I Tried To Survive On $12 A Day. I Couldn’t People of Interest

Living on One Dollar is a documentary that follows 4 guys as they try to live on US$1 a day for two months in Guatemala. After watching it,  Go Away editor Deborah Tan and her husband challenged themselves to live on SG$12 a day. More details, below. 



“What is the daily minimum you think you’d need to get by in Singapore?” the husband asked me after we finished Living on One Dollar. 

“Well, ” I said, “last year, a lot of people tried the 5-Dollar Challenge in Singapore …” I looked at him before he could say anything more. “I won’t be able to. I’m ashamed to admit this: I can’t live on 5 bucks a day.”

“OK. What about $10?”

“No! Think about it: a meal in a hawker centre is about $4 …”

“Alright. $12!” he said. “For this whole week, we will try to keep our daily spending to $12.”

I put up a passionate argument about how it would be impossible given that (1) I have absolutely no time to prepare my meals at home; (2) I have to travel constantly for work and,  sometimes taking the bus/train is just not an option; and (3) everything in Singapore is just expensive. In the end, however, I accepted his challenge. We did agree that we would keep transport out of the picture. The $12 budget would be for food and stuff we might feel tempted to buy …

Let me admit that I’m not trying something revolutionary 
Before you shoot me, let me say that I KNOW I’m not trying anything revolutionary like the 4 guys in the documentary. In fact, I’m not even going to say I’m trying to “simulate poverty”. I know nothing about poverty and will not pretend to understand the plight of the less fortunate; it is condescending and patronising. I endured neither hardship nor discomfort before throwing in the towel.

But, in the four days I tried to stay in the challenge, I learnt some things about myself:

1. I have built an unhealthy relationship between money and food 
The first thing I noticed was the unhealthy link I have unconsciously established between money and food. That unless I spent at least $10 on each meal, I found myself unsatisfied and unsatiated. Over the years, I have spoilt myself and allowed myself to lose control over the way money should be spent. Just because I could spend $20 on a meal, should I? The first day of my challenge, I felt immensely “underfed” because my bee hoon from Zion Road Hawker Centre cost $3.50. The perception that I haven’t “spent enough” on food was warping my body’s true ability to tell when it’s full and when it’s not. This is something I’ve got to fix.

2. I thought I was good with my money. Turned out I am just lucky 
For the longest time, I’ve been told that I plan my finances well and that I’m good with money. This challenge showed me that I’m actually not. When you have a large enough sum of money, it’s easy to “shift things around” and “cut yourself some slack”. With just $12 to spend every day, I realised that I don’t like working within unforgivable confines. “$12 divide by 3 meals gives me $4. How much more creative do you want me to be?” I wondered petulantly to myself.

3. It’s a privilege to not have to think about how to work your money
When you walk into a supermarket and don’t have to compare prices – that’s a privilege. When you head out for lunch and don’t flinch at spending $11 on a bowl of ramen – that’s a privilege. When you can buy groceries as and when you need them, instead of planning what you’re going to cook for the week ahead – that’s a privilege. It wasn’t that I did not know that. But the convenience these privileges brought to my life – it was something I missed during my challenge, as shortlived as it was.

On Day 4 of my challenge, I threw in the towel.

It wasn’t that I had developed a true appreciation of what it means to be poor. I gave up because I was frustrated and distracted.

I was frustrated by the fact I wasn’t able to spend money as and how I wanted. I was constantly distracted by a nagging hunger – mentally and physically – that wanted me to go out to the closest froyo stand and blow $6 on a cup of granola-covered sugar-laden probiotic dessert!

I don’t know if I will try again. I don’t know if,  with better preparation and a more positive frame of mind, I could succeed the next time round. But for certain I have developed a better appreciation for where I am in life, and I will try to make my money work harder.

To find out more about Living on One Dollar and to make a donation towards the cause, please visit

She can’t sit still. Doesn’t sleep well either. But, Debs has found the one thing that’ll help her mind switch off – baking. There’s nothing she likes better than just focusing her energy on getting a cake or a pie to turn out right. With this newfound passion, she has made it a point to bring back interesting ingredients whenever she travels, so she can use them in her desserts. She names Tokachi of Hokkaido in Japan as one of her favourite places.

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