Urgent Evoke

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Constraint Experiment: Live on 2$ per day

Constraint Experiment: Live on 2$ per day

For LEARN1 I picked "Innovation comes from constraint" and decided on a little self-experiment: Try living on 2$ a day.

I tried for the last week and would like to share my experiences and thoughts on this kind of experiment.


As 2 USD is roughly 1.5 EUR this was the goal I went for. I decided to focus on "money which goes through my hands" as a first approximation. For me, this roughly means all things I buy in a shop and all things I eat.

Clearly, living of 1.5 EUR wouldn't be possible in general (for the average european), as things like rent, gym membership or university fees far exceed this bound. For me, only my gym membership is already 2 EUR/day.
Let alone all the hidden costs of electricity, water and basically all the things you own. These are also very hard to calculate per day. If I buy a book for 20 EUR and read it in 10 hours it basically costs me 2 EUR/h. If I get the same book from the library, the costs are smaller but still the library (and the book) is payed for by study fees and (in Germany this is the far bigger part) taxes.

A thing that I did not want to sacrifice was eating reasonably healthy. Meaning getting enough and nutritious food every day (not necessarily the nicest food though).

Results: The Good

So the good news: I really did not spend more than 1.5 EUR the day.
  • I lend a bike from my family to go to work by bike, which is actually faster than using public transport (which already is 1.7 EUR per ride) and more enjoyable if the weather is good (which it was :)).
  • The only thing I bought was food and I prepared it every day for the wh*** day. I only bought Bananas, Apples, Carrots and some diary products. I ate reasonably well as planned.
  • I was lucky that I did not have to buy anything else as everything was there (I did not plan this before, so this was real luck). I could postpone buying shower gel or getting a hair cut, all things that would totally ruin my 1.5 EUR finances.
  • Not sure if this is good or bad, but I actually had to cut down (meaning almost eliminate) on my usual social contacts, like meeting for having a coffee or tea as this would exceed my budged. Drinking a beer or going to the movies is even more off limits.

    Obviously, social habits would adapt if I did that for a longer time, but you can't change this over a week. My friends were a bit confused about what the heck I was doing and why I was doing this. Everyone immediately thought I had financial problems and wanted to buy me food or beers. That I just don't want it was a little hard to communicate.

The Bad

So did I do it? Not really ...
  • I could only spend so little on food as I had tons of noodles, cereals, crushed tomatoes stocked up. I am just that kind of person who doesn't run out of stuff ... ;) I tried to still keep things low (as this is clearly covered by the rules as it "goes through my hands"). I did not terribly exceed the limit, but probably by a little bit (noodles and cereals are cheap).
  • I used a train ticket I already had to get back from Bremen to Mannheim, roughly 550km. The only way to make this distance inside the limit would have been by hitchhiking, for probably more than a day (Don't know, I never hitchhiked, but I would imagine you have to change cars some times.).
  • I drink A LOT of coffee (most of it for free at work). Coffee is obscenely cheap if you think about it (if you drink cheap stuff probably like 0.1 EUR per cup). Still, my 3-5 cups a day were not counted.
  • Organically or locally grown food is A LOT more expensive than the cheapest you can get. I normally prefer the former, because it is more agriculture-friendly, but had to resort to buying the cheap stuff for the sake of at least standing a chance to meet my goal. Example: 10 Eggs are 1.25 EUR the cheapest and 2.59 the organic ones.

Mission (almost) Impossible: Healthy food for one day

So ... is it even possible to eat reasonably healthy for 1.5 EUR/day in Germany?

According to online calorie calculators, my daily consumption should be around 2500 kcal (I do sports and drive 1h on the bike per day). Splitting this up into carbon hydrates, fats and proteins is still done to get the relations right (especially on your favorite cereal box), I won't do this here. Instead, my healthy 1.5 EUR day has two pieces of fruit, some veggies and heigh protein (no meat and fish though as these are expensive) and olive oil for balanced fats.

Breakfast: Cereals. 0.45 EUR, 984 kcal
  • Ingredients: 200g Oats (0.1 EUR, 680 kcal), 25g Almonds (0.12 EUR, 150 kcal), 100ml Milk (0.06 EUR, 64 kcal), 1 banana (0.17 EUR, 90 kcal)
Lunch: Pasta with tomato sauce. 0.48 EUR, 1032 kcal
  • Ingredients: 250g Noodles (0.2 EUR, 900 kcal), 200ml crushed tomatoes (0.14 EUR, 50 kcal), some spices and garlic and onion (0.1 EUR, 0 kcal), 10ml olive oil extra vergine (0.04 EUR, 82 kcal)
Dinner: Light curd cheese with apple (0.52 EUR, 302 kcal)
  • Ingredients: 300g light crud cheese (0.37 EUR, 210 kcal), Apple (0.12 EUR, 60 kcal), 50ml Milk (0.03 EUR, 32 kcal)
In Total: 1.45 EUR and 2318 kcal. Replace the super-light crud cheese with a normal one and we are there (I only had the super-light one at home for the calculation).

(Me with some bills and groceries writing this post)

Some observations:
  • There is not a lot of room for variation. It would probably be more healthy to add some more veggies (I had a chick-pea salad in mind first for dinner.) or add some fish (canned tuna is cheap) or meat. However this is already too much.
  • Another possibility would be to leave the fruits and replace them with something less healthy and more calories. As I am a certified health-nut this won't do for me.
  • You absolutely have to cook everything yourself. All prepped food is off limites price-wise.

OK, so far for my little experiment. I might repeat it some day. It was interesting to feel some constraint, also I am sure its not at all comparable to what people in developing countries are facing.

Until then I am very curious for your suggestions and opinions.

Views: 28

Comment by Simon Brookes on March 28, 2010 at 2:46pm
I'm very impressed with your mission Agent Brumm. It really highlights many of the problems of the poor - not just lack of food but also difficulties with transport and you also started to have social problems too. This lack of social capital amongst the poor is often overlooked but is a very serious issue. Great work and thanks for sharing your experience. +30 courage points.
Comment by Chelsea Howe on March 28, 2010 at 5:26pm
This is a really fascinating insight into a lot of problems I hadn't really thought about (social issues with friends especially!). Though I'd run into the organic=expensive, industrial=cheap issue of food previously, I didn't think about how my friends would perceive it if I was suddenly unable to do even little outings with them. Definitely something to consider...

Thanks so much for this level of detail in your post - it is definitely eye-opening and really engaging to read.
Comment by Shakwei Mbindyo on March 28, 2010 at 6:09pm
+1Courage. This is an awesome exercise. This is a trully interesting post on how each of us looks at constraint.
Comment by Anick-Marie on March 28, 2010 at 6:19pm
Hi Christian,

Congratulations on trying all this new stuff. Getting out of your comfort zone is, I believe, a nice way to teach yourself a lot of things...

I was reading all your post with a smile - I do live on 5€ a day since a year or so, and I came up to similar conclusions.. and different ones as well. Let me suggest/rectify a few things:

- A few people in my network do not use money at all. Sadly that means they can never take public transportation, or fraud it, which I don't usually do. Therefore, public transportation eats up 70% of my budget.
- You have way more resources than just money. I call this social capital, at of course it makes me and other people cringe when I get to that. But when you live on a low budget in a money-wealthy society, there is a bit of paradigm shift: you deserve to be helped. Not because you're pity-able but because you are a valuable member of this community. To help myself get through this paradigm, I think of my life in a professional manner and put care in all I do. I also try to help people, especially if they ask for help, if not directly, then at least by putting them in touch with someone that can.
- Can anyone in your network provide you with a free haircut? Wouldn't it be an opportunity for you to socialize with that person ? Try it on Facebook - change your status to : "Would anyone like to cut my hair? I need a haircut badly!" and tell me about the results!
- Cheap, nutritious staple foods I sometimes buy: lentils, red kidney beans, chick peas, sesame seeds, sunflower seeds, all types of dried peas and beans (and trust me, there are!), couscous and bulghur. But the main expensive things I buy are garlic, spices and olive oil. Learn to sprout stuff! You have an advantage over me: you're not moving all the time, so it's easier to plan that part of food - soaking, straining... cooking..
- You live in an amazing wasteful country. Behind or beside each health supermarket, there are 3 sorting bins for waste. The brown one will contain only compost-able organic foods: fruits and veggies, a lot of them non-local. When I'm in Germany, I never lack any organic food. Curious about techniques ? Google Trashwiki, and you'll get tons of info from the pros. Bakeries are good too. You might find people with experience about this in a local Volksküche - often part of the food served is dumpstered.
Hitchhiking from Bremen to Mannheim is possible in two ways: 1st leaving from close to the Ikea (sadly 2,20 € bus ticket to get there), all the way on the A1 to the services at Dortmund, then carefully skipping Köln (hh pith***) by taking the A45. It might be very difficult to pass Frankfurt. This path should take about 6 hours until Frankfurt but the last bit could be much more complicate. 2nd option - you live in the only country where you can hitchhike a train legally! Go to the train station on a local train going your way and try to find people travelling together (couples, 3 friends). There are usually regional unlimited tickets for up to 5 people. If you approach them (isn't that social?) you can ask them the permission to travel with them for free, as a mean of optimizing the ticket. While younger people might try to share the costs, older people usually do not mind and will find your experience interesting. If they are up for chatting, do not refuse, it's a way to pay back :)
- Many activities can be free, so you do not have to cut down on social activities - you have to rethink them. You Germans are usually fond of board games, no? Neo-nomads often have poïs, a small musical instrument or playing cards with them. Why go for a cup of coffee? Invite them for a cup of tea (much cheaper usually) suggest you have coffee at their place, or try to find an alternative coffee where you're not forced to consume to be there, and alternate.
- Accept offered things. It's a good way in starting to give properly.
- Finally, you forgot a huge resource: sharing! Organizing a potluck at your place can end up being a great party, a movie night at yours (or at a friend's place!) People put together what they have, collective cooking maybe? You'll be amazed by what you can create together, all tasty, healthy food.

Ok, wow, it just took me quite a bit of time to write this ;) But I was amazed to see someone step in my world. Keep me posted about your experiments, okay? I care!
Comment by Chelsea Howe on March 28, 2010 at 7:09pm
@Anick Holy smokes! That's incredibly insight! You should absolutely right some of that experience up in a blog. When you do, link me! I'd love to read more and get you some power points for such a fantastic contribution.

My friend and I are going to be wandering Europe this fall, so all of this information is hugely helpful.
Comment by Anick-Marie on March 28, 2010 at 7:19pm
@Chelsea: I'm cowriting a book about it in French, it shouldn't be ready in English until 2012 sadly. But if you're interested in this topic from a traveller's point of view, I suggest you lookup CouchSurfing, Hitchwiki and Trashwiki. I contributed heavily there, still do :) If you are going through Amsterdam, Casarobino.org is a great spot for real-life alternative community learning, even on a short term stay.
Comment by Vivien on March 29, 2010 at 12:37am
wow. Kudos to you. I think to actually live off of $2/day we'd really have to either ignore all our stockpiled staples to see what the situation really is like. But besides that, this really brings up an interesting point - it's not just seeing if you can live off $2/day, it's learning that you're not achieving a healthy diet that is our longterm goal.

Comment by Christian Brumm on March 29, 2010 at 9:27am
Thanks for all those wonderful and insightful comments!

First, thanks for the far too generous power-up!
According to wikipedia social capital "refers to the collective value of all 'social networks' and the inclinations that arise from these networks to do things for each other". So what you mean is not that poor people have a sparser social graph (which is probably true to a lesser extend) but that their social connections are less powerful/influential. Is that what you mean by "lack of social capital"?

I also didn't expect the hit on my social life, however if you think about its not surprising.

Thanks for your comment, I bet constraint looks a little different in Kenya!

Thank you so much for your comment some amazing insights there! You must have been travelling Germany for a while, you have a lot more social insight than me!
As for hitchhiking, I will probably try that some time while travelling. A friend of mine had really good experiences while travelling Canada with a tent (in summer, he's not that hard :)).
I already contemplated getting a hair-cut and asked around, however when I told my girlfriend about my plans, she was not amused. X-)
You are completely right about accepting things, there's nothing wrong with that. However I tried not to do that as then, there would be basically no constraint at all because of the abundance of everyone around me. I could basically eat and drink whatever I want. Of course I would expect people to get annoyed of me after a while, but certainly not after a week.
Thanks again, I will check out your page to find out more about what you are doing, all sounds very interesting!

True, as I sad, removing my stockpiling It would be more like 3 EUR per day, not 1.5 EUR.
Comment by Bongumusa on March 30, 2010 at 10:46am
I think that you have invested a lot of your time, energy and mentality on creating this good work. I want to congratulate you for reaching that best stage of development. You have supplied the world with good ideas. This what I am really expecting from generation "Y". This generation is full of energy and good ideas. Most of them they use the opportunities to their best abilities. But I have noticed before that it take courage to create good work, which can inspire a large number of people. The important fact is to organize your work. It need to be proper and good. I give you 8/10 for this work which is about 80% or more but not 90%. You need to make some improvements to be a real expect. All the best with the rest of your work.
Comment by Christian Brumm on March 30, 2010 at 11:15am
Thanks for your feedback! So what I get is that you think I could organize my post better? Agreed!


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