I have a confession to make; something that I usually try to hold back from telling people, even if I know them well; but after the recent uproar about Ian Duncan Smith and the minimum income from state benefits, I felt like I needed to write this post. Three years ago, after being let go from my first ever graduate job, I was unemployed for three months. During that time, the only money I had coming in was from state benefits. For two months, I lived on less than £53 a week. Could you?
Even before I went to university, I knew that I wanted to work in advertising. In my head, it was a perfect mix of creative endeavour and data analysis, a great way to keep my brain working whilst still working on word-based challenges. But my parents and teachers all persuaded me to apply for an academic based degree, as a way to safeguard against changing my mind; if I decided I no longer wanted to work in advertising, a degree from St Andrews would always be helpful.
And so I studied Psychology and Philosophy with a little literature thrown in, I did work experience in advertising offices and I read up on advertising agency graduate schemes. At the same time, I worked part-time – I held down a job at St Andrews Aquarium, and before that I’d been a part of the Tayforth Universities Officer Training Corps., – part of the TA. Each year, when uni ended, I got a job – in my mum’s bridal shop, at a housing partnership office, picking up more shifts at the aquarium. I was never afraid to work, or to work hard. When I lost an election three months before my graduation, and in doing so, failed to win a paid sabbatical position in St Andrews for a year, I started looking for a job in marketing in Edinburgh.
All of this so far has been mere background; the story of a girl who came from a normal background – local comprehensive school, parental discord but a nice family – and went to one of the country’s best universities, only to find, less than six months after graduation that she was jobless, broke and pretty much alone in a city that she didn’t know. It was both absolutely petrifying and one of the best things that could have ever happened to me.
I don’t want to go too much into why I lost that first job – let’s just say it definitely wasn’t the right fit for me – but it is important to know that Stacey and I were going through a seriously rocky patch when all this happened. We lived in our first flat together in Edinburgh – an old and period-featured two bedroom place which our friends affectionately called ‘Chateuax Sex Bed’. (That’s another story in itself.) I’d been at my job for about two, highly stressful months, and during this time, Stacey hadn’t had a job, but was living off of some money she’d had saved up for a while. I found out that I no longer had a job on the same day that Stacey was offered a job (the same job that she still has right now).
For the first month that I was unemployed, money wasn’t really an issue. I had my last paycheck from my previous job, and I was convinced that I’d find a new job as soon as I started looking. The first week or so that I was out of work didn’t feel that strange, because the day after I left, I was struck down with tonsillitis, and spent the next seven days recovering. The next few weeks I spent with my student friends, who made me feel like it was entirely acceptable to stay in pyjamas all day watching crap daytime TV. I sent out CVs, but it was mostly just a way to alleviate the boredom that came from being home alone, and only having internet from a dongle.
When the end of that month rolled around and it dawned on me (us) that we needed to pay the rent, council tax, bills and buy food – all on one person’s (small) salary – that I realised that I couldn’t do this alone. I couldn’t ask my parents for money – they didn’t have it to give me, and begging for cash from anyone else felt like admitting defeat, and so I sat down and filled in forms requesting council tax credits and housing benefit and job seeker’s allowance. Around two weeks after sending those forms off, and after a meeting at the Jobcentre, it was decided that I qualified. I began to receive a grand total of £103.70 every two weeks.
In case you can’t do the maths, that meant I that I had £51.85 a week to live off, or what worked out to be £7.41 a day – less than the current allowance by just a little. Looking at those figures now, I cringe. I quite often will spent almost that daily amount buying lunch and a coffee, or a couple of drinks in the pub. Back then, that money had to be used to buy my food, to pay for topping up my mobile and our internet dongle, to pay my half of the gas and electric bills which I dreaded seeing every month. For November and December of that year, I had no money. I could not afford to buy or pay for anything that was not a necessity. I learnt far more about the layout of the area I lived in, because I could no longer afford to get buses – even £1.40 to take me from our flat to the job centre (a 40 minute walk) was too expensive.
After a month of not taking my job search seriously, I started looking in earnest once I was receiving benefits. Let me be honest here; it wasn’t the Jobcentre staff (who tried hard, but were obviously overstretched) who prompted this change in behaviour. Nor was it the shame of being on benefits – although, as someone who had been to university, and always had a part time job, I did feel ashamed – that kicked me into gear. Quite simply, the thing which made me determined to get another job was the sheer lack of money I had whilst on benefits.
Here are just a few memories I have from that period:
Buying groceries from Tesco and feeling so hopeless because the only thing in my shopping trolley which was not from the Tesco value range were tampons. Feeling hungry but not eating anything because we only had two slices of bread left, and those were for Stacey’s lunch the next day. Refusing to put the heating on during the day because I felt I did not deserve to be comfortable if I did not have a job. Not getting dressed so there was less washing to do. Filling in job application after job application after job application.
In that two month period, my diet declined, I felt low and I began to doubt all of the choices that had taken me to that point. I had just over £200 a month to live off, which doesn’t sound all that bad, until you realise that about a quarter of that needed to be spent paying the gas and electric bills, and I would often also top up my mobile phone and internet dongle, leaving me with around £130 to last a month. It was hard. Really hard. But I am actually strange glad that it happened.
I lived off £50 a week because I had to, because I had no other choice. But the fact that it was hard drove me to go out and get a job, forced me to stop being snobbish about my job search and apply for anything and everything. And more than that, being completely broke and on benefits taught me the importance of not taking money for granted. Losing my job was the first (and I hope only) time in my life that I had nothing; it forced me to reassess what was important to me. Since getting a job, I have learnt to save money. I have paid off my credit card to ensure that I would always have an emergency fund, I save cash ‘just in case’ and it reminds me not to ever, ever become complacent about my job.
So, it is possible to live off of £50 a week, the amount that young people get from Job Seekers’ Allowance? Yes, it is. I did it, for almost three months. It’s not easy; that amount of money doesn’t allow for luxuries like coffee from Starbucks or nights out drinking – but it is enough money to eat, to pay the bills, to work on getting a job. So is £53 a week enough for a young person to live on? Well, in my case, where I was also awarded council tax exemptions and housing benefit – living off £53 a week wasn’t easy – but it was entirely possible.Carley