I had heard about the Live Below the Line Challenge in 2013 but couldn’t participate during the official week due to some work travel. A few months later, I tried the experiment on my own and learned some valuable lessons for my attempt with the world this year.
What is Live Below the Line? Organized by the Global Poverty Project, it’s a fundraising campaign to show what it’s like to live in extreme poverty by spending only $1.50 per day for food and drink for five days. This is the amount the World Bank defines as the extreme poverty line, and the situation 1.2 billion people face.
As someone who is very lucky in life, I did the challenge to gain more empathy for those who are less fortunate. And as a thrifty shopper, I was curious about ways I could cut my own food budget. So here’s how I approached the challenge, and how in hindsight, there was a lot of room for improvement.
I did my shopping at Kroger, and after much deliberating and obsessively calculating my total spending and calories, I went with these 5 items. So let me introduce the players:
- Frozen Vegetable Mix – At $2.50, it was the most expensive thing I bought but seemed worth it for a healthy item at a lower-than-fresh-produce price.
- Dry Brown Rice – Because white rice was not rich enough for my blood. I got the bag on sale for $1.17 – $.20 off.
- Dry Black Beans – A steal at $.69 thanks to a $.40-off sale!
- Eggs – I bought the money-saving 18-pack at $2.89 but could only afford to eat 12 eggs, for a cost of $1.93. These and the beans would be my satiating sources of protein, since meat was too expensive.
- Can of Tomato Sauce – I can’t think of anything interesting to say here. It was tomato sauce. It cost $1.18.
Total: $7.47. Average daily calorie intake: around 1,200, which would be doable but tough based on my intake needs.
Buying these bulk items, as opposed to smaller items with higher per unit costs, seemed to be the best way to spend my $7.50. I also thought I did a pretty good job of covering protein, fat, carbs, and veggies. My vision was to make meal-flexible options out of these foods: eggs and/or beans for breakfast, rice and beans and veggies for lunch, and a delectable “chili” for dinner made out of veggies, the tomato sauce, and beans. It seemed ingenious.
Day 1, I ate a few eggs for breakfast while cooking the rice and beans. The resulting amount of rice was enormous. Later in the day I combined some veggies, beans and the tomato sauce to make the chili. It did not turn out at all as I had hoped. Unlike the hearty chili I usually make, it became a very sad stew. The tomato sauce just didn’t go very far, and without the usual chili spices, it was extremely bland.
It tasted as good as it looked.
The first few days went alright, though I did go to bed hungry. On day 3, I visited my parents, and when I excitedly told them about my social experiment and refused dinner, they were concerned and insisted I take a small tomato from their garden. I made a fuss about not being able to accept handouts, but Dad assured me its cost of production couldn’t be more than the $.03 I had to spare. Frankly, I was grateful for it. I thought about dicing it up to spice up my eggs, but ended up eating it whole.
Pretty much actual size. Yum!
By Day 4, my rationing was still on track, but I was seriously craving any sort of flavorful escape from my supremely bland food choices.
Day 5 was definitely the worst. I started to have some unusual stomach pains that were different than hunger. Maybe it was all the beans? And I faced a capstone challenge: going out to dinner with friends at a restaurant I love. Sitting there with only water to sip while they dined was a huge test of willpower. But I did it.
Later I had my own dinner of rice, but it was so awfully bland and my stomach felt so weird, I couldn’t even finish it.
While Live Below the Line challenge was not pleasant, I was proud of my commitment and better understanding of living in poverty. I had experienced bland food, going to bed hungry, awkwardly not partaking in dining out with friends, and strange stomach pains. I did a few things right, like buying the generic store brand of everything and getting items in bulk. I also learned how to improve for the next go-around:
- Shop at a discount grocer. Even though I had used my Kroger card for savings, later price comparisons revealed that $7.50 can go a lot farther at Aldi. I despise Walmart but admit it’s probably a good low-budget option, too.
- More calories. Going to bed hungry every night just isn’t sustainable. It’s just a necessity to buy those cheap, high-calorie staples like pasta.
- Flavor and variety. The blandness of my food almost drove me crazy. With some creativity or allocating a bit of money for spices or condiments, you can treat your taste buds.
Live Below the Line 2014
On the end of Day 1, so far so good. I think I did a much better job shopping this year. Read more about what I bought!
I’m also very interested in hearing from other participants. Why are you doing Live Below the Line, and what did you learn from past attempts? Comment below!