I have taken half a year of leave from work to concentrate on my PhD. No work, no salary, no money, but still must pay school fees, spend on daily necessities, and eat. I googled randomly best ways to save money when I stumbled upon Singaporeans Against Poverty (SAP). It says,
According to the Department of Statistics, 105,000 families in Singapore are earning on average $1,500 per month. This means that life is a daily struggle for some 387,000 Singapore citizens and permanent residents. After paying utilities, schooling, housing rental or loan instalments and medicals, they are left with about $5 a day for food and transport per family member.
When I was young, my family was well-to-do, but when my dad lost his engineering position at an American firm that pulled out of Singapore, and as my brother was studying in Australia, our savings poured into his education. We were impoverished, so poor that I had to go to public toilets and drink tap water. So poor that I counted 5cents and 1cent to buy a small bowl of $1 peanut porridge to share with my jobless Ex.
Yet amidst the penury, we made joy out of misery. That was and remains my strength–to be able to make light of my own suffering. It was those days of destitution that made me realise money is nothing; as long as I’m happy, as long as my life is full, full of love and laughter, money is just a piece of paper. On my deathbed, I will remember the people I love, friends and family I laugh with, not how much money I have. Happiness can be very simple.
That is why SAP is a cause near to my heart. That is why I started the $5 challenge. I cheated a bit by only counting food cost, and not transport fare. My two rules are (1) I have to eat at least one meal outside of home to simulate conditions of working people; and (2) to have a balanced, natural (no processed food), healthy diet.
Let the hunger games begin. Bought salted egg bun from my downstairs bakery at the after-8pm sale last night: $1.
Used my Kopitiam card to get 10% discount. I asked, “How much is it now?”
The cai fan boy said, “$2.60.”
“What can I add to make it $3?”
“Not possible,” he replied. “If you add another veg, it’s gonna be $3.30.”
Instead of my usual fish, meat, and veg, I got a meat and 2 veg. $3.30-10%= $3. Very thirsty. Passed by ZTP. My body is heaty, and I need to drink herbal tea 3-4 times a week. If not, I’ll fall ill: $2.
A piece of Strepsil: $0.15
Huccalyly called, “HEYYYY! We are going to eat Korean BBQ. Wanna come?”
“I can’t. I’m on a $5 challenge.”
“So honest ah? Cannot bluff your readers? I come and fetch you now.”
“I can drive…”
“Ok, see you there.”
“Aiya, I better not. I can’t.”
“Don’t nehneh lah. You want to come or not? I hear from your voice you want to join us.” Giggles in the background.
“BYEEEEEEE,” I said.
Later, for dinner, mother stewed braised pork belly with dark soya sauce in claypot, and cut rock melon. I locked myself in my room to prevent cheating. This was not working out as well as I had hoped, and it was only the first day.
Money Spent: $6.15
Hunger Index: 10/10
What went wrong?: The herbal tea broke me. It was, or is, inconceivable how tea can cost 2/3 of cai fan?! Not enough protein in my diet. I required better planning.
I could only spend $3.85 today, because of my Monday’s deficit. On Tuesdays, I am vegetarian in a feeble attempt to save the lives of animals.
12.13am. I had been drinking water the entire night, but my stomach felt like there was roadwork drilling it. Best unriped green banana ever! I didn’t know banana could taste so good. I savored each bite very slowly: $0.40
I was woken by Hunger. The sharp pang had mellowed into a dull buzz, I might be getting used to it. Nope! There went the pang again. The water was taking an eternity to boil. I hardboiled the egg because solids–comparing to sunny side-up, omelette, or half-boiled–seemed more substantial and could keep me full longer. 2 Eggs ($0.15×2) = $0.30
5 minutes after the eggs, I was starving. But I endured, and gymmed in city area. After workout, I was craving for an ice cold coke light, as my gym’s vending machine called out my name. Resisted. Ravenous by this time but everything was exorbitant in the city. Took a train back to my neighborhood, hungry like a wolf in winter.
No vegetarian stall at Kopitiam. At Kou Fu’s vegetarian stall, I usually order brown rice with 3 veg ($3.90), but not today. I stood in front of the vegetarian stall, and thought, How can vegetarian meal at Kou Fu cost more than my cai fan meal at Kopitiam on Monday? I walked out of Kou Fu, walked to Kopitiam, and ordered 3 vegetables for cai fan. The cai fan boy looked at me strangely, wondering about my food selection.
Desperation and hunger had sharpened my mind. I planned to eat half of the meal, leaving the other half for dinner. Then it RAINED. Not a common rain, the kind of storm that the torrents attacked the food court, wetting half of it. I couldn’t ta bao because I couldn’t walk home in this deluge. I had to finish the entire plate. I just had to! $2.90 at 10% discount= $2.60
55 cents left for today. 4 eggs devoured over the course of a long, long night: $0.60.
Money Spent: $3.90
Hunger Index: 9/10
What went wrong?: The WEATHER. If I could ta bao home, I could save half a packet for dinner, be full, and didn’t have to eat so many eggs. Also it was unhealthy eating 6 eggs a day but at least my protein problem on Monday was solved.
Good. My budget today was up to $4.95. I could work with that… right?
12.34am. The hunger was the worst one yet, I held my stomach in a fetal position. My mouth kept salivating. I couldn’t hold on. I must eat, and immediately felt better. Banana: $0.40
3.44am. Woke up to find my hand was clenching my stomach. My mouth stank. I was so hungry. I wanted to give up the challenge. Just walk to the kitchen, Magnum and Ben&Jerry are waiting, the night whispered. I closed my eyes and tried to sleep. I tossed and turned, worrying what to eat tomorrow.
Woke up late. Hunger was now a way of life. “Good morning,” I texted Huccalyly.
“Your morning is so close to noon.”
“Better close than never.”
My body ached from two days of gym. I needed protein today.
Bought rotisserie chicken and romaine lettuce from supermarket. Quartered them. Chicken never tasted so good. ($5.80+$1.30)/4= $1.775
Still hungry. Banana: $0.40
Heated up lunch leftovers, and 2 eggs. I felt like if I ate another egg, I’d puke. No more eggs. $1.775+$0.30= $2.075
Money Spent: $4.65
Hunger Index: 6/10
What went right?: My body got used to hunger. I slept in late, which meant I used less energy, and needed less food. Good idea to buy from supermarket, instead of food courts–better value. But I wasn’t getting enough calories because of dearth of carbs today. A grown man needs at least 1600 calories to repair the body, I estimated I got 1000 today. I needed to cook my own brown rice or quinoa tomorrow. I had some in storage.
Budget today: $5.30. YES!
Woke up late.
Craving for fish–which I usually eat 2-3 times a week–and bak chor mee. But fish was expensive, and bak chor mee impossible to halve and keep for dinner.
Wanted to halve my lunch to keep for dinner. But, today, it was the female server, not ah boy, and she gave too little to halve. $3.30-10%=$3
Mom bought canned herbal tea and my throat felt dry. $0.60 + $0.15 (strepils) = $0.75
Huccalyly asked to meet for dinner. I couldn’t. :(
Heated leftover rotisserie chicken and cooked half cup brown rice and spinach. $1.45 + $0.15 + $0.375 = $1.975
Up till now, I spent $5.725, exceeding the budget a little, but still acceptable. Later, my mother bought sweet and sour pork rice for my father’s dinner. He wasn’t hungry, and asked me to eat. I didn’t want to. It sat there, and sat there, and sat there until 11.21pm, and I swallowed it in two minutes.
After that, everything happened suddenly, but also in slow motion, like I was moving underwater. I walked to the fridge and took out 2 Magnum minis (because 2 minis equal one Magnum). And then, I drank a glass of Meiji milk, and had a quarter of Li Bai’s mooncake, and Julie’s cheese sandwich biscuits. I binge-ate, I broke the bank. Sorry, I had been starving for days, I couldn’t stand the starvation anymore.
Money Spent: About $25
Hunger Index: 8/10
What went wrong?: The female server. Herbal tea. My heaty body. Constant hunger, constantly thinking of food. Seductive sweet and sour pork. Willpower, weakened by night.
I need to start afresh, I’ll get back on the wagon. Budget: $5.
A fried yam cake and kueh salat nonya $1.10.
“How come there is bubble tea in your car??” I asked my sister.
“My colleague bought for me,” she said. “I don’t want it. It’s oolong honey. Do you want?”
“It’s out of my $5 budget.”
“Nobody has to know,” she tempted. I kept quiet with monsters struggling within me. “If you don’t want it,” she continued, “I’ll throw it away.”
“What? Ok, then I shall consider that I pick it up from the rubbish bin.” Cost: $0
“Who wants to grab dinner?” Huccalyly asked the third time this week.
By now, the cai fan boy knew me. He said to me kindly, “Give me your card, so I can give you a 10% discount.” He knew I was poor. $4.10-10% = $3.70
Money Spent: $4.80
Hunger Index: 4/10
What went right?: Slept in late. The binge yesterday energized me. Free bubble tea.
This was planned long, long time ago, before I decided to take on the $5 challenge. And these days, it gets very difficult to gather friends together because we have different lives now. I couldn’t possibly cancel the appointment, and I had already rejected Huccalyly’s dinner invite thrice this week. And we were celebrating her birthday.
Money Spent: $80 (Cherry Garden dim sum) + $29 Chocolate Origin birthday cake = $109
Hunger Index: 0/10
What went wrong?: Having a social life.
Every weekend, I teach William swimming. I had to stop this week, because after swimming, I get ravenous and I couldn’t survive on $5. But I now more or less knew how to live with $5. Watch me do my final lap, and finish strong.
Microwaved leftovers, quarter chicken from Wed, and brown rice and spinach from Thur: $1.975 (Note: Kids, don’t try this at home. Leftovers should be kept at most for 3 days.)
Because I had a heavy breakfast, I wasn’t that hungry, so I could halve my cai fan: $3 / 2 = $1.50
I ate the remaining cai fan at 5pm, couldn’t wait till 7. $1.50
Money Spent: $4.975
Hunger Index: 3/10
What went right?: Two tricks I’d learnt surviving on $5 were: start with a heavy breakfast (to give an illusion you’re full throughout the day), and pick spicy food (because it tricks your stomach into thinking it’s full). There was sliced chilli padi in cai fan. Having the dim sum buffet helped too.
What I Learnt From the $5 Challenge
At the beginning, I set out to test two questions: (1) Is it possible to live $5 a day?, and (2) is it possible to eat healthily with $5 a day?
In short, the answers are yes, and no respectively. You can spend $5 a day if you eat only 2 meals without fruits. But it is impossible to eat healthily on $5. Everything extraneous is cut away, and although in some ways the abstinance is beneficial, like cutting off sugared drinks, more often than not it is unhealthy.
Unhealthy because there is no variety. The only balanced meal with protein, fibre, carbs in a food court or hawker that is about $3 is cai fan. Chicken rice? No fibre. Western food and nasi padang? Overbudget. Bak chor mee, Hokkien mee, carrot cake? Little proteins and fibre. But even with cai fan, you can at most pick 2 veg and a meat. The meat MUST always be pork or chicken. No beef or fish, they will break the budget. A healthy balanced diet must consists of a variety of food. But there are many types of food that $5 a day just cannot buy.
A recent survey states that wealthy people eat healthier than poor people. Of course! Because rich people can afford to buy wild caught salmon, organic quinoa, freshly baked bread, seasonal or even non-seasonal fruits, and free range chicken. With $5 a day, poor people just don’t have that luxury of buying fresh food. The cheapest food are always the processed food, like packaged bread with tons of preservatives, potato chips, chocolates, baked beans, hotdog, nuggets, etc. These are trash, full of carcinogens, but they fill the stomach, they are affordable. They can be prepared quickly after a long, manual day of labor.
It is impossible to eat healthily on $5 a day but the worse thing, a side effort that I hadn’t anticipated, was the psychological trauma. Firstly, you must have ZERO social life, you cannot go out with friends. Humans are social animals, and the complete isolation from society will drive even the most misanthropic person insane. You see many people talking to themselves, don’t you?
Secondly, you must be a robot, you must have ZERO craving. Want a magnum or coke on a hot day? A magnum costs $4.20, so eat air with your remaining $0.80. Note my complete and embarrassing meltdown on Thursday.
Lastly and most importantly, it is the constant worrying. This nearly drove me mad. Every waking moment, I planned what I should eat next. The thought of poverty occupied my entire existence that I could not think about anything else. I couldn’t sleep well at night, I tossed and turned, I worried.
I’m relieved to end the $5 challenge. But for the 387,000 Singaporeans, life is a constant struggle for them. So if you know any friends like that, help them out. Treat them to a meal now and then.
Written by A. Nathanael Ho.
Categories: 1. Cuisine