Sunday, May 05, 2013

budget time

No not the governmental one (although I've a good few not very polite words to say about that too...), but personal.

I try to keep up with Kate's blog but often end up catching up in splurges, which I guess describes real life fairly accurately too, although the gaps between reading blog posts are considerably shorter than the years between visits! I was reading this post of hers and it prompted one of those occasions where lots of bits and pieces from over the last few weeks or so suddenly click into a coherent set of thoughts.

Recently on facebook the advert for Quaker Social Action seeking two new project workers has been doing the rounds, as has a photo of the Downtown Community Ministry Foodbank's near empty shelves and a plea for donations. This is one aspect of social media that really appeals to me - that causes like this can reach huge audiences at low cost both in terms of money and time investments, leaving them more of both to deal with their respective good works.

Earlier many UK based F/friends of mine were sharing an assortment of images and petitions demanding that Ian Duncan Smith try living on 53 quid a week as he claimed he could do and see how he manages. (For those of you who are lucky enough not to know who he is he's the Work and Pensions secretary in the UK and a former leader of the Conservative party). 53 quid a week was my income for a year on a Community Industries youth training scheme 23yrs ago (yes you read that right, twenty three...) - 38 quid wages plus 15 quid housing benefit. From memory I was about three quid a week better off than I would've been on the dole as an under 25yr old, (over 25s got 37.35 p/w plus had I been on the dole I would've got an additional 2.50 housing benefit - so basically financially I gained 50p a week and an all zones travel pass which handily took me out to visit my Granny on the Metro each week too). Living off fifty three quid then was a challenge but doable, helped no end by living round the corner from Gregg's half price bakery and a cheap greengrocers. My Young Persons Railcard was probably one of my most treasured possessions and my flatmate and I were really good at finding bargains in jumble sales, charity/op shops and the cheap clothing chainstore sales (no doubt the sort of places the recently collapsed factory in Dhakar supplied...). But to think of living off that same amount all these years later???? According to the online calculator I found inflation in the UK has gone up by 110% since then. I wonder how much ministerial salaries have gone up over the same timeframe? One heck of a larger percentage than the benefits have that is for sure.

The following summer was much harder financially though, back as a uni student with a dissertation to research and write, no dole, no housing benefit, flatmates all away, and having to travel to research so not really able to get a summer job. At one point I found myself with seven pounds a week to live off until my dissertation travel grant cheque came through - thankfully I got asked to be staff at Summer School at the last minute two days before it started and I gained a full week of being fed for free and got given a tenner at the end by a F/friend to 'see me through', a gesture for which I am eternally grateful.

I've always been pretty good at managing money, learning how to save and budget as a child stood me in good stead for an adulthood of earning what has been a low income for a graduate (so much for the 'you'll earn more with a degree' theory that was drummed into us whilst teens! But I guess it helps if you actually do jobs where you need one, which mostly I haven't). I do remember in first year at uni being incredibly impressed by the detailed accounting one of my friends did to make sure there wasn't too much term left at the end of the money, but I never achieved such meticulous standards myself. However when I found myself needing to move into town a couple of years ago the memory of that prompted me to do similar, albeit with the glorious advantage of spreadsheets rather than a pocketbook, pen and calculator!

My original reason for keeping track of my spending was I didn't know if boarding here would work out long term and I was trying to figure out how much my living costs actually were so I'd know what I could afford in terms of rent if I had to look elsewhere. Never having had to pay the real costs of living in this country I wasn't sure what they'd be, I'd always had my housing and bills either fully or partially subsidised one way or another. Fortunately partial subsidy has continued, but keeping track has been a useful exercise and I'm about to go into my third year of it. Being presented with redundancy and a period of limited income wasn't anything like as scary as it might've been as I knew straight away how long at my then current spending rate I could live off my redundancy funds plus savings, and where I could cut back spending to make it go even further.

The QSA projects are both about managing money, and helping people budget. The DCM foodbank's work is about bailing out those who fall short of managing their cash flow. For me managing my cashflow became a whole heap easier once I could get a credit card here as I no longer had to wait for payday - I could shop when was convenient, make the most of special offers and sales and then pay the bill once my salary came through, usually paying my bill off each month without any interest. Now with my redundancy money as a back-up fund I can buy things more cheaply in bulk at the wholesalers when I need them - all I have to do is make sure the money is in the right account at the right time. But most of those living off benefits don't have a back-up fund and many don't have the budgeting skills or financial literacy to manage credit cards without stacking up huge amounts of interest on their bills

Thanks again to the wonders of social media I came across this article via a friend on facebook reminscing himself about cash strapped dilemmas between only being able to afford one of two particular items in the supermarket - one food and the other household 'necessities'. The article makes similar points about having the funds upfront to be able to afford the cheap bulk options etc - as it says, many simply can't afford to eat cheaply. In another post Kate refers to those being faced with the prospect of choosing between food and loo roll... which reminded me of conversations recently with those closer to my grandparents generation, they were reminiscing about their mothers recycling flour and sugar bags to make into underwear and aprons, cutting down their old dresses to remake into children's clothing and other such money saving ventures around the home, including of course alternatives to modern toilet paper! I wonder how many of us would want to go back to that? Memories of Izal scratchy school toilet paper in single sheets rather than rolls are quite bad enough thank you.

So many of the ways people made a little go a long way then simply aren't an option for most now - even if you already had a sewing machine would you know how to make the clothing? And believe me it's far cheaper to go to the charity/op shop than buy sewing supplies - 50c for a child's top from the Sallies or $3 for a reel of cotton? I've lived for many years in homes with no garden, with either a yard or a 12th or 16th share in an Edinburgh tenement back green for hanging out the washing (if you could be bothered lugging it up and down the stair!) - neither of which are much use for growing your own veggies. Things are made to be replaced now, not mended; you may have been able to 'sides to middle' a linen bedsheet and eek out a few more years use but you wouldn't gain much doing that with a cheap polyester one, and good luck finding a cobbler to re-heel your shoes...

So for all of those 'benefit bashers' who think people have it easy and are scrounging off the State whichever side of the world, try thinking a little harder about what it really means to live off that little and if you think you could do it, go on, have a go and give the difference in what you spend to charity (making sure you do spend that little and not just eat a fraction of what you really spent) - preferably one like the DCM or QSA who really make a difference to those who know all too well what living below the breadline really means.

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