Dear Minister Macklin. This is what it's like to live on $35 a day.

The Hon Jenny Macklin MP, Minister for Families, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs.


Last week, Families Minister Jenny Macklin reportedly told a news conference that she could live on the dole – an allowance of $35 a day called ‘Newstart’.

Acting Leader of the Greens, Adam Bandt has since agreed to try living on the sum for one week himself, to show the Government that it is not enough money for a healthy existence.

He has challenged the Minister to do the same. Mamamia reader Amanda Lennestaal, knows what it’s like to live below the poverty line and has some tips for Minister Macklin if she takes up the challenge. Amanda writes:

Dear Ms Macklin,

It is with great interest that I have followed your assertion that you could live on $35 a day… and I have a few tips for you. You obviously don’t have to take them on board, but good luck to you if you don’t.

Savings: Have none. Simply operate a daily cash account with your local bank and pray that you don’t get the words ‘insufficient funds’ flash up at you when you are buying the necessary Nurofen for your toddler.

“Purchase no pre-prepared foods. You can make most things you need from scratch, including bread.”

Food: For our family of four, we aim to live on $100 a week with a margin that allows for another $20 as needed. To do this and ensure that your family gets a few nutrients along the way, you will need to ensure you shop this way:

– Go to the fruit and vegetable markets at around 1pm on a Friday. My research (including conversations with refugees) is that this is absolutely the cheapest time to pick up your fruit and vegetables. You will need time and cash for this. You obviously have to be able to pick through to find the freshest produce as it can be a little depleted by this time.

– Don’t buy meat. You will be iron deficient (but as you aren’t considering this a long-term survival strategy for yourself, don’t sweat it). I need iron supplementation but can’t afford it. There’s something quite attractive about the pallid look I have developed.

– Purchase no pre-prepared foods. You can make most things you need from scratch, including bread. All of this is time consuming, but you are a clever woman, you will work it out. A little game I like to play is ‘make sure I purchase only non-GSTable items’ when shopping at Aldi. I’m becoming terrifyingly proficient.

Greens deputy leader Adam Bandt

Social life: Nothing really to say here. You can’t afford one really. It costs money to go out with friends, so don’t. It costs money to have people over, so try to limit it to morning or afternoon tea when you can whip up a cake or batch of biscuits at minimal cost. Pray that there is no overlap into dinner time as it’s considered shameful to offer your guests some frozen vegies and a boiled egg.

Telephone: Nix the home phone. Who can afford line rental? Search around for the absolutely cheapest mobile phone deal you can find. After all, you need to be able to call government departments. As you don’t have many friends left, your costs are neatly cut here.

Car: It’s hard to live where we live without a car and I can imagine you might need to get around. Make sure you don’t use the aircon in your car. It’s expensive and besides, ours doesn’t work. Your petrol budget is an absolute maximum of $20 a week so keep it local. Catch public transport where you can and make sure you drag along a few young children with you so you can see what it’s like to get around when the lifts don’t work at train stations.


You also should have something fundamentally wrong with your car, like ours, where you need to top it up with water before you drive anywhere. It means careful planning of when you drive between places as you need to make sure you don’t burn yourself topping up the water when it’s still warm.

Health: It pretty much goes without saying that it’s not the finest it will ever be. I would recommend you have a few sleepless nights and adhere to a high-carb diet before you commence this undertaking so that you might feel sufficiently depleted. Good healthcare costs money. Make sure you put yourself on a public dental list at least a good year before you need the care. Might be a bit late for this for you, so just stock up on paracetamol in case you have a dental problem throughout the week. Paracetamol is cheaper than going to a dentist.

Families lining up outside Centrelink.

In our world, you would have a healthcare card. Do however make certain that throughout the week Centrelink sends you a letter cancelling your healthcare card for some baffling reason. Luckily you will have boundless time for sitting on-hold for them to reinstate it after some apparent ‘glitch’ caused the problem. If you are unfortunate like me and have a condition that requires treatment with a non-PBS drug, then you are really going to have a rough time.

You are going to have to spend hours waiting in emergency departments for rehydration and drug treatment. That doesn’t cost a cent. Lucky. Shame about the kids that need to be farmed off to some poor relative, friend or neighbour. If you are lucky, they will admit you to hospital. That’s another few days where you don’t need to worry about the cost of your medication. Win! Just so you know, $75 every few days is pretty rough when you are already living on $220 a week.

Children: I am thankful that my children are young and really have no idea how difficult it is for us to provide for them. I am also thankful for our Family Tax Benefits. I am aware that there are many nations that don’t provide these benefits to its residents. Once our third child is born mid-year I am pretty sure we will start to break even. We will receive a ‘large family supplement’ of $11.76 a fortnight. Might even buy carrots and tomatoes in the same week.

Housing: This is the tough one, particularly if the educational institution you attend is in a big city. They say Sydney is a pretty expensive city in which to live. Base yourself here. You might realise just what your real estate dollar doesn’t get you. We are fortunate to live in subsidised student accommodation. You do however have to settle for fairly run-down accommodation that is very damp and causes you all a few health issues. Our dream is a humidifier but that costs money to buy and run, so we just stick with portable fans.

Energy costs: My husband and I care about the environment, but those kind of notions have to go out the window. No such thing as green energy in our house. Cheap all the way. Make sure you do your laundry once it kicks over to off-peak (your washing machine may be leaking so make sure you don’t hurt yourself when you fall over endlessly in the laundry). Don’t boil the kettle too many times in a day, try not to use the microwave and make sure you fill the oven as much as possible, i.e. bake a cake and a chicken at the same time. They both may taste a little funky, but you can’t afford to be that fussy.


Employment: My husband has casual employment that fits around both his and my study schedule. It begins to make up the huge gap that our Centrelink benefits don’t cover. I have tried to find work, but no one wants to employ a pregnant woman on a casual basis. I am ‘over-qualified’ for many jobs despite my willingness to undertake them. At least you will have time for your careful menu and budget planning.

Financial planning: Realise that it costs a lot to register your car and then panic when you realise how much you need to save on a monthly basis in order to make that happen. Depend on the benevolence of family members to help pay costs like these. We are fortunate but many of my welfare companions are not in such a position.

There, that just about covers it for now. You can come and stay with us for the week if you would like. I would really appreciate the rent relief. You would need to pay us $190 for your own room. This is the going rate for a boarding house in Sydney. Best bit: ours comes disease free (except for the mould) and even has a working smoke detector. That would give you a maximum of $30 a week for all food, bills and life expenses. Let me know how that goes for you.

Yours in future mutual poverty,

Amanda Lennestaal

NB. The author is not a Newstart payment recipient. She is currently on Parenting Payment (Partnered) while her husband receives Austudy. The rates of these payments are actually less than Newstart. The author is also aware that her family has chosen to be in this position whilst Newstart recipients are battling a plethora of other unimaginable complexities as well.

This letter was originally published here, and has been republished with full permission. 

 Amanda Lennestaal is a full-time student, mother of two toddlers (with another child on the way) and wife of an equally mad Swede. She sometimes fantasises about the days when she used to wear power suits, ridiculous heels and could indulge in long, child-free business lunches. In her spare time she feels guilty about her defunct blog:

Could you survive on $35 per day? Do you think the Minister could get by? 

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