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Meals for Cheap | Benjamin Kinney


Gather ingredients: a 2-lb bag of rice. Two cans of beans—sodium-free if the store has them, but no variation matters much. One can of diced tomatoes. Garlic, if you can bother.


Rip open the plastic on the bag of rice, measure roughly a cup of it, fold the slightly-emptier bag up, and cram it somewhere in the cupboard. Drop the rice into a pot of simmering tap water, and stir whenever you remember. This is a good time to read a book, peek at the TV in the next room, but if you’re really tired, you can just stand next to the stove and watch. Before adding the black beans, you should clean them, which is easiest with a strainer but can be achieved by rushing tap water right into the can and sifting the blackish water through your fingers. Don’t drain the tomatoes before you add them; whatever juice they come in is flavoring. Stir and eat. Dinner takes 45 minutes and costs $1.25 per serving. It tastes terrible.


*


I was worth around $20,000 the summer before I entered the MA program at Northern Michigan University. I had taught middle school for four years and lived off around $17,000 a year that whole time. I regarded myself as frugal, sensible. The $9,000 stipend at NMU seemed doable with a slight shift in thinking. When I got the acceptance, I thought I heard in a phone call or read in an email that part of this stipend was intended for health insurance. I took this to mean I would be receiving health insurance in addition to my stipend. I had understood wrong: it meant that if I wanted to spend part of that 9K for healthcare, I was welcome to do that.


*


A friend, who visited the apartment while I was cooking the beans and rice: “Ben, you eat like Republicans want poor people to eat.”


*


I have become a compulsive budgeter. Each week I review my meager income, every known expense, the least spending money I can allow myself. I can eat bananas instead of buying other fruit. I can forego buying body wash and just wash my skin with leftover shampoo that I got for Christmas. For dinner on Thursday night, I can just have a protein shake and a glass of Metamucil instead of cooking. The next week, I budget again and see if anything has shifted. In my apartment I find envelopes or scraps of notebook paper where I made previous calculations. The numbers are never totally accurate.


*


That first semester at NMU, I was charitable. I bought friends drinks. I discovered new restaurants. I lived alone. I visited some friends in Florida. I visited some other friends in Chicago. I paid 60 bucks for way too many drinks at a bar one night with a guy I was dating. When I signed the check, I wrote my last name twice. The bartenders laughed at me. My boyfriend dumped me the very next day.


*


By halfway through my time at NMU, I had spent 75% of my savings. I was a regular connoisseur of the day-old Jimmy John’s bread, costing 48 cents including tax. The first time I ordered it, I gestured to the sign and asked the guy behind the counter, “That old bread. That’s a thing you really sell, right? The sign isn’t a joke?”


*


I did exactly one year of full-time teaching between my creative writing program at NMU and my current one at the University of South Florida. I made $42,000 that year, but the students were so hostile that my body was flush with anger three, four times per week. I paid $720 to take a Transcendental Meditation class, hoping it would help. It didn’t. I wouldn’t live halfway to retirement the way I was feeling every day. I yearned to get back into the college writing world. I missed talking to smart people about writing. I missed sitting in attractive new rooms or, hell, shabby old rooms. This time, I reasoned, I would work my way up the ladder. I would understand the workload, the mentality, the pitfalls, the terribly small paychecks.


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Several online recipes claim to make beans and rice taste delicious. Use stock instead of water. Add fresh cilantro. Add guacamole. Add seasonings, and then top with those little tortilla strips. In other words, triple the cost of making it.


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I was offered a stipend of around $13K to attend my current MFA program. Somehow, I contextualized it as 1.5 times my NMU stipend. I failed to factor in the difference in the cost of living, the fact that I would be commuting, the annual $1500 in fees, the fact that now I was thirty-one and my friends were buying houses, and I was returning to school for three more years. By October I was working 50 hours a week and spending more than I was making. I felt a little like those people who get suckered into selling acai juice or cosmetics products must feel.


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I was on Medicaid during my MA I’m not on any assistance now, though I’m sure I would qualify for food stamps. But accepting them would be an acknowledgment that I got myself here, yet again. I refuse to do it.


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At this rate, I will run out of money by the end of my MFA program in 2021, but I don’t know exactly when. If I sell my car, I can last three or four months longer. If I never go out to eat, I can probably last two months longer, but it’s not like I can stay inside for the rest of my time here—never share a meal with a friend, never go on a date. If I can find part-time work that doesn’t interfere with school, I can maybe break even. It would take around 70 days of work as a substitute teacher, or in other words, every day off I have all next school year.


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I’m terrified of debt. Some people pay their credit cards off monthly. I do it biweekly. I’ve gotten error messages before because I was making more payments in a single day than Chase was designed to allow.


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Every time I get a windfall—usually my parents taking pity and throwing me a hundred bucks—I recontextualize my life completely. Should I buy a few pairs of jeans, or should I eat meat with every dinner this month? Should I invite somebody on a date? My treat?


*


I used to make a big deal out of refusing my parents’ money—no, no, no, I’m doing just fine. Last year, I paid $5000 to replace a crown that had gone bad. This Christmas, when my dad offered me the hundred, I accepted it within ten seconds.


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I eventually found a replacement recipe for the beans and rice I ate all the time at NMU. Quinoa, black beans (again), diced tomatoes (again), corn, garlic, a jalapeno, cumin. It’s a little over $2 per meal when it’s all said and done. It was good the first ten or fifteen times I had it.


*


Last semester, I read articles about startup guys in California who skipped lunch every day to put their money into their businesses. I looked down at the Chick-Fil-A sandwich or the Panda Express orange chicken that I couldn’t resist. I could have just eaten a banana and some oatmeal and drank a bunch of water.


*


I think about that bad crown a lot. I could have saved $5000 if I had done a better job of brushing my teeth in 2004.


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This semester, I have made a strict budget. I haven’t been to the student food court or Starbucks once. I’ve avoided vending machines. I usually make it halfway through the week with 20 or 30 dollars left in my budget, until a good friend invites me out to Applebee’s and I don’t feel like declining. I come to resent the Bud Light, the $10.99 entrée, the friendship itself.


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My parents would give me more. I want it, but I tell them I don’t.


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Last month I went to a movie and ordered popcorn and a soda. It was $16, and during the movie all I could think about was what else I could have bought with that money. I’d already purchased groceries and gas for this week. That was the rest of my budget for that week, and it was Sunday. I still regret it.


*


In 2000, I was sitting in my middle school Careers class. The project was to create a budget based on a career chosen from a hat. I chose Lawyer with an annual salary of $80,000, but that seemed too easy, so I picked Farmer: $20,000 instead. I began filling out my spreadsheet, gleefully cutting costs wherever I could. I’d just live in a trailer—$400 a month. I wouldn’t have pets. My hobby would be photography--$70 upfront and $10 per month. A hobby that cost money was a requirement of the assignment; otherwise, I would have just read library books on the farm for fun. I asked the teacher how minuscule I could make my monthly grocery budget. Could I do $80 a month? “If you lived on nothing but beans and rice,” she said, which wasn’t exactly a no.


*


I picture a time in my late thirties, when I’ve made it as a professor. I envision a fridge full of San Pellegrino water, Dole Strawberry Breeze juice. On the counter are dishes of trail mix, pastel mints, a bowl of mangoes and pineapple. On the table is grilled chicken seasoned perfectly. Red potatoes. Homemade bread. A nice salad. Merlot. Black beans and rice are nowhere to be found.





Benjamin Kinney lives and writes in St. Petersburg, Florida. He earned an MA in English from Northern Michigan University and is currently in an MFA program at the University of South Florida. He has published fiction in Cartridge Lit and Blue Fifth and nonfiction in Walloon Writers Review and f(r)iction, where he was a finalist in the Creative Nonfiction Contest. His obsessions include David Lynch, SURVIVOR, and Reese’s peanut butter cups. He has an infrequently updated blog at benjaminkinney.com.


Twitter: @IAmBenKinney