Learning from people who struggle with money

Afsa Akbar
Jan 14 · 6 min read

In 8 weeks, we’ve been focused on understanding the experiences of people who have been struggling with money to pay for their needs and people at the British red cross who give money to support people. To learn more about why we’re doing this work, have a read through our blog post introducing this discovery.

Our discovery goal was to understand the needs people who need the money and the needs of people who give it.

Who did we speak to?

We spoke to 33 people:

  • People at different stages in their journey with universal credit
  • People who use British Red Cross Refugee services and used vouchers or cash cards
  • People who got a cash card through external organisations on the Hardship Fund
  • People who have ‘no recourse to public funds
  • British Red Cross frontline responders who helped people dealing with floods and fires
  • British Red Cross Refugee service caseworkers
snapshot of our findings from our virtual wall

What did we find out?

People are embarrassed

In ‘visible in emergency’ discovery, the team found out that people felt embarrassed, and were reluctant in getting support during and after emergencies like floods and fires. It was interesting that we heard the same themes in our interviews with people struggling with money.

“It was an embarrassing at the start because I’ve never been in that situation.”

“I felt embarrassed — you don’t feel like you’re in a crisis when you’re applying for this. I suppose I am in a crisis, so I’ll just accept it for what it is.”

The embarrassment of their situation has led people to skip meals to get by.

“Food bank? I’ve not used [that] or looked for it. I just scrimp and save. I don’t get lunch then so be it. I’d rather just a miss a meal.”

“I don’t know how what I’ve done without free school lunches. Luckily my kids aren’t fussy — they’ll eat one meal. They’re good eaters. Food for me? I’m alright, you just adapt to it. I’ve never been a morning eater; I would just make my soup.”

Limitations on card cause people distress

Some of the limitations that come with using the cash card cause some people distress. They are limited to taking out a maximum of £35 at a cash machine for each withdrawal which comes with a 60p charge. People were confused and didn’t understand why they were charged. There was also confusion over who was charging them and didn’t realise that the charges were from the bank, not the British Red Cross.

“I don’t know why they charge me. This is still not fair. You’re giving money to help to get stuff for themselves in emergency situation.”

“They shouldn’t charge. If you’re helping people, why charge?”

“I don’t feel like that’s fair. It’s kind of insulting as it could be used to buy something else extra.”

People need choice over how to pay for their things

One size doesn’t fit all. When vouchers are given, it’s given with the assumption that people live near the shops that accept those vouchers, and that people will be able to get what they need from those shops.

“If there wasn’t a limitation of where I had to spend my money, that would be great…if I didn’t have that limitation, I could buy clothing from a shop that is cheaper.”

“The problem with Tesco vouchers, you can only buy food not clothes.”

“With Tesco [vouchers], in the area I’m in, there’s no Tesco close by so I’m having to travel… But with a card, you can just go to local grocer shop.”

By giving people choice over how to get their money, they would be able to make an informed decision, reducing their pain points in the process.

Having options and the freedom to choose is also a privilege. When we don’t give people choice, the power becomes imbalanced. How are we redistributing our power to people we’re helping when we don’t give people enough choice?

Money with fixed-term limits doesn’t work for all

Giving money with fixed-term limits, such as giving money for a maximum of 12 weeks on a card or 12 vouchers a year, comes with the assumption people are able to find long term support themselves. We found that people go back into crisis after their fixed-term support ends because they struggle to find longer-term support to help pay for the things they need.

“For 5 weeks, we got £60 a week so that really help because we were eating more and spending a lot of more on food and gas and electricity [during lockdown]… after 5 weeks, the kids were getting used to it but then it was a nightmare. That was it.”

“It’s unfair, that the individual you’re supporting needs the money but there’s no recognition of the fact that person has not secured any financial support. There’s no consideration, it’s just taken for granted that 8 weeks is enough.”

People don’t have time

Time is a currency that not many people can afford. People struggling with money are juggling many priorities in their life ranging from raising children alone to managing a long-term health condition.

“I’ve been waiting for 5.5 weeks. It’s a long time for a family to wait without money.”

“I called them — it was taking long & I applied over a month ago. I was told I would find out within 2.5 week.”

“They have a 40 hour window to get back to you if you’re successful. You have to wait up to 2 days. You should be told automatically… you’re waiting — you keep on looking at this phone thinking ‘when is this text is going to come? How much am I getting? When am I getting it?’”

Unmet needs map

To make sense of our findings and put it into context, we created a map identifying key unmet needs to help our stakeholders understand the needs of people who need money and the needs of those who give it.

unmet needs map

Download map here.

Read Harry’s blog why visualising your findings in a map can be useful for your team and stakeholders.

Food for thought

How much of our decisions are based on user needs?

When we make decisions on a service, we’re impacting people’s experience with it. How many of the decisions are based on user needs and if they’re not based on user needs, why aren’t they? What are the blockers that are stopping us from making decisions based on user needs?

Are we putting people off with the language we use?

Language is key and can be a deciding factor why someone will choose to engage with a particular service. It’s important to remind ourselves of the kinds of language we use when engaging with our users. What impact will it have on the user? Are we empowering the user with the language we use? “Vulnerable” or “Crisis” are words that may be useful for fundraising and marketing, but it won’t work for the end user as it’s not a term they identify themselves with. In some cases, it can put people off from using your service.

What the future of cash at British Red Cross?

A discovery is never the end, it’s just a start. Sometimes when you get in the thick of it, another door will open with more questions to explore. The discovery phase will be extended to find more answers to reduce the uncertainty but what we have found out so far has shaped “qualities of the future money service”.

These qualities can help set the direction of what to aim for when giving cash as part of our service offer to help people get what they need. Read our next post where we’ll share what qualities the future money service needs to have — 10 qualities of a future money service.

Digital and innovation at British Red Cross

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