This week, I’ve been taking part in the annual Live Below the Line challenge, living on £1 a day or less to raise money for Oxfam (you can sponsor me here). People say I should find it easy, considering my history of living on a tight budget for myself and my son. But I survived those periods by growing herbs on my window ledge and gradually building up a modest store cupboard of things such as oil, vinegar and spices. This week, that store cupboard was closed, and I went right back to basics.

I no longer live within spitting distance of a big supermarket, but rather a Tesco Express and a Sainsbury’s Local, which makes shopping more expensive – there’s far less on offer from the value ranges. I got a pot of yoghurt for 45p from one shop, six free-range eggs for £1 and a bag of oats for 68p from the next, before deciding to trek to a larger supermarket. There I picked up a kilo of rice (40p), 10 stock cubes (20p), a tube of tomato puree (40p), a jar of lemon curd (22p), a jar of chicken paste (25p), some chickpeas from the world food aisle (39p), and a 1.3kg bag of mixed frozen vegetables for £1.

I took my haul home and punched figures into a calorie calculator app. The results were surprising: I’d be on 1,850 calories a day and 55g of protein – not perfect by any stretch of the imagination, but closer than I thought to my recommended daily amounts. Thank God for eggs. I divided the vegetables up into four freezer bags, a 15-minute hand-numbing job that I was later glad I’d done, mixing my veg intake for variety. I unwrapped the 10 stock cubes, smashed them to smithereens, and tipped them into a jar: 15-20 servings for seasoning throughout the week. There were successes and failures in my five-day menu:

Breakfast: Yoghurt.

Lunch: Carrot soup, made with veg stock, a handful of frozen carrots, and a tablespoon of yoghurt.

Dinner: A sort of avgolemono dish, with vegetable stock, chicken paste, rice, an egg and lemon curd – which I regretted, as it was slightly too sweet for the soup.

Breakfast: Plain porridge made with water, cooked longer for a creamy flavour.

Lunch: Sweet and sour vegetables with lemon curd, tomato puree and rice.

Dinner: Carrot and tomato soup (vegetable stock, tomato puree, a handful of frozen carrots and a tablespoon of yoghurt) and egg-fried rice (rice, frozen peas, vegetable stock).

Breakfast: Porridge and lemon curd.

Lunch: Lemon bircher (oats, yoghurt, a splash of water and lemon curd).

Dinner: Pan-cooked chickpeas with rice and mixed vegetables.

Snacks: Rough bannock biscuits (ground oats and water), spread with lemon curd.

Breakfast: Congee, made with rice cooked to a porridge consistency

Lunch: Carrot and tomato soup (again).

Dinner: Carrot and chickpea falafels, baked in the oven, with rice and broccoli on the side.

Breakfast: Porridge made with water.

Lunch: Egg-fried rice with broccoli.

Dinner: Chicken and pea risotto.

So … lots of rice and veg, oats, and white, processed carbs and sugar. I snacked a lot on soup and homemade oatcakes, as my energy levels crashed late morning and mid-afternoon, without fail, every day. I went to bed earlier, slept longer, woke up groggy and dehydrated. I craved the contents of my store cupboard: a splash of vinegar to liven up the makeshift sweet and sour sauce, a grating of cheese on a biscuit, or a smudge of butter.

I took part in this year’s challenge because I know what it’s like to live on very little. The week brought back some of my darkest moments. I found myself scurrying to the top of the stairs to eat my lunch at an unexpected knock on the door on Tuesday – once you’ve hidden from debt collectors and bailiffs for months on end, the fear of someone unexpectedly banging on the door never leaves you. I sat there on the top step, hunched over my lunch, staring down the hallway at the door like a hunted animal, willing the person on the other side of the door to go away. A “Sorry you were out” leaflet from the Post Office fluttered on to the doormat, and the spell was broken. There would be no follow-up letter, no red-topped final demand, no further visits.

I’ve been debt free for a while now, but still can’t bring myself to answer the front door if I’m not expecting anyone. Nor do I pick up the phone to unrecognised numbers – a bit of an inconvenience in my line of work, but I can’t quite crack through that barrier yet. Unsolicited phone calls mean debt collectors, in my head, even without the dark demon of debt these days.

Roll on Saturday, when I can eat with my family again, but it’s only five days this time – I remember when it was months, with no thank-God-it-will-be-over-soon. It still is for too many people. That’s why I’m doing it.


  1. Well done, I have to say that it does not sound great but with what you had. You stuck to it because you wanted to and to yelp others not because you had to, that takes strength.

  2. Your treatment of the stock cubes brought back memories of my late mum. When l was a child, one of the things l remember is a sole oxo cube in the pantry resting in it’s silver wrapper with bits cut out, so she only using what she felt was needed (the gravy was always nice). Talking with family members recently, my baby brother said that one of his memories of mum was the oxo cube in its wrapper, so she never stopped being careful.
    A possible lunch perhaps, one hard boiled egg some chopped onion and a dessert spoon or so of yoghurt all mashed up and seasoned with what ever is at hand; eaten with an oat bannock.

  3. Jack, please could you share your recipe for the oat bannock using only oats and water. I am doing Live below the line this weekend, and would love to know how to make these. all the recipes I’ve found online have flour and butter in addition to oats and water, and those aren’t in my budget!

  4. Well done Jack. Keep up your strength and motivation until the challenge is over. You are very inspiring. I bought your book the minute it came out and I have enjoyed making your recipies. I love inventing ” meals from nothing” as I call it myself, which I do regularly to stretch my weekly shop. Don’t stop being creative. 🙂

  5. i am often amazed at your resourcefulness..having just come back from visiting friends in the UK, saw for myself how expensive it is. wow..but also how sweet eerything is,even the ready made vegetable soup from sainsbury..happy for your good fortune.

  6. I wasn’t sure of the rules for the Oxfam challenge – am I allowed ‘reduced’ items or must it be all full price goods ?

    • Hi tgroom57,

      It’s whatever you can get your hands on for the £5. A figure that is sadly les than when this challenge started.

      Well done Jack, I hope you have a truly scrumptious meal tomorrow with your family.


  7. Well done Jack! Food will taste all the better this week. Love to you and yours xxx

  8. Gosh what a week you’ve had!! Its not easy living on such a low income I can see. My daughter has been asked for £25 for the school outing to Alton Towers, then she needed some chef’s whites for her GCSE catering, some new school shoes, attending the youth club cost £3. Just how do people on low incomes manage? By going without themselves obviously. Charles DIckens did a lot for the poor in his books, it seems we’re back there all over again.

    Thank you so much for your help in educating the powers that be to see just how much of a struggle eating on a tiny income is even with your ingenuity and skill. Hopefully that will start welfare payments that are realistic. You’re a star.

  9. Hi Jack, I like the new, new look web site! You are my new Foodie Inspiration! Love your book, have taken Carbrienara as one of my regular meals. Have been sharing your blog and recipes with the tenants I work with in social housing, as well as my friends. Congratulations on another year of campaigning, fundraising and awareness raising – keep up the good work! Love and peace Dx

  10. Hi Jack, I permanently live this way – life aint easy thats for sure! My total income (state pension!) is just a smidgen above 4k a year, with NO added extras! Thats no housing benefits, no pension credit, zilch, nothing! But I kinda manage – I actually wrote a book about how to trim your bills and live on very little, but it hasnt done very well – probably because I dont have internet at home (cant afford it!) or any real means of publicising it. Never mind, Im plodding on regardless – keep up the good work girl – Like you I;ve been there and done it, but unlike you, I;m still wearing the tee shirt !!

    • Hi Anne
      I’m amazed how you can manage to live on that. It’s only about £76 a week. I keep trying to feed, wash and clean a family (me, my partner, his twenty something son some days and my nearly twenty something son some days) on £40 a week. And I don’t seem to be able to manage it. (It doesn’t help that I’m gluten intolerant – even gluten free basics are extortionate!). It usually ends up between £50 and £60 a week.
      Sorry to hear your book hasn’t done very well. Perhaps you could set up your own blog (I’m guessing you’ve commented here using a library computer?) and try to get more interest that way? I would be interested in reading it.
      Good Luck.

    • Dear Cl,

      Jack is doing a fabulous job buying free-range eggs. When living on a low budget you should still not forget about others. That should include animals as well. All eggs other than free-range and organic equal extreme animal cruelty.

      • Animals aren’t people and their feelings don’t matter. If cruelty means cheaper eggs and meat, so much the better for society. Jack isn’t doing a “fabulous job”, she’s being irrational and wasteful.

      • I use free range eggs because I don’t believe anyone ‘needs’ an egg enough to cause harm to another living being – on this we differ. It’s worth noting however that in supermarkets these days, most eggs for sale are free range, so I’d wager that a lot of people don’t agree with your bizarre sentiment about animal cruelty being better for society.

    • @ Jack: there is absolutely nothing bizarre about choosing to withhold unnecessary luxuries from the animals we eat or whose produce we eat. Animals are tools and should be maintained as such. Luxuries add on to the price and whether or not a “lot of people” don’t agree with me is neither here nor there; a range of eggs existing at all price points is objectively better for society. You’re not really entitled to an opinion on that one.

      Considering my taxes pay people’s benefits, I find it quite offensive that poor people are using my money suboptimally. It is given to them to allow them to exist, not to allow them to indulge their hysterical animal fantasies.

  11. I just read your blog about the MP and the food banks,I am sixty this year and see everything going backwards, zero hours in a lot of jobs.This prevents people doing anything in their lives, just waiting for a phone call, to suit people making a fortune.Heard Tesco is starting zero hours. Can you highlight this in your blog, like you did with the MP’s, then people can vote with their feet.Well done Jack I love your honesty.Mezza

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