7 Days. 25 Dollars.

A little while ago, I disclosed what it was I did for work. (I hadn’t realised this had been a secret until I saw all the so THAT’S what you do!” messages floating on in!)  Working in the non-profit sector has been an amazing ride over the last two and a half years, a ride in which I’ve unearthed a passion for helping those less fortunate, been given an outlet in which to grow, and developed an incredible appreciation for everything I have. There are no words to describe the feeling of joy that accompanies watching someone’s life turn around in the span of a few months, and being in a position that exists to help rather than make profit is truly a blessing. But that’s not to say that every once in a while it doesn’t tug at the heart strings.

Sadly, I see so many people every day who’ve fallen victim to an array of sad life circumstances. They may be disabled, on welfare, in abusive relationships, or recently made redundant. Remember Greg? Heartbreaking, right? Often, they don’t have access to things like fresh fruit or vegetables, or even a telephone line. Sometimes, they may not even have a home address. The disturbing reality of wanting to help people is the fact that it’s a requirement for those people to need that help in the first place. At work, the testimonial I hear over and over again, however, is that the people that come here feel, often for the first time in a very long time, welcomed, cared about, and not judged. It’s so easy to judge a book by its cover, but taking the time to hear someone’s story and see them as a real person might just be the best give you could ever give them.

So last week, I had an opportunity to learn what it’s like to live like some of our clients have to every day. An e-mail was circulated amongst staff asking if anyone was interested in taking the “Poverty Challenge”- to live on a budget of $25 for seven days. That included all food and beverages, all personal hygiene products, as well as bills. You could earn a few extra dollars here and there by going without things like television $1 per day), mobile phones ($2 per day) or a shower/load of laundry ($1.50 per day). You had to go into it starting with absolutely nothing, and live on a similar budget to that of many of those on our welfare system.  I knew it would be tough, but I like to think I at least attempt a challenge when it’s presented! Plus I thought it would go a long way in deepening an understanding of (and care for) many of the people I see every day. At the beginning of the week, those who’d signed up had a meeting. There were only five in attendance.

On the first day, I buggered up right away and went on a Starbucks run with my coworkers. After I’d paid my $5 I was mortified as my prior obligation immediately made its way back to the forefront of my mind. I resolved to be 100% diligent and disciplined for the rest of the week, went shopping, and spent $20 of my $25 on food that I hoped would get me through the next seven days. A loaf of bread could be used for sandwiches at lunch, as well as toast in the mornings. Margarine was a luxury anyway. A couple of cans of tuna would last several days for lunch, and a bag of plain oatmeal, though pretty tasteless, would be a good start to the day that would probably keep me full longer. Dinner was the tough part. I bought one jar of cheap pasta sauce and a box of spaghetti, two boxes of Kraft Dinner, and a carton of Hamburger Helper (SO gross), which I knew would leave me with leftovers for at least two nights. I calculated what was in my shopping basket to see if I’d have enough for cheese. Just about, but I’d have to ration it. And that’s what lasted me all week. No fresh produce, no soy milk, no multivitamins, no tea or coffee, no snacks, and no juice. Tiny little things I usually weave into the fabric of every day without thinking twice became luxuries I couldn’t afford. I had to “earn” an extra few dollars by skipping a shower or a load of washing a few times, or refraining from using Internet or television (hence a bit of an absence from the blogosphere!).

I learned a copious amount over the last week, and as difficult as it was, I’m glad I went through it. I found quickly that I was learning not to waste – instead of making a big meal and scraping what I didn’t eat into the bin for example, I’d make an extra effort to take only half, and save some for the next day. I found the most difficult thing was learning how to say no to things I generally take for granted – even simple things like going on a coffee run with colleagues was $2 I didn’t have, so I definitely felt almost… embarrassed at not being able to partake. Embarrassment was a feeling that manifested itself throughout the week, not just at the workplace (an aptly timed “breakfast meeting” at a restaurant took place part-way through the week) but at home, too – I had to turn down invitations for coffee, lunch and dinner with friends, and had to show up at a friend’s barbeque over the weekend empty-handed.  I noticed a difference in my energy levels – not being able to snack during the day contributed to increased levels of fatigue, hunger and – shock, horror – irritability! I then realised I’d been rationing so much I had a whole box of Kraft Dinner left for the last day, and got incredibly excited – not a usual feeling about food, but very much so after going without so much all week. Not being able to take multivitamins in combination with the cheap brands of basic soap and shampoo took its toll on my skin, and I found myself breaking out more towards the end of the week too. 

In summary, doing the Poverty Challenge was definitely an eye-opening experience. It’s so sad to know that so many people have to live like this, and my heart absolutely goes out to them for getting through every day, often with a completely positive attitude, too.  This really made me thankful for everything I have, especially the little luxuries about which I wouldn’t normally think twice. I think I’m going to be more mindful over the next little while – asking myself if I really need that Starbucks, or thinking twice about the size of my meals, and being more aware of the possibility of making them stretch to a second day. I’ll take my time when eating, appreciating it if only for the fact that I didn’t have to struggle to get it. And I will make a conscious decision to try and spread what I’ve learned, to try not to waste, and always try to do what I can to help those in need.

Do you think you’d be able to take the Poverty Challenge? What daily things do you feel lucky to have, or be able to do without struggling?

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31 comments

  1. I’ve read posts from a couple of other bloggers that have done the poverty challenge. Quite honestly, I don’t think I could do it. I eat. A LOT. I do not have a small appetite, even if I am a small person. I guess I’d be eating a lot of toast and maybe some mince and pasta, if I was lucky. How did those tuna cans go? Because one of them alone doesn’t even come close to constituting a meal for me 😦

    1. It was SO difficult. I tried to eat more slowly so it’d seem like I was taking the time it would for a normal meal, but playing little tricks with myself didn’t really make me any less hungry!!

  2. I bow to you, lady.

    I once was shopping at the supermarket and this girl comes up to me and asks me: “What do you think it’s going to last me longer – canned soup or a box of cereal?”. It was a heart-breaking experience and if that happened to me again today, I would give a couple of dollars to buy both (and then some), but I was living at a very tight budget at the time and couldn’t help out. I felt horrible.

  3. I think you are very brave for trying that challenge. I think for the most part we don’t want to know how difficult life is. Not because we are mean but because it makes it so much more real. I think I could do the challenge, food wise. But what about transport? I live in SA and travel 60km to work and back A DAY! That amounts to R450 a week (that is $67 a week). I have no idea how to take the train or buses or taxis because that is usually only done by people who cannot afford a car. There are so many small things that I have, that I don’t even take notice of. Gives me a lot to think about!)

  4. I’m always doing the poverty challenge. I’ve been broke (poor) since February this year so I decided to reduce my spending. Belt-tightening is the way to go.

    I admire you!!!

  5. Right now I’m living in 2 different houses – my parents’ and my grandparents’. Both situations give me an insight into what I have and don’t realize, especially compared to when I go to school and buy my groceries and pay bills and cook (or rather, don’t cook) my meals. It’s sort of like a constant reminder that I’m growing up and in less than a year will theoretically be even more self-sufficient and paying loans and other bills. I think I’ll be feeling it a bit more then, but right now it feels good to say that I can pay for my credit cards and groceries and water and electric and trash and so on. It’s not a lot, but it’s something.

  6. Woah lady, I am in awe. I don’t think I could do that, but now I’m kind of interested in giving it a go. I’m definitely all kinds of extravagant with my money, and I’ve never been left wanting. Good post, hey.

  7. We absolutely take our internet for granted. We just got back from a vacation in NYC. We spent over $200 more than we’d budgeted for our vacation and it’s not that big of a deal. We regularly spent $25 or more PER MEAL this past week.

    Are we blessed? Absolutely. I do try to be as conscious about things as I can, though. I try to make enough food so that the husband has lunch the following day. I try not to waste ANY food, no matter where I am. I don’t run the air when I don’t need to and we only have one car.

    It’s not always easy, but it’s by no means HARD. I think the hard thing is remembering that I’m lucky to have my somewhat nice apartment with clean water, internet access, my own phone, and enough money to be able to run a fan all day to keep air circulating or turn on the lights whenever I need to or even just do laundry whenever I want because we have a washer and dryer in unit. I forget that I’m lucky because I will be able to own my own home someday and that we will have the money to be able to do what we want with it, to water our lawn and have a beautiful garden. It’s hard remembering that I AM in the top 4% of wealthiest people in the world. When I get a job, that will move us to the top 1%.

    It’s just remembering that I’m blessed and that to those who are given much, MUCH is expected. Am I living like that?

  8. Wow. I don’t know if I would be able to do something like that – $25/week wouldn’t even pay for Topher’s diapers! But somehow, people do it … All I can think of to say is Wow. I take so much for granted …

  9. Boy can I relate. Having left a shady employer that lied to E.I. about my departure (claiming I had quit because I’d received a D.U.I.) they claimed it had “nothing to do with the denial” but who’d give a drunk driver E.I. if they didn’t have to? I had six weeks without income, until I started working at the homeless shelter here. Simultaneously I fought to appeal the E.I. decision for several months and wound up 4 months behind on rent, utlities, everything. Luckily I got a fair number of shifts for the first few weeks at the shelter and the food there is the best in any shelter in Canada so I didn’t go hungry. My pay cheques went to buy Duke food and some groceries for me occasionally. Luckly I have a fast metabolism and tend to forget to eat anyway. But I did lose some weight in the process.

    Then I found an advocate for E.I. from the “London Employment Help Centre” named Lucille Brennan. We faced the appeal board with 3 female supporters, a 3rd year social work student, an articling student, and my mom. I told the story of why I left the company. I won.

    A few days later I received the 6 weeks of E.I. and sold the car which had been collecting dust for 4 months. I am now caught up on rent and have some extra to move home.

    In essence, I was working in a homeless shelter where half the residents had higher incomes than me on welfare for the past several months. So as I further my career in social services I will truly be able to empathize because I’ve finally “been there.” Its no easy task. I’m very lucky that I have the ability to talk my way around eviction notices, and that I have the family that I do, I’d be lost without those.

    Good for you for doing the challenge. Looking forward to seeing you soon. 🙂

  10. I don’t think I could do it now. In college, I had $50 a week that had to pay for everything – groceries, transportation, any entertainment, clothing, etc. I got pretty good at budgeting back then and ate a lot of Sidekicks, toast, and things like Jello puddings when they were on clearance. But $25 a week now would be TOUGH! I hate how unhealthy food with no nutritional value is so much cheaper than healthy stuff. Considering it costs $1.50 to cook a pot of Kraft Dinner for your family, but probably $5.00+ to buy the ingredients to make a fresh salad – that’s sad.

  11. That’s so interesting! I think I could do it, but it’d be a huge adjustment. It’s amazing to think about how much we waste every day, and how much money we could save if we tried.

  12. i couldn’t do it. i tried a grocery challenge last year, but gave up after 3 weeks. not being able to buy the produce i wanted and items i needed to make food (not a box) was too frustrating. my health was too important to me. it really does make me appreciate those things a little bit more. i try to give back to community programs for that (and many other) reason(s). i have been extremely fortunate, and that fortune allows me to help those who haven’t been so lucky 🙂

  13. wow that is REALLY cool. I want to suggest that to my social work graduate program (well, my old one). we had to go eat at the homeless shelter for the lunch meal one day and we had to go by ourselves. that was by far my hardest experience ever – eating with families and people who really needed to be there and talking with them. it felt kind of shady but i guess they didn’t know me and it was a priceless experience!

  14. I definitely think I could do it – but I would find it really challenging to not have fresh fruit and veggies, my basket at the supermarket is 90% fresh produce.

  15. That is honestly so amazing, good for you. There is no way I could survive a week. I have like… no willpower. It’s so sad because that very statement makes me want to at least try, but I hate that irritable feeling I get without coffee and enough of the right food. That alone makes me more grateful for my life- I just can’t believe the way some people have to live every single day!!

  16. Wow.

    For one, I know I can do a challenge like this. Because I have before. Not by choice, but because I had to. It’s the worst way to live, because everything feels like it’s closing in around you and there’s no way out. Life feels pretty dull.

    And yes, it means eating unhealthy meals that hold no nutritional values and do nothing to keep you full and satisfied.

    I’m glad you were able to do this and the way it impacted you. It’s an amazing experience.

    (E-mail coming to you tonight, sweet girl!)

  17. wow. what an experience. i *think* i could do it. i had to live off of very little when i was an apprentice with my own apartment and there were times i actually had to turn down dates to go out for a drink toward the end of the month. luckily i had a second job on weekends and amazing friends who usually wanted me to come bad enough to pay for my drink but it’s not an experience i need to go through again. i do believe though that it’s important to look back and remember those times when a 4$ magazine or 5$ coffee was pure luxury. we do take way too many things for granted. thank you for reminding me. i will keep this challenge in the back of my head and see if i will feel like doing it some time, too. xoxo

  18. Thanks for the reminder! I am so uplifted by you sharing your story and commitment to the project. I live in the country, 20 miles from the nearest town. I don’t work, so we rely on my husband’s income, the garden for fresh food, and local butchered meat (usually from cattle here on the farm or one nearby). We really get by on little, but I always say I would rather be poor and in love and happy than rich and miserable. We are far from poor, though, unless I compare myself to other people in town. But compared to many, we are quite wealthy.

    1. I love that idea – I bet if politicians and even the wealthy 1% where forced to spend a week in the shoes of those less fortunate, they’d be changed and enlightened.

  19. This was a super interesting post and I (and I’m sure others that have read this) would do well to remember that we’re incredibly blessed.

    I can’t say that I live an extravagant lifestyle. I don’t shop at expensive clothing shops and when I buy groceries and find myself wanting an expensive item I always ask myself if I *really* need it.

    But I have food. I can pay my bills. That’s so much more than many people have.

  20. Okay, I must just be the cheapest person the planet, or maybe it just stems from both Sean and myself being raised by parents with very limited means, and having to find ways to support ourselves on minimum wage jobs while we were in our late teens and 20s – but we just don’t do a lot of the typical spending (now… our latest gadget addiction, shh, don’t count that). I think, especially here in America where the economy took such a downturn, saving isn’t an embarrassing thing anymore. It’s really become second nature for so many people and almost a prideful thing. Sure, when I was younger, I hated not making enough to go hang out with friends – but our life routine just takes into account not spending frivolously.

    Our group of friends either have kids or are college students, so our hangouts are typically board game nights where we pot luck it with cheap salsa and a few bags of generic tortilla strips. Movie nights where a bag of popcorn kernels goes far, things like that. We are coffee ADDICTS (it’s quite sad), but blowing money on Starbucks daily is such a waste (disposable cup, gas spent getting there, overpriced) – that for $0.57 a day instead, we fill up (two) 16 ounce thermoses before work with organic fair-trade coffee, and mix it with real heavy cream and organic unrefined sugar – so I bet with normal coffee and creamers and sugar, it could be even less! Things like rice and pasta dinners, making a jar of pasta sauce last two dinners, bean burritos, and soup and other low-cost items for lunches, popcorn as snacks, and then tossing any accidental leftovers into plastic containers for work lunches the next day – all is second nature for us. On splurge days where we want to order pizza, we’ll take advantage of $5 deals because we can often get two dinners out of it. Or we hit up restaurants where its assemble-y stuff (open faced fajitas, tacos, etc) because their portions are always ridiculous, and Sean and I can split a single entrée and not end up gorging ourselves in the process! Laundry is about 4 loads a week max – his clothes, my clothes, bedding, towels.

    We buy Generic Brand at Sally’s beauty for reduced-but-just-as-great shampoos and conditioners and we run errands together, all on one day, to save gas. Because we aren’t on a set budget in that sense, we do splurge on bringing berries to work each day as breakfast — but otherwise, all our produce and groceries come from a discount farmers market store ($0.50 bell peppers versus $2.99 at major grocers!), and Walmart always has things like corn for $0.25, sales on produce and fruit (we eat that week what is on sale, because it’s typically what is also in season and more green-friendly) – and we stock up when there are frozen or canned veggie sales, because a frozen bag of mixed precut generic brand veggies is easily added to pastas and stir-frys. Micro-gardening is also really huge here, even though I don’t do it because I kill every plant I look at.

    I think that saving is sort of the new cool thing – which really works out for everyone! And there are so many ways to not spend a lot without FEELING or BEING that woman at the checkout pulling out 642 coupons and negotiating lower deals, ya know? That I think people are becoming more comfortable with being less wasteful. 🙂

  21. This absolutely puts things into perspective for me. We’re definitely not having the easiest time what with Dustin’s hour being cut for a few weeks and then my hours being cut. I was just complaining about it yesterday but… I mean, we have internet and cable TV, a roof over our heads, a damn swimming pool, I had a bottle of wine last night and he had beer. So many things we COULD easily cut out and we’d STILL have it pretty easy compared to others.

    Thanks for reminding me I still have it pretty damn good.

  22. Emily!! Omg life has been so crazy that I’ve hardly been at a computer these days. I am spending the day catching up on blogs!! How are you?

    Oh and, this post is amazing. This challenge sounds incredibly hard and eye opening. So crazy the luxuries we take for granted. Thank you for always writing about such pressing issues!

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