Lessons from living on $2 a day

This was my seventh year doing Live Below the Line – a fundraising and awareness initiative run by Oaktree Foundation to help end extreme poverty.  You live on (food and drink) $2 a day for a week … the equivalent of the poverty line in developing countries.  Though that includes transport, accommodation … everything ... for those people. 

The challenge never gets easier, but each time I am reminded of important lessons, which is one of the key parts of doing it.  

The first and most obvious is that we have so much more than some people, and you really don’t need as much food as you think you do.  I come from a family who would pile dinner plates high with delicious food and we’d happily devour every last piece of whatever was served  … then maybe a little bit of dessert afterwards.  When you’re faced with a half filled bowl of bad bland pasta, it’s amazing how you can still fill up – and not be wanting more.  Note to self; stop over indulging.  (Have I done this since?  Sort of. I’ve certainly tried.)  

The week of LBL was also a reminder about how much free food we get at work.  Cake for birthdays.  Cheese Platters on Fridays.   With wine.  Catering from clients.  Home made treats from the people who like baking.  There’s always something tasty and free up for offer.  A few people suggested I could just eat the food because I didn’t have to pay for it, but I reminded them that there’s no free food in Cambodia or PNG, so unfortunately I’d need to wait a week to enjoy their to-die-for brownies.

My job is quite social, so I probably took it for granted that so many clients want to meet over a coffee.  In the five days of Live Below the Line I was invited to four coffee meetings.  And a breakfast.  In previous years I’ve met people in cafés and just drank water but sometimes it makes them feel awkward so this year I moved the meetings to another week – or told them what I was doing and we made it an office catch up.  Now I’m back and my barista is loving me again. 

Catching up with friends over dinner is a huge part of my life too.  We love going to our favourite restaurants, enjoying a wine or seven, and swapping stories on what’s happening in our lives.  My gorgeous friend Dani was a trooper, hanging out with me one night when we went to a movie preview, turning down the complimentary wine, popcorn and choc tops to drink water with me.  My stomach grumbled a little, and I went home straight after the movie to ‘enjoy’ a bowl of bland pasta, but she never once complained.  Our catch ups usually involve cool new restaurants or piles of funky gourmet pizza.  I’m sure we’ll get back there soon. 

The one thing that wasn’t a surprise – but continues to humble me – was the generosity of my friends, family and workmates.  So many of them donated to my fundraising page – some quite large donations, along with a whole lot of people who are suffering tough times but still dug deep to help me with my fundraising goals.  I was hoping to raise $1,200 but, with the generosity of so many people, hit $2,542.08.  My first year of Live Below the Line saw me raise $400.  A stack of amazing people in my life donated to the cause – and also sent me beautiful words of love and support.  I have some fantastic people in my life.  But I already knew that. 

The thing I didn’t know was that you can lose 3kgs by stuffing your face with white home brand wheat filled pasta and bread three times a day.  So carbs are actually good for you?  I knew it. 


Patience is a virtue (until your internet dies)


I haven't had any internet at home for weeks.  Long boring weeks where I pretty much put my life on hold. 

It died overnight. Sort of.  A slow and painful death which started when my modem reset itself so I had no internet at all.  After an interactive and encouraging conversation where I was guided by a great chick at Optus, we reconnected it and I was high fiving myself for being so tech savvy.  Good on me.

Four weeks later and my self confidence took a dive as my internet went flacid.  My phone and laptop were telling me it was okay, but the connection was soft.  Nothing was happening.  I tried everything I could within my limited IT capacity (turn it off and on at the wall) with no luck.

In the middle of a crazy two weeks at work – a time when a night of Netflix on the couch would have done me wonders – I finally found some time to call my buddies on the Optus Tan Helpline.

The first girl talked to me for 25 minutes, putting me on hold on and off, while she tested my line.  I ran up and down my staircase disconnecting and moving phone lines to see where the fault was.   After 3,560 steps she told me that my line didn’t have enough power to be able to run the internet properly and I’d have to get it checked out by a technician.  I could order my own or pay one of theirs for $150.  I opted to hit up my own tech and thanked her for her advice.

A quick chat to our head of computers and important stuff in our office, and we decided that this woman was a little confused and I should save my $150.

I hit up my buddies again on the Helpline.  This time a chatty guy talked me through several tests.  It was all the ones I’d done weeks earlier but he was thorough and at the end of the session (hello 28 minutes) he suggested I borrow a modem from a friend or neighbour to double check that mine was in fact, not working.

I don’t really talk to my neighbours except on our way back from the recycling bin …. and surprisingly none of my friends had a spare modem lying around.

Three days later and I was climbing the walls without internet.   I had used up all the data on my phone by sending work emails.  I couldn’t exercise as Booya is web based.  Netflix sat idle. There was little Facebook time and hours spent scrolling through social media had to be limited.  It was like living in prison.  

One night after a super long day in the office I sat down to unwind, forgetting how bad free to air TV can be – and that I had no Netflix.  Frustration filled me and I dialed the all too familiar number of my so called buddies at the Help Desk.  It was time to finally get this shit sorted.

My final partner in crime was a sweet guy called Pratik.  He joked that most people called him Patrick as they weren’t sure how to pronounce his name. I scribbled it down so I wouldn’t make the same mistake.

Back and forth we went, testing various parts of my laptop and phone connections, along with the modem.  “Pretty sure I need a new one” I told him.  The testing continued.

I learned about Pinging – not the dance party drug type – along with other processes to check why nothing was working.  We chatted in between all the testing. He was polite and funny and apologized every time he had to put me on hold.  Finally after 42 minutes, he conceded defeat and we agreed that I’d order a new modem.  Told you that 45 minutes ago Pratik. Hallelujah. 

My shiny new modem arrived today.  It’s much bigger than the last one and flashes at me like a blackbox flight recorder.  To my surprise (and thanks to Optus’ super basic instructions) I was able to connect the internet within 20 minutes with little fuss.   Good on me. 

Now I’m back in the real world.   You might not hear from me for a while.  I have a lot of catch up TV to watch. 


Not dating, just watching

I have a new obsession. It snuck up on me a few weeks ago and I can’t feed it fast enough.  I’m addicted to reality TV shows that are about dating and relationships.

It started last year with First Dates, a show about, wait for it, people on first dates. Obviously I was drawn to it due to my own experiences of meeting total strangers in the hope of finding a connection.  At last count I’ve been on 36 first dates.  Most were fun, a few hideous, but I was lucky and met some great guys.  Some got a second date, some didn’t.  Sometimes it was my idea to end it, sometimes theirs.  That’s okay.  I guess. 

Watching First Dates reminds me of the nervousness and initial excitement you get, not knowing whether the person you’re about to meet will be nice, an idiot or a total waste of your time.  You wonder if you will click. Will you even like each other?  What if he tries to kiss me?  Will this go anywhere or will I leave, with the sad realization that I’m still single … and more first dates await.  First Dates (the show) brings all that awkward horror to life and I can’t look away because I have lived and breathed that pain (and occasional pleasure) over and over.

My favourite relationship show right now is Married at First Sight – classically manipulated by producers to suck us all in.  MyGod, they’re doing a great job.   Not only did the panel of experts “marry” total strangers, but they’ve managed to create stories of a runaway bride, a text message cheating scandal and plied contestants full of alcohol at dinner parties to ensure they go feral and make each other cry or storm off.  I am both horrified and in love it.  Thankfully there are couples who have actually found love and overcome hurdles (along with their emotions and dirty laundry being aired on television).  They give me hope and show the rest of us how to do it. 

I don’t usually like reality TV but these shows provide an insight into what people see in each other – or are looking for in a partner.  Over and over again, contestants turn down people who are all the things they’re looking for, but their patterns and exes cloud their judgement, making them walk away from potentially perfect partners.  This is usually where I start yelling “You stupid idiot, he’s perfect for you” at the television.  If only someone had been able to do that for me in my dating life.

The other horrible thing to watch is when couples (or one of them) cling to the ‘relationship’ when it’s obvious they’re not a good match and have nothing in common.   With Married at First Sight, I’ve watched men be rude and almost verbally abusive to their partners (one used the word frigid), but still the women stay in an effort to ‘work things through’.  What’s wrong with us that we can’t see when someone is treating us badly and we put ourselves last to stick it out.  If only someone had been around to yell “He’s an asshole Tan, start running” in some of my relationships.  If only.  

Bride & Prejudice is another ‘shock’ reality show that makes you wonder what the hell is wrong with people. It's based on couples wanting to get married and their selfish family members boycotting them for everything from religious beliefs (anyone gay on the show), being too young (sure, the girl is a bit of an overemotional psycho but he loves her) and the poor woman who is being ostracized by her sister because she’s much older than her fiancé.  Grow up people, marriage is a gift and you should be thankful your kids have actually met someone who wants to be with them. 

SBS have a full on dating show called Undressed.  You guessed it, couples meet for the first time and then …. Undress each other.  Talk about awkward.  For me as much as them.  They sit on a king sized bed in a bright, soulless white TV studio while a huge screen tells them what to do next in giant screaming text.  “TALK ABOUT YOUR MOST PAINFUL CHILDHOOD MOMENT.” “KISS EACH OTHER.” “SHOW YOUR TATTOOS AND PIERCINGS”.  “TAKE EACH OTHERS’ CLOTHES OFF”.

This is when I wriggle around in my seat.  It’s not sexy.  It’s just uncomfortable and I want to turn the lights down so they don’t have to see each other and neither do I.  It’s like the world’s worst First Dates meets Dating Nude (a show I can’t bear to watch).  Even worse, at the end of their few minutes together (it’s speed dating too) they have to punch YES or NO into an ipad by the bed in response to whether or not they want to see the other person again.  Dating is hard enough without rejection on a giant screen with the person sitting next to you.  Maybe it is better to lie to someone’s face and say “Let’s catch up again” as you walk off, knowing full well that’s never going to happen.

For light relief and an insight into dating in other cultures check out China’s If You Are the One.  It’s the ultimate dating game show where men pitch themselves at 24 single women who have all the power – they can turn him down by switching off the light on their console after just one look.  Harsh.  The male contestants create a cheesy video about their lives while the women decide if he meets their criteria or not.  If successfully matched, the couple gets to enjoy an overseas holiday (giving the airline a cheery endorsement at the end of the show).  If not they leave alone.  Broken.  The show has 50 million viewers. That’s a public humiliation I would never put myself through.  Being single is pretty good from where I’m sitting  (and watching). 


Everything old is new again 

I have a new couch.  Actually it’s a new old couch.  I had my sofa re-covered and I couldn’t be happier.  I am the Queen of Recycling.  Or is that Reusing?

I’ve had my couch for quite a few years and love it.  It’s super comfortable and fits perfectly into the alcove in my living room.  But yes, it’s seen its fair share of action (not that type of action) and was looking a little worse for wear.

Or as Soccer God noted, “Tan, no one is gonna want to sit on that couch anymore.”  Good call.

Friends tried to talk me out of getting it re-covered.   “Just buy a new one, you can afford it”, they scoffed at me.  “You work hard, you deserve something new.”  “If it’s not any cheaper, why don’t you just buy a new couch?”  On and on they went, trying to convince me that brand new was better than repurposed.  

I was determined to go down the recycling / reusing angle.  A friend has devoted her life to buying secondhand and runs Buy Nothing New Month. I’m not as dedicated as she is but I want to limit the footprint I leave on this earth if I can.  Off I went on my couch reupholstery journey. 

I received three quotes from different outlets.  Two were pretty much the same, with the third at least $800 more.  The “does more expensive mean better quality” question trolled through my head.  Maybe.  Maybe not.  $800 is a stack of cash.  That could also buy me some new second hand bedside tables. 

After a thorough research process (Google) I went with my first choice – and emailed to ask what happened next in the process.  A short email came back in broken English explaining that I needed to go to a local fabric wholesaler and choose the colour and material I wanted, then they’d recover my couch within three weeks.  Perfect.

I headed into said wholesaler a few days later and was overwhelmed to find rows and rows of fabric.  Around 3,000 samples at a rough glance.   Panic overtook me.  How would I choose something that would work for my space?

I have no idea what I’m doing here”, I said to the woman in the showroom.   She smiled and asked if I knew what colour I wanted as a starting point.  “Charcoal grey” I replied and she pointed to a wall of fabrics.  Much  better.  Only around 300 to go through. 

As I pulled sample after sample off the rack to check it out, it occurred to me that this is why a husband or boyfried would be handy.  I would have someone to discuss options with and if we didn’t agree, argue for a bit.  Then hopefully I’d get my own way (and have him confirm I’d made the right choice) and when the sofa arrived, stake my claim in its success (or his failure).  Doing this alone meant all the pressure was on me.  Don’t f*ck this up Tan, you do not want to be sitting on a $2,000 mistake for the next few years.

After a long time of deliberation and imagining the new colour and feel of my couch, I finally made a decision and off I went, a little bit pleased at myself, with swatches in hand.  This redecorating thing is a bit of fun.  

Three weeks later and I was still waiting for Mr Reupholstery to get back to me.  It seemed he had a nice Christmas break … and New Years break … followed by a Chinese New Year break.   Finally he confirmed he could collect my couch and we’d be underway.    “We come today”, he texted, “and you have back in three weeks.”  Okay, I can sit on the floor for a while.  I’ll just pretend I’m a minimalist.

Ten days later, Mr Reupholstery sends me a message: “Tanya, your couch ready. Bring $2100 cash and we deliver today”.

What?  I haven’t even seen the couch.  Two sweet Vietnamese men picked it up and lugged it down my staircase a week ago, but since then I’ve heard nothing.  What if this is a scam?  What if they’re going to come to my house, demand the cash and I’m poor, ripped off and couchless?  You see those stories on Today Tonight all the time and think “What an idiot”.  This will not be me.

“Hi there. Great.  Can you please send me photos too? Also I don’t have $2100 cash on me. Can I transfer into an account?”

“I will send photos.  Transfer $2310.”

Oh, right.  It’s all a little dodgy already.   GST he tells me.  Sure. 

“I can’t transfer the money until I see a photo so please send asap. Otherwise let’s do Monday. Thanks.”

The next day a shot of my supposedly newly covered couch arrives via text. It looks pretty good.  I scan the back of the picture looking for evidence of a hidden drug ring or other illegal activity.  Nope, just looks like a workshop.

It’s Saturday and I can’t bear the thought of sitting on my floor any longer.  My bum is numb.  I’ll transfer the money and pray someone delivers my couch today.

As I wait for Mr Reupholstery to arrive I check my watch.  He has $2,000 in his bank account and if he’s not here by 2pm, I’m calling the police.  I will not be on Today Tonight for my naivety and over trusting issues.

Suddenly my doorbell rings and two grinning middle aged Vietnamese men are carrying my couch up the stairs.  As they put it in place one remarks, ‘It’s like you had it specially made for this spot!” Exactly.  Tell that to my non-believing friends. 

Not only did Mr Reupholstery recover and add extra stuffing, he changed the cushions so they can now be rotated and cleaned (rather than stitching them all into place).  It’s a better couch than when I first bought it.  Hooray for recycling and reusing.  If only I could do that with people I know. 

(Note Asha the cat trying out the new couch ... for the first and last time.)


Decluttered and cashed up 


As my declutter mission continues I’ve found a huge bonus in getting rid of things in my life that I don’t use anymore.  I’ve saved myself a stack of cash.

It started with my Amex card which I haven’t used in two years.  I’ve had it for over 15 years but held on to it in case of emergencies (hello What If Girl) … also I really liked the combination of my lucky numbers on it.  I rang to cancel and had a lovely chat to the customer service woman, explaining that I signed up for it when I was married – but that had ended years ago.  She looked at my file and said “yes, it looks like your relationship with us lasted a lot longer than your marriage did”.  Ha, true so very true.  That declutter (my card, not my husband) saved me $80 a year in fees – that’s about 15 x skinny lattes. 

Other things I rarely use included my stove (ha, just joking) and my home phone.  I have it mainly to call my parents but now Mum has a new plan where she can call me for free (bonus) so I can ditch the landline too.

I called my friends at Optus and a lovely man with a cute Mexican accent talked me through my current bundle of home phone and internet.  As I stuffed my face with sushi (I was multi tasking during lunch) he found a better plan and saved me over $700 per year … aka 160 x skinny lattes.  I love Optus.  We’ve been together for 18 years.  I’m a big fan of loyalty – can you tell? 

Next stop was my life insurance and all the grown up stuff I hate paying for but might need one day.  When I worked with a financial planning group, they instilled in me the importance of setting myself up financially for the future – and protecting my assets – with superannuation, death and disability insurance and income protection.  Classic products for the community of What If’s.  

I rang my broker / friend Rick and explained the angst I felt every time the insurance company deducted hundreds of dollars from my bank account every month.  Surely I could put it to better use?   Extra mortgage payments.  Top up my super.  A new handbag?

As a single girl, I told him, I didn’t have any dependents – except for Asha the cat and her decadent lifestyle – so surely I didn’t need as much cover.   Also, I protested, if it all went to shit and I couldn’t work, I’d just move back to Rads and move in with Mum and Dad.   They’d love that.   Imagine the hilarious blogs I could write about chickens and country living. 

To my surprise, he didn’t try and talk me out of it, but checked all my policies and we found that combined with my work insurance I was a little ‘over-covered’ and we could remove some of the plans I had.  Awesome.  No point in leaving more money than necessary to the Spoilt Cats Society.  He recalculated and it looks like I’ll be saving over $3,500 a year.  That’s a LOT of skinny lattes. 

Sure I promised him I’d put it towards my mortgage but I really do need a new handbag.  That’s a good investment of my hard earned cash, right ladies?

Alternatively I could buy myself a coffee machine and make my own skinny lattes, but what’s the point of that.  I’m rich now, I could hire my own hot barista.