Just over a year ago I ventured into adulthood and started working at Christians Against Poverty. I’ve loved it. I thoroughly enjoy my job, my colleagues are great, even my office is pretty brilliant… but most of all I love what we do. CAP does brilliant work delivering free debt counselling (that’s my bit), alongside tackling some of the root causes of debt such as unemployment, addiction and struggling on a low income.
From the 3rd to 23rd October, I’m going to be taking part in CAP’s 20 for twenty challenge and living off the benefits I’d be entitled to if I lost my job tomorrow. I’ll be donating the money I save to CAP and writing updates on here. I’m doing this because I make budgets for individuals and families struggling to survive on low incomes and have no idea what it’s like. Most of the time I only half think about the price of my supermarket shop. I don’t count the pennies. I have a budget, but it’s not something I think about all the time. I think, as people, we have a duty to face up to the reality of what people around us are having to deal with and this is my attempt. I’m also doing this because in the past year I’ve learnt that there’s a lot of stigma and shame related to being in debt, when financial hardship can happen to anyone.
If I lost my job, I’d be faced with getting by on under 25s JSA until I found a new job, which can so so hard and definitely does not happen overnight. I’m pretty sure I would not manage to budget for the sudden change in income, even though I’m trained in debt counselling and making budgets.
Disclaimer: I know I won’t really know what it’s like to be living on such a tough budget, because I have food I’m ignoring for 20 days in the other cupboard. I have money in the bank. I can throw in the towel when I want to. There are 621, 000 16-24 year olds unemployed in the UK who don’t have that choice (side note: you can’t apply for JSA unless you’re 18, although there are some exceptions, but this the only figure I could find). I don’t know what that’s like and this is only going to give me the barest idea.
My benefit entitlement
According to benefit calculator, www.entitledto.co.uk, I would be entitled to the standard under 25s rate of Job Seekers Allowance, at £57.90 a week. Alongside that, I would also be entitled to Council Tax support reducing my bill to £4.52 a week and Housing Benefit of £58.42 a week.
Unfortunately, all of that money put together would not pay my rent. As I don’t think my landlord would reckon much to me not paying my rent for 20 days (even for charity), I am fake charging myself £11.10/week rent top up. The figure has a semi-relevant benefit basis (it’s the standard deduction of a housing benefit overpayment from someone’s ongoing benefit award) but it’s essentially arbitrary. The fact is, if I really lost my job tomorrow, I wouldn’t be able to pay my rent. I might qualify for extra support in the form of discretionary housing payments, but given I have a spare room I doubt I’d be eligible for this for very long. I’d have to move and would probably walk away with some serious rent arrears.
When I first started being trained in benefits, £57.90 (£73.10 for those over aged 25, because apparently being 24 is £15.20 cheaper) a week didn’t sound too bad. Then I started making people’s budgets and realised just how much that £57.90 had to stretch.
This needs to include:
- Council tax. You can go to prison for not paying your council tax. You’re more likely to have enforcement agents turn up to chase this but it’s still pretty important to pay.
- Water. Actually, water companies can’t do as much as most priority bills. They can’t cut you off, but again they can go down the legal route and send enforcement agents round.
- Electricity. Technically have the power to cut off you supply, but are more likely to apply for a warrant to fit prepayment meters then deduct the arrears from what you owe at much higher than you want to pay.
- TV Licence. Again, not paying this is criminal.
- Rent. As in my case, often housing benefit does not cover all of this.
- Mobile. For me, I’m tied into a contract. Even if I wanted to reduce this cost, I’d have to try and renegotiate my contract or face extra charges and cancellation fees.
- Internet. An eligibility requirement of JSA is to be actively seeking work, which often means you have to apply for a certain number of jobs each week, which is a lot more challenging without wifi. Again, these are often contracts.
- Travel costs. For many, the job centre is a bus drive away and attending is requirement to avoid being sanctioned, without taking into account going to the shops or visiting a family member. Personally, my travel costs are quite low because I live in the city centre very close to work. Train and journeys to see my family or friends add up though.
- Food. Girl’s gotta eat.
- Household. Bin bags, kitchen roll, oven cleaner. All pretty necessary.
- Toiletries/medicine. How expensive is shampoo, anyway?
- Leisure. Everyone deserves to be able to meet a friend for coffee or go to the cinema, whoever you are.
My ongoing bills (which I know are the cheapest they can be, having moved into my flat last month) and ongoing contracts, add up to a total of £44.13 a week. That’s the Council Tax I’d still have to pay, water, electric, TV licence, internet, mobile and my rent top up. This leaves me with £13.77 a week for travel, food, household, toiletries and leisure.
As my housemate moved out last week, I’m using his just-emptied food cupboards for the food I’m allowed to eat during the next twenty days. I’m going to continue using the toiletries/cleaning stuff I already have, but if I run out that comes out of the £13.77 budget. Updates will be coming here.
Wish me luck and please donate if you can!