I finished out the week — but it was nothing less than gruelling.
Recently, I took an arguably more extreme food challenge: the “Elon Musk challenge,” based off an experiment teenage Musk put himself through to see if he had what it takes to lead the life of an entrepreneur.
He spent just $1 a day on food for a month — I adjusted for inflation and spent $2 a day on food for a month.
Having struggled with severe hunger pains and fatigue during the food stamp challenge, I had plenty of reason to doubt I would make it on $2 a day. I didn’t just predict I would fail the Elon Musk challenge — I predicted it was impossible.
What unfolded surprised me.
Eating on $2 a day for a month ended up being easier that eating on $4 for a week, for a few reasons:
1. An impossibly small food budget puts you into survival mode.
The $4-a-day food budget I used in April was meager, but people have proven that you can eat well on such a tight budget. Knowing this, my mindset heading into the food stamp challenge was that it would not only be possible, but I would be able to construct fairly balanced and nutritious meals.
This overconfidence made me more lenient while grocery shopping. I bought too many luxury items, things like flavored oatmeal — rather than cheaper, plain oats — and almond milk.
When you only have $2 a day, you immediately enter survival or “problem solving” mode. You don’t even think about buying certain foods. Milk never crossed my mind — my one liquid for the month would be tap water — and forget a luxurious eight-pack box of maple and brown sugar oatmeal when you could get a 20-serving bag of plain oats for the same price.
Having so little was an advantage in a way — it forced me to be painstakingly meticulous with my money and even more of a conscientious grocery shopper. I also wasn’t overly confident I would complete the challenge. I worried constantly that I would run out of money, and every trip to the grocery store, I feared I was spending too much. This kept me even more in check while grocery shopping (and ultimately, under budget).
2. You can accept free food.
This was the biggest distinction between the two challenges. The food-stamp challenge was designed to raise awareness about obstacles that low-income families face. There is no guarantee people feeding themselves with SNAP benefits will be offered free food at any given time, so you’re discouraged from accepting any freebies.
The Elon Musk challenge, as I interpreted it, is about utilising your resources and problem solving in order to make $2-a-day work. I was never actively seeking out free food or asking friends and family to buy me anything — the point of the challenge was not to see how much free food I could accumulate in a month — but if I came across free samples or if someone (outside of my office) offered me a snack or meal, it was fair game.
The sample station at Trader Joe’s became my new best friend, adding much needed excitement to my diet; during week three, a Taïm food truck outside my Manhattan office was offering free falafel if you tweeted out something promotional, which I gladly capitalised on two days in a row. Breaking up the monotony of eating the same nine foods repeatedly was crucial.
Also, some very generous friends concerned about my protein and caloric intake offered snacks and treated me to the occasional meal over the course of the month. It was more than thrilling to dig into something other than pasta or oats — that being said, it is incredibly awkward and uncomfortable having people pay for you (and maybe not worth the discomfort).
3. I shopped every third day, instead of once a week.
The night before starting the food stamp challenge back in April, I headed to Trader Joe’s with my $28 budget and bought supplies for the week. Being stuck with these foods for seven days was more of a mental barrier to cross than anything else.
Even though I was purchasing the same nine foods over and over again during the Elon Musk challenge, there was something liberating about have the option to switch things up if I wanted to, which I did do at the start of week three when I realised I had enough room in my budget for eggs and sweet potatoes.
Going to the store every third day also provided a nice distraction and added some excitement to my otherwise monotonous day-to-day, even if my shopping cart did contain the least exciting of foods.
It seems preposterous that eating on $2 a day for a month was easier than eating on $4 a day for a week, but I learned that mentality has more to do with succeeding than the length or dollar amount of the challenge. Rather than asking myself, “Will I make this work?” or “Can I make this work?” I asked myself, “How am I going to make this work?” I mentally committed to problem solving in order to complete the challenge, and once I made that commitment, the length and budget lost all significance.
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