Think Surviving on $5 a Day is Easy? This Guy Will Show You Otherwise

Think Surviving on $5 a Day is Easy? This Guy Will Show You Otherwise

With inflation continuing to rise along with the cost of housing and private transportation, there are genuine concerns about the affordability of life in Singapore now and in the future. While some of us might think that expatriates coming to Singapore to work have an easy life, one of our readers has experienced otherwise. He kindly shared his story with us:


First of all, I’d like to thank MoneySmart for giving me the opportunity to have my story told.

After reading Yahoo! Entertainment’s article a few weeks ago about being able to survive on $5 a day for food and transport, I couldn’t help but share my own $5 a day experience. While I applaud Bobby Tonelli and Rosalyn Lee for going through the experience for a day, I don’t think their experience even comes close to showing what 105,000 low-income Singapore families have to go through.

I’m not saying that I do either. Only those who live like that on a day-to-day basis really know what it’s like. But I can truthfully say (from the unlikely perspective of an “FT”) that I at least have a much better idea of what they go through after living on $5 a day for a month and a half.


Before the Arrival

I’ll admit that I was barely surviving as a junior designer with a small agency in California back in 2010. Times were tough, especially after the financial crisis. So yeah, that kinda had something to do with wanting to move overseas. That and my idiotic belief that finding a better job in Asia would be easy.

I’ll also admit that I suck at foreign languages. I took 4 years of Spanish in High School and another year at university and I barely managed to squeak by with a passing grade each time. So finding out that most Singaporeans spoke English was enough to convince me to move there. At least I would be able to spare locals the indignity of butchering their native tongue with my hopeless language skills.

After buying my ticket, scrounging up my savings (about $1,200 US dollars), receiving my EPEC, and booking a hostel, I was all set to go!


Enemy at the Gates

Contrary to popular belief, most “ang moh” foreigners don’t arrive in Singapore on First Class, walking through the terminal wearing an Armani suit with an SIA stewardess in each arm. Not me anyway. I arrived on a packed China Eastern Airlines flight that had so much turbulence, I was actually praying that it wouldn’t crash.

And when I finally passed through customs, I was wearing an old pair of cargo shorts and a Green Day t-shirt. And the only thing accompanying me was a damn ugly secondhand suitcase I purchased from a pawn shop the week before.

After changing money and taking a cab, I finally arrived at the hostel I booked online the month prior. At $18 a day for a 6-man room, it was the cheapest place I could find. $500 dollars later (for a month’s booking), I was lying on my bed, ignoring the burping Pakistani above me and the horny French couple making out on the bed across from mine.

I was SURE it wouldn’t take more than a month to land a job here…


Well hey, at least sleeping is free.


Idiocy Kills

As the days went by, I got to know the people around me. Many were Filipinos looking for work just like me, but most of them ended up leaving within two-weeks empty-handed. I struck up a friendship with an Indian national named “Kumar,” who slept on the top bunk opposite mine.

Here was a guy coming from a completely different situation than mine. While I was dealing with a bad economy, he was dealing with a hyper-competitive homeland where top professionals are more or less forced to look elsewhere for employment that pays them more fairly.

While I was acting more like a tourist instead of a serious job-seeker, sending my resume and portfolio to only a few companies in the morning, and sightseeing the rest of the day, he was sending them out nonstop.

After about 3 weeks, that’s when I started to get worried. I had only received one email back and my wallet was getting much lighter. I had completely underestimated how difficult it would be find employment here.

If I could compare my idiocy to anything, it would be to how the British completely underestimated the Imperial Japanese Army during the Battle of Singapore (something I learned from a history-loving cab driver who was kind enough to enlighten me about Singapore history).

The only difference was that my ass was the one getting kicked – by the tough Singapore job market.

By then, I figured that I probably wasn’t going to get a job unless I started being more like Kumar. So I booked another month, leaving me with about $150. I panicked! But Kumar helped me get my act together so I could plan my spending with the money I had left and put my job search into overdrive.

There would be no more food court, fast food, beer, soda, sightseeing, or slacking until I found a job.

But until that happened, my reality turned from tourist/job-seeker, to “Hunger Games” participant. It’s pretty appropriate really, considering I was fighting against hundreds of people for every job posting.

Here’s what I learned from my $5 a day experience:


1. You Will Suffer

At the time, I was a young, 25-year old in good shape. But making the switch from a lifetime of eating 2 or 3 meals a day to one meal a day at the Indian vegetarian stall downstairs ($2.50-$4.50) was pretty traumatic.

You never really get used to the stomach pains and constant growling that comes from not getting enough to eat.

I would actually buy bread to snack on if I wanted to quiet my stomach temporarily. If I ate particularly cheap one day, I would get myself a jar of jam or kaya to make snack time more flavorful. Kumar would also offer me some of the snacks he had (even though he was on a tight budget too), but I was too full of pride to accept more than half the time.

One thing is for sure, I was definitely was not getting the 2,000 calories nutritionists recommend for daily health.

I wouldn’t say I was starving, but I was losing weight. By time time my hard efforts finally landed the interview that got me my first job in Singapore, I had gone from about 72kg to 65kg.


2. You Will Need Support

That $150 dollars I had leftover barely lasted me the month. But by then I still had not landed a job, even though I was diligently searching for one.

I was broke. I was hungry. I was f****d.

My foolish hubris had put me in this situation. And I had to find a way to dig myself out of it. I was too far invested in my job search to turn back now. To borrow a line from my least favorite U.S. President, who got us involved in some unnecessary wars; I had to “stay the course.”

I had no choice but to pawn the only other thing of value besides my laptop, which I needed to continue my job search, my beloved Nikon D90 kit. To a designer, having to part from a high-quality camera is like having to eat your precious pet dog to keep from starving.

I guess I should put this under “suffering” too.

Unfortunately, I still had little money to pay for food after using the $500+ I got for my camera to pay for another month at the hostel. That’s when Kumar handed me $100, refusing to take it back because he felt I needed it more. At that moment, $100 had never meant so much to me in my entire life.

He just did what any decent human being would do – no, what any real friend would do.

Luckily, Kumar had just landed a job with an MNC, but was still living in the hostel while he searched for a room to rent. Even luckier, I managed to land my own job a little less than two weeks later.

When I say that you need support, I’m not just talking about money, I’m also talking about having good friends who can see you through tough situations.


3. You Will Change Your Perspective

My perspective on what needy individuals in Singapore have to endure is different from most because I wasn’t playing a $5 a day “game” that trivializes the experience. I actually went through it long enough to experience the real pain that comes with living at the “poverty” level.

When I look back, several things about living on $5 a day in Singapore become very apparent:

  • The Cost of Living is Ridiculously High: If you’re living at the “poverty” level, your daily expenses are already so tight that any small rise in the cost of food, housing, or transportation will have major consequences on your finances.
  • Everyday Purchases Become Luxuries: Many of the purchases you make on a daily basis such as that cup of Starbucks, Big Mac combo, potato chips, bubble tea, or even a $1.00 can of Coke become luxuries that you cannot afford.
  • Your Food Choices are Limited: Fish and meat go from being daily meals to only being served on “special” occasions. Rice, bread, and noodles make up 90% of your diet and price becomes the major determining factor in choosing what to buy.
  • Your Clothing Choices are Limited: Branded clothing becomes a thing of the past. Even plain, mid-tier brands are out of budget. You either have to rely on used clothing purchased from Salvation Army or on low- to mid-quality clothing from Geylang or Bugis Street. 

It’s been almost 4 years since I went through the experience. But the lessons I learned from it continue to influence my financial decisions and perspective on life in Singapore, especially when you consider that there’s a world of difference between living on a $5 a day budget and doubling it to $10 (which is my everyday budget).

But the sobering fact remains that while getting a job was all I needed to get out of my situation, there are many people out there who don’t have the choices or opportunities I had. And they’re stuck with $5 a day not for a month and a half like I was, but a lifetime.

Thank you for taking a few minutes to read my story.



If you live or have lived on $5 a day, we’d like you to share your experience with us on Facebook!

Image Credits:, Shamus Dollin