The Guardian has challenged one of its journalists to live on £10 for a whole week. Is it possible? Find out below. We can all learn from his experiences, particularly those of us who are unemployed or living on a low income. The article makes clear that the daily allowance doesn't include household bills, like electricity, gas, rent or council tax, but it does include all food, clothes, travel and entertainment.
While it makes for an entertaining read, the article reminds us of all those MPs who volunteer to live on benefits to show it can be done (including in Channel 4's Tower Block of Commons programme). What they always fail to understand is that most people are capable of stepping outside their comfort zone for a week at a time, but it is the grinding problems brought by having to do this for months on end that are really troubling.
There is a bottle of schnapps at the back of the kitchen cupboard. How it mocks me. I bought it with my last €8 before boarding at Vienna airport last year and ever since have been filled with buyer's remorse. The only sip I've taken proved that it's not fit for human consumption, but may be just the thing to clean a winter's worth of green slime off the patio.
Tonight, though, I'm desperate for something to take the edge off a grim day. I'm even considering necking unpatented patio cleaner. This is the end of day one of my experiment to see if I can live on £10 a week - and I'm miserable. I'm doing the experiment because in China, at least 100,000 people have accepted a challenge to live on 100 yuan (about £10 a week) as part of a scheme to persuade big spenders to embrace a simpler life. My editor wants to know if it's possible to live as cheaply in one of the world's most expensive cities (ie London).
The Chinese experiment, devised by 24-year-old businessman Wang Hao, does not include accommodation costs or other regular debits such as fuel bills, council tax, etc. Wang's aim was to stop himself spending so much on transport and food. He failed his self-imposed 100 yuan challenge. I'm pretty confident I will succeed.
I know, though, that the terms of Wang's experiment are invidious. Even as I hold the £10 note in my hands that must last me a week, money is gushing from my current account. But Wang's experiment is worse than invidious. It's borderline insulting to those billions of people in the world who live on £10 or less each and every week, for those who are starving, for those who live on benefits rather than on five-or-more-figure salaries. No doubt, as a result, my experiment looks like the basest kind of social tourism. For that, I can only apologise.
At best, Wang's experiment is like others devised to make us remember that we need not just be out-of-control machines of desire, that we are not - or not totally - Homo economicus. For instance, think of Buy Nothing Day (which takes place in November this year). "The rules are simple," says the Buy Nothing website. "For 24 hours you will detox from consumerism and live without shopping."
To me, detoxing from consumerism sounds a blessed release (even if, clearly, one day out of 365 is the merest tokenism), especially given my crazed spending patterns. The Saturday before I accepted Wang's challenge, I spent 99% of the following week's allowance on a really good martini (I regret nothing). After drinking it (only one?), I wandered into a bookshop and blew £20 on three novels. Then I went to a cafe and spent a fiver on coffee and cakes. Then to the National Gallery, where I spent £9 on a visit to the Picasso exhibition. Then I spent another nine-tenths of my weekly budget on a film I didn't need to see (Duplicity with Clive Owen and Julia Roberts). After the film, I went to the pub for more drinks. Back home, I realised I had spent 10 times the following week's budget in one ill-judged, unsustainable, but happy day.
My spending - perhaps like yours - veers wildly between functionally pointless parsimony and bank-manager-exasperating profligacy. I can get through a week at work without spending a penny (thanks to cycling to the office, making my own sandwiches, snaffling as much free stuff from work as I can shove down my cake hole and by staying in and entertaining myself by reading, watching TV or listening to music). At those times, I feel like a devotee of the freeconomics theory advanced by Chris Anderson, editor of Wired magazine. Anderson's idea is that the internet, by reducing marginal costs, encourages businesses to make their money by offering free goods or services to an extent we have not witnessed before. At other times, the principles of freeconomics sound to my ears like delusional lies. I feel like a slave to a capitalistic system expressly designed to make me broke and miserable. Some days I can barely get to work in the morning without spending £20. Everywhere, as you know, there are tempting £2 coffees on tap, recession-spawned closing-down sales, and cupcake outlets, all of which suck me in and spit me out poorer. Add to that the fact I can't get through the week without Grazia, the New Yorker and the TLS, that I need to top up my travel card and refresh my mobile calling credit, and some days I can barely get to my desk for less than £50.
This madness has to stop. Perhaps living on a budget of £10 for a week is the way to catalyse a new lifestyle. That said, I don't think I could have lived on anything like £10 a week had my partner and I not done a supermarket shop two days before the experiment started. This means that the kitchen is filled with food, or at least raw ingredients. All of which makes what follows something less than scientific:
My first day begins with porridge, tea and half a banana that I stole from my daughter's breakfast while she wasn't looking (classy). It continues with me cycling to and from work (there's no credit on my travel card and a single round trip on the bus would have cost one-fifth of my weekly budget), showering at the office (in order to reduce my outlay on fuel - my last combined quarterly bill for gas and electricity was, diabolically, £666), drinking several free cups of coffee and tea at my desk (instead of spending at least £5 daily on cappuccinos, plus the occasional cake), reading the papers online or in the office (rather than spending half my weekly budget each day on newspapers at home).
Lunch consists of crust sandwiches (the last of the bread in the house plus some old stilton and pickled onions I found in the fridge), two apples and a pint of water at my desk.
There is something appealing about sandwiches made from crusts: deeply ingrained into my post-Thatcherite, joyless, protestant-work-ethic mindset is the sense I should eat every last scrap of horrible, possibly stale, food that I can glean for free before spending any money. Dinner is warmed-up, left-over curry from the weekend with wild rice past its expiry date that I found behind the polenta. (That's right, there's polenta in my kitchen. So sue me.)
While my partner goes out gallivanting with her sister (cocktails, cabs, insulting texts to me about what a free-spending, high old time she's having), I settle down for a free night in - the first of seven. I find a DVD of Eric Rohmer's 2007 film Les Amours d'Astrée et de Céladon, a bucolic romance about nymphs and shepherds. It is, in many ways, a late, erotic masterpiece from the 88-year-old titan of the gallic nouvelle vague, but, soon after love-disappointed Céladon tells a shepherdess that he plans to live in the woods on herbs and berries he can glean there, I fall asleep on the sofa. I dream I'm wearing a smock and living as nature intended off gratuitous wild mint and the occasional free leg of lamb I rip off passing livestock. If only I lived in fifth-century Gaul rather than 21st-century London, I might be able to survive on £10 a week. I awake to find Céladon, now disguised as a woman, making out with Astrée in a castle on the Loire. Bummer: even a cross-dressing impecunious French shepherd from the dark ages is having a better day than me.
I go through to the kitchen and see what there is to drink. It seems wrong to drink the single malt and all the wine is off-limits - my partner bought it. I uncork the schnapps and sniff. Even in extremis, there is no way I'm drinking it. I put it back, take two Bourbon biscuits that my partner had bought in to feed our plumbers and head off to bed with my book. It is 8.30pm.
Porridge, not even a stolen half banana but a handful of my daughter's raisins, cheese sandwiches (again! But this time with really good homemade bread) and two apples for lunch. Halfway through the day, my partner emails me: "What I like about this 10-quid feature is that I could trash it at any minute by asking you to bring home a bottle of prosecco. The power is intoxicating. Speaking of which ... could you bring home a bottle of prosecco?" I ignore her request, cycle home and eat gnocchi with homemade pepper sauce (gnocchi from the cupboard, sauce from the freezer). While my daughter is sleeping, I eat some of the rhubarb crumble she was looking forward to for lunch the following day. I can't pretend this makes me proud.
Porridge, half daughter-stolen banana, coffee, more bloody cheese and pickled onion sandwiches, and two apples for lunch. I go for a drink after work, telling eye-rolling colleagues who buy my drinks that I'm writing a feature and I'll get them in next week. For dinner a bowl of pasta and pesto with pine nuts followed by a single pear. After a frugal day, I watch Mad Men, the episode in which Betty Draper, in an eloquent critique of western consumer culture (and husband Don's infidelities), throws up over the interior of his showroom-fresh '62 Caddy. Stone-cold sober and blood sugar low, I find myself applauding her gesture: I identify with Betty Draper - like her, I'm trapped in a system I didn't create (possibly that's my low blood sugar talking). Then I watch The Apprentice. The boys' team charges £4 to shine shoes. "Four pound! It's a joke!" says a passing blowhard. I can see the blowhard's point: if I had a nice pair of shoes, there's no way I'd spend two-fifths of my weekly allowance getting some soft-handed, wannabe-future-masters-of-the-universe to buff them up.
Porridge, coffee and a slice of toast. The prospect of a free lunch at a work meeting thrills me. When I arrive, I am angry that there is no wine (what is wrong with me?). While one of my bosses sets out the financial plight besetting print media, I shove down as many free sandwiches, glasses of orange juice, grapes, clementines and bananas as I can. I may be imagining it, but I think he looks at me with disgust. Doesn't he realise that I'm eating foul prawn cocktail wraps as vital research for an article, and that I'm famished?
After work, I cycle to the supermarket and spend £12.57. This is the first money I've spent during the experiment (apart, obviously, from the thousands that hourly haemorrhage from my account). I buy milk, fruit and a £10 meal deal for two that consists of a chicken, vegetables, three portions of cheese and a bottle of white wine - all of which I have agreed to split with my partner. When I get home she gives me a fiver, which means I only spent £7.57. Tonight, I dine like an economising king on roast chicken, berries with creme fraiche encased in meringues that my partner made this afternoon. I'm only paying for the berries. Never has a eye-wateringly sharp, cat's-pee-fragranced half bottle of sauvignon blanc tasted so good. Still in bed by 9pm.
It is the weekend, but I can't afford to take my daughter swimming as planned because it would dent my weekly budget too much. Instead, we clean the house, run around the garden and watch telly while eating chicken sandwiches. I spend the evening eating rice and peas while listening to podcasts (In Our Time and Philosophy Bites), followed by a rubbery piece of cheddar and some grapes I snaffled from yesterday's meeting. Yummy (I'm being ironic). In bed by 9pm for more face-time with my huge inpile of books.
Hooray, more porridge! We go to the park and my partner treats me to a coffee from the cafe. More chicken sandwiches for lunch. I'm feeling guilty at not treating my daughter during the weekend so spend much of the afternoon watching her voguing to Girls Aloud. Later, I find an old baking potato in the vegetable rack and eat it with canned tuna and sweetcorn that I find in the cupboard. In bed by 9pm again.
Porridge and coffee for breakfast. I realise I have enough porridge and coffee in the house to get me through a nuclear winter. Cycle to work, more chicken sandwiches and apples for lunch, dinner of pasta carbonara (made in part from the corner shop bacon my partner bought, parsley from the garden, egg yolks left over from the meringues). Just before bedtime, I go and sniff that schnapps one last time. Unspeakable! Instead, I pour myself a large and lovely belt of Laphroaig whisky and bugger the consequences. I wake up at 2am on the sofa and go to bed, happy that the challenge is over.
What have I learned? That my yo-yo spending patterns are unsustainable. That having a staff job opens up lots of possibilities for frugally living on someone else's dollar. That I've already eaten more sandwiches at my desk than anyone should do in a lifetime. That even if I'm famished, I'd rather go hungry than eat polenta. On the plus side, I lost three pounds in weight and I had £2.43 left from my week on a tenner that will be a downpayment on ice-creams for my long-suffering daughter and partner sometime this week. Yes, yes, yes, but was life worth living during that week on a tenner? Obviously not. Could I live on £10 a week on a regular basis? It seems unlikely - check out what happened on day eight.
I do things I couldn't the previous week. I buy the day's papers, the New Yorker, socks. I travel to work on the tube (I feel like a king), plan a summer holiday, buy a new kettle, buy a round of drinks, and come home from work with a bottle of prosecco that cost eight-tenths of my previous week's budget.
Do I recommend living on £10 for a week? Absolutely. You'll find out lots of things about yourself that you won't like. You'll learn how much you're in thrall to an economic system you'll grow to despise. Try it. If you're unconvinced, I've got a bottle of schnapps you can have for free to sweeten the deal.