7. If you DON’T have running water or electricity, you can always build a fire since you will need it for warmth anyway living outdoors. Also, how are you on the internet right now?

    2. Change the title of your article, it is disgraceful. You almost certainly have NO idea what “Absolute Poverty” is. Reading your article tells me you don’t even know what it is, let alone have ever sen it, and CERTAINLY never lived it. I’ll do you the favor of enlightening you.

    Here is how the United Nations categorizes Absolute Poverty:
    Food: Body Mass Index must be above 16.

    Safe drinking water: Water must not come solely from rivers and ponds, and must be available nearby (less than 15 minutes’ walk each way).

    Sanitation facilities: Toilets or latrines must be accessible in or near the home.
    Health: Treatment must be received for serious illnesses and pregnancy.

    Shelter: Homes must have fewer than four people living in each room. Floors must not be made of dirt, mud, or clay.

    Education: Everyone must attend school or otherwise learn to read.

    To live in absolute poverty, you must have NO WAY of meeting at least 2 of those requirements. If you live in the United states, you meet none of them. Note, personal pride is not a limiting factor in obtaining a requirement. If you are to embarrassed t go to a soup kitchen or a homeless shelter, that is a choice, not a limitation. Every hospital in the US that takes government money (read, nearly every one) is required to take you in and treat you. Public school is public.

    When you live in a dirt hut in Afghanistan, in a town where you will get shot for trying to go to school, then you get to say you lived in “Absolute Poverty”.

    • Anony-Cat says:

      He said “Absurd Poverty”, not “Absolute Poverty”…

    • Jasmine says:

      In the author’s and this blog’s defense…. he entitled his article “absurd poverty” not “absolute poverty,” which clearly upset you and would have upset me in the same way if it had disrespectfully disregarded the gravity of “real” poverty experienced in third world countries. As a follower of this blog, I believe its intended audience is the average broke/debt-heavy young American. Furthermore, I interpreted this article as a very light-hearted memoir on the average poor American’s experience of being broke. Plus, his article intended to highlight “weird” foods…(also in the title)…rice and beans like you said are definitely great recommendations, but they don’t necessarily really fit in the “weird” category….. I just think you kind of jumped the gun attacking the author without fully understanding the angle he was taking.. Don’t mean to offend you either….but just felt bad for the author and don’t believe he deserves the heated criticism :/

    • Anony-Mouse, you should look up the United Nations’ definition of Absolute Poverty of Sense of Humor.

  3. My opinion is that if you’re in such dire straits, swipe a cross-bow and learn to hunt. Didn’t Hunger Games teach us anything?

  4. Sonja Rose says:

    During college I did the spaghetti thing, only I added hamburger meat — I took one pound of ground beef, split it into 5 mini patties and froze them, taking them out of the freezer for those special spaghetti nights… Thank goodness for Ramen noodles, 10 pkgs for $1, Spaghettios @ two cans for $1. I remember weighing Bing cherries on the produce scale, I wanted them so badly and could only afford 10 — they tasted like heaven.