With our not-so-robust economy and record high unemployment rates, there has been a lot of commentary on how to live on a limited budget. Speaking from experience (this year being the first year I have ever made enough money to even file for taxes), it is possible (but of course not ideal).
While in college, I lived on $800 a month, to pay my rent (which was more than half that) and everything else except my tuition (thanks Mom and Dad!). In medical school, I lived on around $13,000 a year (thanks, U.S. Government!) to pay for my rent (which, again, was more than half my monthly "income') and everything else. Even though my budget was limited (and admittedly, not as low as many other students), I managed to live in a major metropolitan area, go shopping on a (more than) regular basis, go out a few times a month, and eat good food.
The way I was able to do the latter was because I cooked my own meals and shopped either at Berkeley Bowl (in college) or Asian markets (in medical school) - both of which provided fresh produce at great prices. Because I saved money on eating out less, I was able to splurge a little on what I bought at the grocery store (splurges include being the second cheapest cheese or buying a fresh loaf of bread at the farmer's market). In the end, I was able to pull together great meals (and dinner parties to boot) on a shoestring budget.
Of course, one of the biggest hurdles that people identify as to why they don't cook at home is that they don't have time. I argue that we always have time. How much time do people spend sitting on the couch watching tv a night (some reports up to 3 hours a night)? How much time do you spend on the internet, reading the New York Times front page 5 times over? In the time that it takes for one rerun of Friends, I can put together tonight's dinner (or lunch - I had salmon with miso ginger sauce and rice) and marinate meat for tomorrow's meal (which will cook in another half hour tomorrow night). In the end, I eat cheap and healthy. I admit, I still go out to eat with friends and such, but you won't catch me getting fast food (at least not more than a handful of times a year, mostly when I'm on a roadtrip). Granted, it takes a lot of practice and planning, but my point is that it's not impossible.
Maybe this recession will be good to people's psyche in a sense (the NY Times also has this great article on how recessions can affect a generation), if it encourages people to reflect upon their eating habits and revert back to homecooked, healthier meals. A reporter on CNN just did a report on how he lived on food stamps for a month and not until his last week did he realize that buying fresh vegetables and other ingredients and preparing meals at home would be infinitely cheaper than buying processed and prepared foods.
I guess this is my little rant on how we all should look on our eating habits and how to improve upon them. It will be better for our bodies, and our wallets, in the end.
[Note that this does not mean that I am perfect by any means - I admit to having Lean Cuisines and canned soup in my cupboard. It's all a matter of proportions, I guess.]