In 2017, I went to grad school. My whole family -- including my wife, my 18-month-old and my newborn -- had to survive on a meager stipend and whatever I could scrape together by freelancing on the side. To make it work, we rented a tiny apartment, got on SNAP, hustled and ate rice.
But before you point out that rice is what saved me money -- not the rice cooker -- let me explain. Rice is hard to cook well, and even if you master cooking the perfect rice, it's inconvenient (doubly so if you have two babies and looming deadlines). All you do with a rice cooker is throw in your rice and the requisite water, then hit "cook."
How much money can you actually save by using a rice cooker?
I buy 20-pound bags of short grain rice for about $20 from Walmart. Let's be conservative and say each bag has about 40 cups of rice in it. Two cups still provides enough for all four of the members of my family, even though the kids are eating a lot more these days. So that puts us at about $1 total for the base ingredient in a meal for four.
From there, you can add whatever you want. Rice is awesome in part because it's a blank slate, an empty canvas you can splash with your favorite culinary color. When we were really strapped for cash, we threw in soft boiled eggs, soy sauce and, when we could swing it, spinach. Today we usually get a little more creative, adding leafy greens, kimchi, gochujang (Korean chili sauce), pickled onions and whatever meat we have on hand.
Even our most elaborate dishes consistently land under $5 per bowl, and it's usually the meat that takes us past $2 or $3 (and that's if you buy organic).
While comparing the prices of home-cooked meals is tough (most of the math is ball-parky enough to make an accountant blush), it's safe to say that few alternatives will beat the basic rice bowl. And it's certainly less expensive than a meal kit delivery service.
Still cooking rice (and saving money) now
Our rice cooker was a slight splurge. We bought a single-button Tiger for around $130 because it can cook a lot of rice at once, its rice is terrific and it cooks lightning-fast (under 15 minutes for a few cups). It was a little pricey at the time, but the Tiger's convenience has kept us in the rice game for years since then.
I work from home most of the time, and that means we can do more family meals. But neither the pace of life with kids nor the stress of finances in this economy have diminished. So the rice cooker remains on our countertop, almost perpetually plugged in and chugging away at a new pot of rice -- or keeping warm a pot from a few hours ago.
It makes meals easy, yes, but more importantly, it makes saving money even easier.