The Five Dollar Question

Reading Time: 7 minutes

By Gao Wenxin (14A03A)

What can you get for SGD$5?


Last December, I had been dared by my dear friend Chin Wee to take on the $5 Challenge. Challenge accepted, I thought, Barney Stinson-style. The premise of this activity seemed simple enough: go about your daily life with only $5 a day, including food and transport. It was a novelty initiative started by the website Singaporeans Against Poverty, to encourage people to experience the daily budget of some 387,000 Singaporeans with a household income of less than $1,500. Chin Wee had argued that since I was doing an internship in the CBD at that time, I was practically the perfect living model of a working adult. Perfect, if only it wasn’t also one of the most expensive places to work on this island.

Perhaps I should preface this by saying that my family had actually lived in similar circumstances when I was younger. Here I borrow the words of Alice Munro, when her character Edie had started work in a wealthy house: “I thought it was still a lot easier, living the way we lived at home, to picture something like this, the painted flamingos and the warmth and the soft mat, than it was anybody knowing only things like this to picture how it was the other way.” My family’s situation has improved vastly since then, but I know a number of my schoolmates who probably cannot imagine poverty and think it a far-flung third-world concept. But even if you do not find homeless beggars starving on the streets, many Singaporeans face relative poverty, when their income falls below what is needed to pay for living necessities. Poverty is not a distant concept at all.

So while everyone was stocking up on chocolate santas, I was bracing myself for this period of self-enforced austerity. And I braced myself again. And again. I could not take the plunge because it just seemed too difficult. My round-trip commute from Toa Payoh to Clarke Quay will have cost $2.42 already, if I was a paying adult. The Starbucks peppermint mocha ($7.20) I had yesterday would have busted an entire day’s budget all by itself, and the cheapest thing I could find in the CBD food market was fishball noodles ($3.30). The first thing I realised before even starting the challenge was that small daily costs add up to become expensive, and it takes someone with pinched pockets to feel the sting.

Given the odds, I figured that if I was in it to win it, I might as well take one for the team. I managed to work out a plan to take advantage of the free MRT rides in the mornings before 7.45am, and also save 10 cents in the evening by taking the MRT from City Hall (1km walk from my workplace) instead of Clarke Quay (650m). That left me with $3.89 to spend on my three meals, and I set out to the supermarket, hopeful that I will solve my personal bread-and-butter issues.


But it was depressing. Especially because the Spirit of Christmas was beckoning me with its goodies and unaffordable price-tags.

Turns out, there was little I could buy with $3.89 except maybe, bread and butter. For those of us who take Economics, you can definitely see Engel’s Law (i.e. when income decreases, the proportion of income spent on food rises) at work here in real life. Food is expensive for the low-income. Making a decision at the shopping aisle no longer involves grabbing whatever strikes your fancy, but a complicated game of mental sums. Do I buy the $2.20 loaf of average Gardenia bread, or the awful $1.70 house brand loaf with twice the amount of slices? Should I spend $0.65 on a cheap cereal bar which will fill me for breakfast, or an apple to compensate for a balanced meal but will leave me hungry? What about butter? Could I do without it? Isn’t margarine, like, the same thing?

With a limited shopping budget, taste and nutrition often gets thrown out of the window. It’s hard to think about the food pyramid when you are wondering whether you should spend the $1.70 on a celery stick, or a loaf that will give your whole family the energy to start the day. This is because supermarkets often sell items like bread below costs of production to draw customers to the store, in order to persuade them to buy mid-to-high range products with a higher profit margin. The poorer lose out because they will be falling for discounts on poor quality or unhealthy processed food, since there is almost never an offer on the celery stick. [1]

So, here’s the hard truth: $5 in Singapore really isn’t worth much. I left the supermarket with only four purchases to last me for the day: bread ($1.70 for 18 slices), canned soup ($1.50, but I will only need half a can for dinner, so $0.75), tom yam cup noodles ($0.80), and an apple ($0.65). The tally was $3.90, and unfortunately I have still exceeded the remaining budget by 1 cent. Unbelievable. Disastrous as it is, I decided that I will simply make it up as I go along, and went to bed.

“Wake up, Wenxin! Aren’t you supposed to be poor today, or something?” said a voice as I rolled back to sleep. No, wait. I looked at the clock. 7.07am. I was supposed to be washed, dressed, and out of the City Hall gantry in 38 minutes. No way. I dashed out of my house and on my way, but time ticked by. At 7.44am the train was just pulling into Dhoby Ghaut. A terrible idea begin forming in my head. I made a last ditch effort to salvage the situation and sprinted out of the station.

The good news was that I made the 7.45am cut. The bad news was that I was also 1.4km away from my workplace, with no money to take other forms of transport, and separated by the Fort Canning Hill.


I did not have a data plan to check my location, or any sort of plan really, and it must have been so strange to see a girl in a dress sweating it out on the steps of Fort Canning while parading a giant loaf of bread. I also got desperately lost. In fact, I made it past three museums and the treasury building before finding my way past this former graveyard, but fortunately got to the office unscathed after the longest 30 minutes of my life.

Putting away my things at the cubicle, I went to heat up my breakfast, which was essentially just 2 pieces of plain bread and free workplace coffee. Nothing to get excited about, really. It unfortunately didn’t take 2 slices for me to get sick of the sour and yeasty taste, so I stopped eating, but this decision cost me. I was hungry for the rest of the morning, unable to get out of an important meeting.


After 4 hours with a queasy stomach, however, I am ashamed to admit that I failed the challenge many times over the course of the day as my resolve wavered. We had served refreshments to some guests at the meeting, and as an intern I obviously felt it my duty to clear the leftover Swissbake pastries (into my stomach). After which we had our lunch (small restaurant, nothing remotely under $5) paid for by our colleagues because it was our last day of work, and I could not possibly refuse. I did somehow wrestle my conscience into walking to City Hall for my trip back home, but when I returned I found the dinner table set for my place because my grandfather had predicted that I would fail. I had lost the challenge, and disgracefully so.

Feeling that it was too soon for me to give up just yet, I decided to set aside the next day to repeat the feat. And I actually passably succeeded, by spending less than the allotted amount. The only questionable move I made was to avoid a rehearsal in school to save on transport (shh), but in real life unexpected costs are sometimes unavoidable. No amount of planning can prepare for uncertain illness or injury, a sudden appointment at an inconvenient location, or your classmates deciding to go for a spontaneous meal that you cannot really afford.

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And here exists the real five-dollar question I should be asking: What have I learned? Beyond the challenge’s gamification of suffering underlies a message that poverty is cruel and humiliating, and that food poverty is particularly inhumane and a real public health issue. As a developed country with one of the highest rates of income inequality, we could do much better as a country to help the needy.

Harper Lee once said that “you never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view… Until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it.” If there is a lesson to be learned from this challenge, perhaps you should try it for yourself. But then again, the fact that we can choose to partake in this challenge and give up whenever we wish reveals the privilege that we enjoy. Have I truly experienced poverty? No. It was a sanitised version of reality, an experiment with controlled variables. Sure, I may have gained some superficial understanding by stepping into their shoes for a day. For the 387,000 Singaporeans facing this daily reality however, there is no stepping out.



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44 thoughts on “The Five Dollar Question”

  1. I just want to point out that canned soup and tom yam noodles are processed foods and are thus more expensive. There ARE cheaper options but you have to cook. For example 1kg of mixed vegetables cost $3.80 (Ntuc brand). That’s about 6 cups so if you have about 10 cents rice, 60 cents mixed vege and 2 eggs 40 cents, th’ats $1.10 for a good meal. For dinner, buy a pack of minced pork which is $2.50 for 250g. You probably need half for dinner. Fry that with half a pack of vegetables (xiao bai cai say) which is $0.55 plus 10 cents of rice (this is based on half cup rice which is about 80g … assuming you buy the cheapest vietnamese rice at $6 per 5 kg). That makes dinner for about $1.80. This leaves a dollar for breakfast which could be just 40 cents if it’s 2 slices of bread and butter. Total is $3.30. Fruit is rather expensive but it’s ok to leave out fruit in favour of vegetables. However, I do agree that it will be hard for those struggling to make ends meet to shop and cook if they have many jobs. However, those who put in the effort will find that it pays off in health and fills the stomach too. Your food choices were high in msg and low in nutrients which may be detrimental to health if these were your daily food choices.

    1. That’s the thing about being poor: when you’re hungry, tired, and need a quick meal, the seemingly ‘cheaper’ options always look ideal. When you’re already struggling to make ends meet, as well as to pay for gas, water, electricity, and in worst case scenario, don’t even know if you have enough in the bank to pay for this month’s bills, you’re probably just going to grab the cheapest options.

      That’s why obesity, heart problems, cancer, etc. isn’t necessarily a ‘rich man’s disease’ as many people like to put it; it’s very much related to poverty and the quick availability of fast, cheap, processed meals. Plus, if you’re used to eating processed food for a long time, fresh food will just taste weird and different and probably bad at first.

      Also, when you’re poor, you tend to think less about saving for bigger or future investments, and are more likely to spend it on big, immediate purchases while you have the cash, because you don’t know if you’ll even have cash the following month. This doesn’t apply to everyone, I know. But as a general trend, it does happen.

    2. Hi Linda, thank you for your comment! I very much agree that my choices were quite unhealthy, because my instinct was to pack out my day with carbohydrates (bread) and then go with whatever that went well with bread and was comforting and safe (tinned soup). I also planned the instant noodles because I could not find a microwave at my office, and many people of diverse professions probably find it inconvenient to take packed food to work as well.

      I think I made some safe and easy decisions, because as you mentioned, it takes a lot of work to plan cheap meals. This is especially so because I am relatively inexperienced in cooking, and many of us students probably have no idea where to start or how to shop. For a start, I know that RI boys do not receive home economics lessons, and for girls cooking lessons start with all the ingredients prepared. I really appreciate the efforts of my previous home economics teachers, but why is it that most students are not really taught how to shop and cook inexpensive meals from scratch?

      I did do some research on ways to cook healthily, and there is a UK website on budget recipes that I rather liked (A Girl Called Jack). She was a mother living in poverty, and I was particularly surprised by a piece she did on cooking “microwave meals”, in which she managed these meals from scratch at a even lower price than before. I’ve put the links below, but I was thinking that more resources like that in a Singapore context (much like the suggestions you made) can prove to be very useful. It takes a lot of effort to cook and plan, but such resources can definitely make it less discouraging than it is right now.

      1. I have to agree with Linda, cooking is indeed more economical. Then again, your experiment was on a per-day basis, hence there was no need for you to buy huge amounts of rice or noodles to last you for days or weeks.

        As for Yuki, like you said, people in poverty are more likely to spend their money on big, immediate purchases, hence I believe they’d rather spend $10 at a go for a huge bag of rice that could last them multiple meals than $1 for a cup noodle (not exactly the cheapest option).

        Oh and Wenxin, don’t worry, cooking is not that hard and can be quite enjoyable (even for an ex-RI boy like me who didn’t have any home economics lessons). When faced with such “adversity”, boiling rice and stir frying a handful of dishes will become trivial with practice.

      2. It is not true that in Homec class, u are not taught to shop. In the lower sec syllabus, any homec teacher would her salt would have taught the students those basics….
        However, I must say wenxin, I like the fact that u took up the challenge and reflected on the lessons learnt. Not many ppl care to consider what is our dollar worth these days.

    3. I was just about to say .. when I read the article, my first thoughts were – why’s he working on a daily budget? Why not spread $5 a day into a month, which would work out to be roughly $150. With that amount, I’d buy fresh/frozen vegetables, some stamples (rice/beehoon/noodles etc) and a little meat. Cooking at home and packing it to work is more healthy and would be a vastly more satisfying meal.

  2. Woah, reading your entry reminded me of the times when I was desperately trying to pull savings together in London. I know, I am very fortunately and my family, though thrifty, have never suffered for want. To be able to take the step to study overseas in a prestigious college was immensely good fortune, but I also had to figure out a way of paying for 3 years of school fees with savings enough for only a year.

    Between working to earn and cutting daily expenses, I made many choices that I now know to be foolish.

    But your point about food caught me. It is very true!
    In London, public transport costs about £70 a month (on a student concession). After £300 for rent and bills, £5 to top-up my mobile phone credits, I was left with £25 for everything else.

    That meant no socializing. It’s often more painful and even considered rude to take part in a social function but not spend. e.g. Going to a cafe with friends but telling them you’re not hungry and will just sit, going to a pub to stand in the corner without a drink etc. (your closest friends will understand, but your peers will think you’re a miserable sod)

    With £20 for a month’s grocery also meant picking cheap bulk items (those massive loafs of bread that never seem to expire!), dubious alternatives (I ever found a canned curry for 0.10pence. That’s 21cents. I was amazed. My stomach wasn’t), and sacrificing nutrition for a price cut (chocolates are often much cheaper than fruits and vegetable. A bar of Tesco value chocolate keeps longer and costs less than perishables like broccoli and carrots)

    After just a month of doing that, I start to feel the effects of constant junk food and low nutrition. Moody, constantly thinking of food, lethargic. Needless to say, after more months, you do lasting and possibly irreparable damage to your health

    1. Perhaps no one. But after paying for bills and other things for your family that is so dependent on you, that might be close to what you have left.

      1. Straits Times recently just ran an article about the construction site workers making $1.50 an hour. At 8 hours a day, they make about $288 per month (assuming they don’t work on weekends). Nonetheless, its a good article. Worth reflecting indeed.

  3. I’m a Singaporean taking my masters degree overseas and I understand how it is to live in poverty. Thankfully I live in a tiny rented apartment for 1 person within walking distance to my school (about 30 min walk on way) so I don’t spend on transport fees. Like Linda said, cooking is a much cheaper and healthier option. I usually cook 2 meals and pack it into a lunch box before school so I don’t have to buy any food. It also tastes better than outside food.

  4. In all honesty, it is very difficult to live on $5/day. Linda, you have to understand that people who are not well fed tend to make bad decisions. Hence the processed food.

    Kudos to Wenxin for giving the challenge a go. I wasn’t poor but during my school days, I was only given $100/month to survive on. Good thing was that there’s student concession. If not, I’d be starving the whole day till I reached home.

  5. Courageous effort Ms Gao. hope you will think deeper on what can be done for those who really cannot make ends meet.

  6. Amazing….I think I could live on $5 a day two decades ago but not now at this time and age.

    It is extremely heartening to know that a compassionate young woman exist, we need more young people like you

  7. Just wanted to say, $5 a day or $150 a month. Low income families don’t live off daily paychecks.

    With $150 a month, you can buy fresh food at the wet market in bulk, make sure you ask for discount when buying bulk and still be able to have a balanced meal by making your own meals.

    No poor person is going to waste money on expensive processed food.

  8. Shaddup.
    This is very well written. I am so going to use this in my civics moral lesson (okay, so I’m a cheap schoolteacher). Permission please? :)

    1. Hi,

      I’m the teacher-in-Charge of Raffles Press and we are very honoured that you would consider using this as an educational tool. I hope your students find it as meaningful.

      1. Sorry, haven’t come back to this for a while. Sure I’ll let you know how the lessons turn out. Keep up the good work, guys!

      2. Well everyone seems to be commenting on Raffles team blog.. Hope rafflesians can give a good commentary over the 5 dollar issue

  9. @Cav
    S$ 1500 or less is household income. It gets shared between all members of the household. It pays for rent or mortgage, utilities, phone. clothes etc. In short, all other expenses that cannot be avoided.

    If a household is 4 persons, $5 / day / person is already $ 600. That leaves $ 900 for the above mentioned items…

  10. Really? Singapore has one of the highest inequalities in developed countries? Never knew that. Please let me know the source. I’d be sincerely happy to have a look :)

  11. when I have read this review, I was totally mesmerised because this situation completely fits my story. I can relate to it so much, too much.

    I have to save a lot, to the extent that I would have to skip most of my meals and reduce all my spending to a few dollars. its like what ‘they’ said; wake up in the afternoon, keep yourself busy for the rest of the day until the night. sleep and repeat.

    if im lucky, maybe 1 simple meal every 2 or 3 days? but i would feel so guilty spending that 1 dollar. for example; 70 cents for a plate of vermicelli? 1 dollar for 1 cup of milk? Every decision, i have to be so careful because, every cent is a cent.

    my apologies for the bad English, but im so emotional regarding this topic, im just. wow,

    * cant thank my computer enough for distracting me and keeping me busy. since i cant go and work, the distraction would keep me free from hunger ’24 hours a day’. cant say 24/7 through

  12. I try to try this (if you can get what I mean).

    It’s really tough to do it on a sustained basis.

    The good thing for most of us is that we can step out of our self imposed proverty. Quite a number of fellow Singaporeans can’t.

    The first time I know a homeless lad by the first name basis, I went to visit his homeless home after a few months acquaintance. I visited his and his friends place twice. They were very humbling experiences. Slightly uneasy for me at first.

    His refuge at East Coast Park consists of a simple recycled tent and clothes in a bag which doubles up as a pillow. Some neighbours have more elaborate barang barang of jelly cans (to store water from the nearby public washroom), cooking utensils, small shopping trolleys etc.

    Their daily life, especially when it rains, can get quite miserable. Some have work which gets them a few hundred a month as cleaners or security guards. Others odd jobs or recycling paper/carton boxes/aluminium cans.

    Some will walk kilometres to work to save on transport. Some will retrieve half eaten food from dustbins. Some will eat food leftovers at hawker centre tables before it gets cleared by cleaners or birds.

    The reason I wrote this is because I want more fortunate Singaporeans to see the unseen/forgotten groups of human beings around us. They are down and presumably at their lowest period of their lives.

    Do we choose to not see the needy begging for money at public places, to treat them like specks of dust and walk past, totally denying their insignificant existence? I too am guilty of that in the past.

    Most of the time they are not only begging for survival. They are begging for inclusion into the society. They are begging for love/to be loved. I am not encouraging you to donate money. That many can do.

    I am encouraging you to spend a bit of time and take them for a warm meal, talk to them, to share a bit of their life.

    What you do might give someone at their darkest hours the impetus to choose life and face his/her struggles and not the easiest option – that is to end all hope n life.

    You will show that the people of this society still cares, humanity is alive and that there is – hope.

  13. Just to share.. I cook oatmeal n bring to work everyday. I estimate it costs about 20 to 30 cents cos I can cook many portions of oatmeal w one tin. It is nutritious n filling. And it provides fibre too. :) I think it’s great u documented ur experience n shared it w ppl. I agree w u that it’s hard to survive w just 5 bucks. What can we do to help these ppl?

  14. It’s hard to survive on day with allocated amount. The given amount could only satisfy a small fraction of food for the start of day .

  15. eating leftovers is fine. The amount of food people waste at food courts is ridiculous. You can dine free by sliding over to someone’s place once they get up and leave a less than half eaten plate of food.

  16. Do you have to be so damn long winded.quit finishing your story after second paragraph. Get to the point early. N a lot salt n pepper words please…..

  17. Nice effort at being poor… nv knew how a cleaner or security guard could make 1-1.2k and raise 2 kids in a 1 room rental… its sad that poor people still opt to have kids, bringing them into a world where your next meal is a worry or having to live on govt help (rental flats, subsidised utilities, school fees etc) maybe they should have an incentive scheme for the poor to be paid not to have kids and prevent the poverty cycle from perpetuating…

  18. apart from lamenting the cost of living, shouldnt the alternatively solution to saving be trying to earn more? 

  19. Like the author of the article, my aunt who is a cleaner walks an extra 500m every day so that she can save the money on the transfer from bus to mrt.

    This is the segment of the population that is affected when coffee prices go up by 10 cents or when power/water/transport prices increase.

    Having said that, the article is somewhat self serving for the following reasons:

    1) Generally the folks that survive on $1,500 a month do not work in CBD

    2) People who make that kind of money (like my aunt) pack their meals to work so that they do not have to buy it from a stall holder. As highlighted in the comments, if you are less well off, you tend to de-prioritize ‘processed food’ like canned soup for cheaper options that you can cook.

    3) I think that the article could at least make mention of the efforts to raise the income for the lowest segment of the population eg. the cleaners and security guards.

    As I have said before, the raising of the basic salary for cleaners to $1000 is a game changer for folks like my aunt. She now no longer has to take cleaning jobs over the weekend to supplement her income. The article also does not make mention of how the government has helped this segment of the population to buy flats using their CPF and various grant mechanisms.

    I agree that there is much that can be done, but would like to see private individual and companies (like EDIS) do more – as opposed to delegating the work upstairs to the ‘country.’

    “As a developed country “with one of the highest rates of income inequality, we could do much better as a country to help the needy.”

    1. Not sure if that was the pure intention of the author. I believe if you follow the comments, it is more for social awareness than the former.

      Regarding the government initiatives on raising wage, i think it is easy to find compliments or criticism to support either side of the argument. That said, reality remains that much more remains to be done by all members of the society. However, if we fail to put ourselves in the shoes of the lower income or choose to forget them, then i feel that it will be inevitable that the inequality may worsen as the country continhes to develop.

  20. This is why I’ve stopped caring too much and become hardened and cold. I’m mercenary minded and always looking to find a higher paying. Whoever pays me more is my new boss. Screw the system it doesn’t work. Just stay loyal to the highest bidder.

  21. If I am not wrong, I think Raffles Press should consider adding a watermark over the 5 dollar note. I do not think the authorities allow photos of legal tender without watermarks to circulate.

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