There is a lot of noise around currently about being poor. You have Jamie Oliver spouting that you’re not really poor if you have a big TV and you have the blogger “A girl called Jack” showing how you can live on a tenner a week to name just two. There are debates raging about what you should and shouldn’t have if you are poor and what you should and shouldn’t eat.
I know that some of you may scoff that I don’t know what its like to be poor. And you’re right – I don’t, not any more. I have a well paying job. I shop at Waitrose, I buy new clothes, I go out for dinner at restaurants. I go on holiday. But once upon a time, I was poor. So poor I stole food from my flatmates, bought a weekly shop on just a couple of pounds and had to raid the penny tin to pay for my rail fare only to find I was a penny short!
I grew up always being aware of money. I remember having friends over and being sent to the chip shop to buy dinner for us with £10 – what we ordered came to more than I had, so I ran home to get some more money. I remember feeling so guilty when mum scraped around for the extra money and told me that I had spent too much. My dad was still alive so I must have been younger than 10. I also remember being lent some money by a friend at after-school club to buy something from the tuck shop and then feeling guilty for borrowing 50p because I had always been told “never a lender or borrower be”. When mum came to collect me I cried when I had to ask her for the money to pay my friend back. Mum was pregnant with my little sister – so I would have been around 8.
My dad died when I was nearly 10 and I was brought up in a single parent household from then on. Mum worked full time but money was always tight. I used to refuse to go to shopping with mum because she would follow the lady with the yellow reduced sticker machine around the shop and I was ashamed of this behaviour. I would never tell anyone that we lived in a council house. But there was always food on the table, hot running water, heating, lighting, nice presents at Christmas and on our birthdays, weeks away (although admittedly some of those weeks away were paid for by my mum’s friend) and oh yes – and a TV Mr Oliver! But we got it through Radio Rentals and paid silly amount of money each week to have it. Does this make me poor? Or just low income? I’m not entirely sure.
University was when being poor really hit me. I studied law and I went to a rich university town and I was the only one there who wasn’t being supported. For my first term – with an overdraft of £1,000 – I tried to keep up with my fellow students. Drinking, buying nice food, eating out, clubbing, a whole new wardrobe. By the November all my money had gone and I had to resort to raiding my mother’s cupboards on weekends home. Then came the letter from uni accommodation telling me that they mistakenly hadn’t taken my rent from my account in my first few weeks and I now owed them £600. A call to my mum in floods of tears, followed by my mum ringing her friend in floods of tears (because she also couldn’t lay her hands on that money) and then another tearful phone call from me to my mum’s friend to thank her for lending me the money.
That Christmas I worked two jobs just to pay my mum’s friend back.
My first two years at Uni were really hard money wise. I got a job in my second year at a nightclub. The pay was awful and because it was a dodgy establishment I didn’t actually get paid until the January – four months after I started working for them! The gut wrenching horrible things I had to get through included:
- Being forced to cut up my debit card whilst on the phone to Lloyds TSB and send it back to them
- Writing a cheque to my new landlords knowing damn well it would bounce for my first month’s rent
- Having to have that awful telephone call with my landlords pretending I didn’t know why the cheque had bounced and of course, I will give them cash straight away (luckily my loan had come in by then).
- Stealing food from my flatmate’s cupboards in order to actually have something to eat
- Walking everywhere – even home from work at 3am through one of the most violent areas of the UK – because I couldn’t afford a taxi
- Buying a weekly shop on £3 – I bought a loaf of Tesco value bread, some cheap fish spread, some pasta and tinned toms
- Having to sit in front of the patronising bitch of a house-mate I had whilst she questioned me on the phone bill and why it was so much and where had the money she’d been paying me each month for the phone bill gone? Incidentally the phone bill was in my name and the letter was addressed to me which she decided was her duty to open. Also the phone bill was being paid on a set direct debit each month out of my account… it was being paid!
And many many more! When people talk about how much they loved uni – I feel sad. I hated it – I spent every single minute being poor and tired and hungry.
After I finished uni, I went back to my mum’s and got the first job I could – it was cleaning a microbiology lab. I was there at 5 am each morning for 3 hours, cleaning, mopping, scrubbing. But the money was good. I then managed to get a job back in my university city. Problem was my rent was due – I had no money the money I’d earnt cleaning had gone on my deposit- so I yet again wrote a dud cheque – which rubber balled on me again – and with the same landlord I was having the same conversation. Much pleading with the bank worked a miracle and they increased my overdraft by the amount I needed for two weeks. Problem was I was a month away from being paid. Work agreed to pay me two weeks early – which meant I didn’t incur ridiculous charges with the bank but also meant I didn’t have any money to live on for another six weeks. This meant I spent another month and a half surviving on no money and scrounging money from wherever I could. A horrible existence.
The last time I considered myself truly skint was just after I got married. Although our wedding had been very cheap (just under £3k) we had still over extended. We were over our overdraft limit and our wages weren’t enough to be able to really afford to live in London. It got to the point where one morning we didn’t have enough money in our account to pay for our train fares. The husband had to ride his dodgy bike into work and I scraped together every penny in the house and I was still a penny short. Luckily the ticket attendant let me go. We sat down and went over our spending and our budget and we realised that if we wanted to continue living in London, something had to give. So we sold everything we could – our Wii, clothes, electronics, our TV everything. We got rid of our contract phones and went onto pay as you go. The only thing we kept was our PC. We gave ourselves a £50 food budget a month – and we would go around tesco with a calculator to make sure we didn’t over spend. It was horrible and if it hadn’t been for a change of job for me, a change of bank account and an interest free loan from a friend we would still be in that horrible situation.
Now we still live by a strict budget, every penny has a job and at times I hate it. I hate the fact I earn a good wage and can’t just spend spend spend. That holidays have to be budgeted and saved for and when our clutch gave out and we were hundreds of miles from home, our penny pinching attitude meant we were able to afford to pay for it to be fixed.
Am I saying that I know what its like to be on the poverty line? No. Am I saying I know what its like to not know where you will get your child’s next meal from? No. Am I saying I know what its like to be under the threat from eviction? No. But I can totally relate to that horrible hand to mouth existence that a large group of people live in in the UK. It makes me mad when the likes of Jamie Oliver deem people “not really poor” because they have a TV. The chances are everything in their house has probably come from a store like Brighthouse that you can get stuff and pay it off weekly. Everyday at work I see people sucked into the vicious pay day loan cycle where an extra £200 a couple of weeks before payday turns into £1000′s because the reason the person needed the extra money was because they don’t earn enough.
My personal opinion is that the minimum wage in London should match the minimum average cost of living here. In London – you cannot live on anything less than £23,000. Seriously, you can’t. Even on £23,000 you need to budget wisely. Yet I know of people living on far less. Your rent should not be three times your take home wage but it is for so many people. I can completely understand why people remain on benefits when it provides more income. What is Jamie Oliver doing with the proceeds of his new show and his new book? Not giving it to help out a food bank that’s for sure.
I currently make sure I give a box of food a week to a local food bank. I always give money and food to the people begging at my local station and I will always offer to lend someone I know money who needs it. Interest free and for no fixed term. Because I know that I wouldn’t have survived without that level of kindness.