So I decided to be poor for a week.
This experiment was guided by a quote from Tools of Titans:
“Suffer a little regularly and you often cease to suffer”.
I was testing whether microdosing of our fears will make them less scary.
It is a very simple experiment, but I learned a lot more than I expected.
I will be doing it regularly and I highly recommend this exercise to everyone. It doesn’t have to be perfect. Just start and see where it leads you.
There’s so much to learn and think about, that I’m still processing my thoughts on this experiment, which is quite visible from the amount of text I wrote.
If you don’t want to read the whole article, I can summarize the learnings from round 1 into these groups
- I learned how I define “poor” for me personally, the points of discomfort
- What thing I would not compromise on, even when poor
- Purchase decisions: simplified. Life decisions: pronounced
- New perspective on poverty and helplessness
- Action points
1. Where does my comfort zone end and where does “being poor” start? Is there anything between?
When I was setting up the rules, I cut the daily expenses to 10$ (food), and set limits to other things (what to wear, drink, how to use phone etc). But some things surfaced as the days went on.
I had no issue wearing 2 sets of clothes for a week (hand washing was uncomfortable). Switching phone to monochrome mode and only public wifi proved to be a productivity booster. Fasting, not buying anything other than food, taking public transport, and even hanging around Starbucks to catch free wifi; that was all OK.
First breaking point which defined form me what it means to be poor was when my laptop battery died. I can still work, but it has to be plugged in so it is much less convenient.
Since then one of the definitions of “not being poor” for me is “being able to immediately buy replacement for something you use every day but it broke down”.
My friend told me similar story. Her washing machine broke down, and she realized how great it is that she – unlike many families – doesn’t have to think twice or take a loan to buy a new one.
Second breaking point was when I realized there is one area where compromises make big negative impact.
2. Where you should not compromise (if possible): food
This was probably the most important finding, and it became very apparent after day 3. I would not compromise the quality of food.
I would rather eat less, fast more often, or compromise on other things; but I want to keep the food as good as I can afford. And you should too, because it is one of the defining factors for how fast you can get out of financial trouble.
(This is a rather long explanation, feel free to skip to the next section)
I was not expecting this to be an issue in Singapore.
There is great variety of food – different cuisines in different price ranges. In hawker centers you can get freshly made meal for as low as 2.50$. Hawker food ranges from things that will instantly clog your arteries to things that are fairly healthy. That’s why I thought all will be fine with 10$ food budget.
I fasted on Monday and felt great.
On Tuesday I headed for lunch to a nearby hawker and had fish soup (4.50$). I could quickly feel how my brain gets foggy, and for the rest of the day I couldn’t focus very well. I thought it’s because I had the soup with rice noodles, so the next day I decided to have the soup in a different stall and with veggies only. But again the same thing happened.
It was not just that I had no energy or focus. I was demotivated, frustrated, irritable, disinterested and depressed. The fact that I had strong snack cravings did not help (cravings -> distraction -> cheap snacks -> more cravings).
I realized this is one of the poverty gravity wells.
This is how many people feel. They don’t know why, they don’t know what to do about it. And probably many don’t even know it’s not normal. But how can they use their skills to raise themselves from poverty, if they feel like shit?
If this feeling would be my baseline and I would not know that I can feel much better and think much clearer (with proper food), I would give zero ducks about working hard to get out of poverty. It would seem impossible and futile.
Singapore is one of the most expensive cities in the world. Is it even possible to eat well on tight budget, or are those people destined to eat poorly? It’s possible, but it requires knowledge and effort/time. You need to pay attention to what you buy, and cook your meals at home.
This is how I solved it.
I couldn’t get decent food for Thursday lunch, so I rather fasted. On my way home from work I bought lots of veggies (Brussel sprouts, carrots, cabbage) and eggs. That was 9.55$ and I could cook 2 big healthy and tasty main meals (sprouts and carrots roasted on butter + sunny side up egg), and I had protein base for a few more meals for the weekend (eggs can be prepared in many different ways). Plus I could snack on carrots.
In general, healthy food can be reasonably cheap, but you have to pay attention and spend some time cooking. Veggies can be be cheap even if you avoid Chinese produce. Eggs and sardines are a good daily base of healthy protein. Butter is a good source of fat, plus it makes everything taste better.
You can keep the cooking simple and quick. Things like herbs and mustard will help you to keep variety. Snack on veggies and use fruits for dessert, lest you risk sliding the slippery slope to poor health.
And if you fast for a day, you can reward yourself the next one with something better. You can probably get decent meat at wet markets (I don’t eat meat so I don’t know).
If you are into carbs, rice can go a long way to lower the price of a meal.
And now the question… Did I have to give up bulletproof coffee? The answer is No.
Of course I had to give up my occasional visits of Kitchen by Rebel (thank you guys for switching to MCT finally), because their price is 6.50$. But I can make BPC at home with zero compromise on ingredients for just below 2.50$. Yes it was quarter of my daily food budget, but I feel it was worth it. Clean source of energy, clear mind, no food cravings.
3. Purchasing decisions are simple/removed. But you ask yourself different questions
Purchasing decisions were made simple. The whole week I didn’t have to think much about “shall I buy this?”. Any decisions about the “nice to have” things were gone.
Purchasing decisions can be made extremely simple with a few if-then rules. Here are some examples I will continue using:
- If the price is <X$, buy better thing
(e.g. carrot 0.9$ vs 1.1$)
- If the price is between X$ and Y$ and the price difference is <50%, buy better thing; otherwise buy cheaper thing
- If the price is >Z$, wait 3 more days before buying it
- If it’s not healthy, don’t even compare it. Find something else.
This also removes need to put effort into too much thinking and optimizing where it doesn’t make sense.
Unfortunately it’s not so simple with other decisions and questions.
- What is my (financial) baseline to lead what I consider a happy life?
- If I lost my job now, how would I approach looking for a new one? Would I be willing to risk something exciting but uncertain, or settle for something stable with good salary?
- I track my monthly expenses against pre-set budgets. Which of them would be impacted? At which point do I set Fun, Friends, or Charity budgets to zero?
I don’t have good answers for these questions yet. But at least I know they exist and can work on them.
4. Paradigm shift – About poverty and about helplessness
It’s easy to understand that it’s difficult for people to get out of poverty because they are oppressed, don’t have the means and the knowledge to help themselves, and that government regulations and crony capitalists are slowing down the progress.
Yes, Captain Obvious.
But what I was not thinking about is how big impact food and rest have on mindset. For me that shift from “going after it” to “I don’t give a duck” started after just 2 days of eating food that is bad for me.
Even though I knew what I should do, it felt incredibly hard and pointless. Not only I didn’t have the energy, but I felt mentally so down that I was feeling hopeless about changing it.
Am I just overly sensitive? Probably, my list of allergies would suggest so. Or maybe my baseline was now so high (I usually focus a lot on feeling great through food) that even the small drop made a big difference. But the impact was undeniable.
But by experiencing all this on my own skin made me realize:
- I don’t feel so righteous anymore towards people who have some means to improve, but don’t work on it. I still think it’s primarily their responsibility to work on it, but I understand better now how big role the mindset (and nutrition) plays.
- I wonder – What are the other things where I feel it’s pointless to try, but not because the challenge can’t be overcome, but it’s just because my current baseline gives me that hopeless mindset? Can I become a good networker in the end, or is it really against my nature?
5. Action points
Is there anything actionable on these insights?
Yes, plenty of them.
- I am using the simplified purchase “if-then” rules (see above).
I want to use them in other decision areas too.
- I’m reviewing my monthly budgeting and spending, again (I use Money Lover app, but there are plenty of others).
- No compromise on food. I will buy as good quality as I can afford. Screw new skirt, I want to feel good and have the energy.
- For charity contributions I will look for those that work with mindset
- I’m looking for things where I feel hopeless, but maybe I should not.
Can I be flexible despite my joint issues? Can I spend more time with my parents despite living on the other side of the globe? Can I be good networker despite my light sociophobia? Can I become good at sales without feeling sleazy? Can I start a career or business in area where I don’t have any track record?
Hell yes! This was a great experiment. I learned a lot, and I will continue to learn more.
Tim, thank you for the inspiration and instructions. I’m really grateful.