Cheap thrills: Can you live on a pound a day?
We may all be tightening our belts, but just how far would we goto save money? Teacher Kath Kelly lived on just £1 a day for a whole year, and lived to tell the tale. Jamie Merrill follows her lead – and learns some life-changing lessons on the way
Tuesday 16 September 2008
I'm crouching down tight on my bicycle, trying to avoid the driving rain and the oily spray from the road. I'm hung over, hungry, and trying, somewhat unsuccessfully, to battle my way through London's Saturday lunchtime traffic. It's not, I have to say, how I like to spend my weekends.
Usually, by this time I'd be sitting in a cosy café with a strong coffee, a hearty fry-up and the morning's newspaper, easing my way out of last night's beer-induced haze. But not today; my mission – one I'm starting to regret having accepted – is to try to survive on just £1 a day. For one week only, I'll have to get by on just £7.
I'm following in the footsteps of Kath Kelly, 47, a cash-strapped English teacher from Bristol who transformed her personal finances by living on £1 a day for an entire year. After a drunken bet with friends, Kelly, who wanted to save for her brother's wedding gift, ate for free at buffets, cycled everywhere, shopped at second-hand stores, ate wild berries and scrounged leftovers from restaurants to get by.
Like Kelly, I'm perpetually overdrawn. In the last few weeks I've booked an expensive holiday, bought an iPod and a pair of trainers, and splashed out on a state-of-the-art games console – all in spite of my rising credit-card bill and expanding overdraft. Maybe, then, I'm the ideal candidate to learn from Kelly's experience by easing my susceptibility to consumer pressure and reducing my financial liabilities.
The rules are simple: after household bills, £1 must cover all my food, travel and entertainment for a day. Just one penny over budget will be considered failure. I must not accept any charity, or any favours I can't return, no matter how insistent concerned friends are.
But kind friends don't appear to be something I'll have to worry about. During a night out the day before my challenge begins, not one of them is exactly what you'd called supportive. "It's not possible. You certainly won't get any charity from me," says one. "You must be mad. How will you get to work? What will you eat?" pipes up another.
As the night wears on, and I spend far more than my weekly budget on alcohol, bravado takes hold and I push my friends' scepticism to the back of my mind. But during the solitary taxi-ride home, I begin to have doubts. As one friend pointedly observed, I've just spent the best part of £70 on a single night out. Worse, that isn't unusual.
Am I really cut out for this? The ride to work alone would be 18 miles a day, and I'm not exactly in the best physical shape. How on earth am I going to manage this? Kelly worked part-time, so she had plenty of time to search for bargains and scavenge for food. I work full-time in the third-most-expensive city in the world. This isn't going to be easy.
Before I begin my challenge in earnest at midday, I jump on the Tube across town to borrow a bike. I don't own one and there is no way I'll be able to afford public transport.
The prospect of criss-crossing London by bike each day is starting to worry me. I've always thought that cyclists in big cities, especially London, are dicing with death. After all, more than a dozen were killed last year on the capital's roads alone.
My first journey, some 10 miles home, is a painful affair. It takes over an hour and a half, nearly 40 minutes longer than my housemate, a keen cyclist, seems to think it should. Already I'm beginning to have doubts about whether I'm fit enough to manage this and still be able to cope with a full day's work. And what would happen if my bike broke? Something as simple as a flat tyre and the need to buy a £1.75 puncture repair kit would torpedo my budget for the week.
In my hungover state this morning, I've given little attention to what I'm going to eat, or what I've got in my cupboards. Sadly, the situation isn't good. I've decided that using up a few store-cupboard ingredients is permissible, but I only have a few things left in the fridge – and the contents of the freezer are out of bounds.
Thankfully, earlier in the week I'd been invited to a housewarming dinner at a friend's house. I toast a single slice of bread before setting off on the six-mile ride to feast on roast chicken and apple strudel. It feels like the last meal of a condemned man; I'm not going to eat this well again all week and my friends waste no time reminding me of this. But at least I haven't spent anything all day.
After last night's banquet, I've come crashing down to reality. I have sore legs from covering nearly 20 miles on my bike, and a near-empty fridge. A normal Sunday might involve a trip to the cinema, or perhaps a train journey home to see my parents. Both are out of the question today.
At least breakfast isn't too bad. I finish off the last off the eggs but notice that I'm already counting slices of bread to see how long I can go before buying more. Not very far, it seems.
After breakfast, I hit the local Tesco with – yes – just £1 in my pocket, eager to see what bargains are on offer. Sadly, it's slim pickings. There's not much demand among the well-heeled professionals of south London for value-range products or discounted fruit and veg. It's all costly organic and convenience foods rather than cheap beans and blackening bananas.
Despite this, 96p later I leave the store with a few pieces of fruit for my packed lunches and some rather nasty-looking instant coffee. There's no way I'll be able to survive a week in the office without some kind of caffeine hit to jump-start my day.
I reflect that I've never spent so long in a supermarket to buy so little, or looked so longingly at other shoppers' piled-up trollies. Are these people really going to eat all that? How much of it will join the £10bn worth of food we throw away each year? For me, though, waste is out of the question – and "don't turn up the opportunity for a bargain" is quickly becoming my mantra as I dash down to the local petrol station and am rewarded with some tomatoes, a croissant and a doughnut, all for just 60p, minutes before it closes.
My first working day under my new regime and I cover the nine miles to the office in what I rate as an impressive 57 minutes. It's quite liberating to zip through the rush-hour traffic and speed over Tower Bridge, really getting a feel for London's sights and sounds. But cycling past the various artisan bakeries en route doesn't help to ease my hunger pangs, especially considering that I woke famished in the night and ate my breakfast – a solitary, stale croissant. The banana and (foul) cup of instant coffee at the office do little to sate me, and by mid-morning the temptation to get stuck into my packed lunch is almost unbearable. All the cycling is certainly boosting my appetite. In fact, a few quick calculations show that with the increased exercise, I'm burning roughly an extra 1,000 calories a day.
The ride home at the end of the day leaves me exhausted, so a further five-mile journey to the nearest Aldi is out. For the second day running, I grab a quid and head for my local Tesco.
Food shopping for just one good meal is already posing a problem. Perhaps I shouldn't be surprised, seeing that the cost of food has soared 10 per cent in the past year. I struggle to find anything green to supplement the cobbled-together dinner from my cupboard. The final insult has to be the self-service till, which, after I've inserted my £1 coin, cheerfully asks me to "collect my notes below". I collect a mere 12p.
A big day and a big challenge. I've got a date with Rachel. We met a week earlier, and before I knew I'd be living on £1 a day, I had rashly promised to show off my culinary prowess and cook her dinner. I'd been planning to make her a king prawn Thai curry, but on my new spending regime that is clearly impossible. Thankfully, she's offered to bring a bottle.
I dash home from work in a record 50 minutes, via Asda, where I spend £1.34 on a selection of vegetables to make a simple vegetable curry. I supplement the meal with homemade roti breads I bash together from some ageing flour reclaimed from the far reaches of my cupboard. Some pudding would be nice, but sadly the Asda shelves offer little for the man on a budget.
In spite of my financial constraints, Rachel seems impressed with the meal. She doesn't mind my rabbiting on about my new-found love of cycling and reduced-price food, and our date goes pretty well. Until, that is, she asks if I'd like to join her for a nightcap at a cosy little bar she knows near by. Normally I'd jump at the chance. But without any hope of being able to buy her a drink, I come up with the lame excuse that I'm too tired. My protestations don't go down too well (it's only 9.30pm), and she quickly makes her apologies and leaves. I try to be positive and hope she'll call. (After all, Kelly found love during her year of living on £1 a day. So might I.)
At work, I'm daydreaming about the massive meal of barbecue ribs I'm going to devour on Saturday when my experiment is over. So I take a leaf out of Kelly's book by arranging to attend a book launch and make free with the free nosh. It's a rather smart event, for a book called The Secrets of CEOs. Sadly, I quickly discover that, while there's plenty of free champagne and wine, canapés are credit crunch-thin on the ground and I have to make do with a few microscopic vol-au-vents. It's not even going to replenish the calories I burnt cycling there in the first place.
The event itself is pretty dull, but it strikes me that with so many CEOs in attendance, there must be a fair few millionaires in the room. Can they guess I've been living on only £1 a day? The gusto with which I attack the free food, and my dishevelled appearance and oily hands (my chain came off on the way), probably give the more observant of these masters of the universe some idea that I don't belong among them.
But am I, on my £1 a day, any less happy than they are? The looming recession may be threatening their companies, but surely, like the rest of Britain's 376,000 millionaires, they are immune to the worst of it.
As I slowly cycle home, after one too many glasses of champagne, I reflect on whether money really can buy you happiness. It can certainly buy you possessions, and it can help to make life easier, but I'm no less happy this week than I was last week. I find that I have to check my rising sense of smugness about my new, frugal spending habits.
On a more mundane note, I've completely run out of deodorant and washing tablets. No one seems to have noticed my new odour and musty clothes just yet, except the pretty American girl at the book launch who backs away rather quickly when she seems to catch a whiff of me. But at 88p for the cheapest one I've found so far, deodorant is well out of my price range.
The increased exercise is really starting to have a positive effect on me, though, as all those energising endorphins kick in. Studies have shown that cycling for at least 30 minutes a day gives you a level of fitness equivalent to being 10 years younger. I'm cycling nearly two hours a day at the moment, 82 miles so far this week, so if I keep this up I'll be fit as a fiddle in no time.
Eating healthily is proving tough. I knew at the start I'd have to overcome any qualms I had about where my food came from or how it was produced, but I'm shocked at how hard it is to afford enough fresh food or anything green.
My vegetable curry had been a success, but since then I've been more preoccupied with buying food to fill me up than with looking for healthy bargains. Hence a proliferation of bread, baked beans and doughnuts.
Today's trip to the supermarket yields a pack of instant noodles, a dented can of baked beans, some reduced-price chicken slices, six doughnuts, an onion, two bananas, a loaf of bread and a large baking potato, all for the modest sum of £2.54. Not bad – but they don't add up to a balanced diet. The noodles alone, according to the packaging, account for 52 per cent of my daily salt intake.
Yet even the checkout girl seems impressed with the haul I've bagged for such a small sum. I haven't really discussed my challenge with anyone other than a few friends, so I strike up a conversation. "I'm living on £1 a day," I say proudly. "Why would you do that? Have you lost your job?" she responds. "No," I say, "I'm trying to reduce my consumption, release myself from materialism and do my bit to save the planet." Silence. "Oh, that's nice," she says, sounding slightly disdainful. My new-found evangelism has brought the conversation to an abrupt halt.
After foolishly blowing 60p on a snack, I decide it's time for drastic measures. I turn to a chap called Reino for advice. Reino is a "freegan", and everything he "consumes" – food, clothing, furniture – is scavenged or donated by like-minded individuals. At heart, freeganism is an anticonsumerist movement, which has gained prominence recently as the credit crunch has begun to bite.
Kelly is by no means alone in her unconventional lifestyle. Reino, like other freegans, goes "dumpster diving" to obtain food. Armed with Reino's advice, I set out after dark, armed with a torch, to raid my local supermarket bins. He'd warned me that Sainsbury's and Tesco were a waste of time (apparently they lock up their waste far too securely), but that Iceland and Marks & Spencer provide a rich seam of discarded goodies.
Not having an Iceland nearby, I make a beeline for M&S. I stealthily lift the lid of the bin and shine my torch in, and there under some paper is a clear plastic bag. I've hit pay dirt; it's full of cakes and desserts, all due to go out of date in just a few hours. Not being greedy (I'm only feeding myself, after all), I grab a clean-looking box of four chocolate éclairs to add to my dinner of jacket potato and beans. Wonderful. If only I'd been brave – or desperate – enough to do this earlier in the week, I'd have been laughing.
So, after a long week of relative hunger, sore legs from cycling some 120 miles, constant penny-watching and even "dumpster diving", I've done it. I've lived for an entire week on just £1 a day. In fact, I've got 8p left over from my £7.
To be fair, I've had advantages not normally available to those people in society who are forced to survive on such small sums of money, not just do it out of choice. I'm healthy enough to cycle everywhere and had paid my rent and utility bills in advance. But I have at least proved that it is possible to live on practically nothing.
While out celebrating my return to materialism over my ribs and a beer with a friend, I wonder whether the experience will change my spending habits – and whether I might even continue living more frugally. "You'll be back to spending a fortune before you know it," my friend says. "Perhaps, but I'd like to think that I'll try to learn something from the experience," I reply.
Living on £1 a day isn't easy, and is certainly not for those of us who enjoy life's little luxuries. But clearly there are ways to save money and escape the cycle of consumption without becoming penny-pinching militants.
The day after my challenge ends, I meet the human-rights campaigner and Green Party member Peter Tatchell at his south London council flat. In spite of his media profile and obvious earning potential, he survives on a mere £7,000 a year. "By British standards I'm poor, but by global standards I'm rich, so I count myself lucky. I've had opportunities to earn quite a lot of money, but material wealth has never been a motive. I'm driven by my idealism, not by a desire to keep up with the latest fashion or consumer durables," he says.
Tatchell sums up a point I've been struggling to get to grips with all week. "Not only is antimaterialism good for the soul and good for the planet, but it shows how we could all get by on much less if we had different priorities. I appreciate that not everyone can live my kind of lifestyle, but if we all reduced our consumption we'd be well on the way to tackling global warming and ensuring a more equitable global distribution of resources."
Some may dismiss that as naive idealism, but I rather think he has a point.
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