Real Life

Living below the line

The Weekly's Kelly Bertrand talks about surviving on $2.25 a day.
Weekly columnist Kelly Bertrand

The week began optimistically. Armed with an enormous batch of lentils and as much rice as I could fit in the pot, I embarked on five days of self-enforced starvation for the cause, Live Below the Line.

More than 1.4 billion people around the world are living on or below the extreme poverty line, which equates to $2.25 a day in New Zealand – and they have to make that money stretch a lot further than just food. This week, hundreds of New Zealanders will spend five days living on just that amount while raising money for charities.

What a great opportunity, I thought, to bring awareness to the plight of others and to prove that living on less than a price of a McDonald’s cheeseburger daily wasn’t that hard. Turns out it actually is that hard.

Over the course of five agonising days, my shiny optimism quickly turned into gloomy pessimism and all-round snarkiness. I knew it wouldn’t be a walk in the park. Plain rice, oats and lentils aren’t anybody’s idea of gourmet grub, but I went into the challenge thinking I could jazz things up a little – maybe put some raisins in there, some honey in here – and life would be good.

Unfortunately raisins were well outside my weekly budget of $11.25, as were other little extras that would have made my meals more tolerable, but doing this challenge by yourself is a lot harder – you can’t buy items in bulk.

“Buying in bulk is a lot easier: it’s always going to be cheaper per serve,” says Muriel Newman, co-author of website Living on the Smell of an Oily Rag. “If you’re on your own, you’re really going to struggle with getting exactly what you need.”

So I tried desperately to get others on board – but was met with a resounding “No” everywhere I turned. So it was just me and my lentils for the entire five days. Faced with a workplace that’s always overflowing with delicious goodies and a flatmate who never stops eating, temptation was everywhere.

Day one and two went just fine – in fact, I was even gloating about my powers of resistance to anyone who would listen over my bowl of rice and oats.

Day three hit and it wasn’t so much a hump as an Everest. Everything seemed delicious as I struggled to be enthused about the three-day-old dahl I had for lunch. The hunger I hadn’t felt in the first two days suddenly struck and no amount of stodgy rice satisfied my cravings for Big Mac sauce and deep-fried camembert.

“Proteins like meat, fish, dairy, eggs and legumes have a high ‘fill you up’ factor,” says Sophie Gray, author of website Destitute Gourmet. “Eggs, gram by gram, are the cheapest protein available.”

Unfortunately, I hate eggs. By now, my workmates were feeling my pain – I made sure of it. My caffeine withdrawals reached fever pitch, my temper became shorter, my vocabulary decreased and swear words became my language of choice.

After that, the Weekly team went from dangling food under my nose to trying to help me get through the week – not so much to make me feel better, but to drown out the constant “I’m hungry!” moans.

One writer offered to buy me food and leave it sitting on top of the rubbish bin, saying, “It doesn’t count if you nick it out of the trash!” I politely declined. By day four, I was a mess. Just looking at rice made me feel ill and people had stopped talking to me at work for fear of being yelled at.

I’m ashamed to admit it, but I cracked. Sitting in a meeting, in a confined space with chips and lollies right in front of me, I lost all willpower. The whines of the week were quickly replaced with wine gums and handfuls of salt-and-vinegar chips. My workmates looked on with alarm as my cheeks bulged.

It wasn’t the most dignified end to a week that was supposed to highlight my empathetic and charitable nature, but honestly, it was ridiculously hard. I gave it my best shot and it really did help me understand how tough it is for the 1.4 billion people who live below the poverty line.

I still feel like I accomplished something, even though I took a tumble just before the finish line. Next time, I’ll make sure the office is devoid of cakes and chocolate. That’ll work, right?

Kelly’s tips:

Try to block out all temptation – especially from your workmates. There’s always going to be one who teases you with cookies.

Surround yourself with supportive people.

Just say no to wine gums.

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