THE BLOG

Getting By in the UK

20/04/2015 10:49 BST | Updated 17/06/2015 10:59 BST

I recently came across Linda Tirado's thought-provoking article about being poor in the USA, the world's richest country, and it inspired me to think about the reality of life in the UK today.

I come from a generation who were encouraged to believe that they'd always be OK if they worked hard and did well at school. Despite the struggles of new graduates to find well-paid jobs, there's still a certain expectation that a university education will provide insurance against poverty.

That expectation is at best questionable, and at worst downright unrealistic in today's Britain.

How is anyone supposed to support themselves - let alone a family - on the annual income of, say, a shop assistant? Even if you could manage to pay your rent or mortgage, bills, transport to work and buy food on £14,000 a year, your quality of life would be miserable.

Anyone who works full time should be able to earn at least a living wage.

I am qualified as a solicitor but chose to leave legal practice some 16 years ago to bring up my children, as it was very difficult to work part-time in the law. Since then I've freelanced as a technical editor, which pays the bills: quite literally, because there's virtually nothing left after that. I work as many hours as I can, including weekends and evenings, through illnesses, post-operative recovery and holidays, because the whole thing would come crashing down if I didn't earn the bottom line every month.

Despite the hours I work, 95% of my net income goes on just the basics of life - keeping the roof over our heads, paying the bills, running an old car, and putting food on the table and clothes on our backs.

Since the wheels came off the economy, my husband has endured lengthy bouts of unemployment which have left us living on the breadline and now, approaching 50, has a part-time job delivering shopping for a supermarket. Being realistic, it's likely that the most fruitful years of our earning potential are behind us both. We have no savings and live from one month to the next because there's never enough money at the end of the month to put any aside for house repairs or improvements, Christmas, birthdays, holidays, car repairs and all those other things that crop up regularly but don't demand a monthly payment.

We have debts. It would be easy to say that our financial situation is of our own making - and that's true, to the extent that everyone's life is a product of their past actions and decisions - and yes, we have made some decisions that many would consider ill-judged: giving up paid employment to go freelance for the flexibility and the excitement of doing something for yourself; starting a business on a shoestring with no financial backing; spending any spare cash on modest pleasures - a meal out for the family, some new furniture, a camping trip, a weekend away.

As Linda says, when you have no money it simply isn't worth living a "bleak life devoid of small pleasures" so that you can pay off a credit card that bit quicker or make a large one-off purchase like a new car.

Today, our household income is about the same as it was 15 years ago but the cost of living has increased hugely during that time. We have two teenage daughters who are amazingly understanding, perhaps because many of their friends' families are in a similar position. They ask for very little - the older one has a part-time job so she can buy herself the luxuries we can't afford to give her - but it's hard not to be able to buy them the things that many teenagers take for granted.

Most of our monthly outgoings are a fixed amount, so the only real flexibility we have is in the amount we spend on food and household items. We set ourselves a monthly food budget, which just about works as long as it's not derailed by an unforeseen expense like a trip to the dentist, prescriptions, a vet's bill, or new tyres for the car.

A couple of months ago my husband contracted acute bronchitis and we had to pay for three prescriptions. That took 20 per cent of our food budget for the week, which happened to be the last week in the month before pay day. We ate just about everything in the house - tinned sardines, a pack of semolina, weird stuff that had been lurking around in the freezer for ages - and scraped through. We had a laugh about it and treated it as a bit of a game, but it was sobering to think that we literally could not afford any more food that week.

Those inclined to judge might say it's irresponsible to spend money on anything other than the basic necessities when you're struggling financially, but where do you draw the line? Do you decide to wait until you're earning more or have paid off more of your debts before you get the kids a pet or take them on holiday, or do you realise that if you wait for those things to happen they'll have grown up and gone?

The prospect of being debt-free in another 17 years instead of 25 is not enough of an inducement to make life miserable for yourself and your family in the meantime. How realistic is it to defer the enjoyment of a "normal" quality of life indefinitely, until that magic time in the future when you have "enough" disposable income? If you went down that road you'd do nothing, go nowhere, live a life constrained by penny-pinching misery indefinitely. I don't know anybody who has that strength of will, nor do I believe it's necessarily something to aspire to.

I thank Linda Tirado for sharing her experience and showing us the world through her eyes. She came in for some harsh criticism from people who found her revelations uncomfortable because the prospect of an educated, middle class person living below the poverty line was a bit too close to the bone: if it can happen to someone like her, is anyone safe?