Well, it’s happened. When rock bottom approaches the last few stages go really quick, and we have finally hit it.
You may have gathered that things have been pretty tight financially for us for a while now, and this weekend saw the straw that broke the proverbial camel’s back. In actual fact it wasn’t a straw but a pizza. And no ordinary pizza either. It was a £4 “create your own” pizza from Asda and it proved a step too far because we simply did not have the money for one.
Sounds bad doesn’t it? Well, let me tell you just how bad.
We have been struggling for months – years – with finances. Ever since I became ill and lost my job we have been up against it to make ends meet. Month after month, year after year we have been skimming back, giving up things that other people take for granted and have long since waved goodbye to. A quick example is the fact that my hair is so long and curly now. Lots of people comment on it; “oh, isn’t it lovely and long?!”, “isn’t your long hair wonderful??”, “I do love your hair long like that” and so on. But the truth is that it is only this long because we can’t spare the money for me to go and have it cut. My son’s hair has been cut by me the last couple of times and my husband clips his own hair now too. Not because they are precious about it (or because I am particularly skilled at hairdressing) but because there simply is not the cash available to visit the barbers.
I lost a filling at the beginning of this year and it was massive trepidation that I booked an appointment at the dentist for 1st September. Part of the trepidation was because I’m terrified of dentists, but the other part was because I was frightened of the cost. Not long after I booked the appointment I broke a different tooth and to be honest I was really glad when the dentist sent me a letter cancelling my appointment because…well you can guess can’t you? Not because of the pain involved but because there just is not the money available to pay the bill.
The situation is this: My husband works full time and earns what on the face of it is a decent wage. I can’t work because of my condition but I try to do little bits of admin or audio typing where I can to earn a bit of cash, and I sell some crocheted items where and when I can too. We have a daughter at university and a son who is in Year 11 at secondary school. He goes to music centre and we have to pay fees for, which we don’t/can’t begrudge him because he wants a professional music career and that is the best place for him to be in order to start it.
I have tried to claim for ESA (for my non-UK readers it is a sickness benefit awarded to those who are too ill to work) but as everyone knows, the threshold for “can’t work because of illness or disability” is so high now not many people are accepted on it. Even disabled ex-servicemen with no limbs are deemed “fit to work” by the assessment people for ESA so my little condition doesn’t even register with them.
We don’t qualify for income support because my husband works (that counts against us on two counts because a) we are married and b) he works more than 16 hours per week). Incidentally, I can’t claim Jobseekers Allowance for the same reasons, but there is an extra factor why I can’t claim that and that’s because c) I can’t with all honesty say that I could work any job that I am offered because I don’t know from day to day whether or not I can get up and do any work at all. Even if I did qualify for it, it would only last for a maximum of 6 months and I wouldn’t be able to claim again for another couple of years once that has expired, which is no good for a long term plan.
We have been surfing the 0% interest credit cards for some time now, shifting balances about to try and free up some cash for us to use as living expenses but they have all come to an end now. We are paying massive amounts of interest on them because there are limited options available with credit all over the place – not just us, but for other people too. We now have a combined debt totalling more than a year of Kevin’s salary. It may as well be a million quid for all the hope we have of paying that off.
We worked out last week that after my husband’s wages come in and the necessary bills have all been paid (gas, electric, council tax, TV licence, mortgage) we have £157 per month to pay for the rest – food, bus fares, petrol and so on. That doesn’t include a clothing allowance, my medicine, music centre fees, socialising/entertainment or anything like that so to pay for any of those other things we have to take it out of the £157. What we have been doing is taking more money from the credit cards to try to cover the shortfall, which has caught up with us now. We are about £500 short each month, which obviously mounts up if we keep going up to that every time, and now, we’re at the end of the road. When there isn’t even enough for a £4 Asda pizza you know you’re up against it.
As bleak as it all feels, there is a bit of hope on the horizon.
Kevin went through all the finances on Sunday and followed up a link I’d seen on Facebook about a debt management company. The chap was very helpful and is sending us some information and an application form for an IVA, which is an agreement to pay creditors a fixed amount for a fixed term. There are pros and cons which I won’t go into here, but what it represents is a light at the end of the tunnel for us. It is a 5-year long tunnel, but at least with an IVA in place we can see that there is a light in the first place.
I always get emotional when we talk about money – I don’t know why, but it is very embarrassing – and I thought I would try and get my head round what the IVA would entail myself by looking up a few things on Martin Lewis’s website (he’s the Money Saving Expert off the TV) and I found a link to the Joseph Rowntree Foundation. They are the people who measure poverty levels in the country, and they have a fairly comprehensive set of criterion as to what constitutes a basic standard of living, and what constitutes a decent standard of living etc.
I did their questionnaire and calculated where we were on the scale of “need” compared to other people in this country, and I was gobsmacked to find that according to their figures we are more than £1000 per month short of what they call a “basic standard of living”. We were feeling bad about our £500 shortfall and all the pain that that entails, but according to the JRF we are actually doing twice as well (or half as bad, whichever way you look at it) as they reckon.
When I looked further at their criteria, I was astonished to find out what they constitute a basic standard of living and the amounts of money they say are legitimate to spend on each part of life – personal goods and services (dentist, medicines, eye tests etc), clothing allowances, socialising, food, alcohol, holidays…. If we spent what they say meets basic living standards on all of these things then we would be living in luxury compared to what we are now! We have done without so much for so long their list seems like something out of this world for us.
I do recognise that it’s one thing to say “this is what a basic standard of living should be” and quite another to meet it. According to the JRF, we are in the 25% of the population who fall below the line but that doesn’t actually help does it?
Knowing that we don’t have the cash for medicines, glasses, dentists, hairdressers, food, school bus fares, school uniform (my son is going to school in trousers and shoes that are too small for him because we couldn’t replace them before the start of term) and all that is one thing, but finding a way out of it is quite another. We have cut back and cut back to the extent now that we have forgotten what “normal” is like. It’s not so much “how the other half live” but “how the other three-quarters live”.
So here we are. We haven’t applied for an IVA as the paperwork hasn’t arrived yet, but even when we do it won’t actually solve anything in terms of day to day living. Yes, we will have a handle on our debts and yes, we can look forward to the balances being written off in 5 years’ time, but we still won’t have any extra coming in to meet that £1000 shortfall each month. I am studying for my degree which will hopefully affect my earning capacity in a couple of years, but that is if I could actually hold down a job in the first place. My condition is getting worse and yet the doctors still don’t know what’s causing it or how to treat it, so I can’t see me getting and holding down a job even armed with my degree. I am trying to sell my crocheted work, but for the odd fiver or so that brings in doesn’t even put a dent in our overall living expenses, meagre though they may be.
Ah well, if I can sell a £5 crocheted hat this week then at least I could look forward to an Asda pizza this weekend with a bit of change to spare. Chips anyone?