Ten things I learnt from being poor

(originally published here on Breathe)

When I ‘lived below the line’ last week, I was really only poor in the same way that someone who posted a make-up-free selfie on Facebook was brave.

Nevertheless, taking part in a week-long challenge of living on £1 a day to raise awareness and funds in the fight against extreme poverty taught me lots of interesting things. Here are ten of them:

1. Poverty is time-consuming

When all you have is a fiver to see you through the week, it takes ages to buy what you need. We spent hours walking round the market, comparing prices in shops, and revisiting what we could afford. I planned my Sunday round a visit to a big supermarket just to be able to afford milk, and got to bed late after an epic lentil-boiling session at a friend’s house. I couldn’t just pick up a bargain that was ‘only £1’ or buy a chocolate bar to keep me going. I was constantly thinking about where my next meal was coming from and syncing my movements around the accessibility of a microwave.

It was one thing to do this for five days, but imagine if this was my constant reality. What if I had to shop around for affordable food with children to look after, or had to trek all over the place for bargains without a bike or an oyster card.

2. Lack of capital means lack of choice

I stood there for 5 minutes, racked with indecision. We’d budgeted £1 for cheese but the cheapest was £1.10. But I could buy two for £1.50. Normally I’d have bought two as it would’ve worked out cheaper in the long run, but I literally didn’t have the cash. I had no option but to buy the expensive single item and walk away. I’m so used to the capacity to plan ahead and bulk buy, both to save money and enjoy a wider range of food, that this was a real eye-opener. And without the capital, I had no contingency: nothing in my pocket for if it went wrong.

I figured that if someone offered me a loan at whatever cost after a consistent period of monotonous food and of living hand-to-mouth from week to week, it would be hard to say no.

And what if we were asylum seekers dependent on food vouchers, with no cash at all? Without the flexibility of shopping in a market, we’d have not been able to afford vegetables, and if we’d been constrained to one supermarket where prices are set, and set quite high, we’d have gone hungry.

3. Need skews values

It was amazing how quickly we changed from being people who drank coffee in a trying-slightly-too-hard cafe in Fulham to being those who picked up onions from the street or trawled through masses of mouldy strawberries just to salvage a few. Shame went out of the window, as did any commitment to ethical shopping: I’d have shopped anywhere as long as it was cheap. When forced to choose between my poverty and the poverty of distant others whose exploitation leads to cheap consumption for me, I won hands down.

And you wouldn’t believe how quickly I thought about cheating. Would it be wrong to get a free coffee everyday by using a My Waitrose card? Would anyone know if I ate that Easter egg? Would my friend actually notice if he got slightly less milk than I did when I divided up the bottle? Not that theft is right, but from a place of plenty, it is very easy to judge those who would take a bit of cash-in-hand work on the side to augment their resources, or who would seek out ways around the system just to survive within it.

4. It’s not just about food

Being able to live on £1 a day for food and drink relied on so many other factors, like a kitchen to cook in, a place to store food, and a way of heating it up, not to mention knowing how to cook in the first place. Over the years, I’ve known people whose struggles with limited resources have been exacerbated by an absence of these other factors; people whose food has been stolen from communal fridges in insecure housing, if they’ve had a fridge at all, or those who’ve only had a microwave which isn’t exactly great for proper cooking.

Living on £1 a day also depended on a relatively sedentary existence. The days I felt most hungry were the days that I was trying to do more, whether that was cycling further than usual in a tube strike or trekking from one supermarket to the next to save 4p on a tin of tomatoes. If I was combining this budget with physically-demanding work, I would really struggle.

And that’s not to mention the fact that there was a ready supply of available food in the first place, and that clean water came out of a tap on demand…

5. Sharing is life-giving

Money goes a lot further when it’s shared. £5 a day just for me would have been a real stretch, but £10 between two of us meant that we could afford more things and eat much better. Had there been 3 of us we could have bought some cheddar, and 4 of us would almost have almost led to luxury.

Need drives us to community, but it’s a shame that it sometimes takes a tangible experience of hunger and a lack of individual resources to remind us of the value of interdependency and the possibility of living better in relationship with others.

6. People are generous

Had I been allowed to accept the generosity of others, I could have lived so easily on £1 a day.

I was touched by the kindness of friends who offered to give me food, buy me coffee, or cook me dinner. By the thoughtfulness of a colleague who offered to make a cup of tea when she didn’t even want one herself, just so that I could reuse her teabag. By the generosity of the market seller who, when I asked if he had any old potatoes that he’d struggle to sell, insisted instead on offering me his finest for whatever price I could afford.

Note to self: gracious generosity is a beautiful thing. A good reminder to look for ways to bless others through generous acts and to leave bits for the gleaners whenever I harvest.

Then there was the generosity of all those who sponsored me to live on £5 for a week which enabled me to raise well over £500 for Tearfund. I got to experience the tangible joy of reaping a crop that’s a hundred times what was sown.

7. Charity is tiring

On the other hand, a reliance on the philanthropic inclinations of others is hardly a long-term strategy for living well. I imagine that after a few weeks, my friends would get a bit bored of always bailing me out or subsidising my existence, and I expect the generous market traders would be less willing to give me extra if I came back every week.

And as grateful as we were for the extra bits of fruit and veg in our bags, we had little choice in what we were given. Beggars can’t be choosers, right? Nevertheless, I guess that over time there would be something pretty disempowering about having to constantly work around the donor’s priorities.

That’s why it was exciting to raise money for an organisation that wasn’t just chucking money at the problem but was committed to real empowerment and transformation from the grassroots up.

8. Poverty is divisive

I found myself declining dinner invitations because I wouldn’t be able to eat the food, and making excuses for not eating or drinking at events I went to because I didn’t want to stand out as different. Even at home, in a house that eats together and pools a lot of food, I had to stop participating in shared activities because I couldn’t eat what they offered and had nothing to contribute myself. I even had to tell my housemates not to drink my milk because I needed it for me.

It struck me how much my social life within various friendship groups and communities depends on shared levels of affluence. Over the long-term, if I couldn’t afford to reciprocate hospitality or participate in activities that depended on expendable income for nice food and drink, I think I’d fall out of the social circles of which I’m currently a part. It’s no wonder that poverty becomes so entrenched and that money can be such a dividing factor where community-building is concerned.

9. I am rich and lazy

Although I apparently already eat a lot of lentils and didn’t notice a massive change there, I very quickly saw that a lot of the products I consume regularly didn’t even get a look in. No wine, no meat, no proper cheese, no chocolate, no coffee, no crisps: all these things were completely out of my price range.

Yet as I ate my oats, my daal, my rice, and my potatoes, I was struck by how little I actually needed to live on. Food goes a lot further in smaller, measured quantities and as I creatively used up everything I had – because it actually was all I had – I realised how often I throw away fresh food just because I have forgotten to eat before it goes off.

I realised too that I rarely feel hungry because I eat as soon as I need to. If I need a boost, I snack. I never really pray for daily bread because I’ve already done a shop for the week and have stuff in the store cupboard. But this week, each mouthful was seen as a gift and elicited thankfulness.

And then there was the reminder that luxury food items have simply become normal. There was something extra tasty and special about my celebratory end-of-challenge meal: the wine and pizza were properly delicious, and my sense of being satisfied was appreciated not taken for granted. I enjoyed my coffee so much more because I hadn’t had one every day. I ended the week wanting to reclaim moments of celebration within a lifestyle of greater simplicity and discipline, and to remember to be that bit more thankful than I currently am.

10. Poverty has power, but poverty doesn’t have the final word

With the enormous caveat that I wasn’t actually ‘poor’ and could have walked away from this challenge at any point, there was something all-consuming about a week of ‘poverty’. I seemed to think about food all the time because I didn’t have enough of it, or was worrying about where it would come from, or planning my life around its availability. I hadn’t anticipated how constraining and powerful a lack of resources could be.

It got me thinking that the impact and power of poverty really can’t be ignored. It made me more grateful for promise of good news to the poor and of the hungry being filled, and it helped me see in a new light the grace of one who became poor for our sake, so that through his poverty we might become rich. It also made me angry that there is currently such disparity of wealth and that we don’t pursue alternative realities with the passion and commitment needed to really make a change. Change is both promised and possible.

So now what?

A few days later and I’m back on the coffee (and the chocolate, and the wine etc) and am wondering how to ensure that all these thoughts don’t just dissipate. I find myself oscillating between a desire to renounce everything nice and eat lentils forever, and a rising sense of apathy that things will never change so what’s the point.

Simplicity. Generosity. Contentment.

These three concepts came up in a talk that I was listening to and struck me as a good framework on which to hang some kind of lived response to what I’d been learning while living ‘below the line’.

I’m heading into this week with those words in my mind; trying to let the theory of simplicity, generosity and contentment filter into practice. All suggestions welcome.

“…Give me neither poverty nor riches, but give me only my daily bread. Otherwise, I may have too much and disown you and say, ‘Who is the Lord?’
 Or I may become poor and steal, and so dishonor the name of my God.” (Proverbs 30: 7-9)

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