Mustard: the classic condiment and the one item that is pretty much guaranteed to be found in the otherwise empty fridge at that new apartment you just moved in to. There certainly is a fairly broad variety of mustard mixes, but it essentially comes down to three kinds: yellow, Dijon and horseradish. For our purposes, I'll stay with the essentials: have a jar of yellow mustard and a jar of good French Dijon at hand. Dijon mustard is like Balsamic vinegar, as there is a pretty broad variety of heat, texture and flavors, so you'll have to try and taste, until you find the one(s) that you like. I personally am something of a mustard collector, with something like fifteen different jars of mustard, mostly Dijon, but several flavored types, like honey, balsamic, white wine and garlic. If you really want to burn your mouth off, then go for Grey Poupon, but me, I'll stick to rustic stone ground, if its all the same to you
Besides the ready to use concoction, there's a few others that don't quite fit in the other basics categories, but that you should have on hand because of their versatility and their usefulness.
Maple syrup: like honey it can be used as a sweetener (say for a Sunday morning coffee) or a flavor enhancer. Used sparingly, as I know that for most of you, its going to be hard to come by and/or expensive, but dont bother with so-called table syrup, its s terrible imitation.
Dried vegetables: a convenient mixture that comes in several varieties, useful for flavoring rice and to create quick soups from scratch. Treat it like flavoring herbs and use moderately if you want to stretch your supplies.
Vanilla: get the real stuff, not the artificial junk, even if its cheaper. A few drops are enough to either flavor directly, or enhance the flavor of many sweet dishes and baked goods. While you could got for the beans, they are rather on the pricey side, but if you feel that its the only way to go, then by all means, go for it, but use it smartly. The pods can be used to infuse a couple of times, so make sure that you keep them in an airtight container in the fridge after use.
Corn starch: not a flavor component, but a thickener. Its a quick way to thicken a sauce, to make a milk pudding and is pretty essential to Chinese cuisine. It is used in the marinade to help thicken the sauce, but also to make the flavors stick to the meats.
Toasted flour: basically, this is wheat flour that got toasted to a brown color. It is used to add color and flavor to sauces and gravy. Not essential, but useful to anybody who likes some delicious gravy or darker sauces
Bouillon cubes: they come in a variety of flavors and are a useful way to have stock at hand even if you have limited freezer space or cannot be bothered to make your own stock. Its a base, so you'll have to add some flavorings to that, but it takes little to turn a basic chicken or vegetable bouillon into a delicious soup. Think or your basic Ramen for example...
Once that you've got your flavors down, you turn the bland into the extraordinary, which is great relief to the down and out. With some practice, you'll start saving money, simply because when you'll eat your takeouts, it will be so below what you can make at home that you wont bother much and just whip out your own meals. And if you still have access to cheap and delicious eats, then congratulations, you are lucky buggers. Send us pictures and be happy.
For the rest of you, to your cutting boards and dish out!