Shawn Willis-Croft joined TikTok during lockdown and had about 100 followers until two weeks ago. Then he posted his $10 lunchbox challenge and immediately went viral.
Willis-Croft, from Whanganui, now has more than 17,000 followers (and counting) on the social media platform, with people drawn into his videos of himself dishing out budget hacks and preparing cheap meals for his children's lunchboxes and for himself.
Speaking to the Herald from his home in Whanganui, he says he is still adjusting to this newfound popularity. He gets recognised when he goes out to the supermarket now, by children and adults alike. "I've had to learn to bro hug again," he said.
It all started a couple of weeks ago when the dad found himself short of cash and with two lunchboxes to prepare for his two children, Levi, 8, and Elijah, 6, who he looks after on two school nights each week.
In a clip posted to TikTok, he goes to Countdown with a single $10 note, and purchases bananas, rice crackers, apples, biscuits, ham and bread.
He spent a total of $9.87 on two days' worth of lunches for his sons and three lunches for himself.
"It is the result of necessity. I really only had ten dollars. It wasn't about cutting down because there's nothing to cut down from. I've had to stretch the dollar for quite a while," he says.
Willis-Croft is a former chef who is studying full-time for his degree in early childhood education.
He says managing his personal finances has been tough as a full-time student but is confident it will all be worth the effort once it turns into his new career.
"I never liked being a chef, it kind of happened by accident. I'm studying to be an early childhood teacher because that's something I feel I'll be good at," he explains.
"I really need money but I think if I stick to this career plan, I'll eventually have some again."
His thriftiness has also found an unexpected audience in students, who use his TikTok videos for inspiration on how to eat well on a budget.
"I've been getting heaps of positive feedback, heaps of congratulations and thanks. It's been quite amazing. I've helped a lot of people without realising. Got a lot of students commenting saying that," he adds.
The Whanganui dad says his popularity comes from the fact there are a lot of people struggling financially and having to make smart budget decisions.
Willis-Croft admits he hasn't "been able to afford to do a weekly shop in quite a while". He buys the absolute necessities at the cheapest price.
"I got for cheap and healthy over cheap and cardboardy," he says.
He says frozen vegetables are always a good buy and his other "go tos" are pasta and rice.
"You can make anything with those," he says.
When he is able to afford it, he buys meat. But if he can't buy meat, which he splits into several meals, he buys eggs, for protein.
His children, he says, are mostly happy with the meals they get. The lunchboxes usually come back empty, "except for the fruit, but they get fruit at school as well".
They also find it "hilarious" that dad has suddenly become an online sensation.
"I ran straight to them tell them when I hit 10,000 followers [on TikTok]. They were like 'that's a big number eh dad?'"
Since his first viral hit, which now has more than 300,000 views, Willis-Croft has shared some more of his cheap eats, including a recipe for "healthy spaghetti bolognese on a budget" and cheap nachos, which he says is his go-to meal.
The Whanganui dad never expected this kind of popularity, when he joined TikTok while New Zealand was in lockdown.
"I thought it was like Vine and I used to love those short videos. Then I joined TikTok and saw it's a lot more than that. I like the lipsyncers, the science people, I've picked up so many tidbits," he says.
"There's so much content on TikTok, everyone finds something they like on there. Also, there's heaps of positivity there. The platform is so much more inclusive [than Facebook or Instagram]. Instagram rewards you for prettiness and affluence. TikTok it's for us, regular people. It's our little zone."