Being poor is not always our image of homeless people or those living in squalid shacks in developing countries. Sometimes it’s a hidden poverty, relating to someone or a family who have a house so seem to be at least comfortable if not well-off. This is not always the case, a house is expensive to keep and can become the ‘weight of the world on your shoulders’ if circumstances change and you are unable to pay for a previously achievable standard of living.
Most people are used to a particular level of income and plan their life accordingly. This impacts on their own behaviour, their choices for their immediate family, and the way they interact with friends and neighbours. So what happens when your income dramatically decreases? What happens immediately to the choices we make and what happens as this period of reduced income extends beyond the timeframe short-term? It’s not something I had experienced before and some of the impact and how I coped were not what I had predicted, indeed if I had even thought about it previously.
My income decreased dramatically after a period of serious mental illness when I just could not work to the level I have done previously, as well as being a direct consequence of the coronavirus lockdown. Many people experienced this, I am not alone but I have not had the conversation with anyone about how it feels. I think it’s because during this period of resignation to desperation, I was embarrassed to admit how I coped and even that it was difficult. Poor people are just supposed to work harder and budget better, right?? Wrong. How do you budget properly when you commitments based on your previously reliable income still exist, and yet you simply do not have that income anymore. Normally an income reduction is not predictable and certainly rarely planned, unless you have decided on a dramatic life change independently. Most people experience income reduction as a result of redundancy, illness, or unexpected circumstances like bereavement or caring for someone with serious illness themselves.
I’ll discuss the benefits system and my experience later in this series; for now I want to talk about the emotional shift in becoming poorer and how to manage our own expectations, as well as those of our nearest and dearest. For it’s not just that I was unable to buy decent presents for someone’s birthday or having to reduce my social life, I experienced fundamental change in what I could pay for way beyond a few frivolities and luxuries. We’re used to tightening our belts when we have a bunch of unexpected expenses, but not being able to eat as we normally or pay basic bills, that was a shock. It required new skills, new habits, new knowledge, new challenges and new support systems. Mega changes not just a few economies!
It starts with a review of the new budget. Depressing at first glance, frightening when applied to the immediate future as you realise there is just not enough to pay for all the essentials. At first, I made arrangements with debtors asking for concessions and reducing my mortgage to interest only. As time goes on, the likelihood of concessions decreases until full charge arrears start to mount up. At this point, there is no choice but to only pay the bills that are most urgent with the biggest consequences of non-payment. This is when an income reduction becomes really scary.
Social life: The other consequence of income reduction if your inevitable change in lifestyle. Friends you may have gone with for coffee previously without a thought, become a minefield of negotiation. In the beginning accepting a favour of a friend paying for coffee or lunch is acceptable on the assumption that you can soon return the favour. However, as the period of lower income continues unexpectedly or not asking for favours or accepting them is less tolerable. Friendship only really works if the friendship is equal, perhaps not always financial but with some contribution from both sides. As a result, I started asking (begging) friends to come for coffee and cake at my house rather that mount up a series of friends that I would be beholden to. Some people understand and adjust their expectations, others are surprised either by the change in habit or that you do not feel comfortable asking for charity. It’s a difficult discussion and some friends have faded away as a result.
Children: Probably the most difficult negotiation and explanation can be to your offspring. A reduction in income may result at first in some hobbies or events being cancelled to save money. Next if may be that your eating habits change and the treats or optional foods that were within reach before, are no longer on the shopping list. This can be tricky to explain if it’s a favourite food and both can induce worry in your child, even if they do not express it. Subsequently there are the conversations about other economies, mobile phones, Netflix, or even heaven forbid the internet connection… Noooooo!! These economies not only affect entertainment, as these days all homework is set online. Explaining to teachers that you no longer or temporarily cannot afford internet is hard to face, it’s just seen as an essential and they are inevitably surprised. Increasingly I think there should be some provision for children without laptops or internet connection. Fortunately a local Young Carer charity offered Nadia a free laptop (since I was sectioned she is classed as such), and the school offered a temporary mobile data sim. Both helpful but not necessarily permanent. Other economies come as you realise a PE Kit top costs £24 and the Summer uniform is similarly expensive. Again fortunately the school could offer these items second-hand, but it still involves a conversation about income you would probably rather not have. And finally, due to low income we do get Pupil Premium concessions which are well worth signing up to immediately on any challenges to existing income levels.
Longer-term: As my income remained flat or decreasing, needless to say you get used to living more cheaply but it does take a toll mentally. Obviously your mindset shifts but there are certain things you just need that you can’t buy. Two examples for me were massive holes in tracksuit bottoms and jeans which I mended(!), plus things like changing toothpaste or coffee purchasing habits. It’s pretty incredible how creative you can be, there is one cost ‘time’. So now I’m ‘make do and mend’, ‘reuse, repurpose, recycle’, and positively thrifty!! All good lessons but sometimes hard ones to learn and maintain. We’ve kind of been living ‘The Good Life‘ in real life and started to grow our own vegetables last week. I am not green-fingered so delegated that one to the small child and am looking forward to our first crop, guarded by recycled old fence and a bunch of twigs from the recently pruned trees.
Thank you for listening. Being poor is not fun but it has been good experience for me to assist in understanding the challenges of others. By the way, I’m not writing this for sympathy rather as communicating the reality of being poor(er) and sharing my coping strategies. I hope this was a useful summary for those working in poverty as well as those experiencing it.
Love Ruth x