Food: How a 24-Year-Old Waitress Eats on $18K/Year in Durham, North Carolina

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Welcome to The Receipt, a series documenting how Bon Appétit readers eat and what they spend to do it. Each food diary follows one anonymous reader’s week of expenses related to groceries, restaurant meals, coffee runs, and every bite in between. In this time of rising food costs, The Receipt reveals how folks—from different cities, with different incomes, on different schedules—are figuring out their food budgets. Think Refinery29's Money Diaries but only food, or The Grub Street Diet but regular people.

In today’s Receipt, a 24-year-old waitress making $18,000 a year tries to eat healthy, cheaply, and deliciously in Durham, North Carolina. Keep reading for her receipts.

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Jump ahead:

  • The finances
  • The diet
  • The expenses
  • The diary

The finances

What is your occupation? Freshly graduated grad student, currently finishing my thesis and working as a waitress and pottery teacher until I find a job in my field. My masters was in linguistics with a certificate in computational linguistics, and I’m hoping to get a job in some kind of digital humanities or data analysis position.

How old are you? 24

What city and state do you live in? Durham, North Carolina

What is your annual salary, if you have one? I don’t have an annual salary, but taxes last year totaled about $18,000 in income. I have kind of a mishmash of incomes: Last year, I had my grad school stipend, my savings, work as an intern at a government agency, and some money I got from selling my pottery and working at a ceramics studio.

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How much is one paycheck, after taxes? My grad school stipend was about $1,250 a month, waitressing ranges $700-$1300 biweekly, and teaching pottery ranges from $80 to $380 weekly. It’s $40 per head, with classes of 2-4 people 1-4 times a week.

How often are you paid (e.g. weekly)? See above.

How much money do you have in savings? $15,000. My parents gave me money for college, and most of this is the leftovers from that.

What are your approximate fixed monthly expenses beyond food (i.e. rent, subscriptions, bills)?

  • Rent: $800
  • Water: ~$20
  • Electricity: $30-60
  • Car insurance: $76
  • Internet: $50
  • Phone bill: $21
  • Spotify: $10

The diet

Do you follow a certain diet or have dietary restrictions? I’ve been a pescatarian for about a year now. Before that, vegetarian for a decade, and vegan off-and-on in college. My proteins tend to be 50% vegetarian and 50% pescatarian, and I’ll occasionally cheat and eat things that have meat when I’m eating out (e.g. potatoes cooked in duck fat, ranch with some bacon bits).

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What are the grocery staples you always buy, if any?

  • Bread, ideally locally made. I grew up on store-bought, never-expiring bread, but I can’t stand it now.
  • A quick protein: sardines, microwave Gardein products, chickpeas, anything I can add to a meal in a pinch.
  • Eggs, for their versatility.
  • Greek yogurt, again for versatility. I can add granola, fruit, honey, etc and have it for breakfast; add savory seasonings to make a dip out of it; use it as a topping on different dishes. An under-appreciated staple.
  • Some kind of hot sauce.
  • Soy sauce. I love salty flavors.
  • Wine. I like to have a white and a red at home.
  • Mayo. Divisive, I know!

How often, in a week, do you dine out versus cook at home? It depends on the week. If I have a predictable 9 to 5 schedule, I reliably cook at home, maybe eating out once a week if I’m craving something. However, if I’m really busy with school or working multiple shifts, I get more lax with eating out because planning meals isn’t a priority. Still, I try to limit my eating out for financial reasons.

How often, in a week, did you dine out while growing up? Almost never, actually. We tended to save sit-down restaurants for special occasions, and ate fast food only if my parents had to drive me to some extracurricular (e.g. Sunday school, gymnastics). I have many nostalgic memories of the Dairy Queen in my hometown.

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How often, in a week, did your parents or guardians cook at home? We almost always ate at home. My dad is the cook of our family (both due to talent and circumstance) and he always tried to put healthy food on the table. Even if it was a busy weeknight, he’d microwave some veggie chicken nuggets, steam broccoli, and make instant potatoes. He and my mom both really emphasize health, so I think that, rather than financial constraints, is why we cooked so often.

The expenses

Week’s total: $184.05 ($287.45, including items my dad paid for)

Restaurants and cafes total: $89.16 ($192.56, including meals my dad paid for)

Groceries total: $94.89

Most expensive meal or purchase: Brunch at First Watch, $36 (Dinner at Dashi, $70, if counting meals my dad paid for)

Least expensive meal or purchase: Yellow onion, $1.21

Number of restaurant and cafe meals: 9

Number of grocery trips: 4

The diary

Monday

I pour some Woodbridge white wine and play with my foster cats Mario and Luigi. I’d like to make a disclaimer that they were given these names before I was their foster mom.

9:30 a.m. I’m in Wilmington, North Carolina, with some friends for the 4th, and it’s our last day at the Airbnb. We’re packing up and clearing out the fridge and I absentmindedly eat some Toll House break-and-bake cookies from last night. It’s a bad decision; the sweet taste stays in my mouth for way too long.

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11:15 a.m. We leave in search of breakfast before heading back to Durham, North Carolina, where we live. We check three different restaurants, all featuring a wait of an hour or more, until we find Seabird, a coffee shop with a small breakfast menu. I get a seasonal frittata and a brûléed grapefruit ($15.84, with tax and tip). It’s the best meal I’ve had all vacation. The frittata is more of a quiche, but it’s fluffy and savory and full of fresh vegetables, and I drench it in the cafe’s hot sauce. The grapefruit has a beautiful caramel crust on it. I wish I could eat this every morning.

3:00 p.m. After a drive back to Durham, I decide to get food for lunch at the Durham Co-op Market. It’s a locally-owned grocery store that’s a 3-minute walk from my house—a real marvel considering I’m in a mid-sized Southern city. Its food is pricey though, so I save it for when I’m in a pinch and don’t want to travel far. I buy a small loaf of bread, Siggi’s plain Icelandic yogurt, 2 for $4 sardines, a cucumber, and cleaning solution ($18.34). The cleaning solution’s not for lunch.

3:30 p.m. I make a quick lunch with my ingredients: toasted bread with Icelandic yogurt, cucumber, sardines, and salt. I’ve made this before with goat cheese instead of yogurt, which was better in my opinion—the latter didn’t have enough flavor and left me disappointed. Still, it’s a good-enough lunch. I toast the bread on the stove versus a toaster, which makes it crunchy and buttery and wonderful.

6:30 p.m. I start making a grocery list, and during it realize how hungry I am. I scour my apartment’s pantry (a.k.a. a small rack on wheels) to see what I can make with what I have. I boil some Harris Teeter store-brand penne pasta while I make a scratch sauce: pasta water, soaked cashews, nutritional yeast, salt, garlic powder, onion powder, lemon juice, and red pepper flakes, blended. My few produce items are vegetables my boyfriend gave me. He lives in Macon, Georgia, at his parent’s house, which has a nice backyard he’s been growing vegetables in. I blister some cherry tomatoes and top the pasta with those and some parmesan. The sauce is flavorful, way more than a regular alfredo. The hint of heat from the red pepper flakes and sweet juice from the tomatoes really perfects it. I get full quickly, which is sad because I’m enjoying the taste so much. Luckily I have enough for leftovers.

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7:30 p.m. I go to Target to get some grocery staples and household items. I end up getting salad greens, apples, an onion, garlic, tofu, frozen edamame, Oatly oat milk, butter, and olive oil ($34.71 after tax). Back home, I put everything away, then pour some Woodbridge white wine and play with my foster cats Mario and Luigi. I’d like to make a disclaimer that they were given these names before I was their foster mom. It’s a good wine for how cheap it cost, and I drink two glasses while reading the novel Cherry by Nico Walker.

8:30 p.m. I’m hungry again, and eat the rest of the pasta as a pre-bedtime snack.

Monday total: $68.89

  How a 24-Year-Old Waitress Eats on $18K/Year in Durham, North Carolina © Illustration By Maggie Cowles

Tuesday

Just as I was about to clock out early, two parties come in to eat. I steal some fries off a plate I’m about to bus. They’re semi-cold but I don’t care, I’m really just eating them out of boredom.

9:00 a.m. I get up now, but I’ve basically been woken up every half hour since 6:30 a.m. by the cats. I whisk some eggs with a half tablespoon of butter and scramble them. I douse the product in Fly By Jing’s Sichuan Chili Crisp. This has been replacing Cholula as my typical egg topping, and I love how it’s more flavorful than typical hot sauces while still adding a little heat. Not a bad breakfast, all in all. I have some pre-made smoothies from Revive Superfoods in my freezer. They were having a sale, so I decided to treat myself a few weeks ago. I choose the Blueberry & Maqui Berry, add some oat milk, and blend it up. It’s not incredibly flavorful, but I need some fruit in my diet and drink it while folding laundry.

12:30 p.m. I decide to do the same lunch as yesterday, subbing in some goat cheese I found in the back of my fridge. Success! It’s so much tastier. This was one of my go-to lunches in grad school (or some variation of fish-on-spread) because it was so simple and fairly filling. I settle in with that and my laptop to continue work on my thesis, which I’m finishing up after graduating this summer. Its deadline looms uncomfortably close.

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1:30 p.m. I can’t concentrate at home, so I go to The Oak House, a local pub. It’s not ideal—I usually go to work at the library at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where I just graduated from, but it’s a 45-minute round-trip drive and I have work at 4 p.m. I get there and order my usual, a cortado with oat milk (with tax and tip $5.80). It’s not an incredibly special cortado, but it’s what I pay to be able to work there. A few hours later I see they have a Tuesday deal of $4 for a draft pint of beer. Unfortunately it’s only for certain ones, and I don’t realize this til I’m charged ($7.35, with tax and tip). Damn. The beer is good, though, a fruity sour that I drink easily.

3:45 p.m. I go back home to get my uniform and feed the cats. I have a part-time job as a waitress at an upscale hotel, but it’s the slow season, so I’m still basically making as much as I did as a Teaching Assistant in grad school. The staff is cool, though, and the kitchen always makes me a pescatarian or vegetarian option for my shift meal. Today’s meal is cafeteria-style: tacos and a salad bar. I ask for a side of salmon and mix it with salad greens, cucumbers, and caesar dressing. The shift meals can be hit or miss, but the salmon is undeniably good. Plus, nothing beats free.

9:00 p.m. Just as I was about to clock out early, two parties come in to eat. I steal some fries off a plate I’m about to bus. They’re semi-cold but I don’t care, I’m really just eating them out of boredom.

10:45 p.m. I eventually get off work 45 minutes past last call and head home. I’m not a night owl, so these shifts simultaneously take all my energy but make me too wound up to go to sleep. Before bed, I try and unwind with more of that Woodbridge white wine. I could really go for a beer, but I don’t have any and don’t feel like going to the gas station. I’m asleep by 12 a.m.

Tuesday total: $14.60

  How a 24-Year-Old Waitress Eats on $18K/Year in Durham, North Carolina © Illustration By Maggie Cowles

Wednesday

I want to sip a Silly Little Beverage while I work on some of my pottery pieces, so I pop over to the Target next door and get a Health-Ade Bubbly Rose kombucha ($4.28). Kombucha is my preferred non-alcoholic drink, but the cost can add up.

9:30 a.m. I’m up later than I want to be, but the cats were bugging me all night and I couldn’t get a solid rest. I make some toast with butter and apples with peanut butter. For some reason the toast is disgusting. Like, it just tastes sour. I figure maybe the butter is bad (it’s not one I just bought, but one in a butter keeper on my counter). I throw it out after a few bites and stick to the apples. I make a coffee for the road (Illy espresso in a moka pot, with oat milk and honey) and drive to UNC to work in the library.

2:15 p.m. I’m starting to lose my concentration, which I blame on hunger. I didn’t bring a packed lunch, which is out of character for me, but I’ve been so busy lately I didn’t really have any leftovers to bring to campus. I decide to check out Roots Natural Kitchen, a local health food place, which ends up essentially being a Sweetgreen. I order kale and brown rice with tomatoes, pickled onion, parm, chickpeas, and a hard-boiled egg, topped with cilantro lime, caesar dressing, and Sriracha. I pat myself on the back for getting the egg and chickpeas—for some reason those don’t count as proteins, so my bowl is $2 cheaper than the menu options with protein ($11.98, with tax and tip). It’s a fantastic lunch, with a mix of sweet and savory flavor. Everything in the bowl complements each other, and the best part is that it’s a huge bowl, so I have leftovers.

2:45 p.m. I head to my pottery studio to work on my art. I have a deal with the studio owner where I clean in exchange for free access, and since June I’ve been working there as an instructor too. I want to sip a Silly Little Beverage while I work on some of my pieces there, so I pop over to the Target next door and get a Health-Ade Bubbly Rose kombucha ($4.28). Kombucha is my preferred non-alcoholic drink, but the cost can add up. I stay at the studio working on pieces for about 3 hours, sipping on the kombucha. It’s hot as hell out, which makes the coolness even more refreshing. I end up finishing the rest of my salad while I’m there.

6:30 p.m. On the way home I try to do some errands (keyword “try”), and by the time I’m home, I’m beat. I turn on Annie Hall on my parents’ Amazon Prime and make a dirty martini with Bombay Sapphire gin bought on a past grocery trip. Bombay Sapphire is pricier than regular Bombay, but I really only like gin so I figure the splurge is worth it. I never measure my martini ingredients, but in my opinion the drink is pretty damn good. I make a second one, which gets me tipsier than I’d like, and call a friend until my phone dies. I accidentally fall asleep on my couch and wake up to the 4th episode of the original Bewitched auto-playing, and transition to my bed for the night.

Wednesday total: $16.26

  How a 24-Year-Old Waitress Eats on $18K/Year in Durham, North Carolina © Illustration By Maggie Cowles

Thursday

My favorite vegetarian “hack” is to add nutritional yeast to just about anything. It’s got a complex cheesy flavor, but it’s full of vitamins, so it feels a little more healthy than topping everything with cheese.

6:30 a.m. I wake up feeling right on the knife’s edge of fine and sluggish from last night’s drinking. Before I go back to sleep, I decide to remedy this with carbs and water. I boil water on the stove for jammy eggs and slice some bread into matchsticks, cooking them on the stove to make them crispy. The eggs aren’t as runny as I’d like them to be, but the crispy bread and soft whites still make a good breakfast. This is kind of a nostalgic meal for me too, and reminds me of breakfasts after going to Mass as a kid. An added layer of comfort.

10:30 a.m. I can’t muster the energy to get up till much later than I’d like. After I wash my hair, I decide to make some lunch. Today that’s Annie’s mac n cheese from the pantry. I could just as easily make a lunch with pasta and sauce, or a tofu burger, but today is a day of comfort food, it seems. I add salt, pepper, and a little bit of garlic powder to the sauce. I’m apparently not incredibly hungry, and mostly push it around my plate.

4:00 p.m. At work, the shift lunch is build-your-own pasta. If I’d known I wouldn’t have had the mac n cheese for lunch, but oh well. I make my pasta with red sauce and try to zhuzh it up with some mushrooms from the salad bar. They’re uncooked so it doesn’t really work. The salad this time is that horrible pre-cut romaine that’s like 90% water. I top it with a vinaigrette. It’s definitely a meal of sustenance, not enjoyment.

7:30 p.m. I bug my manager enough that I’m able to get off work early. I run to Harris Teeter to grab some essentials: a red and white wine, Old Croc cheddar cheese (a brand I’d never heard of in my life), more bread, asparagus, and toothpaste. I’m a savvy shopper if I say so myself, and all of my purchases are currently on sale ($37.56). I get home and uncork the Pin Point red wine in preparation for more thesis work. It’s a California pinot noir, which I’ve recently learned that I like. It’s not a dry red (my absolute least favorite), but it’s also not overly sweet like a port. An absolutely perfect wine to sip while 3000 words deep in a research paper.

10:00 p.m. My shift meal is wearing off, so I cook some of that asparagus. My favorite vegetarian “hack” is to add nutritional yeast to just about anything. It’s got a complex cheesy flavor, but it’s full of vitamins, so it feels a little more healthy than topping everything with cheese. I bake a few spears in the oven, add the nooch, and eat it standing up. I down the last of my wine and head to bed.

Thursday total: $37.56

  How a 24-Year-Old Waitress Eats on $18K/Year in Durham, North Carolina © Illustration By Maggie Cowles

Friday

I know it’s bad to be eating and drinking right before you go to bed (digestion, heartburn, etc), but it’s a habit I can’t break. I love a nightcap.

8:30 a.m. I wake up to the sound of my phone screen breaking. I literally just had it replaced, but my cats are obsessed with pushing it off high ledges, such as my desk where I charge it at night. This puts me in a terrible mood and I waste my morning figuring out how much a new phone would cost rather than eating breakfast. I have an early pottery class to teach at the studio and it’s a half-hour drive, so at the last minute, I blend another pre-made Revive Superfoods smoothie (Strawberry & Goji Berry), throw a cup of Siggi's yogurt in my purse, and leave.

12:30 p.m. My class ends and I eat the yogurt before I start cleaning the studio. It’s such a white-mom snack, but I didn’t have any chips or energy bars. Back home, I find the last piece of produce my boyfriend left me—an eggplant—so I make a miso glaze for it and cook some old Lundberg Wild Blend rice. I’m obsessed with anything miso, and this is one of my favorite dressings to put on just about anything (2 tablespoons of miso, 1 tablespoon of tahini, 1 tablespoon of rice vinegar, 1 teaspoon of honey). All recipe credit to Sarah Britton’s plant-based cookbook My New Roots. It’s savory and a little sweet and works great with the eggplant. Around 5 p.m., I head out to teach another pottery class.

10:00 p.m. I finish teaching and cleaning and just get home. It’s late, so I make a meal with the leftover rice and some thawed edamame, doused in soy sauce. I can’t lie it’s simple, but it’s another good grad-school staple.

11:00 p.m. As I’m winding down, I drink the last of my Woodbridge wine and try that Old Croc cheese I bought. It’s fine—I usually like a sharp cheese and this one isn’t as salty as I’d like, but considering it was $4, I can’t really complain. I also know it’s bad to be eating and drinking right before you go to bed (digestion, heartburn, etc.) but it’s a habit I can’t break. I love a nightcap.

Friday total: $0

  How a 24-Year-Old Waitress Eats on $18K/Year in Durham, North Carolina © Illustration By Maggie Cowles

Saturday

I get the brothless ramen and a glass of my favorite sake, Funaguchi Original Gold. It’s 19% alcohol, which I completely forget, so I get inadvertently hammered in front of my dad. The ramen is delicious, though, and I add an extra soy marinated egg and chili butter. The result is a delicious, creamy, spicy work of art. The tofu in the dish melts in my mouth.

8:30 a.m. My dad is coming into town today. He wanted to see a Durham Bulls baseball game during my graduation, but they were out of town, so he’s coming up from Atlanta now to see them and me. It’s also nice because I know he’ll pay for us when we go out to eat. I figure we’ll eat lunch after he gets here, so I do a light breakfast of yogurt topped with lemon juice and honey. It’s tart and sweet and perfect.

11:00 a.m. Dad gets to my house and we hang out for a little while before getting lunch. Last time he was here, I showed him a Chinese/Vietnamese place called Banh’s Cuisine with a good vegetarian menu, so we go back there. Today’s special is tofu with a black bean sauce, plus sticky rice and vegetables. We both get that and eat outside ($22.82, but also free, since dad’s paying). It’s a hot day but nice in the shade, and the tofu is delicious. It’s cooked well so it’s crispy, not just heated up, and the sauce is rich and savory. As he’s eating he says “this is a great meal,” which makes me smile.

2:00 p.m. Back at the house, we talk and play Nintendo Switch games until he says he could go for a coffee. I don’t really want a coffee, so I choose the Durham Food Hall. It has a coffee shop, so he gets an espresso and tonic, and we both get ice cream. Mine is a raspberry sorbetto, his is a vanilla gelato ($10.58, but also free). It’s a really tart sorbetto, which I like. Not super sweet and processed. Afterwards we go to Boxcar Bar + Arcade, although we don’t get any drinks aside from water.

4:30 p.m. We go back to his hotel (it’s the one I work at—I got a room discount) to hang out before dinner. I brought over my unopened bottle of Ecco Domani wine, and he has a kratom drink he bought from a nearby sober bar called Da Kine’s Kava. This wine, a Pinot Grigio, is one of my favorites, and a good price ($9.99, part of Thursday’s grocery haul). I drink two glasses in quick succession and get a little drunker than I’d like, so I sip on some water. We then head to Dashi, my favorite restaurant in Durham. It’s a ramen shop with an upstairs izakaya. My favorite food is the brothless ramen, so I get that and a glass of my favorite sake, Funaguchi Original Gold. It’s 19% alcohol, which I completely forget, so I get inadvertently hammered in front of my dad. The ramen is delicious, though, and I added an extra soy marinated egg and chili butter. The result is a delicious, creamy, spicy work of art. The tofu in the dish melts in my mouth. I could wax poetic about this ramen. My dad gets the same, minus the chili butter, and agrees it’s fantastic (though he liked our lunch more). Neither of us finish, so I get everything in a to-go box. Dad pays and leaves a generous $15 tip on our combined $55 meal ($70).

7:30 p.m. Finally, we get to the Bulls game. I’m not a baseball fan like he is, but I see him so rarely I just enjoy the time we get to hang out. About halfway through the game, we get peanuts ($5.36, on my card). This is one of his go-to snacks in the evening. I eat a few and I honestly find them bland, but my boyfriend accuses me of over-salting my food, so maybe it’s just my taste.

9:30 p.m. We head home, and I hug him goodbye before he heads to his hotel. On the couch, I pour a glass of the same white wine (though I don’t really need it) and turn on Broad City. I nurse the glass of wine and play with the cats until I do my least favorite thing: fall asleep on the couch by accident. Luckily, I wasn’t holding my wine when I fell asleep, a mistake I’ve made a few times. White wine stains are much easier than reds to deal with, anyway.

Saturday total: $5.36 ($103.40 comped by dad)

  How a 24-Year-Old Waitress Eats on $18K/Year in Durham, North Carolina © Illustration by Maggie Cowles

Sunday

The meal is subpar. My frittata still has cheese, along with huge chewy chunks of vegetables, and the potatoes are soft and unseasoned. Still, my stomach is audibly growling, so I eat most of it.

8:00 a.m. I had set an alarm so I could say bye to my dad before he left Durham, but it didn’t go off. (I later realize it’s because it was set for 8 p.m.) Luckily he calls a few times and comes to my house. I’m groggy and bloated and hungover, and my late rising means we won’t be able to get breakfast like we planned. Damn. My dad heads out and I have lunch plans with a friend, so I decide not to eat till then.

11:45 a.m. I get to First Watch, the brunch spot, and put my name down. It’s a half-hour wait, which is gonna make getting to an upcoming pottery class tight, but I’m too lazy to figure out a plan B restaurant. My friend is a year below me in my grad department, and we catch up on life and department gossip. I order a veggie frittata with no cheese, which comes with a salad with vinaigrette and a slice of bread. I’m trying to soak up my hangover with carbs, so I order a side of potatoes too. He gets blueberry pancakes. It’s a chain restaurant, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but the meal is subpar. My frittata still has cheese, along with huge chewy chunks of vegetables, and the potatoes are soft and unseasoned. Still, my stomach is audibly growling, so I eat most of it. I end up paying for both our meals, since our department doesn’t fund over the summer and he doesn’t have a current job ($36, with tax and tip).

5:30 p.m. After a long pottery class, which funnily enough included two people from my undergrad year, I’m hungry again. I consider going to Rise, a local biscuit place, for their coveted fried green tomato and pimento cheese biscuit, but the knowledge of a free and delicious meal of ramen at home keeps me from spending. The reheated ramen is still great, and fills me up for dinner.

8:00 p.m. I wake up from a nap and am in the mood for something sweet. I decide to drive to Möge Tee, a boba place, before it closes. I know the nap and caffeine from the tea will keep me awake, but I need to do thesis work anyway. I get a medium bubble milk tea with 70% sweetness ($5.38, with tax and tip). It’s a good pick-me-up, and I sit in the restaurant scrolling on my phone til they close at 9. I go home, finish my boba, and work on my thesis until 12:30 a.m., when I head to bed.

Sunday total: $41.38

How to Keep Your Dog Safe at Your Next BBQ or Cookout—Including the Foods They Should Never Eat .
Veterinarians share which grilled foods are safe for your pet—and which foods aren't.There are few things more tantalizing than the smell of a summer barbecue or cookout. This is especially true for your four-legged friends, who are sure to catch a whiff of every grilling and barbecue recipe on your menu. That being said, if there are going to be pups on your guest list, you'll need to keep a few things in mind before sharing your food. After all, some BBQ and cookout dishes are dangerous for dogs, while others are safe in moderation.

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