Live Below the Line: The Debrief

Friday's midnight feast
Well, it’s been a few days since we completed our Live Below the Line challenge, so in between the ensuing sugar highs (such glorious sugar highs), I’ve had some time to think about the experience and what I’ve gained from it. I have to say, it’s a bit more than I imagined.

At the risk of sounding cavalier, I wasn’t expecting it to be too hard; I knew the hunger would be unpleasant, but I figured we could handle it. And to be honest, the hunger was bearable - difficult, but definitely bearable. The much, much harder part was all the other things we hadn’t anticipated.

Take the lack of energy, for example. You wouldn’t think that after a few days, the reduced diet would have such an effect, but boy did it. We both very quickly adjusted to early nights and naps after work, to feeling sluggish and confused, and just a bit slower on the uptake than we might usually be. If we’d had a hyperactive toddler or two around the place to look after, or if we had to continue this challenge indefinitely whilst trying to hold down our jobs, it’s not hard to imagine that something would have to give pretty quickly.

I may never, ever eat rice again
We didn’t just feel tired, either – there was a general feeling of weakness and sickness that got worse towards the end of the week. Although I’d done my best to make sure our meals contained some vegetables, on such a restrictive budget, we just didn’t feel as nourished by our food as we usually would. By the end of the week, we were forking the carbohydrates in to make the hunger go away, but taking no pleasure or satisfaction from it at all. On Friday afternoon, I sat down to nap for twenty minutes and ended up sleeping for more than an hour, unable to wake myself up.

To be honest though, I think the very worst thing about it was the glimpse of how life could be – not for five days, but forever. Whenever I dreamt about the things I would eat once the challenge was over, I remembered that this consolation is never offered to most people who live this life. It sent a shiver down my spine and made me profoundly, deeply grateful, in a way I’m not sure I’ve ever experienced before, for what I have. It’s easy to mouth words of gratitude, but you never really know what you have until you try to do without it.

It’s an easy shot for journalists, commentators and politicians to say that people subsisting on this budget need to get out there and work harder. But until you’ve had a taste of what it really, really means to live like this, you have no idea what you’re asking. I’ve had times in my life where I struggled to find work, and had to constantly bully myself into staying upbeat, putting on a bright smile for each new interview and injecting fresh enthusiasm into each new covering letter. I cannot imagine how much harder it would be to scrape together those meagre resources on a diet of boiled rice and tinned tomatoes, keeping the heating off to save the bills, walking to the library in the rain to send those emails, and knowing that every rejection brings you closer to eviction.  

The thing is that people living like this aren’t all far away, in the hot and unfamiliar countries we’re used to seeing on TV. In fact they could be no further away than the thickness of a wall. People who you pass in the street or queue behind in the supermarket. People who are just like you, with all the same cares and stresses, except for the fact that they have to face them from a much harder and colder place.

So, that’s what I’ve learnt from Live Below the Line. It’s not about the hunger. Perhaps it’s not even about the money, although we’ve been so incredibly grateful for every donation we’ve received. For me, it’s been about the experience – a simple experience that’s changed me profoundly. What I’ve learnt will keep me awake at night and drive me to do more. Let’s sort this out, please. No one should have to live this life.