Blog post

What a £5 coffee break taught me about living below the line

5 min read
May 7, 2013
On Saturday morning, I met a friend for breakfast at G&Ds. I had a large cappuccino and a blueberry muffin, which in total cost me £4.50, just 50p less than the budget I'd been living on for all food and drink over the past 5 days.

This was the first "unrestricted" food I'd eaten since finishing the "live below the line" challenge, and whilst I'm not going to deny that I enjoyed eating something that wasn't rice or spaghetti, it also made me feel slightly uncomfortable. I became very aware that for those that live below the poverty line, or in worse conditions in reality, there is no such "Phew, I'm glad that's over and I can go back to my normal diet" moment. Celebrating such a moment suddenly felt pretty distasteful.

Why are we doing this?

Thousands of people over the world have been participating in this challenge, and I imagine many have been blogging about their experiences: what they ate, what the hardest parts were, what they learned. But before getting onto all of that, I wanted to reflect briefly on my reasons for taking the challenge.

Of course, these reasons might seem pretty obvious. 1.4 billion people today still live in extreme poverty. To put this in perspective, the campaign website points out that this is 20 times the total UK population, which I find pretty staggering. By taking this challenge, we're raising awareness, and more importantly, fundraising to bring about change. The Giving What We Can team are still top of the teams leaderboard, now having raised over £16,000 for SCI.

At the same time, I think it's important to realise that what we're not doing by taking this challenge is "simulating poverty" or getting any insight into what it's like to live below the poverty line in reality. On day two, someone shared with me this article, which is quite strongly critical of the challenge for just this reason. The author points out that living on a pound a day for 5 days no more gives you a sense of what it's like to live in poverty day in day out "than you could empathise with the plight of a wrongly convicted death row inmate by spending 24 hours alone in a room. In your house. With the door unlocked." Whilst I think he's overly aggressive in his message (read the rest of the article and you'll see what I mean), and misses the bigger point of raising funds and awareness, I think there is an important message to take away here. We're not doing this to get any sense of what it's like to live in extreme poverty. What it does give us, though, is a sense of extreme appreciation for our own situation - and so hopefully, a strengthened motivation to help those less fortunate.

What did I eat?

Porridge. Rice. Spaghetti. Tomatoes. Lentils. A few beans, a few precious teabags.

Pretty much all my meals looked like this:

A little monotonous, but really not bad all things considered. I thought I might get hungry, but actually with big enough portion sizes and the fact that Tesco Everyday Value rice and spaghetti are astonishingly cheap (40p for 1kg rice, 19p for 500g spaghetti), I got by just fine.

So how tough was it, really?

Given the point I just made about not even getting close to simulating poverty, I'll first say that relatively speaking the challenge was a stroll in the park. At the same time, it was certainly difficult at times comparad to the way most of us live normally, so I'll share with you some of my hardest moments:

1. Being invited out for dinner with friends after a talk on Monday evening, and having to say no. I mean, I could have gone and not eaten, but by this point I was getting pretty hungry and had my 33p meal waiting at home. Much of my social life revolves around food, and having a limited budget means missing out on things. The "chilli" and rice I'd pre-cooked the previous night tasted surprisingly good, though.

2. Having a HUGE chocolate cake sat right in front of my nose in the office on Tuesday afternoon when I was just starting to get hungry.... this was pretty unbearable. The smell wafting in my direction was just so tempting. Why is it that this is the first time we've ever had chocolate cake in the office?

3. Going out to a chinese restaurant for lunch on Friday and watching everyone eat yummy looking food whilst sipping water. Unlike Monday's dinner, it was harder just to avoid with Peter Singer there... fortunately the conversation was interesting enough that I just about managed to distract myself from my rumbling stomach!

What did I miss the most? Fresh coffee, without a doubt.

What did I learn?

That we pay a huge amount for convenience. It's much easier to go and grab a quick bite after work with friends than to go home and cook, but the former probably costs at least 5 times more. I don't think I'd quite appreciated this before, or how much money I could save if I planned ahead and was prepared to make that little extra effort.

It also just reinforced for me how much eating is a part of my social life, and eating out incredibly ingrained in our culture. Most of the ways we socialise involve spending some money on food or drink - going for dinner, grabbing coffee, meeting for a beer.

On a more positive note, I learned that planning ahead can save you huge amounts of money, and you can really live very cheaply if you stick to a budget, buy food and cook in bulk. I feel I've learned some useful strategies for making the most of my money which I'll use to spend less on food in the future.

And the best part?

Going to the pub on Friday evening after work and meeting Alan Fenwick, director of SCI, the charity I've been doing all this to raise money for. So far I've raised enough money to deworm almost 3000 children, which is well worth missing out on a piece of chocolate cake for!