Life in the ‘Squeezed Middle’

Thank you for the feedback from this post. All of those blog post ideas will most likely get published at some point anyway, but it has proved motivating to know which ones people are most interested in reading. And now for the first post from that list…

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Before I start, this isn’t a ‘feel sorry for me, how hard do we have things’ post. Sam and I are extremely lucky to be in the position we are in (homeowners, supporting ourselves, options available, etc), there are many people far far worse off than us, plus lots of people who can’t afford to get out of the renting trap, etc. This is just an account of how we organise our finances in our present situation.

We are both very much at the beginning of our careers (having had Arlo just a couple of years into our first jobs after uni). We are slowly but surely working our way up, but for the moment we are very much feeling the squeeze. I tend to be quite open when talking about our situation, and as a result of some of my ramblings on Twitter, I’ve had a few people ask for me to write more about how we budget and how we get by – especially as we live in London where living costs are not the cheapest, and when I give details of our earnings, people are often surprised that we can afford it at all.

I don’t really feel qualified to advise on budgeting. This is different for everyone and our version of budgeting is simply to not spend any extra or unnessecary money. But I can talk about what day-to-day life is like for this particular family in the ‘squeezed middle’.

First a few facts:

The only benefit we qualify for is child benefit (since the new cuts came in, we earn just over the threshold to qualify for child text credits, so if you are up to date with tax credits that should give you a rough idea of where our income might lie – for us it’s definitely not a case of higher salaries to reflect higher London living costs, not yet anyway, but as I said, we are hoping to work our way towards that).

I work from home with no childcare. Like many people, we can’t afford it. Even half a day a week is unaffordable. As a result, I don’t take on as much work as I’d like to. Catch 22 situation.

Our mortgage is very low for London. But it is still 60% of our income. Even so, we are better off as the cost to rent a similar house to ours in the same area would cost around £200 per month more than our mortgage repayment.

On a good month my sporadic earnings plus Sam’s salary will just cover all our bills & outgoings. On other months we don’t break even and the rest gets mounted onto credit card debt.

What I class as the basic essential bills are mortgage, Internet, phone, utilities, council tax, house and buildings insurance. We don’t have life insurance policies, nor insurance for my computer, camera and lenses (which aren’t covered by our basic household insurance as I use them for business purposes). This does make me very nervous, but the cost of this extra insurance would put us over our ‘break even’ budget so it’s not an option right now.

While Sam covers most of our monthly outgoings, child benefit and my small earnings cover the one-off yearly expenses, ie car tax. I also try to make ends meet to cover the horrifying unexpected costs like house repairs that keep cropping up, but most of the time the only option is for this to also go on the credit card. (All the sponsored links you’ve seen in the last few months plus the extra photography work I’ve taken on recently helped pay to fix the hole in our roof).

Our weekly shop is around £50. Maybe a little more if we need to buy nappies or if Sam buys beer.

At the end of each month there is nothing to save, nothing to put away for a rainy day, etc (which also makes us very nervous). If our debt hasn’t increased, it’s a good month.

Our biggest luxury is without a doubt our car. The cost to run it, tax and insure it sets us back a lot. And that’s just insurance for me as we can’t afford the ridiculous cost to insure Sam. However, it is becoming more and more essential now that I use it for work and have lots of photography equipment and props to take on shoots.

Day-to-day living:

I avoid public transport where I can to cut down costs. We’ve stopped going out to London to meet our friends and doing any activities that cost money. We still socialise, but find it’s far cheaper to invite people to ours. Friends have become used to me declining invites If I know something is going to cost money.

The car gets around £40 of petrol per month. I avoid long journeys that will use up more petrol than we can afford.

As the only regular money that comes into my account is the child benefit (half of which is used up by our monthly mobile line rental & house insurance costs), I try not to spend any money ever. Sam takes the ‘good’ credit card (the one that gets paid off monthly, which is how our fortnightly big food shop is purchased). If I need to get a bus, get petrol, get a few items from the Tesco express, I am usually dipping into my overdraft and incurring more charges, so I tend not to bother doing any of these things. I sort of see part of my role as a ‘Stay at home mum’ being not to spend any money at all during the week when it’s just me and Arlo. (Even so I usually manage to somehow spend around a fiver a week on miscellaneous costs).

The above points mean that I do sometimes feel a bit isolated, especially during the week when it’s just me and Arlo. But there is enough going on locally to keep us happy enough, and it’s much nicer in the warmer months when we can spend most of our time in parks. (There will be more on this in another blog post).

As a rule, I don’t go to any baby/toddler activities that involve a fee. Arlo’s swimming lessons were a birthday present from his grandparents. We do go to one group a week that we pay for, Arlo has been going since he was five months old, he loves it, and it’s his only regular opportunity to socialise with other toddlers. So we do pay for that, but it’s pay as you go and therefore affordable. Last year, Sam and I were doing football and choir (respectively), but we have stopped both as we couldn’t justify the costs.

Except for birthdays and special occasions, we don’t eat out. We don’t buy snacks, drinks or food for Arlo whilst out, we take a lunchbox for him if needs be. I avoid taking him to places where he will see and ask for snacks. We don’t buy any food marketed for kids in our supermarket shop, it may be the healthier option but that stuff is way overpriced.

Sam will often buy fruit and veg from the market as you get a lot more for your money than at the supermarket.

Sam is really good at meal planning which keeps the cost of our food shop down. Arlo eats what we are eating (he is a typical fussy toddler though so in the event he doesn’t want to eat, he gets peanut butter or spaghetti hoops on toast. This happens a lot). We all eat the leftovers for lunch the next day.

Apart from mince meat, we don’t usually buy red meat. Too expensive.

The only person who gets new clothes is Arlo and 90% of those are bought during the sales or given as presents. I always buy a size or two up and he wears baggy clothes for half a year or so – as a result of buying large, at two and a quarter he is still in clothes that he started wearing at eleven months old.

Holidays and trips away don’t happen. We’ve turned down many invites to visit friends as travel/petrol costs for a weekend away are unaffordable. But with a new baby on the way this is not exactly a priority. I’m hoping we might be able to have some sort of break in 2014 when the baby will be a toddler and life might be that little bit easier. In my opinion it’s not worth paying for a holiday before toddler stage/the stage of sleeping more reliably, as it would probably be more exhausting for me than staying at home.

Budgeting for Christmas was fairly simple this year. We managed to buy most things in the Tesco Clubcard exchange using our points. I also used Tesco points to buy Sam’s birthday present, and his birthday meal out. I am fiercely protective over my Boots advantage card points and use those to treat myself occasionally when I’ve run out of face creams, etc.

You may be wondering why we would choose to have another child when we are barely breaking even each month. It is true that the cost of childcare for two children puts a stop to any ideas of me going back to a full-time salaried role, but it was barely achievable even with the cost of childcare for just one. I have discussed childcare cost and ‘going back to work’ lots in the past, and I don’t want to go off on another tangent about that in this post, but the gist is that, in my case, there is not much difference in being a self-employed photographer with no childcare than working full-time plus paying Arlo’s childcare. Except the photography is flexible and something I can see expanding into a more secure income over the years. In this situation we weighed up the pros and cons of giving Arlo a sibling now VS waiting for a more financially comfortable time to expand our family. As we can’t predict when or if that will happen for sure, we decided to follow our hearts.

It’s very hard to predict what the future holds in terms of financial mobility. Ideally, we would like to upsize from our two bed house, have a third child, and (if it’s not too much to ask, which I fear it could be) move to a more family friendly area. If I think about it too much, I’m constantly stumped by questions such as How will we ever afford a bigger mortgage? How will we ever get approved for a bigger mortgage without me having a proper salaried job? If I found a proper salaried job, how would we ever afford childcare? But I’m thankful that there are options there, the most likely being that we would move out of London to an area where Sam could still commute and we could get more living space for our money. We’ll cross that bridge when we come to it.

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Chloe

Sorry About The Mess documents the life of London blogger and photographer, Chloe, and her young family. Sorry About The Mess is a personal lifestyle and parenting blog.

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About Chloe

Sorry About The Mess documents the life of London blogger and photographer, Chloe, and her young family. Sorry About The Mess is a personal lifestyle and parenting blog.

Comments

  1. Chloe, what a heart felt honest blog post. Thank you so much for posting it. As you said at the start, it’s so important to look at what you do have, and be grateful for it. I can feel how tight things are for you, and remembered how I was once in that situation. You’re doing an amazing job! Hang in there! And thank you again for sharing.

  2. Thank you for sharing this, such a great post I can really relate to. We recently moved, bought our own house and I gave up my part time job as my wage was going on childcare. We get child benefit but that’s it and I’m starting to feel the squeeze, it get’s me down too when we have to refuse a lot of things because of money but I know it won’t be forever. We plan to have another child soon (following our hearts) and when they are both nursery age I’ll go back to work. I get stressed that we have no savings after we saved so much to buy a house. Keep doing what your doing and it won’t be forever, hopefully!!

    • Completely understand. It can get tough, and I try not to let it get me down because I know there are far more important things, etc, but at certain times it can make me quite down.

    • Stephanie says:

      Both you and Chloe say “my wage was going on childcare”. But surely childcare comes out of both you AND your partner’s wages?

      • Technically, yes, but it’s not like he earns loads and ‘ keeps’ his own money. He couldn’t afford to pay for childcare either, his earnings just about cover the mortgage and essential bills, whilst my old salary (before I quit my job after maternity leave) was less than the cost of full time childcare. Of course, i view paying for childcare as a joint responsibility, but doesn’t make a difference when you combine both incomes and still can’t afford it.

  3. Thank you for being so very honest. I often wonder how people can afford to live and the secret I think is budgeting, budgeting, budgeting. We moved out of London to get more house for our money and though I do miss the big city we save a lot of cash. The funny thing is though, we probably wouldn’t if Will was commuting in daily as train costs are so high, so he works from home as much as possible to keep travel costs to a minimum.

    We’re like you in that we receive no benefits bar Child Benefit and Will is self-employed. What he does is seasonal and can vary so much from month-to-month, though I do find that when he has a good month’s work we need that money to pay off the shortfall from a few bad months!

    I’ve recently started thinking of my blog completely differently as it’s been bringing in money: it feeds us, clothes us, pays our mobiles, internet and insurance. It used to be such a labour of love for me it’s almost a shame I am thinking of it with such a business mind on sometimes but like you, childcare is so bloody expensive and the good nurseries in our area are at least 2-3 miles away in a different village so would require us having 2 cars if that is a work day for Will.

    Oh and don’t get me started on the car… it leaks and you can’t lock it from the outside. A Tank of petrol costs £150 but it’s so fuel inefficient it only does 250 miles to a full tank. It’s SO expensive but because we spend so much money on it we can’t save up for a new one! Again, a total catch 22 situation.

    Ahh being a grown up. it sucks sometimes! xx

    • £150 a tank? Woooah! I think my Focus is about £65, but it is a 1.8 and therefore also a petrol guzzler.

      Sounds very similar to us in that Sam’s job is largely commission based so one good month is used to cover 2 or 3 bad months. Not ideal!

      My blog will always be primarily to record memories and as a place for me to vent, but I just can’t knock opportunities to write the occasional sponsored post when it makes such a difference to our monthly debt.

  4. I don’t envy anyone trying to budget in London. We have friends who pay more on their mortgage than our joint income. We don’t have a garden so we have an allotment and apart from last year when we were adjusting to life with a baby we’ve found growing our own veg to be a massive money saver. Being realistic about the time we’ll have even with a toddling E this year we’re going to focus on just the things that are expensive to buy but grow easily or we eat a lot of like raspberries, runner beans, beetroot, potatoes, rocket. Even if you only have a small patch of outdoor space you can grow some great things in pots.

  5. You sound like you’re doing really well with being a good budgeting mamma! Living the dream sometimes means scraping by. We’re definitely feeling that at the moment. I don’t envy you doing it in London!!

Trackbacks

  1. [...] room, I still find myself with an aversion to spending any money. As I wrote previously in my budgeting post, I see part of my role as the stay at home parent when we are strapped for cash as to not add to [...]

  2. […] To earn enough money so that I’m not thoroughly depressed and unable to do anything, like last winter – enough to go for coffee, pay for public transport, go to the odd baby group here and there. […]

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