If there’s anything you need to know about me, it’s that I love a good challenge – that and I can be a real penny pincher. I’ve been tracking my expenses for two years now. And every month, I’d re-start my mission to get my bank balance as fat as possible.
Needless to say, when this week-long challenge to spend no more than $5 a day presented itself to me, I lept at the opportunity. It was a take on the no-spend challenge, which encourages people to reign in budgets and limit impulse spending by not paying for entertainment, eating out, and of course, no shopping.
I wanted to try to reducing my food and commuting costs to the bare minimum. These two categories constitute up to 42% of singaporean spending – in fact, they are the top two expenditures, at around $1999 a month for the average household size of 3.
So, getting these daily expenses reduced as much as possible would nett me the most in savings. While I wasn’t confident of spending totally zero (set achievable goals guys!), but you can imagine, $5 a day would be a drastic change from a typical budget.
But I thought, how hard could it be? I have enough cup noodles at home to last a month. All I have to do is survive one week. Surely, I could muster enough discipline not to succumb to my weakness for cabs.
Boy, did I eat my words.
Day One (Monday, 28 Jan)
I woke up bright-eyed and bushy tailed, confident of nailing the day’s mission. Before diving into the week, I psyched myself up. If I were to conquer this, I’d have to drastically reduce my spending – no more snack purchases or impulse shopping, and definitely no taxis.
I couldn’t cut down my public transport fares, because it wasn’t practical for me to walk from Choa Chu Kang to my office in Chinatown.
Today, I found out it costs exactly $1.81 in total to travel from my house to my office, which blew my mind, now that I was counting.
That meant $1.38 left for anything. A day. Gulp.
So I’d even have to sacrifice hawker food, my week’s strategy centered around a packed lunch made up of previous night’s leftovers.
So, for day one, I had pineapple rice and fried chicken.
After work, I made sure not to make any detours to go straight home. The night ended with a deliciously priceless (read: free) plate of eggs and curry chicken my mother cooked.
Transport : $3.62
Food : $0
Day Two (Tuesday, 29 Jan)
High on the success of Monday with more than a dollar to spare, I was intent on replicating the victory.
But a new hurdle lay before me – the demands of a social life – dinner with friends at a mall in Jurong East. I couldn’t (and didn’t want to) bail on the get-together.
At lunchtime, I stuck to my packed lunch. After work, I took the train to Jurong East, which cost $1.51.
Now this was where things got difficult. While I managed to convince my pals to eat at the Jem food court (my plea to dine at the non-air conditioned hawker centre went ignored).
It became a challenge to find a substantial meal for under $3.
I circled the food court many times, just to examine each menu for the cheapest item. Even though the space was air-conditioned, I was sweating. Eventually, I went with chee cheong fun for $1.50, scooping as much sauce as I could onto my pathetic, puny plate.
And I still blew my $5 a day budget.
Chee cheong Fun: $1.50
Day Three (Wednesday, 30 Jan)
Although day two was a failure, I was still on track thanks to my fabulously frugal Monday’s $1.39 surplus. Armed with my packed lunch, I was back to my motivated self.
Then, out of nowhere, I received a text from a friend, inviting me to a surprise birthday dinner at Promenade.
Okay. Obviously, the universe wasn’t going to go soft on me. Between my FOMO and my stubborn belief that I could still have a social life, without spending any money, I said yes.
But a literal price had to be paid. What was I going to do about dinner? There was no way I could afford a $20 splurge at a restaurant. Something’s got to give.
So I starved myself. That’s right. Nothing but tap water for lunch, in order to save my packed lunch for dinner. Joy. Thank goodness for my airtight lunch box.
Normally, I would get kicked out for sneaking outside food into a classy Japanese joint, but the kind wait staff (knowing we were in the midst of a friend’s celebration) let me off the hook.
I’d survived day three. Oh god, I’m not even at the halfway mark.
Transport (from home to work): $4.42
Day Four (Thursday, 31 Jan)
I screwed up big time today.
I cabbed to work.
It was the most regrettable $11 I’d ever spent for waking up late. What was worse was the feeling of failure, before the day had really began.
Maybe it was the aftertaste of defeat, but the packed leftover rice started to feel like sandpaper against my tongue.
Work wasn’t going easy on me today either, and I ended up staying late.
While walking towards the train, I called my mother for some cheering up. Minutes after we hung up, she texted me this: “You sound tired. Do you want to take a taxi home today? I will pay for it.”
Tears threatened to form as I read those life-altering words. Without hesitation, or shame, I hopped into the nearest cab and sped home, where I hugged my mother and had a home-cooked dinner.
Transport (from home to work): $11
Day Five (Friday, 1 Feb)
By Friday, I’d pretty much given up, knowing that with that one taxi-sized slip up, I had already failed. With less than $10 left ($9.65) for three days, I told myself it would be impossible to nail the challenge. But still, out of integrity, I stuck to the packed leftovers lunch.
But I lost control for dinner.
My only defense was that it was the end of a tough week, and I wanted to blow off some steam – with an indulgent combination of Bolognese pasta and tiramisu at $23.50.
I forgot to photograph it entirely. What’s the point if you’ve already lost, right? I was also hungry.
Transport : $4.65
Total expenses: $28.15 (Almost the whole weeks budget!)
I thought I’d scream, hallelujah, when the last days of the week finally rolled around. But in reality, there was no shouting, no rejoicing, no acknowledgement of it being the end of my $5 challenge. Why? Because the challenge ended a long time ago, in failure.
The only thing I was thankful for was that I no longer have to record my EZ Link card balances every time I entered a bus or train – good riddance!
The Verdict: I Failed
Total budget for the week: $35
Total expenditure for the week: $54.83
I set out on this challenge for to see how far I could push myself to minimise my spending, and even though I failed, I managed to drastically reduce my expenses to the tune of $220 a month.
Well, if I could keep that up for another 3 weeks at least. Saving hard, is hard. But some argue that it should be, US financial blogger Financial Samurai, had this to say:
If you don’t find it painful saving money, you’re not saving enough. If you’re not sweating at the gym and your muscles don’t feel sore the next day, you might as well go eat a double cheeseburger with a milkshake and fries because you’re just wasting your time. The same goes with saving.
Local financial blogger, Kyith Ng from Investment Moats, also lives by this adage, advocating a 70% savings rate on disposable income. In essence, to reap the gains, you have to feel the burn.
But I would readily admit that I was able to spend so little because of my circumstances, my mother pretty much bailed me out with her home-cooked meals. The cost of ingredients for dinner really should have ate into my budget. Though I still wondered, even if I did cook my own meals to save more money, could I still survive on $5 a day?
In the end, the $5 day challenge was definitely a bit too much pain for my tastes, but after the experience, I could definitely see myself saving more, by being conscientious in my spending habits. Taking less taxis, stomping small purchase habits, and from time-to-time, even packing lunches to the office.