Three Friends Make An Attempt to ‘Live Below the Line’

by Jon Custer

Recently a number of my friends have decided to try subsisting on a food budget of less than $1.50 a day. It’s part of the Live Below the Line challenge, intended to draw attention to the problem of extreme poverty — which, though it has fallen dramatically, still affects billions of people.

I caught up with three friends who are doing the challenge: Elizabeth in D.C. and Jim and Rachael in the U.K. I’ll let them explain it further.

How did you find out about this project and what made you decide to try it?

Jim: I found out about the challenge from a blog post on The Global Poverty Project which I follow. It sounded like a viable way of raising awareness of the sheer scale of global poverty and one which I could get behind. I was also curious to see if I could complete it, being the foodie I am!

Rachael: It was actually Jim who found out about this. He talked me into it. I had heard a lot about the IF campaign and as soon as I read about Live Below the Line I wanted to get involved.

Elizabeth: I saw a commercial online for it while browsing through some of the regular sites I visit. I thought the challenge seemed really interesting. Lately I’ve been looking for a way to volunteer but have had trouble fitting things into my busy schedule. I thought this would be a perfect way to do something that would bring attention to an issue I care about while on my own schedule.

What kind of planning did you do beforehand? Did you go out and buy your groceries for the whole week or are you doing it on a day-by-day/meal-by-meal basis?

Jim: I am working it out on a day-to-day basis. I know some other people who went out and spent £5 for the whole week and made up meals from that pile, but I followed various recipes from the Live Below the Line website and Facebook page.

In terms of planning I tried to have a rough plan of what to have for breakfast each day, with an idea of a few evening meals. My wife is completing the challenge too, so we went out last weekend with the rough meal plan and bought the cheapest eggs, rice, pasta and oats we could find, along with cheap frozen veg and other bits. When it comes to cooking, its a case of measuring out 100 grams of veg for example, and costing that as 7.5p based on the total 1kg pack price of 75p. We’ve also used a few stored cupboard bits costed up and stuff grown in the garden after working out the cost of production.

Rachael: More than I ever do for a normal week of food. Lots of reading of blogs and the Live Below the Line website with recipe ideas. We planned the week before we went shopping on Sunday to ensure we bought everything we needed. We planned each meal to ensure we only spent £1 a day and actually it has worked. The find of the week has got to be 1kg of frozen vegetable for 75p. And hot water with mint in rather than tea.

Hot Water With Mint

Elizabeth: I used the website’s resources online to get starting with my planning. I planned out the first few days to make sure that I would stay within budget. I bought all my groceries ahead of time based on the meals I had planned out. I anticipate repeating many of the meals or using leftovers.

What has been your best meal so far (and what did it cost)?

Rachael: I think the best meal so far has been the veggie curry and rice which came to a grand total of 33p. I was really pleased with it as I love veggie curry. It filled me up and was really healthy.

Jim: Best meal so far has been Chili Sin Carne, based on a recipe from the Live Below the Line website, which was surprisingly tasty! It was made up of 70g rice, 50g kidney beans, 50g tinned sweetcorn, 50g of chick peas, 1/2 pack of passata and half an onion. With a dash of cumin it all came to 40p.

Pasta With Peas

Elizabeth: I made a pretty tasty potato soup, which includes potatoes, carrots, onions, peas, and vegetable broth. It’s also pretty filling, so I don’t feel like I’m going without. It comes out to 69 cents per serving. I have to control myself not to go back for seconds!

Potato Soup

What has been your worst meal so far?

Elizabeth: Every morning for breakfast I have oatmeal. Plain oatmeal. It’s 18 cents per serving so it’s a great staple. However, it was just so boring after day 1, so I finagled my budget so I can add some brown sugar!

Rachael: I don’t really like porridge with water. I am definitely a cereal with milk girl. It filled me up and was fine but not my favorite.

Jim: Gruel. 70g of Oats with water. Ugh. Although a tablespoon of value jam makes it a little bit more bearable. At least it’s cheap at 10p, so I could afford more interesting things later in the day.

Gruel With Jam.

I’m sure everyone has been asking: Are you getting enough nutrition??!

Elizabeth: Everyone is asking me that! People are afraid I’ll just pass out! Mostly about protein. But we have to remember that you don’t have to eat a huge steak every night (or even once a week) to get sufficient protein — just ask anyone on a vegan or vegetarian diet. There are plenty of sources of protein and vitamins.

However, at the end of the day, this budget is difficult, and it’s not always easy to get sufficient nutrition on such a tight budget. The purpose of the challenge is not to make everyone live on $1.50 for every day of their lives, but to reconfigure how we look at food, we who have so much.

Rachael: Yes they have, and to be honest we probably haven’t been having enough calories. The one thing we definitely haven’t had is any calcium (milk, yoghurts etc) which I know is not good for me in particular, and weirdly I have missed a little bit of meat and fish. I am not a big meat eater but a little bit would have been nice.

Jim: No idea. We were asked if we could work it out but to be honest it was enough maths working out the cost of things! We’ve tried to have a few bits of fruit, and frozen veg is better than nothing, but I’m sure we are under on protein and other things. I’ve definitely been having headaches and low energy levels (I nodded off in a meeting on Thursday…) so that is probably indicative of the answer.

What, overall, has been the biggest challenge of living on under $1.50/£1 per day? How long do you think you could keep it up, if you had to?

Rachael: I think the biggest challenge has been the planning and making sure I have enough to keep me going. I have a busy job so need to make sure I have enough energy during the day and that has been hard. Plus I wish I had come off of caffeine earlier than I did — the caffeine withdrawal symptoms were horrible. And all of the maths and measuring food — we have needed to be super organised.

Elizabeth: The biggest challenge for me has been giving up my morning latte. Even if I make my own latte, it’s just too expensive on this budget due to the milk. I don’t even put milk in my tea now. It only took one day for me to consider milk a “treat.” My boyfriend asked me, “What will you eat once it’s over?” And I just said, “I’ll put milk in my coffee!!”

Honestly, I think I could probably keep it up for a month. The difficult part might be going out with friends. I would have to say no to most things.

Jim: As a comfortably well-off person, missing out on coffee, little treats, meat and social events. From a less selfish perspective, its been the realisation in the back of my mind that this is just one week for me, in a country where I have the choice in what I eat and the luxury of deciding I would like some jam to liven up the gruel and popping to the shop to buy a cheap jar. For the 1.4 billion (over 20 times the population of the U.K.) people who are living in extreme poverty, even this isn’t an option. It’s really a very sobering thought.

How much harder is it to eat very cheaply in the U.K./U.S. than in developing countries you’ve lived in? Are there any aspects that make it easier (e.g. more choices/options?)

Jim: As above, you do have options here. By doing this challenge the way I have, it was possible to roughly plan out a varied menu for the week that kept a little of the monotony away. It is possible here as well if you avoid anything branded or processed, forget about meat and fresh veg. Not all of the 1.4 billion are in developing countries though — many are on our doorsteps. It’s about changing your mentality about what value for money is.

Rachael: Food prices in the U.K. have gone up a lot — but there is definitely more choice here than in developing countries. The basics ranges in the U.K. are great — it just means shopping around and using lots of different supermarkets. Its still very difficult — you cannot have any meat or dairy products, as they just don’t fit into budget, and coffee and tea were a no go. It completely changes the way you eat.

Elizabeth: I found there are quite a few fresh foods that are quite expensive in the US. However, this might be due to the fact that they are shipped from far distances, and not in season. In other places I have visited, fruits and vegetables are affordable for the most part, as are certain kinds of cheese. I can’t afford any type of cheese on this budget.

The U.S. does have more options. Likewise, there are many frozen foods that are less expensive. I can also buy things in larger quantities because I can freeze what I won’t use right away. This often makes shopping more cost efficient. Many families in less developed countries don’t have freezers, or freezers large enough to store large quantities of food.

I used coupons to help me stay within budget. Coupons are great, but perhaps haggling might be more cost efficient!

Also, I went to the grocery store once, and bought all my products. I rarely encounter a day when an item is completely out of stock. However, this happens frequently in other countries, which requires families to visit the store multiple times a week. This adds additional stress, time, and planning just for food preparation.

Did you learn anything unexpected by doing this (other than “it’s hard to eat on less than $1.50 a day”)?

Rachael: I don’t actually need as much food as I thought I did — and you can wait and be hungry. Portion control is a big issue in both the U.K. and the U.S., and this has made me weigh things out and not overeat.

Jim: I usually take too much food to work with me! During the day I’ve had a constant low level of hunger, it’s generally in the mornings and evenings that it has been worse. I’ll be less inclined to snack during the day as I know now that my body doesn’t need it.

Elizabeth: I realized that I can be quite wasteful at times. Today, for example, I was eating my potato soup. I got pretty full toward the end, and would normally have just thrown the last three spoonfuls away. However, I figured that I might be hungry later, and wouldn’t be able to have a snack (not on the budget) and so I ate the rest of it. It seems like common sense, but I really had to remind myself.

Of course I realized that it’s hard to live on less than $1.50/day, but that it probably would be pretty easy to live on less than what I’m currently allocating for a grocery fund!!

How are your friends and family reacting? Any other funny stories or interesting observations you’d like to share?

Jim: They’ve been amazing, both with donating to the cause and offering messages of support. There have been the inevitable jokes about cake, and I did miss out on a Thai takeaway… Generally though people has been interested in finding out the why and how I am doing the challenge which has been great.

Rachael: Not with too much surprise. We often do crazy and off-the-wall things. They have been incredibly supportive and really interested which has been lovely. And its amazing what people think you can eat — they say things like ‘oh you could have XXX,’ and I have to politely remind them that’s actually two-thirds of my budget, or milk is £1 for 2 pints. The general public genuinely have no idea how much they are spending, or wasting.

Elizabeth: College students have been very empathetic!!

I also got quite a few empathetic stories of when times were tough for others, and what their staple foods were. Poverty is not just a developing country problem. Poverty and hunger are also problems in the US.

A few people have been critical, saying it won’t solve anything, and it’s a useless effort. However, I think that just the fact that we are talking about it is a victory!

What will be your first meal after you finish? What are you most looking forward to?

Rachael: To be honest I have really missed milk, so a bowl of cereal and a cup of tea on Saturday morning will be amazing!

Elizabeth: I’m most looking forward to milk in my coffee to go with the breakfast sandwich I’ll get!!

Jim: I’ve been trying not to think about this to keep me sane… but we’ve got a friend coming to stay this weekend who has delayed her trip so she doesn’t get us grumpy and hungry! It’ll be cereal and milk for breakfast (I’ve missed milk sooo much..), heading out for burgers at lunch, and then my favourite fajitas at home in the evening. Can’t wait for a beer either.

Jon Custer lives and works in Washington, D.C. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

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