$2 a day for food: What it's like to eat below the poverty line


Could you survive on a budget of only $2 a day? What would you eat?

$2 a day was our reality last week when my husband and I embarked on an annual fundraising challenge run by Oaktree called Live Below the Line.

The idea of the challenge is that for five days you choose to live on $2 a day to experience poverty and fundraise to support poverty alleviation projects in Cambodia and Timor-Leste.

live below the line 2 a day food

The challenge

During the five days each participant has a budget of $2 to spend on all food and drinks for the day. You cannot cheat by accepting free food. And you cannot just claim a portion of pantry items you already have (i.e. you can't just budget for a cup of flour - you have to include the whole bag).

The sum of $2 is chosen as it is the Aussie equivalent of the poverty line. Poverty isn't just something that happens overseas: especially in these disruptive times, food insecurity is real. I'm thankful to be a comfortable, middle-class - and overweight - woman. Doing this challenge is something we do not just to fundraise, but to experience what real poverty is like - even if only for five days.

And before you wonder, I do not inflict this challenge on my primary school-aged sons (we are thankful not to be experiencing poverty for real). We cook for ourselves on our budget-restricted diet and make separate meals for my kids. Some nights, it was hard to eat our comparatively flavourless (and small) meals when theirs looked so much more appetising.

The food

In preparation for the challenge, I drafted a spreadsheet of our meals over five days and the ingredients we needed to survive.

It took over an hour to do this: meal planning on a strict budget is hard work.

Our $20 ($2 for five days for two people) bought half a laundry basket half full of food. On the surface, the challenge seemed easy.

But there were several everyday ingredients missing: tea and coffee, chocolate, wine, Vegemite, cheese, butter, snacks and ethical choices like free-range eggs.

We were 14c over, but as my husband noted, as one of the mandarins had gone bad that made up for it.

Yet compared with the last time we did this challenge three years ago, I noticed that the price of many essential food items had gone up.

The cost of chicken and eggs had increased, for instance, as had rolled oats. Butter was more expensive, and that probably explained why margarine (which was almost half the price) had nearly sold out.

And it was a lot harder to fund protein for the diet. The obvious solution here is to avoid meat; if I did the challenge again, I would probably develop a diet around lentils or other legumes instead.

This year, much of our diet was based around porridge, sourdough bread, chicken and eggs. We had enough fruit for just over a piece a day, but little in the way of snack foods. We saved mandarin peels and drank them in hot water (with sugar) to substitute tea or coffee.

We also chose frozen vegetables as it was an affordable way to get a mixture of veggies into a budget restricted diet. We weren't the only ones to have that great idea: hubby scored one of the last packets from the supermarket.

Experiencing the challenge

The first three days of the challenge were the hardest, especially the mid-afternoon slump. Both of us had killer headaches, with my husband waking in the middle of the second night with a migraine. We put it down to caffeine withdrawal. With the reduced calories, we both experienced a lack of energy, brain fuzziness - and crankiness.

Who, me? Cranky? Apparently, yes. And now that the challenge is over, I am going to be brave enough to say that my significant other was a bit tetchy as well.

We are normally a loving couple, but there were times during the week that things between us got a bit heated. Thankfully, we identified it was caused by hunger and were able to de-escalate.

But the experience made me reflect on what it was like for many people living with chronic food insecurity.

Could it be that people living in extreme poverty suffer not just from feelings of hunger, but that it can impair their social skills and cognitive ability? It must be hard to be effective at work or school when you are worrying about whether you will have enough to eat at your next meal.

The result

On day three, my hungry hubby had had enough.

"This is crazy, we don't need to do this and we are never, ever doing this challenge again," he declared.

I still had a migraine and wasn't happy about being on the challenge, either, especially as someone was accusing me of poverty appropriation on Instagram.

But by Saturday after the challenge ended, we felt differently. I stepped on the scales and discovered I was 2kg lighter, and hubby had dropped nearly 3kg. We thought we would have been craving a big meal, but instead found we were oddly disconnected from food.

Having survived on small portions of relatively bland food for five days, we found the thought of big, heavy meals off-putting.

Our first 'meal' was Vegemite toast with cheese and a cup of tea. I was blown away by the strong, full flavour of a thin slice of low-fat cheese. That first bite of hot toast on a cold morning was bliss, but we both felt uncomfortable afterwards as the bread sat heavily in our stomachs.

Our big reflection was that we probably routinely ate too much and drank too much tea.

"Maybe we can sometimes go on a calorie and caffeine restricted diet to detox," hubby mused. Was this the same guy who swore he would never, ever do the challenge again? What a change five days can make.

If you would like to support Serina's fundraising challenge, which enables Oaktree to support young people in Timor Leste and Cambodia, you can do so here.

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Serina Bird is a proud frugalista who has amassed more than a million dollars through frugal living. She is the author of several books including The Joyful Frugalista and The Joyful Startup Guide. Serina blogs at The Joyful Frugalista, and her podcast is available on Spotify and Apple Podcasts. She is also the founder of The Joyful Business Club. Her new book, How To Pay Your Mortgage Off in 10 Years is out now!
Julia Hopewell
June 5, 2021 12.27pm

This was illuminating, Serina.

I guess this is the tip of the iceberg, in that you have to factor in soap, loo rolls, paracetamol, sanitary products etc. as well. We really have no idea, do we?

Thank you.

Heather Attard
June 18, 2021 9.06pm

Whats interesting is that I have to shop frugally and I would have picked NOTHING on your list for my $10 challenge.

I guess it's because we all have different food tastes.

Dzenita Cengic Karup
June 7, 2021 11.39am

Serina, thank you for the article and for the experience.

You brought back memories for me when I was growing up as a teenager in a war torn Bosnia and Herzegovina (now independent country previously part of Yugoslavia). We take so many things for granted in Australia, including food...I hope your article will be eye opening for people with soul and those who want to reflect.


Heather Attard
June 18, 2021 9.01pm

I would have swapped those instant noodles for rice. Those fried noodles are not filling at all.

Also TVP is 50% protein and cheap. Also a huge bag of dried lentils would have lasted you weeks for $3.

A small cheap bottle of soy sauce would have helped flavour things.

Also places like The Reject Shop - I've seen jars of coffee for $1.25 recently. You could have added coffee to you spend.

Make your own bread is a game changer for saving money. I'm curious why you bought plain flour over self raising? A cheap jar of peanut butter would make it a complete protein too.

Milk powder is the equivalent to 75c a Litre when made up. Not that the bag they sell ( $7.50 ) could have made it into the $20 budget, but long term this is a milk game changer for me.

Also you had no pasta on your list - 50 cents for 500g at The Reject Shop as well.

For long term frugals use frozen veg in your stirfrys - beans $2 a kilo, peas $2 a kilo, corn $2.80 kg.

Fresh carrots and onions you can always get cheap ( Coles have that odd bunch range).

But for the purpose of $10 for 5 days just for myself

I would have selected:

Pasta 50c 500g

S/r flour $1 kg (damper - unsweetened)

Rice $1.40 kg

Dried lentils 375g $1.70

1.5 kg odd bunch carrots $2

Peanut butter $1.85 (2 jars for my fats)

Water (free)

Christian S
June 19, 2021 6.56am

I'm sure you mean well with this comment, Heather, but Serina has actually gone to the trouble of listing where she bought her ingredients and the meals she prepared.

You've said two jars of peanut butter for $1.85 each. The cheapest peanut butter at Woolworths is $2.40 each, so I'm interested to know where you got each of your ingredients.

The Woolworths Odd Bunch carrots are $1.90 per kilo, not $2 per $1.5kg as you've listed.

You criticised Serina for buying instant noodles but they do come with a flavour sachet. You've suggested rice instead but how would you season it? (Under the challenge rules, you cannot use pantry items you already have.)

I think Serina's done a great job here. I'd be interested to see how other people take on the challenge but only if they share a comprehensive ingredient/price list and meal plan for the week.

Sam Taylor
July 7, 2021 6.08pm

There is a shop called Aldi that is where you can get Peanut butter for $1.85 for 375g container.


Sam Taylor
July 7, 2021 6.25pm

You were experiencing weight loss as well as migraines and hunger.

Did you calculate your caloric intake? If it was too low you'll be on a crash diet with the symptoms you experienced.

Calories per dollar is what you should aim for in these $2 per day challenges. That means focusing on the nutrition food offers compared to the unit price.

5 peanut butter sandwiches and 75g of reconstituted full cream milk will give you 2053 calories with 90 grams protein, 97g fat, 177g carbohydrates for $1.98 per day.


$1.85 Peanut butter 375g (150g per day)

$1.49 Multigrain Bread 650g (295g per day)

$7.49 Full Cream Milk Powder 1000g (75g per day)

$1.98 per day. 2053 calories.

If you substitute 1 peanut butter sandwich for 200g of rice you can have 2442 calories for only $1.97. 89g protein, 82g fat, 308g carbohydrate. No wonder rice is popular.

So final thoughts.

It sucks that Full Cream Milk powder has jumped to $7.49 per KG that means my diet needs another look. Damn inflation!