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How hard is it to live on $18 a day?

29 May 2015

Here at the Salvos, we were shocked by our research that found our clients, on average, were living on $125 a week after paying for rent. Kirrilee from our Communications team decided to see just how hard it would be.

Day 0 - Saturday

$125 a week after rent sounds like it will be a bit stretched, but not too bad - in fact, it sounds exactly like the kind of amount my mother would say I should live on every week, "being sensible".

Here's my budget:

$42 - food
$36 - cheapest commute to work (involves quite a walk, but doable)
$26 - prescription medication (essential keep-me-upright-medicine only, and I've paused on skin cream for the month)
$21 - everything else

Day 1 - Sunday

I have pushed Day 1 back by the weekend because a very old, close friend is turning 40, and I couldn't get there, let alone take a gift, on this. (Even on the best public transport timetable, which has me leaving the party at 8:15, walking in the dark for 22km, travelling across Sydney until 1am, and walking home for another 3km.)

Actual Day 1 is a Sunday, and it's fine. I've sourced food for the week and am getting it delivered for free to save the transport cost.

It was quite a challenge to make the food balanced and healthy (ish), and I can really see Jamie Oliver's point about junk food being an expensive trap. Mostly I've got vegies in season, including lots of potato and carrot, to make the budget stretch.

I'm allergic to gluten, and gluten-free bread is off the cards when it's over $6, so I've bought brown rice for every breakfast and quite a few other meals this week (focusing on the health benefits here.) Teabags are the only luxury , mainly because I don't think I should inflict zero-caffeine-me on the world. I can't afford sugar, hopefully that will offset the spectacular amount of carbs I'm going to eat.

All fine, until I realise there is no meat. I sacrifice a couple of vegies and buy a small tin of tuna, plus beans I hate. It all looks boring but totally manageable.

Day 2 - Monday

I set off to work, walking a while to the bus, and settle in for the day.
I've eaten brown rice pudding for breakfast and broken the budget down to $18 a day:

$6 - food
$7.20 - cheapest commute
$3 - medication
$2.80 - everything else, including bills

I pull out my phone then remember I can't afford it - there's no room for phone or data use outside work. I look out the window at the traffic jam. After 15 minutes without moving beyond the block, I resolve never to go to work without a book again.

The rest of the day goes okay.

Day 3 - Tuesday

Total disaster! I forgot to tap off my Opal card on the train, and have accidentally used all my $2.80-"extra" money saved so far. That means I will have to severely limit power and gas use for the rest of the week, and have no buffer.

Everything takes thought to make this work, and a slip up like this means real consequences.

I get home and am suddenly overwhelmed by how much power everything takes. Lights, stove, oven, sure. But the fridge, washing machine, iron, kettle, TV, hot water heater...I light candles and feel like a Jane Austin character, reading by the window with a candle for the night. Then I realise I've nearly finished my book, and don't want to commute without it. I go for a walk. On the walk I remember I didn't factor the candles into the budget.

Day 4 - Wednesday

Okay day. The food is holding out, though I did bring the entire head of lettuce to work for lunch because it was wilting, and it's my main source of leafy green nutrition. Mmm, lettuce. This doesn't look odd at all.

Am coming up in red blotches due to not using skin cream, and have run out of sensitive-skin shampoo. I have a travel sized shampoo for the rest of the week. Safe to say this will not be my most glamorous week ever.

Day 5 - Thursday

Oh dear! I am getting the cold half the office has, not helped by standing in the bus queue for half an hour in the rain, then the long walk home. There's no money for cold and flu tablets, so I splurge on tissues and hope the small box lasts the distance. I have a queasy feeling that this pushes my saving for bills back further, but may be able to buy less food next week.

I eat all three remaining oranges to stave off the cold, go to bed and hope for the best.

Day 5 - Friday

Raging flu. Not a problem, except that I feel helpless to slow or stop it, and can't afford to miss work. I walk to the bus in the rain, feeling dizzy, and sit coughing guiltily next to my fellow commuters. I can only imagine how people with worse illnesses and less secure employment than me feel about this kind of thing. This makes me feel even worse about the coughing. Nearly at work, I turn around, go home, and hope my colleagues with the same bug don't hate me. I make hot tea with the second-last teabag. Laying in bed, shivering, I realise that bringing the fever down is a Panadol and heater away, but I can't afford either.

I take a day's break from the challenge, and wonder how on earth someone homeless could get better when they are sick.

Day 6 - Sunday

Lucky I had yesterday "off" - I could eat a bit more. My food is running low and I have two days to go. I do feel a lot better though.

I haven't seen another soul for three days, which reminds me how lonely poverty can make people. My sister asks me to come over and watch Eurovision. I can't afford to get there, so I sit at home on my own again. She doesn't mind, but if I always say no, would she keep asking? If I was too mortified to explain why, would she get so offended that she wouldn't call at all after a while?

Day 7 - Monday

Today I have two snack-sized meals of brown rice to eat, and nothing else. Nothing.

And I am out of shampoo that it became a choice between washing my hair with soap or not leaving the house. I have washed my hair with soap, and, sans other beauty products, and look about as stylish as that suggests I might. Pretty sure I speak for everyone at work when I say this is the lesser of two evils, but an evil nonetheless. I feel grotty all day. I'd better not meet Prince Charming today.

Faced with another night with nothing to do I decide to clean the house, then realise that cleaning products would also use my bill-buffer, and that I can't see enough to do that anyway. I devise an exercise routine that I can do in the dark. I'm hungry. I go to bed early and sweep the house as soon as the sun is up. Never in my life did I think I would see cleaning as a luxury expense.

Day 8 - Tuesday

I feel humbled and very sobered by how easy it would be to fall off this high-wire.

An unplanned $30 expense means missing several meals. Something as simple as a week off work, a minor accident, a cut in shifts, a ten-dollar rent increase or a big gas bill could be catastrophic, sending someone tumbling into homelessness.

God forbid, if it ever happens to someone I love, I desperately hope there will be a safety net of practical support to fall into. I resolve to do this challenge until the end of the Salvos' Red Shield Appeal, donating any money I save to the appeal.

To see what you would have to give up to survive on $125 a week, use our online budget claculator.

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