Putting your money where your mouth is

cheap-eats

image courtesy of Saving with Shellie

Blame Thoreau.

In the mid 1800’s he engaged in an experiment in simple living and self-reliance, moving into a small, self-built cabin on an isolated piece of land outside of Concord, Massachusetts. Lacking a blog, Thoreau documented his experiences in the American classic Walden; or Life in the Woods.

The present-day conceit of this form of social experimentation has become all too familiar. Temporarily adopting some nouveau-Thoreauvian form of deprivation (the minimalism of No Impact Man or the stringency of the 100 Mile Diet), the blogger is able to transcend the wasteful, destructive consumerism that is the lot of so many of us. Each step along the path to independence and self-discovery is documented online, and if they’re lucky, there is a book deal and a documentary film in their future.

While I quickly lose patience with the self-righteous social criticism and stunt-like quality of many of these endeavors, the blogs often contain practical advice in the midst of the flailing and myopic gropings of the participants.

The creators of the One Dollar Diet project should be able to loosen the purse strings since receiving an advance from their new book publisher. The month long experiment in bare bonesĀ  dining teaches usĀ  about food, nutrition, and the economics of eating well. This list of the 20 Healthiest Foods for Under $1 shows that some of the most inexpensive things you can buy are the best things for you.

Slightly less penny-pinching, the bloggers of 30 Bucks a Week are documenting the adventures of a Brooklyn couple’s efforts to feed themselves on that budget while still indulging in the occasional meal out and even throwing a few dinner parties. The blog is full of recipes as well as dining and shopping tips.

Another New Yorker dabbles in a different form of frugality. This 20-something single girl-about-town strives to maintain her Sex and the City lifestyle while budgeting a mere $75 for a month of dining. Her NYC Recession Diary entries are full of free parties, cheap drinks, and open bars, with a full $25 of her budget dedicated to bartender tips.

The goals are a bit more high-minded in Pinched: Tales from an Economic Downturn. In this ongoing series on Salon.com, the author asks if we can afford to eat ethically or are organic and sustainable food choices a luxury beyond the reach of most Americans. To answer this question, she and her husband ate conscientiously for a month while spending the government-defined, food-stamp minimum for their area of $248.

The best of these experiments go beyond the blogger’s personal declaration of independence and voyage of self-discovery. Not merely social commentary and criticism, they teach us something about contemporary choices and forms of creative engagement with those options. Even though Thoreau got his book deal, I don’t doubt that were he around today, he would be a blogger.

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