The final stretch

It’s over! My 20 days of living on my benefit entitlement finished yesterday. The end was a bit of an anti-climax because I thought I still had another day, so wound up skipping breakfast due to lack of bread and only noticing I was good to break out the real coffee when someone at church asked if I was enjoying my freedom. The truth is, I actually wound up in fake debt at the end of this, but more on that later.

This week was the best so far in terms of food. I ate pretty well and have wound up with a lot of food left over, which I wasn’t expecting when I started this thing. I have curry, soup, chilli and stew in the freezer that I might never eat because I’m not sure I can face it. Two tins of chopped tomatoes left over. I even have a real life parsnip in the freezer and over half of a pumpkin. A lot of rice. It is amazing how far rice can stretch.

Best bargain of the week

Yesterday, I revelled in my freedom by drinking coke and beer and middle class coffee which are so… frivolous. It’s impossible to justify a can of coke when your financial situation means you can’t even get a bus somewhere if an emergency comes up. Tonight, I’m celebrating with a pizza and a bottle of beer. The pizza cost £2.00 and the beer cost £1.20 which, on my general budget, is not a lot. More than my average meal but not… extravagant. It would be totally unthinkable on last week’s budget, though, and both tasted so, so good.

For the 20 days, my budget was £39.34. I spent –

Food: £19.67

Drinks: £3.92

Travel: £2.65

Household: £2.00

Leisure: £11.00

Added up, that left me with a massive 10p to spare, which I don’t think is too bad really. This whole thing has definitely taught me to stretch things out. I used the chickpea juice in my tin of chickpeas because, hey, if you can make freaky vegan merinuges from chickpea juice they must have some nutritional content (don’t question the logic). I bought 4 pints of milk with the intention of freezing some of it (it’s 75p for 2 pints and £1 for 4; that’s a big difference when you’ve got no money), before realising I didn’t have anything to freeze it in. I wound up washing out my previous bottle of milk to use as a freezing vessel. Honestly, that whole thing has been a total disaster, because milk bottles don’t freeze well and they definitely don’t defrost well (read: I have milk all over the fridge and now my defrosted milk is in a glass and is probably going to go off because it’s not sealed but maybe cling film will save it). I’ve learnt you have to plan and to buy vegetables by weight to avoid bulk payments and not to spend your buffer until Friday/Saturday. By this week, I was confident I could get by.

Then I failed.

The reason I failed my twenty for twenty is because my phone broke. It broke on Tuesday, right before I was off to London to have a glorious evening off as a tribute for the 2016 TRI Awards where one of the managers in my team at CAP won the Insolvency Manager of the Year Award. We got to spend a lovely evening at the Hilton on Park Lane with this incredible lamb two ways, salmon, caviar and wine. It was such an amazing break from celebrating every measly cup of tea and putting lime wedges in hot water to make it taste better. It was also technically free (but, yes, I feel this was also cheating a little bit – this was pretty much the only time I accepted any free food though) and, by the end of our lovely evening, my phone was essentially dead.

It broke on Tuesday. I broke on Friday.

The irritating thing is I usually have a spare. I just didn’t this time. I have an insurance policy that I didn’t even think to include on this budget… but it’s in my mum’s name and would have taken a while to resolve even if she wasn’t on a cruise. There’s an excess that is twice my weekly budget, too, so including it and the insurance wouldn’t have helped. So, I bought a spare phone. It was £10 with a free £10 worth of credit that I didn’t really want but will probably be useful at some point. Its astonishingly crap but it does the job.

I wouldn’t have been able to do that on my budget (I had £1 left at that point) and I guess that’s the big problem with this whole thing. It’s not like I was buying an iphone off the cuff. I just wanted some kind of device that meant I could call my sister or my friends or the police or something. I don’t have a landline so I do kind of need a phone. You can’t call 999 on a laptop.

(This is extra intensified by the fact that, as I left no money for this weekend, I spent my £1 buffer on glue in order to scrapbook alone in my flat in front of yet more Gilmore Girls. Doing that without the ability to text anyone was not welcome).

That’s the problem, though. It’s okay to live on £13.77 a week for 20 days. It’s okay to live on £13.77 a week if you know it’s going to end. It’s okay if you can have a plan for every single thing you need to buy. It’s not feasible to live on it long term, or even an unlucky short term period, because there are so many other expenses that I would genuinely need to spend at some point. Clothing. Travel. Stationary. A phone. A birthday present. The £275 utility bill my previous provider is trying to charge me for one month’s electricity. There’s no security or stability. If something comes up that costs more than £13.77 then you can’t buy food that week. If some extra bill of more than £13.77 came up I’d have to ask someone to borrow the money. If you have savings whilst on benefits it’s deducted from your entitlement (on savings over £6000, which admittedly is enough to be a decent buffer for a while) so that you live on those savings until they’re dry. It’s no wonder that people on low incomes can end up in debt so easily.

I’m back to my real life with new added appreciation for a lot of things. The ability to go into a supermarket with just a rough idea of how much I’m going to spend, rather than a list, a plan, predicted prices and a calculator, is such a freedom. The fact that if I’m out and suddenly thirsty… I can just buy a coke or a coffee and not worry about it is amazing. Buying lunch out when I don’t want to eat my packed lunch. Wine.  Chocolate. Going out for drinks with colleagues. Having a separate budget for meals out. Being able to get on a bus and visit my friends because I want to. Not having to plan for the fact that I’m going to run out of shampoo this week. The incredible freedom of knowing that, if every single thing I own falls apart, I have a safety net waiting for me to dip into.

I don’t really know what it’s like to live without that but even twenty days of constantly thinking about food and money and whether I can afford to go and see my sister takes up so, so much head space. I have been hungry and a little miserable but mostly I’ve been borderline-anxious and, for me, this wasn’t even real.

Now, excuse me whilst I go and never eat 36p Aldi bread ever again.

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Reintroduction to Protein

Last week, I spent £3.75 on food. I spent 32p on parsnips, 45p on bread, 75p on potatoes, 69p on double cream (my luxury item of the week), 45p on swede, 50p on chopped tomatoes, 35p on lime (to put slices in hot water to make it taste better). 24p reduced price grapes.  That made me some pretty great root vegetable soup which tasted a lot less good on day five. I also cooked a massive pasta bake using the aubergine I’d saved from last week, chopped tomatoes, 24p pasta, breadcrumbs and cheese. It was good food and nice enough that I got to have people over for dinner and feed them the pasta, too.

(Less good on day six. A lot, lot less good on day six)

This week, I had a massive £8.40 for food. I’ve never gone through the supermarket with a calculator before this challenge and this week I spent half the time doing the maths in my head. That’s a special kind of luxury. Just, knowing you have a buffer is pretty wonderful. Even in my fake pseudo-experiment where I actually have what might be a months’ worth of food in the next cupboard, I felt so insecure last week. I just knew that if anything came up I wouldn’t have money in the budget to pay for it. Things are looking up.

Also, I got to buy some amazing food this week. I bought a culinary pumpkin for a semi-extortionate £1.50. I bought quorn mince. I bought feta cheese (okay, well, “greek style” cheese). I bought eggs! I can afford protein! Protein! I’ve got root vegetable, bean and quorn mince chilli cooking in the slow cooker and I managed to get the train to see my sister this weekend and I have never appreciated these things so much before.

It’s actually okay.

I JUST REMEMBERED I BOUGHT TEA BAGS THIS WEEK. I HAD A CUP OF TEA IT WAS SO WONDERFUL.

It’s made me appreciate a lot of things I don’t usually think about. It’s made me realise how much I miss certain things. I’ve really missed tea. I miss sugar and sugary foods. Bread that doesn’t make me want to throw up. Coke. I really, really miss coke. Wine. I really love wine and beer. I have a bottle of beer in the fridge that I really want to drink. Good coffee! In my flat I currently have a coffee grinder and fresh coffee beans and I have been drinking Nescafe instant and I did not know I was such a coffee snob (I did not pay actual money for this myself; it’s on loan from my sister. I’ve so far used it twice before this thing came up). I miss realising I want to read a book and instantly downloading it on my kindle and reading it. I miss being able to go places. Being able to plan for the weekend without worrying whether I’m going to run out of washing up liquid, or milk, or tights, or just anything that costs more than £1.50.

It’s not so bad but that’s only because I can see an end point.

Remember to donate to CAP’s awesome work if you can!

Rice overdose

For the past week, I’ve been living on what I’d be entitled to if I lost my job tomorrow which amounts to £13.77 a week after bills (more on this here) for Christians Against Poverty. I sort of screwed myself over on some £2.49 coffee that I misread the price of and was too British/polite/awkward to take back. Other big spends included £1.49 cheese and £0.85 peanut butter. I spent £11.09 of my budget in total (more on that later), all of it on food.

Food wise, it’s been better than expected. I’ve eaten copious amounts of carbs and not a whole lot of protein. I have been consistently hungry the whole time but I’m half convinced that’s psychological. I’ve essentially eaten the same four meals on repeat. I have had pasta with tomato, garlic and onion sauce (and cheese). Pea risotto with broccoli and cauliflower (and cheese). Chickpeas, broccoli and cauliflower curry. Cheese sandwiches for lunch. Thank God for cheese. I did make an onion soup but it was pretty crap and I wound up adding it as a base for my curry (and tomorrow’s pasta bake). Aldi 45p bread is truly awful. It doesn’t taste like food. I’ve been having a slice of toast with peanut butter for breakfast every morning but haven’t been able to finish the whole slice the last two days. I haven’t had a hot meal that didn’t largely consist of rice since Wednesday. I have four more portions of curry left that I definitely don’t want to eat.

(A friend told me that rice is responsible for a third of the worlds calories – this might also be true for me this week.)

I really really miss cups of tea but I didn’t think I could afford coffee and tea in the same week.

It’s been a very interesting exercise in priorities. As this budget has to include leisure and travel, the prospect of the weekend was not sounding very exciting. I was worried I was going to spend two days sat alone in my cold flat watching copious amounts of television. It actually turned out pretty good. One of my friends took pity on me and picked me up/dropped me off so I could Saturday spend the afternoon hanging out with her and that evening I met up with another friend and we walked down to the Bradford Forest of Light (a light installation in the park, for context). The group went out for coffee/dessert afterwards. It was okay because I was able to justify my tap water by explaining my 20 for 20 but I imagine it’d be a lot more awkward and crappy if I genuinely couldn’t afford a £3.95 milkshake (and, wow, they looked incredible. I am so going when I’m back on my usual budget). Sunday I had church, which definitely broke up the Gilmore Girls marathon I accidentally started, and then I spent an hour in the supermarket with a £4.45 budget (I overspent by 3p). Shopping takes a lot longer when you’re frantically adding things up on a calculator and keep having to put things back.

Next week, there’s a magic comedy evening at work that I committed to going to a while ago. It costs a usually reasonable £10 but on my budget that’s pretty astronomical. I was trying to save £3 last week so I only had to fork out £7 of this week, thinking that given I’d already bought the pasta/rice/onions/coffee I wouldn’t need as much money for food next week, but I only managed to save £2.68. I got a little carb-happy in my preparation shop and had to go on a midweek vegetable hunt. That leaves me with £6.45 for the rest of next week.

vegetables
My midweek vegetable shop – all this for £1.03!

Then I ran out of toilet roll. I legitimately nearly cried when I discovered that the cheapest toilet roll Aldi was £1.45 for four rolls. I spent twenty minutes deciding whether it was worth it or not before walking to another supermarket to see if there was anything cheaper. I had a plan B in which I just bought tissues rather than toilet roll then moved the single toilet roll I still have to the bathroom the guests use so that I am the only one subject to this very mild form of suffering, or at least I don’t look like I can’t afford toilet roll.  Tesco’s saved me with their ultra-value £1.00 for six rolls. I’ve never been so stressed about 45 pence before…  but that’s two tins of chopped tomatoes or a whole swede (I’m going to make some kick ass vegetable soup for lunches this week because last week I used up my bread way too quickly) and my milk’s nearly out of date and I’m nearly out of shampoo and I really, really want to go to this comedy evening.

I woke up hungry and I’m sick of rice but if this is one of the only social thing I can afford to do before the 23rd then, apparently, I’m willing to not have teabags until next week and to have the same soup every day this week. I am dreaming of squash and something with sugar in.

This evening I think I’m going to have a pasta/rice free dinner and have some roasted reduced price parsnips (32p for a whole bag!) that definitely aren’t going to be good tomorrow by the look of them, with some swede and potato mash. I’m unduly excited. And hungry.

Remember to donate to CAP’s awesome work if you can.