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:
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.