Living on a Dollar a Day

When I recently heard about the documentary Living on One, a story of four students who spent their summer living on one dollar a day in a rural Guatemalan village, my first reaction was: I did that once! But by accident. And only for a weekend. Here is my dollar-a-day story.

On my way home from a year in China, I took advantage of some free time and traveled throughout South East Asia. As I roamed, I relied on savings I had in my local hometown bank in small-town Vermont. This bank was great in terms of knowing your name and having all the town gossip but left something to be desired in the 24-hour service department.

So when I tried to use an ATM in Laos on a weekend and discovered my card wasn’t working, I was out of luck until the bank opened Monday morning. I could have called my parents and asked them to wire me money but the additional worry that this would have caused made this an unattractive option. So, decided instead to embark on “a dollar a day” experiment. I figured, if I’m going to work in microfinance, I should really have a better understanding of what it actually means to live on a dollar a day.

Mind you, I had already paid for my ($15/day) hostel so I wasn’t proposing anything as extreme as sleeping outside. But the number of kips left in my wallet for the weekend equaled roughly the equivalent of USD $1 per day for my food expenses.

The first morning of “the experiment” there were some bananas left out at my hostel for guests. I took as many of those as I could without being awkward but that somehow only lasted me until mid-morning and then I was hungry again. So I went to work allocating my money for the weekend. No matter how I did the math, it wasn’t a pretty picture and I immediately began to realize the gravity of my situation.

Two factors working against me were the fact that my body was in the habit of snacking every few hours, and that I was foreign so all of the prices for street food were inflated.

My year in China had prepared me well, and I was a tough bargainer! But I still had to spend my entire day’s ration to scrape together a small cheap lunch from some street vendors. And by late that afternoon, I was starving again! I was ready to cheat, lie and steal to get some food. Food was all I could think about. I was obsessed. I walked around Luang Prabang “sightseeing” but the only sights I had eyes for were possible opportunities to get free food.

I probably should have ended it there but instead I went back to my hostel and laid in bed only able to focus on how empty my belly was. And my head was pounding. I lay there for hours until I mercifully fell asleep.

The next day was better because I stole the entire bushel of bananas from my hostel and was able to ration my budget a bit better. But I still spent the whole day obsessing about food and subsisting on the knowledge that tomorrow I would be able to tap into my bank account once again.

I would never do it again, or recommend it to anyone else, but this experience definitely gave me a whole new appreciation for what it means to live in poverty. And my “experiment” didn’t even come close to the real thing! Still, it made me even more committed to the microfinance sector and the possibilities it holds to help move people out of dire living situations.

I hope you will take the time to see the documentary Living on One.

Image Credit: Living on One.

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