By Sharmila Valli Narayanan
It started with a bet. My sister Shashi dared me to live on RM900 a month. The Minimum Wages Order 2012 had just come into effect a few months ago. “Some people raise families on minimum wages. You are single, surely it can’t be that hard to try and live on minimum wage,” she said
My financial situation was in dire straits. I had been freelancing for nine years. While I love the freedom of time that it gave me – no need to wake up early and join in the mad morning hour rush – I did not like the fact that my monthly income was uncertain. Some months when the cheques were late, I felt very poor and sank into depression. When the cheques came on time – and sometimes there was more than one cheque – I never felt richer in my life.
My carefully built savings over the years when I earned very well had dwindled down to nothing. So there was no savings to turn to when I was down on cash. Since I don’t drive and depend on public transportation, I was very conscious that I needed to have some cash in hand to pay for them. Unlike some countries, including Singapore, where you can pay the cab fare with credit card, in Malaysia, it’s all cash.
Most months when cash was really low, like most people I turned to credit cards to pay for groceries and other essentials. Over time, my credit card debts began to rise. I have to admit that I was never frugal even when my situation demanded it. I did not believe in the penny saved, a penny earned stuff; I was more of a believer of the penny spent is a penny enjoyed line of thought. But the debts kept increasing and it got to a point where even when I got paid more than RM10,000 for one project, almost three quarters of it was gone within days to pay off my credit card debts.
In an effort to rein in my spending, my sister suggested that I live on RM900 a month. I would use this money only for paying for my food, transportation and other expenses. Payment for my bills – my cell phone, my share of the utility bills, my share of the housing loan and credit card bills – would not come under the RM900 because the total amount of the bills was much more.
“RM900 works out to around RM30 per day. Surely you can live on that amount?” my sister asked. It looked like a fairly decent amount to live on and I agreed. And so began my experiment to live on RM900 for a month.
I started this experiment in June. I withdrew RM900 and kept it at home to remind me that that was all the cash that I had for the month. And so I began my experiment into the unknown world – for me at least – of living within RM900 – the minimum wage.
(The Minimum Wages Order 2012 was finally enforced on January 1, 2013 when minimum wages were set for Peninsular Malaysia at RM900 monthly and the daily wages at RM4.33. In East Malaysia it is at RM800 and RM3.85, respectively.)
I can tell you right off that it was not easy. So many things that I took for granted were suddenly off limits. Top of the off limits list was eating out. We are not talking about eating at five-star restaurants but at the neighbourhood Chinese restaurants. If before I did not bat an eyelid at having to fork out RM40 as my part of the bill for a meal with three dishes, now these things were a luxury I could not afford. How can I pay RM40 or even RM20 for one meal when my limit was only RM30 per day?
I learned to bring food from home whenever I had to go out for projects. Since I hardly cooked at home this meant bread, butter and jam. And if I had to eat out, I had to be very careful of what food item I chose. For example, at Indian restaurants, I had to go vegetarian most of the time as choosing chicken meant it was an extra RM4 and my bill (together with a drink) would come up to RM8 to RM10 depending on where I ate. If it was in Bangsar, it would be quite high. I would try to keep my food bill to around RM5 the most per meal.
Somehow controlling the food bill was easier in the days when I was at home. Usually I ate bread, cereals, Maggi Mee or Nestum. I told a few of my close friends and cousins about my experiment. They, including my sister Shashi, would take me out for meals because they felt sorry for me. Bread and Maggi mee became my best friends.
There was one incident that left me very down. I was meeting up with some friends and they met in one of those cafés in Bangsar. I was too proud to tell them that I was on a RM900 a month budget. At other times I would have joined them and paid my share of the bill via credit card. But this time I did not have the option.
All that I could afford in that café was a bowl of French fries and one café latte. And that too came up to nearly RM20! I was hoping some of my friends would notice that I was not eating as usual and decide to share their food or at least guess that I was under some financial strain and buy me a meal. Alas! No such luck. I could not bring myself to tell them and they assumed that I had already eaten or was on some kind of weird diet that included fried potatoes.
Food was not the most expensive item on my list. What really drained my finances was paying for public transportation.
Next week: Public transportation in Klang Valley on a shoe-string.