Challenge: Living on $70 a Week

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Words || Harry Fraser

Howdy readers, this is Harry Fraser, the Regulars Editor for Grapeshot. Welcome to the challenge, the part where I do something that challenges me for your edification. This issue, I undergo a self-indulgent exercise of (relatively) hardcore grocery budgeting. On a strict limit of $10 a day for food, I must survive an entire week. 

I began with some planning. I decided to pool my money and do two $35 shops throughout the week. This way I could buy in bulk and avoid going to the supermarket more than I had to. I was trying to push my socio-economic limits, not catch COVID-19. 

Mask on, I made my way to the supermarket. This is the basic menu I devised for myself. Breakfast consisted of porridge with almond milk (with a little sugar from the pantry). For lunch and dinner, I bought some chicken thighs in bulk, freezing some for later in the week. I also got some white rice and green beans so I could do some stir fries, although I couldn’t use the beans in every meal otherwise I would have definitely run out.

For lunch I would often have chicken salad, getting myself a big bag of mixed salad leaves relatively cheaply. With some dressing, salt and pepper I could easily add some flavour to the meal. 

It may be obvious by now, but this is what I normally eat. There were a few concessions when it came to the choice and variety of veggies and nice marinades and the like. No beef, but I was trying to cut down on that anyway, or lamb, which I did miss, I make a mean Greek lamb.

As I’m sure is the case for many, I am still at home a fair bit, which essentially removed the temptation of eating out. The days I went to work, I made a big dinner the night before and took the leftovers for lunch. Surprisingly, I felt quite organised. I didn’t feel deprived or denied. 

However, by mid-week, I felt the absence of snacks. One thing about being at home was the constant access to delicious snackies. I know for me it makes watching lectures and reading more user friendly when chocolate or biscuits are involved. Too bad they are so darn expensive. 

I had to get innovative. I found some corn-wafer-cracker things that were like $1 a pack on sale which became my go-to snack for that week. I found that drinking tea (again, something I already had in the cupboard) helped when I was feeling hungry but didn’t have any more snacks or it was some time before my next meal. 

Ultimately, I ended up spending around $70 ($72.90, but that’s not the point). 

This is the part where I say how humbling and life changing the experience was, and how I recommend everyone do it for themselves. 

But this isn’t that channel hun, so if that’s what you were hoping for, keep scrolling babe. 

In all honesty, throughout that week, I felt self-indulgent and utterly privileged. A thought that dogged me the whole time was, ‘I am spending all this time pretending to go through economic hardship. Who do I think I am?’

At the end I asked myself, you did this for what? Cute TikTok reference there. There are an abundance of programs out there that are aimed at replicating the conditions of economic strain or poverty. I came to the conclusion that they were attempts to make those of us who don’t experience such hardship empathise with those who do.

One thing you need to know about me is that I overthink. I think a lot. And while I was trying to sleep one night recently, it was almost as though I was visited by the ghost of Karl Marx. Stick with me here, we’re going somewhere. 

In all seriousness, I am lucky enough to have been taught about Marx’s critique of capitalism at uni by someone who did their best to genuinely present the ideas as they are, not what people think they are. We stan Professor Azeez big time over here. 

I grew up in the Hills, a relatively upper-middle class area. To some, the Hills is known as the Bible Belt. I think it’s quite obvious as to why. When I was in high school, we routinely raised immense sums of money by doing these charitable ‘famines’ as our way of giving back. 

We channelled our empathy and our Christian spirit into what is a very good cause. But in the same spaces we also fell back into a damaging and pervasive mentality, that poverty is a punishment, and rather than revealing the limitations of our economic system, poverty simply demonstrates the failure of that individual to make it in our society.

Jobs and growth. Have a go, get a go. These axioms and the ideas they represented permeated our psyches. What manifested was a duality of Freudian proportions. We raised money for the less fortunate, made visceral by a self-effacing act like fasting while simultaneously subscribing to an ideology that placed the blame for poverty on the person, not the system. 

Back to me trying to sleep. I wondered what the point of raising all that money was? The reality had been materialising at the edges of my mind as I progressed through my Challenge. It was a distraction. 

Humans are social creatures, prone to empathy, much to the chagrin of capitalism. If I can convey one thing about capitalism to you today readers, it is that it corrupts. It infects. It taints. This is a touch dramatic, but its more for effect than anything else. 

The powers that be (that’s another conversation) don’t want us to feel sorry for poor people. It’s their fault after all, right? They didn’t have a go, they can’t make it in this world and the problem is not the system, it’s them. That’s the narrative capitalism has selected. 

But that narrative is never perfect. It’s not a complete solution. The people want to help their fellow human. Capitalism accepts this, as it cannot deny a brute fact. We are partial to guilt and charity. 

If it cannot be eliminated, then redirect it. Show the people footage of faraway lands where water is contaminated and food is scarce, where there are no schools or sewage. Evoke empathy for these innocents who are suffering. And they are suffering, I don’t deny that. The money we raise does help. And I’m grateful for that.

But it’s interesting that we would rather fast for a weekend and raise $200 than consider our support of a system that thinks those experiencing poverty, whether at home or abroad, are undeserving of dignity. What if we voted for a government that doesn’t torture refugees? Or cuts foreign aid? What if we stood up for those victimised by the system, rather than defend the system? 

I was taught in HSC economics that the natural rate of unemployment was 5%. That means, for the system to function properly, 5% of the workforce must be out of work. Notwithstanding classical economics characterisation of itself as ‘natural’, economists cannot deny that some people must be out of work. So why is it a reflection on them, and not on the market? 

To bring it home, I don’t want you to think I hate charity or empathy. You can simultaneously do and be those things and also be aware of the dangerous, subliminal narratives around poverty that pervade our society. 

While this may have slid off track from my Challenge, it really hasn’t. I was confronted by the fact that $10 a day is highly generous. I also have a roof over my head, and a pantry full of condiments to spice up my bland, budget meals. I could not kick the feeling that whole week that I was privileged enough to impose such a challenge on myself. 

I learned that it’s far easier to do what I have done this week than to challenge (get it) existing conceptions of poverty, which ultimately are the real barriers to combatting systemic wealth disparity.