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People Shared Their Unwritten Rules For How To Eat When You're Poor, And You Might Not Have Considered Them

"Always separate your groceries into two piles at checkout."

Last month, people on Reddit started sharing their "unwritten rules" of being poor. It sparked a massively viral conversation on the internet about the realities of living in poverty.

an empty wallet

The Reddit thread, initially posted by user u/jicta, asked people who grew up poor to share the rules they've had to live by in order to survive. People shared the ways they've navigated things like housing, clothing, health, and family — but the most common topic of discussion was food.

a stressed woman grocery shopping

Living with food insecurity presents many logistical challenges that you might not have considered before. From shopping, to cooking, to eating, every step of the process requires careful planning and consideration.

a woman in a grocery aisle

Here are 24 unwritten rules of feeding yourself when you're poor, according to those who have lived it:

1. "If you want to eat regularly, you work a food service job. You get paid AND you get the leftovers. The most I ever ate was when my mom worked at McD's and brought food home, or when I was old enough to work at Walmart in the deli so I could bring home the expired meats and bread."

food service employees making a to-go bag

2. "When it comes to groceries, coupons and off-brand everything. No amount of begging could get us Apple Jacks or Lucky Charms. It was always 'Apple Smacks' in a five-pound bag, and they are not the same."


3. "Save all the scraps. All the bones, bits of meat, veggie ends. Make soup. Soup was a pretty big staple for me growing up. Watching people throw out bones and veggie scraps when I was a kid used to make my eyes go saucer-wide."


4. "I can still add up a cart of groceries within $1 in my head. We will not be embarrassed by not having enough money to pay. Now I do it as a game. My husband who has never had an issue being able to buy groceries thinks I’m a mathematician. Nope, just grew up poor and proud."


5. "Never fill up the gas tank. You don't want to be in a situation where you have gas in your car but no groceries."

a man's hand pumping gas

6. "You don’t show up to your homie's house during eating hours so they don’t have to find food for you."


7. "If you didn't eat what was put in front of you at supper, that is what you got for breakfast and each meal following until it was used."


8. "Don't talk to anyone about [being poor]. It's shameful. Me and my sibling weren't allowed to enjoy free breakfast programs for kids living in poverty that our schools hosted because it embarrassed my family."


9. "Free samples count as a meal."

a hand taking free samples

10. "Don't ask for seconds until Dad has his fill and has lunch for work put away."


11. "Just go to sleep if you are hungry and there's no food at the house."


12. "Don't eat lunch, because you either 'just ate breakfast' or 'dinner's only a few hours away, you'll be fine.'"


13. "Don't just go to the fridge and get food. Everything is planned for a meal."

a stressed woman opening a fridge

14. "We were very poor growing up. You never ate the last of anything without asking first. Portions were small and limited. When I was 11, I was invited over to a friend's house. ... Lunch time came. Her mom set the table for sandwiches. Three different breads, all sorts of meats, condiments, and fruit. At my house, we were only allowed two slices of meat per sandwich. So, at this friend's house, I make my sandwich with one slice of ham because it was way thicker than the stuff at home. The mom kinda freaks out. 'What kind of sandwich is that? You need to put more on it, that's not enough.' I explain that's what we do at home. They were horrified. Ended up sending me home with a 'care package' of food. My parents never let me go to her house again because they were embarrassed I told them we were poor."


15. "If someone buys you food at a restaurant, order as cheaply as possible, even if they tell you to order whatever you want. Used to get death glares from parents if I ordered something $10 or over at a place where the average price was 10 bucks. If you can get a burger and fries for $8, you better be eating a burger."


16. "Going to get fast food, with any adult, you only order off of the dollar menu."


17. "It's funny now seeing my leftovers as a bonus snack and not part of the next day's meal. Had some weird lunches packed for me, like cream cheese and olives in a burrito wrap."

a container marked leftovers in a fridge

18. "I still am embarrassed and anxious about ordering an actual entrée when eating a fancy meal at a restaurant. My spouse thought it was so strange back when we were dating that if we went out for an anniversary dinner, I kept ordering soup or salad as my meal and insisting I wasn't that hungry."


19. "We knew the exact date of grocery shopping because that's when the food stamps came in. Most meals were 'experiments' made from the food we got from the food pantry."


20. "I remember my dad always getting really excited about very cheap, mundane foods like puffed rice cereal (plain), bologna sandwiches, and unflavored steel cut oats. He would get us all amped up about it because of how much he talked it up. Now that I am older (and a father myself), I don’t think he actually loved all these things that much. My parents just didn’t have the money to buy expensive food to feed three growing boys. Sure made the best of it, though."


21. "Always separate your groceries into two piles at checkout. One pile for the items eligible for food stamps, one pile for things that are not."

groceries on a conveyor belt at a store

22. "We got a lot of our food from canned food drives. My mom called them 'outdoor grocery stores.' Everything else we either got from the flea market or dollar store."


23. "If you use the oven during winter, when you’re done, leave it cracked so that the heat warms up the rest of the house."


And finally...

24. "When mom is not eating dinner with you and your brother, it is not because she’s not hungry. She’s making sure there’s enough for us to eat."

a mom cooking dinner

You can read more unwritten rules of poverty that people shared here.

Note: Some responses have been edited for length and/or clarity.

If you or someone you know is experiencing food insecurity, check out Feeding America, where you can find a food local bank and learn more about federal programs that may be available to you.