This month, because I bought a 70€ backpack (so not that expensive) and an 85€ flight to Berlin, which along with rent and fees left me with just 100€ or so for three weeks, I’ve had to get creative with my meals and activities. Here are ten tips for living the cultured life on just a few bucks:
1. Luckily, wine is cheap. As I live in the champagne region, I try to check out local, independent maisons de champagne, most of which have weekly or monthly specials if you buy more than one bottle. Check out my new favorite place in Essoyes. I say it’s always good to have wine on hand to save an oatmeal dinner. Mix up your wine by using it for cooking, in sparkling cocktails and in vin chaud (mulled wine.)
2. Actually, you never have to eat oatmeal for dinner, as a sack of buckwheat flour costs just a few Euros and you only need a few tablespoons of it to make a good-sized crêpe. Throw on some crushed tomatoes, frozen spinach cooked in fresh butter and garlic, and an egg, and you have lunch for weeks for less than 10€. I also keep my eyes out for sale day at the grocery store, when many about-to-expire-items (cheese, produce, meats and fish) are marked down to as low as 1€, and then make meals that last for a week in the fridge.
3. In terms of entertaining, wine and cookies are always a good bet. Wine, cheap. Cookies, cheap. Done. Today I put together a recipe for chocolate-ginger cookies (recipe at the end of post), which were the perfect blend of sugar and spice for a movie night. Making up your own recipes is also a good way to relax and be creative. Don’t worry, not all of my cookies come out this well praised; I just don’t talk about those…
4. I have the good fortune to work at a school where the students are constantly going on field trips to the movies. I always volunteer to chaperone for a free trip to the cinema. On Wednesday, I had the odd pleasure of seeing Raging Bull in English, and have two more English film excursions planned for next month. If you don’t have free access to random big-screen viewings like me, turn your living room into a private screening with the help of a flea market projector, or find out about the reduced tariffs at your local theater (students, matinees, and sometimes Monday or Thursday evenings in France.)
5. Quiche, quiche, quiche. Meat is really expensive here, even chicken, so I’ve developed a new liking to hiding cheap meat (bacon bits, a remnant of my time in Alsace) in egg-and-cheese dishes, or wrapping dates in bacon and broiling them for a few minutes, a dish my cousin introduced to me. I eat far too many eggs and my cholesterol is probably though the roof, but eggs are a quick fix in a pinch. Cheese is also very cheap, and you can’t beat the local unpasteurized varieties. Wherever you are, national dishes are likely going to be cheaper to concoct than trying to reinvent plates from across the world. If you’re dying for tostones, as I am sometimes, check out the little international corner markets. In Strasbourg, I could find 50 cent avocados chez le Chilien, and all kinds of spices at the marché asiatique.
6. Onion soup. You can buy a sack of onions at the grocery store for like 65 cents, and it provides about 7 servings of soup. The ingredients are simple: cheap onions, cheap wine, cheap broth (learn to make your own at one of my favorite food blogs), spices and fresh butter. Add toasted cheese on bread for added protein and flavor. In general, cooking can be a fun experiment—I love finding traditional French recipes and tweaking them with a healthy Californian flare (I used to make my soup gluten-and-fat-free, but here I leave the butter in because it’s just too good), or finding ways to execute them on the cheap with limited kitchen supplies. I love my daily planner, which on every page lists a seasonal, sustainable recipe from French chefs across the country.
7. Best investment: Amazon Kindle. No, I didn’t buy the device itself, mostly because I didn’t want to carry another electronic around with me, so I just downloaded the free app onto my computer, which has the added bonus of saving 100 bucks. Being someone who writes all over my books, even the bad ones, I don’t like to check free books out of the library, so the Kindle is a good space-saver. The electronic version of books also tends to be about half the price as the paper version, and Amazon even offers a variety of classics for $2 or even for free. For the important stuff, and my favorite books, I still prefer to buy in paper; but for fast reads that require less examination, the Kindle is a great way to save on suitcase room and money. My current Kindle reads? This book on Chi running, this travel novel, a free copy of L’Amant by Duras, a few US history books.
8. Travel is still possible! Covoiturage.fr is a free ride sharing site, regional rides being around 8€ and long-distance about 15€. You get the opportunity to rate the drivers, so you can always pick a driver with good ratings for peace of mind in the safety department. Also, Capitainetrain.fr often has cheaper journeys than SNCF and, more importantly, better customer service. I found the site in September when I was having trouble booking on SNCF with my non-European card, with which the SNCF seems to have sporadic technical glitches, and have never looked back. If you are under 26, definitely invest in the carte de jeunesse, which is a hefty 50€ up-front fee, but saves money dramatically in the long term. Example: my tickets to Brussels cost about 60-90€ round trip, while a normal ticket can cost up to 150€ one-way. Tip: in late October there is usually a carte de jeunesse sale in which the first 500 purchasers can get a card for 40€. As for the best accommodations, ask locals for hostel recommendations. They may be a few Euros more pricy than your typical dive, but they save money when you don’t have to treat bed bugs or pay 50€ for a taxi home at night.
9. Museums! Make use of your residency and youth by visiting national museums for free. Or, just visit them in November and February, when many small towns (so, not Paris) offer free entrance for everyone. My other cheap hobbies include city strolls, studying, reading, journaling, tutoring, volunteer-tutoring, TED talks, iTunes movie rentals (and some other methods) and drawing random pictures to hang on my walls.
10. Don’t be afraid to ask for help. I like to believe that people are kind, and if someone learns that you are in need of a table or washing machine for your unfurnished apartment, they’re likely to ask around until they find one wasting away in a friend’s basement. I’ve gotten loads of free meals and furnishings this way, including my bed and bike. I’m also hoping to leave my suitcases with a friend while I travel around at the end of my contract. Remember, it never hurts to find out, and it usually just saves you money.
NB: the American measurements are estimates given the unit difference. The European measurements are guestimates, too, as I invented as I went along, but I think I got them right.
150g flour (about 1 cup)
50g dark chocolate, chopped
25g cocoa powder (about ¼ cup)
1 tsp rising agent (or ½ tsp baking powder, ½ tsp baking soda)
85g butter, melted (about 1 stick)
85g sugar (about ½ cup)
1 packet vanilla sugar (or 1 tsp vanilla extract)
1 tbsp powdered ginger
1 tbsp cinnamon or 4 spices
1 tsp salt
Mix flour, cocoa powder, rising agent, ginger, salt and spices. Gently stir in the chopped chocolate. Mix sugars, butter and egg. Slowly incorporate dry ingredients into wet. Add milk as necessary if the batter is dry. Form into balls, press lightly onto pan with fork and bake at 150˚C for 10-15 minutes (10 minutes for chewier cookies—recommended!) Butter pan if you desire a chewy caramelized bottom to the cookies.