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Has the coronavirus lockdown left you better or worse off financially? It’s a tricky topic to raise, not least among friends where the answer may vary wildly.
According to a recent report by the Resolution Foundation, the pandemic is seeing lower income households turn to borrowing, while higher income households increase their savings – a divide that is taking its toll. What’s more, those considered most at risk of job losses also have fewer savings to keep them afloat – meaning the wealth divide is gradually increasing.
Michaela*, 30 from Dorset, was made redundant when her company cut staff due to Covid-19 – and has found herself the only person in her close friendship group whose finances have been negatively impacted by the crisis.
While she is worrying about being able to afford the day-to-day basics such as food and utility bills, she has friends being paid to work from home who are either squirrelling away the money that would usually be swallowed up by their commute or eating out at restaurants – or spending it in other ways.
“A few of my friends have taken to artisan wine-tasting courses, Pilates lessons or art classes on Zoom, but still priced the same,” says Michaela of their lockdown experiences. “Whereas I have had to consider how much of my universal credit I feel comfortable using to ‘treat myself.’”
Financial disparities can have a real impact on friendships – if you find yourself suddenly in one camp, while your pals are in the other.
“It’s created a dissonance where I feel like a child, penny pinching my pocket money handed to me by the government,” Michaela tells HuffPost UK. “Meanwhile, my professional friends living with partners are still able to enjoy the fruits of their well-paid jobs.” Even if enjoying that inside, she adds.
“Conversations are like treading on egg shells as my friends discuss all the money they’re able to save whilst staying at home and it feeling ‘like a holiday’. All the while I’m wondering if I’ll have enough money for petrol to allow me to get to the next town.”
A typical worker in a sector of the economy that has shut down during the pandemic had savings of £1,900 at the start of lockdown, according to the Resolution Foundation data. But those able to work from home during the pandemic have made average savings of £4,700.
Separate Fawcett Society research also suggests that Black, Asian and minority ethnic women have been hardest hit by the pandemic, both financially and by the anxiety this job insecurity can cause.
Katrina, 29, from Brighton, finds herself in a tricky position, money-wise.
As a self-employed actress, she would usually works at events to top up her income, but both revenue streams have dried up due to Covid and she has no idea when they’ll return. “When the grant came in, it eased my worries and anxieties,” she says of accessing the government’s self-employment support. “But obviously it’s still lower than I would usually earn.”
In the early days of lockdown, the money gap with working friends wasn’t so obvious, but it’s become tougher to navigate since restrictions have eased.
“A few of us met in a park in Brighton and I suggested a picnic, but the other two wanted to order a takeaway,” she says. “When I said I’d rather not, they said ‘what else have you been spending your money on, we haven’t been able to go out!’. I backed down, paid £15 for dinner, and felt guilty for spending money.”
Both Michaela and Katrina are worried about future plans with their friends, leaving invitations to destination weddings unanswered and the prospect of group holidays weighing heavily on their minds.
“A few have mentioned a weekend away after all this is over, but I’ll probably end up making an excuse as to why I can’t go,” says Katrina.
“They just assume because I got a grant, I’m fine for money, rather than considering it’s been hard for me.”
Fronting up your financial situation with friends isn’t easy. As financial wellness coach Bola Sol recently said in HuffPost UK’s podcast Am I Making You Uncomfortable?: “We talk about sex more than we talk about money.”
But Ellie Austin-Williams, founder of This Girl Talks Money, says opening up that dialogue is vital, so that you’re not tempted to “keep up appearances”.
“Not being honest about your finances can put you in all sorts of difficulties,” she says. “From accumulating high interest credit card debt to damaging your credit score (which can take years to rebuild), spending more than you can afford can seriously harm your mental health and cause high levels of stress.”
Instead of socially withdrawing when you can’t afford plans, Austin-Williams suggests finding ways to bring the topic of money to the table. If you find a personal approach intimidating, you could start by mentioning an article or podcast you’ve read or listening to on the topic – such as the ones here.
“If you’re in a group and plans are being made, don’t be afraid to put forward an option and explain that you’d prefer not to spend a lot,” she says. “You’ll be surprised how often others are thinking the same too.”
Of course, the onus to build financially sensitive friendships shouldn’t be on those who are already having a hard time.
If you find yourself in a good financial position, Austin-Williams suggests one of the best things you can do is “provide a judgement-free space for your friends to talk openly about their financial concerns”.
“Make plans which don’t put a financial burden on anyone, and if other people suggest expensive ideas, put a cheaper alternative on the table,” she says. “If job security is a concern, ask around and keep an eye out for opportunities which may be suitable for them, too.”
*Some names have been changed to provide anonymity.