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Tasting Poverty – Eating on a Budget of $3.30/Day for 200 Days

Updated: Aug 21, 2021

Sometimes it feels that us kiwis are split into two about the state of our country; one side shouting “Those lazy bludgers just keep drinking and smoking, they’re draining our economy”. Meanwhile, the other side shouts about the alarming state of inequality in New Zealand, and how everything from our obesity to our worsening education is all the environment’s fault. It’s hard to make sense of the facts and search for truth in between the two sides of the fight, but I was curious to dig further.

As a medical student with growing student debt who needed to move out of his parent’s Auckland home for a placement in Waikato, I realised I would become a part of the demographic which we studied regularly at medical school – the materially poor who performed worse on nearly all health outcomes. As an avid promoter of healthy lifestyles, I thought I’d try an experiment to show it’s not all about the money.

So, for the last 200 days, I’ve eaten on a budget of $3.30/day, eating the exact same food, every day, every week – here’s a breakdown of my diet:

This weeks groceries were slightly more expensive thanks to the "Prime Beef" :p
This weeks groceries were slightly more expensive thanks to the “Prime Beef” :p

Breakfast (when I had time for it) consisted of 2 Weet-Bix and milk (about $0.30/day), while lunch consisted of ham and toast purchased for the week (about $1/per day). Occasionally I’d treat myself to adding lettuce and even cheese if I really wanted to splurge, which averaged about $0.30 extra.

Finally, the dinner special; pasta, mince, pasta sauce and onion, together costing about $2/day. There’s a lot to like about this meal, not only for costing $2/day, but it took 20-30 minutes to cook the entire week’s dinner (a bonus for a busy medical student), tasted good enough for me to eat every day for 200 days and had a good range of protein and carbohydrates. Add a bit of vegetables into the mix and it may have ticked all the nutritional boxes – something I will keep in mind for my next 200 days.

This was my diet for the 5 weekdays each week for 200 weekdays straight, with weekends being my cheat days to rejuvenate, whether it was bacon and eggs, fast food or occasionally continuing the $3/day tradition anyway out of routine. I also maintained 20 minutes of vigorous exercise each day in my life which costed me nothing, and helped to keep a balanced lifestyle.

There’s a lot to like about this bare-bone diet in addition to the time and money it saves. Not only did it free up my decision-making strength for more important life decisions, it also relieved me of many of the anxieties associated with the poor student lifestyle by realising I could survive comfortably with very little.

First, just like how both Barack Obama and Mark Zuckerberg choose to wear the same outfit every day to minimise “decision fatigue”, I too enjoy saving my decision-making strength for bigger life choices than what I will eat, and I found the routine of eating the same food very freeing in allowing me to focus more on my work.

Secondly, having listened to the expert entrepreneur Tim Ferriss’ Podcast on the Stoic Principle of  Practicing Poverty to reduce Fear, I wanted to free myself of the anxiety of “failing” in business by testing how little I could comfortably live off and see that failure wouldn’t be nearly as bad as I feared. This reduced anxiety allowed me to perform higher than I ever have before in my work while still studying at medical school.

The all-too tempting $2 Pie Combos
The all-too tempting $2 Pie Combos

Most importantly, this experiment illustrates the reality of poverty in New Zealand with a rather controversial opinion: it’s not just poverty of material wealth, but also a poverty of culture. Here I was, living on $3.30/day for food, living at one point in a house with 9 other students squeezed into a 4 bedroom home, and living in what many refer to as a “high risk” neighbourhood filled with takeaway stores, fast food and crime. I would be tempted every day on my walk to the hospital with two giant signs advertising a tempting $2 pie combo, and admittedly I gave in about twice during the 200 days.

According to everything I had been taught at medical school, this environment should have sent me on a path towards poor health and a failure to achieve, yet in this environment I became the healthiest, most productive and most successful I had ever been – splitting my time between work and my studies at medical school.

Having at the same time witnessed first-hand the health struggles of those in poverty during my medical community visits through the year, I noticed that while material poverty was present in the majority, there usually was more challenging social circumstances such as abusive relationships, solo mothers, drug abuse or other criminal involvement. I was off course very fortunate to instead associate on a day-to-day basis with medical student flatmates, doctors at the hospital and ambitious colleagues at work – a network of intellectually stimulating peers which led to minimal drama and distractions at home.

While I don’t suggest that poverty isn’t a factor in health, social cultural issues such as family violence, binge drinking and fast food may play a larger role than material poverty.

But instead, targeting material poverty with food-in-schools campaigns sounds a lot more attractive, and often gets much more public support in funding. Plenty of effective campaigns that have targeted culture, whether it’s Family Violence – It’s not OK, Smoking – Not our Future or John Kirwan’s Depression Campaign, have led to far better outcomes than the “feel-good” breakfast in schools programme, and a bigger emphasis on these cultural interventions could have great benefits for New Zealand.

Having now come back to my parent’s home in Auckland and ended my experiment, I’m already missing my daily pasta and mince ritual, though I have come out reassured that one can maintain a relatively healthy lifestyle even with very limited amounts of both time and money. Moving forward as a society in tackling our social issues, reducing material poverty alone isn’t enough – instead we must focus on interventions which will encourage a change of culture.

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