Living Below the Line - Reflections on the Challenge

Yesterday was my final day of the Live Below the Line challenge. Now, I can’t say that I’m unhappy about that, but I do think that I’ll be reflecting upon this week for some time to come. Fact is, I’ve learned a lot – both about what others have to deal with on a regular basis and about myself. I’ll elaborate on that, but let me jump to the bottom line first. It looks like my final tally for the five days comes to $6.90, or about $1.38 per day, “well below” the $1.50 constraint of the challenge. Yeay! But how did that happen? I thought I was going to be using every last penny!

As it turns out, I’ve got about another day’s supply of my soup concoction remaining after today. I simply overestimated my need in that regard. Thus, I gave myself a 1/6 credit on the cost of those ingredients. Likewise, the carrots; I only ate about half of them. Unfortunately, I only came to these conclusions late in the week, so I didn’t have the opportunity to add on any “luxury” items that might have otherwise made my menu more enjoyable – with the exception of using 4 whole ounces of soymilk on my oatmeal yesterday morning! I started out the week using about an ounce of soymilk in my tea each day in order to neutralize the acidity, but I stopped for days 3 and 4 because I thought I might be spending too much. Likewise, I didn’t take my vitamin supplement on days 3 and 4. I think that pretty much explains all of the adjustments. The details are below.

My partner and her daughter devised a much better strategy than I. Instead of making a big batch of something, they kept their ingredients separated and priced out by serving size. They were then free to mix and match different menu items as their bodies and their palates dictated. This also allowed them to know with greater precision where they stood each day with respect to the $1.50 limit. If I do the challenge again, I’ll approach it more like they did. Yes, it requires greater planning, but it seems worth it in the long run. For instance, if I knew in advance that I was going to have such a cushion, I would have added in some fat on a more regular basis – milk on my oatmeal or olive oil in my soup. That would have made my meals much more satisfying. Preparing food on a daily or even meal-by-meal basis is also more in keeping with the food preparation habits in the developing world where food refrigeration for leftovers or precooked food is lacking.


I’ve lost a few pounds, maybe more – not necessarily a bad thing in my case. However, if I were to remain on such a diet long term it might end up becoming a problem. It would definitely require me to be a lot less active than I am at present, and that would require a more significant lifestyle change than I’m ready to make right now. I also learned a little bit about what it’s like to make tough and perhaps even life-changing choices. My foregoing my vitamin supplement for two days is almost a laughable example, but it does reinforce the point that people are sometimes forced to choose between that which is good for their long term wellbeing and that which alleviates their hunger today.

And that brings me to a really important revelation – at least on my part. I’ve often found myself shaking my head, figuratively speaking, at the prevalence of fatty fast food amongst those who neither appear very healthy nor very well-off. Wouldn’t their money go so much further with some healthy homemade food? After this challenge, however, I have a better idea of the dynamics of hunger that might be playing a part. When we’ve been chronically hungry or deprived and we finally get the opportunity to enjoy a “decent” meal, our bodies are going to be inclined toward something high in fat rather than lean and nutritious. In that regard our bodies are more concerned about fattening up for the sake of survival in this present moment than with the negative health effects that won’t necessarily materialize until a year or more down the road.

I would be remiss at this point if I didn’t at least mention the “food desert” phenomenon – the reality that large swaths of urban areas are without adequate grocery stores or produce markets. Thus, even if someone wants to maintain a better diet, he or she might be forced to settle for whatever is available in those convenience stores and fast food restaurants that happen to be close by.

And what about the psychological impact of poverty? What is it like to always know – either consciously or unconsciously – that you are doing without even as others around you seemingly have everything they want?  Now, some will likely suggest that this should simply motivate the impoverished individual to work harder for that which they need, but I think that is a far too simplistic view. The idea of working hard for what one needs presumes that work exists to throw oneself into, and that is not always the case. These five days of low-grade hunger have allowed me at least a little bit clearer glimpse of what it must be like to live day-to-day with the “otherness” that poverty can etch into one’s psyche. Healthy communities are composed of members who feel themselves to be valuable and valued members thereof. The “otherness” that poverty creates is neither healthy for the individual, nor is it healthy for the community. Just consider the increased costs to the community related to healthcare, crime and punishment, fear and anxiety, and the loss of human capital.

In closing, this challenge has allowed me to more accurately empathize with the living conditions of over a billion people living in extreme poverty today. I’ll continue to look for ways to turn that empathy into action. Likewise, I intend to donate to the local food banks to a larger extent than I have in the past. With respect to my own diet: I plan to rely on unprocessed foods more so than in the past, in addition to cutting back on sugar and caffeine. I’ve felt very consistently clear-headed all week long – something that I largely attribute to narrower swings in the boom and bust cycles of sugar and caffeine consumption. I also intend to be more mindful of my food consumption and preparation so as to illiminate food waste and maintain a consistent supply of healthy food options. Not being prepared with healthy options at home is probably the number one reason that I succumb to the temptation of quick and convenient, but expensive and unhealthy alternatives.


Gosh, I feel that there’s so much I still want to say, but let me stop here. Thank you all for reading! If at any time you become moved to donate to the cause, you can do so by accessing the Live Below the Line donations page. Oh, and I really, really have to give a big thank you to those who helped me meet my fund-raising goal (under the name markfrank). Thank you so much! Donations will be accepted until May 31st. Please have a healthy and peaceful and empathic weekend!


Copyright 2013 by Mark Frank


  1. I learned a great deal from your posts. Thanks, Mark.


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