Relationships take work. Living on a tight budget only exacerbates the challenges for couples living together. In spite of the way that money can strain relationships, Christy and I found that our food stamps experiment revealed the strength of our relationship.
When a work colleague gave her a bag of trail mix, she saved it to share with me. And when a colleague of mine gave me vitamin-C drink mix, I shared it with her. We encouraged each other, cooked together, and shared our feelings about food and hunger daily. Christy said that if we ever had to live on very little, she knew we would make it work.
Valentine’s Day was a worry of ours as soon as we realized it would during our experiment week.
“What are we going to do?” she asked.
“We’ll make do,” I said. “Poor people are still celebrate Valentine’s Day somehow.”
Throughout the week we had been looking for ways to cut corners on our $2.83 daily food budgets, so that we could share a Valentine’s Day feast.
But on Day 1 we used up every last penny. Christy even wandered around the apartment looking for something tasty she could “buy” for $0.02 at the end of that night.
On Day 2 we actually went over a little bit, because we were still hungry at 11pm.
On Day 3 I did manage to save about 10 cents, and on Day 4 I saved 35 cents. But 45 cents wouldn’t buy much.
On Valentine’s Day, I skipped breafast in order to save more. By 6pm I’d only eaten PB&J and an apple for $1.08, leaving $1.75 for the night and saved $2.20 in all. Earlier that week Christy had noticed that McDonalds was offering a $1.00 happy meal special, and so we headed over to McD’s on the way to E-street Cinema to watch all the Oscar-nominated animated short films.
To pull this Valentine’s Day feast in real life, we would have needed to buy the happy meals the day before (it was only a Tue-Wed-Thursday offer) and eat them reheated a day later. But we decided that every experiment has limits, and we weren’t going “all oliver twist” on it. We bought the happy meals at regular price and enjoyed them without a shred of guilt.
It was the best McDonald’s I’ve had in a while – the kind of foodgasm I would get with my first fast food after living a year in The Gambia during Peace Corps.
It was also the first meat I could have legitimately enjoyed on a food stamps budget all week. McDonalds serves the poor with really cheap food that tastes good, I have to concede – but they are also the number one beneficiary of the food stamps program. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics 42 percent of McDonalds employees are over 25 and have some college – and therefore are trying to living on the wage whether it is a “living wage” or not. Government SNAP benefits subsidize those that don’t earn a living wage, which is nearly all McDonalds employees.
But I didn’t start this journey in order to blame a system for failing. I took the leap in order to understand how living on so little affects the way a person sees the world – for better or for worse. And when I am hungry, getting angry at the system only makes me feel worse. If instead, I look at the situation as would a Zen Buddhist or someone on a spiritual fast, I feel immediately better, stronger, more grounded – even more resilient.
It reminds me of the parable of the monk who is being chased by a tiger.
The tiger corners him at a precipice overlooking a deep chasm. With no choice, the man climbs down the ledge and hangs on to the roots of an old tree, his feet dangling over vast emptiness.
While trying to climb down, he cuts himself.
The blood on his hands attracts a rat, that begins to gnaw on his hands. Slowly, he is losing his grip. Above the tiger growls, daring him to climb back up to certain death.
He cannot hang on much longer.
Out of the corner of his eye, he notices a ripe strawberry growing out of the side of the cliff. He reaches and plucks it. Carefully he bites into it, savoring the juice.
Nothing in life had ever tasted so sweet!
Love is what holds families together, and food sustains us most when we live in daily gratitude for the bounty that life gives us. Whether large or small, anything can be enough where we are surrounded by people that make us feel important, special, valued.
I imagine the hardest part of living on $2.83 a day is the process of arriving at that number and getting a couple to agree to that budget. The system makes it very difficult to know exactly what your monthly benefits will be, exactly, so how can anyone really plan for it? Getting to square one means knowing what your means are and accepting what your daily bread budget will be. If food stamps were at the end of a long, slow decline for a middle class family, it would be that much harder to get the most out of them.
And even when it is just an “experiment” we still found it hard to continue it for the full 7 days, as tomorrow’s post will explain.