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Seattle attorney eats three meals a day on $75 a month — and you can, too

Jennifer Wing
Paulette Perhach and Sylvia Hall admire the lion's mane mushroom at a Seattle grocery store. The mushroom costs $20 a pound. The mushroom was not purchased.


This story originally aired on May 25, 2019.

Seattle writerPaulette Perhach likes to spend her food money at a typical boutique grocery store in Seattle. You know, the kind with hardwood floors, shelves that are curated with an ethical conscience — and really good cheese. Perhach is 36 years old. She’s a freelance writer who fully admits to liking fancier things she can’t afford. One of her favorite things to buy in this store is feelings.


“Just hippy, happy feelings," Perhach said. "It's the kind of business that I want to stay in business in Seattle to provide good food that’s not going to give you cancer and be bought from Monsanto. And when I’m in here I feel like no harm can become me — until I check out, and then I’m like, 'that is a lot of money.'”


Perhach has written openly about her relationship with money and is always looking for helpful tips and advice on how to stay out of debt. One of Perhach’s money mentors is Sylvia Hall.


Sylvia is a 39-year-old Attorney in Seattle. She’s single, no kids. She has enough money saved up that she could afford to retire comfortably in Seattle today. But because she likes what she does and helps out family back in her hometown of St. Louis, Hall has no plans to quit work. She is committed to living well below her means. She still drives around in the 1998 Honda Civic she’s had since graduating high school more than 20 years ago.


Another way that Hall keeps her finances in check is her monthly food budget. The amount that Hall spends to feed herself over four weeks is what many of us could easily spend in one week at a coffee shop.


“My grocery budget is now increased to $75 a month. Inflation, right? The price of the vegetables all went up,” said Hall, who used to only spend $65 a month on food.


Hall has several tools in her toolbox that make this food budget possible. Credit cards, knowing where the deals are and sticking to the bulk bins.


Hall pays off her credit cards each month and is debt free. She makes almost every purchase with credit cards to rack up airline miles. She hasn’t had to pay for a plane ticket in years. She also uses credit cards that offer 5 percent cash back on groceries. She knows how much vegetables cost at Trader Joe’s versus Costco. She sticks to the bulk bins where dried beans are a fraction of the cost of beans in cans. And Hall always enters a store with a shopping list that she rarely strays from.


In this story, Perhach and Hall go on a field trip to Perhach’s favorite boutique Seattle grocery store. As they walk the aisles together, we learn about the connection Perhach makes between food, good memories and the joy of creating new experiences in the kitchen. We also learn, from Hall, how we can all get a small taste of our favorite things without making ourselves financially vulnerable.


Sylvia Hall tells Paulette Perhach how she eliminated her law school debt.


Hall provided Sound Effect an itemized shopping list, organized by category, and a detailed daily menu of her go-to meals for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Her $75 average budget checks out. 

“Some months are higher if I am stocking up on long-term staples,” she said. “Some months are lower if I have most of the staples on hand already.”

Hall shops at certain stores for specific items. For example, she does most of her bulk food shopping at WinCo Foods. For frozen fruit and packs of romaine lettuce, she shops at Costco.

WinCo takes cash and debit cards, but not credit cards. As a workaround, Hall uses one of her rewards credit cards to load up a prepaid debit card. This way, she still earns airline miles or cash back on her purchases.

As for libations, alcohol is included in her $300 monthly discretionary budget. “I tend to pick up either a Bota Box or a Black Box of wine every two months,” Hall said, which amounts to $15 for the equivalent of four bottles.

She gives herself some flexibility if she hosts an at-home happy hour. Hall also provides some wiggle room for events she considers “splurges” — birthdays, baby or wedding showers, graduations and holidays.

Check out some of Hall’s budget-friendly (and healthy) daily eats:

BREAKFAST Bulk oatmeal with berries and walnuts Vegan egg scramble with tofu, vegetables and turmeric with tortillas Breakfast smoothie with almond milk, greens, fruit, turmeric and cocoa powderLUNCH Salad with romaine, beans, vegetables and homemade dressing Peanut butter sandwich on a tortilla, with a side salad or fruit Cauliflower crust pizza with onions, greens and mushroomsDINNER Tofu fried “rice” made with riced cauliflower, aminos and vegetables Veggie pasta with olive oil and nutritional yeast Lentil soup with a side salad

Jennifer Wing is a former KNKX reporter and producer who worked on the show Sound Effect and Transmission podcast.