Yesterday, Susan said something that got me thinking about money, and about how you have to get used to living without very much.
I guess it was easy for me to do having spent four years as a student at university, responsible for my own budget. But I think how I grew up taught me a lot about money and its real value.
For a start, I had a very average upbringing in Manchester. We weren’t rich and we weren’t dirt poor. When I was born, my parents lived in a little flat in a pretty dodgy area on the outskirts of town. It wasn’t rough, and it still isn’t. It’s now filled with first generation immigrants who’ve come over to England with Great Expectations, and I guess it will always be an area with a fairly transient population. They live there because they have to. They earn more money, they move out.
That’s what my parents did. My parents bought a little terraced house in another not very illustrious area, not very far away, and we lived there until I was just seven. We moved into a typical suburban semi-detached house in a much nicer area and I was lucky to go to a great primary school and then a great secondary school. In our family, education has always been the key to not being poor. It’s fairly cheesy, but my school motto was Sanctas Clavis Fores Aperit - the key opens sacred doors. And that’s what my education was. A key that opened doors.
I started my first jobs aged twelve and continued to pick up part-time work right until I left for university. I collected milk money, I worked in a greengrocer’s. When it was work experience time, I did mine in a place I knew would give me a job afterwards. I waited on tables and then I worked in pubs. I didn’t get pocket money, but I wasn’t hard done-to.
I spent my savings on clothes and make-up, on LPs and magazines. I was a hoarder, it’s true to say. I bought stuff in second-hand shops and I customised things. Ironically, I treasure those clothes now as a sign of my youthful ingenuity and individuality, but it’s fair to say that if my parents gave me pocket money, or I earned a lot, I’d probably have spent it on the same clothes that some of my friends did and ended up an identikit version of them. I spent my cash on concert tickets if I had it, and if I didn’t, well I didn’t go. I always had enough money for socialising and for stuff I wanted. I was a huge fan of second-hand shops, way before charity shops became the norm in the UK, way before ‘vintage’ became chic. I bought this chinese shirt for £2 from a second-hand shop up near Fallowfield:
It was perfectly hideous, but perfectly chic. Nobody had anything like it. To be honest, I doubt anyone would have wanted anything like it. But it was my style. Poor meant customisation and clothes with a history. I also bought this velvet jacket and sewed sequins on it. Yes, black velvet and sequins. I was an unusual teenager! And we dyed our own hair, made our own outfits, customised our clothes. I used the cheapest dye I could find, and for my ‘streaks’, I used peroxide from the chemist! The jacket I’m wearing below was a freebie from my Nana. I sewed sequins on that too. I got a bit slap happy with sequins. I’m the one on the left, by the way, and I KNOW Sinead is not going to thank me for this picture, though she looks pretty damn cool. We always look so filled with life as teenagers. It’s a great time of life, even if you think it’s the worst.
Going to university, the Government gave me £3,000 a year to live on. I’m lucky. Had I grown up in today’s world, I wouldn’t have been able to go to university. There’s no way I would have willingly signed myself up to so much debt. I might have worked and got my degree at night school like my uncle and my mum did.
Still, £1000 to live on for four months of the year is not very much, not when you spend most of it on rent. I had to buy course books (I did an English and psychology degree) but mostly, I borrowed them, had them donated, picked them up at flea markets or used the library. The library is the greatest gift a community ever gave a poor man, and I’m thankful that British libraries are such an institution. Knowledge and entertainment for nothing more than a ticket. That’s a generous trade.
I make a joke out of the fact my weekly food bill was £8.00. Food doesn’t seem to have changed price that much, either. I bought a loaf of bread to last me a week, some milk, cereal, pasta, beans. The staples of a cheap diet. And I ate well. You only have to ask the Italians how to eat cheaply and eat well. A tin of tomatoes and a tin of beans can take you in hundreds of directions if you have a few herbs and spices.
It was frugal living compared to how I’d been at home, and that had been frugal too. I didn’t go to concerts, the cinema or to the pub. I read books, had friends over and relied on a lovely boyfriend who didn’t mind buying me a drink or two if we went out. I paid £10 a month for a train pass to get back to see him, and I walked everywhere. The first month, I’d bought a bus pass for £30 that took me everywhere, but £30 is a lot. If I couldn’t walk it, I didn’t go. And that was in the days when Sheffield’s bus services were heavily subsidised.
So as to Susan’s comment about not being afraid to be poor, I think that’s so important. I knew I could do it because for most of my life, I’d been nothing but. Oh, it has been amazing to have the money to spend on holidays all over the world and to buy a brand-new car. And it’s awfully scary having those days when you don’t know where your next dollar is coming from, but I’ve had good training. I know, because I was responsible for it myself.
I think my top tips would include cutting out everything non-essential. And what’s essential is a matter of opinion. To me, the internet is essential. A mobile phone is not. I lived without a mobile phone in the days of yore when we used landlines or phone boxes. I actually wrote letters to people instead of calling them. I didn’t die from the experience. I started small. I cut out gym memberships and charity memberships – much as I was loathe to cut back on donations. I now have only the following bills a month:
- phone and internet
- household taxes
- car insurance
That’s it. I have bottled gas, so I have to buy that from time to time. Sometimes, there’s more month left than there is money. But that’s nothing I’m not used to. I get off my arse and look for work if I need some pennies. I’m not ashamed to charge £10 an hour to chat to people from China and Saudi Arabia to boost my income if I need to. I’ll write whatever you like for tuppence ha’penny if there’s a bill to be paid. I have to work hard and a lot of it is dependent on reputation – something that takes a lot longer to earn in rural France with a population of 100,000 in a 50 km radius. One day, I’ll be able to pay my parents back for their support. Luckily, I’ve few drains on my resources now.
Then there’s the subject of pets. I admit a third of my food bill goes on my animals. When I’ve got big bills, they’re often to do with pets. 100€ for injections and tablets and chips one week, 100€ for ear treatments the next. But I couldn’t live without my animals. They’re non-negotiable now and I’d rather poke my eyes out than go without them. The reason for this is simple. One day some time ago, a man asked me who would miss me if I were gone. It’s hard to see things in perspective if you suffer from depression, especially if you’re having a ‘poor-me’ moment. My first answer was ‘Well, Basil would’. He was my first, over-indulged, needy, anxious cat. I had him for fourteen years.
Some days, your animals are all you’ve got to live for. They’re the reason you get out of bed. And that’s worth a third of my food bill. Dogs are what I have instead of television, instead of a burglar alarm and instead of an expensive gym membership. Not only do they cost me less than all of this, I’m part of their pack. You can’t put a price on that.
So my dogs are my one luxury, my one thing I can do without.
These last five years, I’ve done without heat at times, I’ve done without mobile phones, I’ve done without the gym. I’ve done without shopping and make-up. I can’t do without family and friends. My dad saved me a £200 call out yesterday. A piece of wire saved me a £200 call out the day before. If the electricity went, as it did yesterday, I can live with paraffin lamps and barbecues and books and store-cupboard meals. I can live on beans on toast and eggs on toast and cheese on toast and not even consider it a hardship.
And the one thing I can’t live without other than dogs, family and friends? Libraries. To misquote a Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers line I heard a lot in my youth, books will get you through times of no money better than money will get you through times of no books. Thus says the Los Angeles Public Library. They’re right. Lucky for me, I have two good libraries right near me.
I can’t live without coffee.
If a war comes and we have to live off chicory coffee, I don’t care about the dogs. I’m out of here.