United Community of Riverside: On Living Below the Line


Previously, I wrote about why I would be living below the line. I explained my rationale behind doing so, and why I thought it was important. For five days, I actually tried to live below $1.50 a day.

How was it? From beginning to end, it was a humbling experience. Here’s what happened.

Monday: Day 1

Today was shopping day. The challenge allows you to spend all $7.50 at once, so long as you don’t eat more than $1.50 of it in any given day. So I went to Stater Bros. in an effort to find out how far my money would go. Turns out, not far.

At first, I was struck by simply how many options there were. So many things were below $7.50, and I could buy any of them. But then they started vanishing before my eyes. You want to buy a carton of eggs? Then say goodbye to your carton of milk. How about an apple? You’ll have to trade chicken for something cheaper. There are many individual options. But once you start trying to combine them, your multiplicity of options dwindles from nearly everything in the store to just a handful. And once you start thinking about needing to eat a fairly balanced diet and which foods give you the most calories per dollar, it becomes more complicated than a James Bond villain’s next dastardly plot.

I always considered myself frugal, looking for items on sale and eating cheaply. But when cereal and milk became too expensive, I decided I had to go even more basic. So I went as basic as I could go. I bought all the fixings to make myself a sandwich: wheat bread for $1.88, and a package of bologna on sale for $0.99. In an effort to make it somewhat more edible, I splurged and purchased a head of lettuce for $1.69. I balanced that with a six-pack of cup of noodles for $1.69 (for emergencies if I didn’t have time to cook). And with my remaining funds, I was able to treat myself to two bananas at $0.69 per pound.

The end result of all that was $6.78, $0.72 under my budget. Over the course of a few weeks, I’d be able to save up enough to buy myself something nice — chicken instead of bologna, or a box of cookies if I was lucky.

Tuesday: Day 2

I woke up hungry.

The previous day, I was afraid I’d eat too much of my food too soon, and restrained myself to only one package of cup of noodles around 4 p.m. As I walked to campus, I kept telling myself that I’d wait until the same time today before eating something, anything.

I lost. As I walked to campus, I noticed my pace starting to ebb, and my legs began to feel numb. When I finally sat down, I decided I needed to eat now. So there went the first bologna sandwich. I would need to pace myself much better from now on — starving yourself saves money in the short run, but not if you keel over in the 90-degree weather and get slammed in the hospital. All things considered, I’m actually very lucky that I didn’t actually collapse.

The other thing I realized was that my path isn’t exactly applicable to everyone. I have a small frame and write for a living. I would probably be crushed underneath a medium-size box. But for someone else who lifts crates or digs trenches every day, they’re expending more energy and need more calories to make up for it, and would probably need to eat more frequently than I have been to make up for it. For them, that $1.50 a day is going to be a lot harder.

Wednesday: Day 3

It’s much harder to focus in class when you haven’t eaten. I tried to pay attention to the chemical reactions of nitrogen oxides with ozone, I really did. But I don’t think I quite got it over the gurgling my stomach made as it waited for its next meal. I had another bologna sandwich earlier in the day. I was getting tired of bologna sandwiches, but I didn’t really have a choice. Anything else would have been too expensive.

There’s a certain level of honor that people have, or a certain line they won’t cross. For many, one of them includes asking for food. I crossed that line today. I asked someone for food they had brought to the office, and it was just a pastry, but I wolfed it down as if it was mana from the garden of the gods.

I felt dirty afterward. Don’t get me wrong — I’m fortunate for the opportunity. But the experience was humiliating. It’s disheartening to know that you don’t have the power to be able to feed yourself. That instead, you have to rely on the kindness and generosity of others just to keep your husk of a body moving.

Thursday: Day 4

Today I discovered the joys of free food. I ate a cup of noodles for breakfast at around 9 a.m., but skipped meals the rest of the day. So when I went to an event and found out there was free food there, my heart skipped a beat.

I ate as if it was Thanksgiving. All the tortilla chips were mine to behold. I felt full for the first time that week. And then I felt guilt. There were probably people there who needed the food more than me, with my self-imposed challenge that I could break from at any time I wanted. Others weren’t so lucky. I shrunk away to the corner of the room and tossed my plate away.

Friday: Day 5

Today was the last day of the challenge, which I opened up by eating another bologna sandwich. I gained a new appreciation for those who live their lives below the minimum wage and in extreme poverty. It’s difficult to go from day to day worrying about whether you have enough food for the rest of the week, not to mention being healthy enough in the first place. I still have a few slices of bologna and a couple of cups of noodles. I thought about buying lunch at Latitude later to celebrate my victory. But I decided I’d be able to manage with what I had for the next few days.

If you have the willingness to experience what it’s like to live below the line, I’d encourage you to do the same. The light at the end of the tunnel was near. For so many people and students, though, that’s not the case — there’s no end in sight for many of those living in extreme poverty.


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