When my husband lost his job pretty suddenly early last year, it felt a little like the end of the world. I mean, I tried to stay strong. He cried in front of us a couple times and I knew what effect that can have on the kids but I insisted we’d pull through. We went on benefits but half the money didn’t start coming in until a month later, and the other half didn’t start coming in until nearly 2 months later. The grand total of all that was only enough to pay rent and eat really plain food (we’re talking about porridge oats every single morning and spaghetti bolognaise every night – oats, pasta, beef, chopped tomatoes, onions are all very cheap here). Good thing we were quite competent cooks after having kids and learning to do things the natural way – you know, breastfeeding, co-sleeping, ditching the takeaways and junk food, cook natural foods from scratch, recycle and reuse, etc. so we could just switch into eco-living mode quite easily. But the thought of getting evicted if we skipped a month’s rent was never far away. It was dreadful. And we did NOT want to borrow money from others for this.
It did not help that several sources indicated to us that he may not even get Jobseekers’ Allowance because he was sacked. In fact, I also found out that these days, Jobseekers’ Allowance won’t be paid out to people who have become jobless because they resigned from their jobs. This was a marked contrast to when I was a jobless 20-year-old many many years ago, and I claimed Jobseekers’ Allowance for a month after I got sacked because I argued with my bullying manager who made everyone’s life hell in her office. Luckily I found a new job again soon, but I remember that from the day I signed onto Jobseekers’ Allowance, I was paid straight away a week after. My Housing Benefit application too was processed speedily. It’s so not like that these days.
With heavy hearts, we went anyway to our nearest Jobcentre and was told to come back at a certain time and date for an interview with an advisor. We went back, only to be told that their systems were faulty and actually the appointment should be for another date and time. Oh cripes… oh well. Anything for some money eh? So we went again at the other date and time. Only to be told that once again, the computer botched up and he should go in by himself on another date and time! Oh golly… by then, it had been 2 weeks since he stopped working and we were living on nothing but credit cards and his very last paycheck – which he had already spent more than half because he did not think he would be sacked so suddenly. Finally, my husband did get the interview with the advisor and surprise suprise! They looked on their computer and then decided that hey, he was entitled to Jobseekers Allowance, as he has made enough tax contributions in the past to qualify. I can’t even begin to describe my feelings of joy then, even if it was for just a measly £100+ a week to live on. Something was better than nothing! It took about a month from the date we applied for Jobseekers’ Allowance, for the confirmation letter to arrive saying he was eligible for Jobseekers’ Allowance to come through. By then we’d already been dipping into credit cards and to get by. They say it may be a month from then on before any Housing Benefit (which is supposed to help with rent costs) would come through. We were not sure then if we were going to make the rent payment in time, and the worry of being evicted for missing rent loomed above our heads like an angry shadow.
I remember researching all avenues into the prospects of rehoming and homelessness. I remember mentally preparing myself for living in a homeless shelter and thinking about which things I’d take with me and which I’d have to put away in storage. I tried asking the CAB what we can do should we have no money for food because the benefits haven’t been paid into our accounts yet. The CAB advisor smiled wryly at me when I asked – the cheek! – and said “We’ll give you food bank vouchers and you can only use them to pick up 3 days’ worth of food from the food bank. And we will only allow you to claim food bank vouchers 3 times per year.” Does this mean then, that the poor can only have 9 days’ worth of food from the food bank for the year? Wow… that is just… I guess I didn’t expect this is how our welfare system has become today. But well, it is. I said to her that 9 days’ worth of food can’t be enough. What if the money takes more than a month to reach us? She said “Well, if you’re still having trouble coping, come and see us again.” I think they could possibly sort out some “hardship payment” of some sort if we did, which will not be much money at all. I guess maybe just £100?
During the course of his Jobcentre liaison, my husband did everything he could to find a job. He never missed an appointment and was always 10 minutes early (I have to say that he has always been punctual at work and never took sick days)…unlike me. Good for him! Each day he went on the Jobseekers website and applied for every job he is qualified to do or may be suitable for. 10 or 20 years ago, working in a fast food restaurant like McDonald’s would be seen as a last resort. Even at that point, he was quite ambivalent about it, but he did it in the end, and to our surprise, he was told by email that he was not picked to work at McDonald’s because he wasn’t suitable or whatever. And to be fair, McDonald’s is one of the better companies to work for if one wants a low-paid job. With the unemployment rate now at a record high, I’m sure many people will apply to companies like McDonald’s and so now McDonald’s can really take their pick. That was a real wake-up call. In these hard economic times, be thankful you have a job, if at all.
He found some cash-in-hand gardening jobs on the classifieds which did not earn him more than £50, plus gave him a really bad shoulder and back. It was really not ideal. Someone from a county council did call him back regarding his job application that he sent via the Jobseekers website, but unfortunately, the job was only seasonal and only during summer months. That wasn’t great no. So he was contemplating what to do about it. Then very luckily he got a call for an interview for a job in the very same industry he had been specialised in for the past 12 years. His chances of nailing the job is very high, except will they still give him a job after the way he was sacked? Plus the site was nearly 200 miles away. It’s a long way to drive for an interview he didn’t know if he would pass, but if he did, it was so worth it. Now this is another good thing about the Jobcentre – it actually paid for travel costs related to job-seeking. So for the interview journey, they would pay him 25p per mile of travel. It was really better than nothing. You know not many other first-world countries would do this sort of thing though. It actually amounted to MORE than he had spent on the petrol to travel there.
He did get the job. He came clean about why he was sacked, and they took him anyway. Long story short – he was sacked because he did something which was not legit but would be commonly done in his industry if the same thing happened, except there was actually a way around it to make it legit – something he found out only too late – at work tribunal. Trouble was he did not report it to his line manager, so would be construed as lying. His line manager wanted to get rid of him for some time and that provided her the perfect excuse. I don’t want to talk about it too much as I don’t want to give away too much personal information, but there’s that. There was every chance that if he tried for a similar job in a different company, they wouldn’t think worse of him for what he did. The not telling his line manager bit – well that could be a problem, and that was a big mistake he made and he knew it. But really at this point, he could only hope and pray that someone will give him the benefit of doubt and give him a chance. Thank God they did.
So he secured a job in his field within 2 months of being sacked. Thankfully so, because we were almost going to run out of money. We had some friends help us out buying us some food and stuff, but we were really embarassed. We felt it was partly our own fault for landing in such a desperate situation. And I was really angry at how the system has become. No wonder so many of the poor are now using legalised loan sharks such as Wonga to help them cope with day-to-day living. How are things ever going to improve for those who are not as lucky?
He got his first paycheck at this new company about 3 months after he was sacked. The government paid Housing Benefit from the 2nd month on and even though he told the Jobcentre he had found employment at the end of his 2nd month of joblessness, they only stopped his Jobseekers allowance. The Housing Benefit however, wasn’t stopped immediately. So they kept paying for the 3rd month. We thought Housing Benefit would stop after Jobseekers Allowance was stopped, as a prerequisite for claiming Housing Benefit was being on Jobseekers Allowance. Well yes, but apparently not at the same time. About 4 months later, received a letter from Housing Benefits people saying they overpaid our Housing Benefit and we would have to pay them back. The Housing Benefit wasn’t really enough to cover the rent. It was just £450 but the privately-rented flat we lived in cost a £100 more than the Housing Benefit, so we did not even have any spare cash left to pay back the Housing Benefit all at once. So for the next few months we paid back the Housing Benefit in instalments. It was a kind of a dread paying it back in instalments. It was like the ghost of our very short period of welfare system dependence never went away. Always reminding us of those tricky times. And paying off the last of this Housing Benefit Overpayment will be the best farewell note from the welfare system to us – it will teach us to do everything we can to save and accumulate our assets so that we never will be left to rely on welfare pay-outs again.
I guess the good thing is that we have never stopped living frugally after this. In fact, we have learnt to shop smarter and still manage to eat well. We never ate a takeaway or at a restaurant again unless both of us were too ill to cook or if it was a special occasion like a birthday or Christmas. We didn’t spend extravagantly on haircuts, clothes or kids’ toys and Christmas presents again. But I think it took me probably a few months to sink in – that my constant use of online shopping is disastrous for money-management. And the fact that I avoided checking my bank balance regularly to get a clear picture of my finances. I must not live in denial again or ignorant bliss again. Online shopping is so easy and often done on credit that it is hard to manage what you spend. Didn’t help that now we have moved to the rural countryside, and with me being a non-driver, I have had to rely on online shopping to get a lot of the stuff I’d normally get from the shops back in the metropolis I used to live in.
I slowly grew frustrated about living in the countryside and not having the freedom to go wherever I want whenever I want. And let’s face it, DH is not always enthused about driving me to places even though he would do it if I asked – however I didn’t want to stress him out too much and that maybe he needed a break after working all week. I started looking at the financial viability of moving to the nearest town, and I just used this simple calculator on moneysavingexpert. I had to have a dig at the files and bills I kept to key in all of the expenses, and I was shocked at the end of it that said I was overspending by nearly £200 since we started our new life here. I was so ashamed of it, as it was because of my credit card bill! So I started finding ways to really cut back on my spending.
I stopped buying stuff unless absolutely necessary. My husband said he noticed a significant reduction in the number of times a parcel arrived. That was a good start. Second thing was to cut down on utilities usage. Making sure lights are off when no one is going to be in the room, making sure taps are closed properly, that the heater is not kept switched on even when no one’s home or when the weather is actually warm enough, putting on sweaters at home, etc. Thirdly was cutting down the grocery bill. Buying “value” products, searching for the cheapest deals and planning meals a week in advance so we can control how much we spend each week on the groceries and not allowing excessive grocery shopping “top ups” during the week. One thing I’ve discovered from all this was that actually shopping at Tesco’s isn’t that expensive if you know what to go for. And you could actually still eat reasonably well on a low budget
After reading this article about the more varied and healthier, natural breakfasts kids in other parts of the world have, I thought about the possibility of giving my children such breakfasts, but first I would have to see if they were interested. I showed them the pictures of the breakfasts, and sure enough, my kids said yes. Apparently, having cucumber and cherry tomatoes and cheese slices and ham and yogurt were their idea of a yummy breakfast! So I started calculating how much it would cost if I started buying these things as a part of our regular shop instead of boxes of breakfast cereal (in the past, we’d easily go through 4 boxes a week, which at around £3 per box, is not cheap). Now we make it a point to buy ham, more eggs, cherry tomatoes, pears, apples, bananas, cucumbers, cheese, grapes, orange juice, yogurt, and I bake chocolate chip banana bread once weekly and cut them up into smaller cubes, freeze them and then take out a few to defrost every night so that by morning, my kids will have them for brekkie. My kids literally have a bit of each for breakfast each day and they love it. Much healthier and tastier than the usual cereal and milk or porridge oats fair they used to have in the past years. I still make sure there is the odd box of breakfast cereal in the cupboard in case they want some – but usually it was either me or my husband finishing them up. My kids just didn’t want those anymore now that they have a lot more variety in their breakfasts. I still buy from Tesco as there are no other shops that near to where we live, but I make sure we only buy Tesco Everyday Value if possible, and for many of these items, there are Value ranges – for example the ham, eggs, cherry tomatoes, pears, apples, grapes and yogurt. The difference between the Everyday Value stuff and the branded or “regular” stuff can be massive. Yogurt for example.
With careful planning and shopping for the best deals, we were able to spend just less than £70 a week on groceries each week at Tesco and we cook from scratch or eat natural foods every day. I’m sure we can save more if we could shop at Aldi or Lidl or Asda conveniently too, but right now it is at least a 10 mile drive to one of those shops and factoring in the petrol costs, not really that much of a saving if we did it that way anyway, so we stuck to Tesco. It does take a lot more effort though. All I can say is I’m grateful we have a dishwasher, purchased years ago when DH was on a much higher salary. It helps a lot in reducing the amount of housework.
But anyway, yes we do live quite cheaply these days. Next month I would have paid off all of my credit card – it was £1500 or so in credit a few months ago, and it took so long to pay that off and I had to scrimp to do this, but I am all the happier for it. Also once I started on this money-saving project, I made it a point to always log into my personal banking account to pay off the exact amount I had spent on my credit card immediately after using my credit card to pay for some online purchase.
I should also say that once my credit card balance is cleared, never again will I leave it in credit to accumulate interest. I will always make sure I pay it off, or spend only just enough on it that I can pay it off straight away.
The thing is, this entire journey we’ve came through in the past year has made me realise just how wasteful we were with money before. I mean we are now spending what… like £100 more on rent than what we used to spend on the place we used to live in. Plus we are never going to get such a good landlord as we used to have, who didn’t try to up the rent or make us pay more or give stupid quarterly inspections or surprise inspections like the agents we used after him do. And yet DH was making double the salary back then than what he’s earning now – yes he’s had to take a massive pay cut, but we’re thankful he has a job at all. It’s still more money than benefits would ever pay for anyway!
I deeply regret the foolishness of our spending habits in the past. If we had lived back then like we live now, we could easily have saved up a lot of money now. For a deposit even, if we wished. Not that we even thought of buying at that time, because renting from our landlord was so good that buying a home didn’t seem such an appealing prospect. Now that we’ve encountered agent after agent who just want to impose a never-ending series of fees and rude inspections and stuff, and we’ve never really found another private landlord who didn’t charge higher than market price rent for the tenants’ “privilege” of not associating with agents, it really makes us want to buy our own home now. At least we’ll be free of the constant intrusion of these pesky agents.
Actually, I doubt things could have ended any other way. We had to learn somehow, and it was the way things have turned out that had taught us some hard lessons. I wouldn’t want to have to rely on social welfare again. And if I do, I want to have the equivalent of at least 6 months’ worth of living expenses saved up in my bank account, at the ready, should we have to rely on social welfare again should the worst strikes. After all, it took about 2 or 3 months before the benefits pay-outs came in to our bank accounts. What then, for those who don’t have savings to tide them out during the 2 to 3 months of waiting for the welfare pay-outs to kick in? Nothing short of begging, I can tell you that. I do wonder what is the purpose of having a social welfare system in place. Is it there to ensure the least advantaged in society can still live dignified lives? After my experiences with welfare state bureaucracy in the past year, I doubt it. It is not dignified to have the poor beg for the basic necessities in life – whether it be from the authorities or from their family or friends. I would always save up money from now on. It takes just one unexpected disaster to turn your life upside down and you can forget about the current welfare system being there for you when you need it most.
In some ways, I kind of think we’d not be much worse off living in another first-world country where the taxation is low and well, with just as sucky a welfare system as the UK’s. Will I miss the NHS? Well maybe not. The NHS is dead good at stepping in should a person be in an acute life-or-death situation, I’ll give you that. But for all other instances, I found I have had to pay for private services to get things done right here, and the NHS botched up a few times and the stench was that they are seemingly unfaultable. You cannot sue them if they fuck up. They have a lot of power. And good luck even trying to get an apology. They sometimes do this, but not always. And yet the government justifies higher taxation to fund this nationalised healthcare which really is only equivalent to the third-rate healthcare you find in other first-world countries with privatised healthcare.
For the money in another first-world country, you could have a baby with elective caesarean, single bedroom ward, 3 course meal, TV, oh and even a bunch of flowers on the chest of drawers near your bed. I know because my mum had that for her non-UK births. Oh yes, my dad complains about how much money he has to pay for his hospital treatments and stuff in another country because healthcare is privatised. I guess I can see both sides of the argument, but for me I think there is a trade-off to be made. The UK makes it illegal to have assisted suicides. Other countries don’t have such a law. If your health was bad but you don’t have the money to stonk up for privatised healthcare, you can choose to die prematurely by assisted suicide. It doesn’t have to be the expensive way to die, but physician-assisted suicide costs around $75 – $100 and quite frankly that’s not too much. You could save up money in your bank for that if you even had a low-paid job for a few months. I really don’t have anything against assisted suicide. I would choose it myself if life become unbearable and if I felt I was being a burden to my family. We’ve all got to die someday. There are pros and cons to assisted suicide, but in general, I am of the mindset that quality of life should be the main aim, not simply life itself.