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Within My Means

I had more money than financial sense — until things got tough.

Mo’ Money, Mo’ Problems.

If you’ve been paying attention to my writing of late, you’ll know that I’ve found myself in a deepening pit of poverty, with any attempts to dig myself out of it ending in failure and more debt, insecurity and worry. I’m at the end of the limited resources I had remaining after a year of illness, and I had already relied far too much on friends and my few living relatives — there’s no more favours that I can ask. This morning I felt alone, and poor, and scared. I didn’t know how I would pay this month’s rent, and my landlord is a bastard who would kick me out at the slightest perceived misdemeanour. I genuinely thought I’d be homeless within a week. And then —

Out of nowhere, I received a backdated payment from a gig I’d forgotten about. And it was a substantial amount of money. Enough to actually do something about my problems. Enough to allow me to continue doing the work I love without having to attach a financial value to every word I write. Enough to allow me to learn and grow before the big paychecks start rolling in. Writing is what I love, and am good at. I can be my own boss, set my own terms, be the master of my own destiny. But until I checked my bank balance this morning, my life was out of control. My mind was all over the place, I was relying on the food bank in order to not starve, and I couldn’t afford to pay any of my bills, never mind the important ones.

I found myself here at the end of a long, complicated and painful journey. I’ve never really been able to manage my money properly, which became both a cause, and a result, of my current problems. I grew up in poverty, on a council estate in one of England’s forgotten seaside towns. It was idyllic, and probably the nicest council estate you’ve ever seen, but we were so damn poor, and we couldn’t take advantage of any of the opportunities that our beautiful surroundings offered. My parents prioritised: we had food on the table, and decent shoes on our feet. They spent money on what mattered, and recognised the value in investing in something slightly more expensive for a better quality and lifespan. I never really had to worry about budgeting, and prior to leaving home at 18 to attend university, my parents took care of everything.

I was lucky enough to go to university at a time when student loans and fee exemptions were enough to (just about) cover one’s living expenses and course costs. But I was reckless with my money, only avoiding real trouble by paying my rent in advance each term. If it had been taken weekly, I’d have been booted out by the end of October. And I just didn’t learn. I managed to somehow scrape through four years of my life on a pittance and still not learn how to budget properly. I was living like one of the rich kids (who, with hindsight, probably topped up my beer fund and enabled my descent into financial nihilism) but without the means to support even a poor kid’s lifestyle. I made some terrible choices, but I’ve accepted that part of my past and moved on.

My first job after graduation was well-paying and secure. I stayed in regular, skilled employment for the next 12 years, earning enough to carry on living the high life. But you can have too much of a good thing. I was focussing on experiences, and possessions, and treating each paycheck as a target value to spend, rather than a budget. I made a few serious attempts to save, but failed each time. There was always the temptation of a holiday, a new car, that fantastic cocktail dress. It was a fabulous life to have, but it stopped me from building my future.

About a year ago, I quit my well-paying job, partly through illness, and partly because I was sick of the patriarchal bullshit inherent in the industry. I wanted to undertake work that meant something, that made a difference, and I just wasn’t getting that through working for somebody else. Starting off, I had enough money to allow for three months figuring out how to get paid doing what I actually wanted to — which I was sure I’d have well underway during that timeframe.

It did not play out that way. Following my dramatic resignation from my nightmare job, I relapsed into crushing depression and anxiety. I do feel it was a normal reaction to the intense stress I’d been under in an unfulfilling workplace that didn’t value my skills. My sleep-wake cycle was off, my brain just wouldn’t do the things I needed it to, and I struggled to get out of my pyjamas each day, never mind leaving the house. For about the first six months I managed to achieve precisely zero. Well, that’s not entirely true. I had a ton of great ideas, but not the mental energy to do anything about them.

Every task was insurmountable, and it could always wait until tomorrow, right? By the end of the third month, I was getting scared. I made a claim for sickness benefit, which gave me an initial sum of money, but I felt unable to cope with the paperwork and the fitness assessment, and my claim lapsed. I made it through another month, with drastically reduced expenditure. It was a shock to the system, but I had no other choice. At around this time, I was referred for various therapies and programs designed to help me find a normal routine, and work suited to my strengths and abilities, and I could sense a change in my mental state. Things that had become almost impossible felt like things I could at least chip away at. The problem was that although my earning potential was rising, my cashflow was not. I was feeling better, but I was still not putting food on the table.

I was able to borrow from friends and family for a while, and I had to slash my spending to the bare minimum. I took up window-shopping, as a less-damaging leisure activity than my usual wanton spending. I still got the same good vibe from looking at fancy stuff I’d like to buy, but I also learnt to control my impulses and to go away, think about whether I really needed it, and realise, that actually, no, I don’t. Growing up in poverty, I got new clothes, stationery or other nice things when I needed them, not when I wanted them. And I would have to learn to live that way again.

Towards the end of this nerve-wracking journey into making do and crossing my fingers, things became so tight that I had to go to a food bank just to be able to feed myself something, anything. I can highly recommend the Austerity Diet — I can finally fit into those size 6 jeans I spent far too much on. I’d maxed out all my credit cards, I was overdue paying a loan back, and no-one was going to lend me any more money. It’s a miracle that I’d managed to stretch it out this far, but I knew that time was running out. I was terrified to open my post, or answer the door or phone, in case it was debt collection or a court summons. But today saved me. All I needed to make a fresh start was money — isn’t that true for us all?

But I have, finally, learnt a lesson from the experience. I’ve been rich, and I’ve been poor, and I was best at managing my money when I had very little of it. I could be a lot richer if I stopped myself from chasing shiny baubles, and worked on my willpower. I’ve read elsewhere that willpower isn’t enough, and I do think that’s true. In my case, I think it’s because I never really had any concrete goals for my future. I was just drifting along, living from day to day. I liked the freedom I had in not being tied down, but because I wasn’t tied down I had very little to take financial responsibility for. I’ve set myself the goal of owning a house by this time next year. That might sound like a ridiculous proposal (have you seen house prices in the UK?) but I live in the North West, where apparently no-one else wants to live, so house prices can be one-tenth of what they are in other parts of the country.

But the one thing that I will need to do in order to achieve my goal is to live like a pauper and earn like a boss, not the other way round. My champagne-fuelled lifestyle sure was a lot of fun, but it left me with no room for failure or setbacks. Our capitalist society encourages us to chase after the next must-have, so that we will work that little bit harder or longer, but sometimes you have to focus on the basics. I’ve lived on less than £4K per year, I’ve lived in council houses and student digs that were barely fit for human habitation. I know what it’s like to be wealthy, but more importantly, I know what it’s like to have barely anything at all. The overall quality of life in the West is pretty good, even for the lowest earners. There is still real poverty, and there should not be. We have the resources for everyone to have a comfortable life, we just choose not to distribute them fairly.

My recent run-in with the prospect of destitution was my wake-up call: it’s time to be grateful for what I have, and to work for what I don’t. Because I’m the only person that can make a difference to my finances, and it’s about time I took responsibility.