Day 33: The Ugly Duckling

Everything has beauty, but not everyone sees it.


On Saturday night I, unusually for me, joined my housemates for drinks in a fashionable bar. Days before the event I’d started to get anxious. How would I pay for drinks, and stay within my budget? What would I wear to fit in with my glamorous friends?

In the end, I just felt like the Ugly Duckling, the odd one out, pale and frumpy. I stumbled in my shoes like a child dressing up in their mother’s heels.

My housemates were tall and beautiful, bronzed and dolled up to the nines.

I bought the first round of drinks, and almost had a heart attack at how much they charged to my debit card. Why would anyone pay this much for drinks on a regular basis?! I shook my head in disbelief.

My pulse was racing. It was as though I was in the 100 metre final at the Olympics; except that while everyone else legged it to the finish line, I had to wade through Marmite to get there. I was falling behind, and getting very frustrated.

So, would it have made such a difference if I’d been able to buy a new party dress, a glamorous pair of heels, or if I could have bought that round of drinks and shrug at the cost?

Last year, the NHS was good enough to pay for me to have a series of sessions of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT). It transformed my life, and I am forever grateful that I was able to have this treatment without having to pay for private healthcare.

Something I often discussed with my therapist was the importance I placed on the “packaging” in life. She taught me to see that even if others’ lives appeared flawless on the outside, nobody’s life is perfect in reality.

The guys and girls in that bar looked stunning, rich and care-free. By comparison, I was just a “loser”.

Yet I know that I must convince myself that just because I can’t afford a new dress, shoes, or overpriced drinks, I’m no “worse off” (figuratively speaking) than them.

When you place too much emphasis on “packaging”, you quickly forget what’s really important in life. Cutting back has, at times, made me feel like I’m not keeping up, like I’m not good enough, like I’m a “loser” (whatever that means).

Life’s too important to waste on feeling inadequate, simply because I can’t afford as much as The Glamorous.

I don’t think that this (re-)discovery will transform my mindset overnight. It’s a good reminder, though. It’s something that I have to keep reminding myself, too. Otherwise I very quickly become anxious. And life is too short for such superficial worries.

Thanks for reading,



Day 30: Reflecting on the first 30 days

I realise that I’ve made this all sound very easy. I’ve written about all the new experiences I’ve had, from the mundane (writing a shopping list) to the more exciting (becoming a mystery shopper, “upcycling” my desk).

Perhaps I glamorise “being poor” because, in the grand scheme of things, I’m not. What’s more, I expect to earn more, and not less, in the future. So, ultimately, I’m play-acting.

I’m not skipping meals for lack of money. When the boiler or fridge break, they are fixed. I’m not shivering with hypothermia through winter as a result of having no more money to feed the meter.

I hope I haven’t offended people as a result of my flippant references to not “having enough”. I’m only too aware that I am very lucky to earn as much as I do, and that I only have such a well-paid, professional-level job as a result of my upbringing. My parents prioritised my education at every stage, and supported and pushed me to the best of my abilities. If they had not, I would not be where I am today.


I’m also lucky enough that when I was stupid and irresponsible enough to get into debt, my parents were able to bail me out.

If I told you that I have struggled with this budget-slimming, you’d have every right to be totally unsympathetic. I struggle with not buying overpriced caffeine. I struggle not walking into a shop when I see something beautiful in the window. I struggle not meeting my friends for drinks or meals out. I struggle not to buy theatre tickets, especially when I see a great review, or a favourite actor starring.

So what? Get over it!

That “we’re all in this together” slogan is utter nonsense. Boo-hoo, I can’t see Simon Callow or Hedda Gabler. Alas, one shall have to cut down on caviar and champagne for breakfast. To argue that the impact of this recession is equal across the social classes is absurd. Our difficulties are simply not on the same scale.

Nevertheless, the hurdles that I’m confronting, while minute trifles to most, are difficult for me.

I am of the opinion that I must do two things to avoid being a risible figure here.

One; never lose sight of what most people have (and do not have). Be it by giving to the South Wimbledon food bank, volunteering with Crisis at Christmas and the Holy Trinity Church Winter night shelter for the homeless, or simply by lending an ear to lonely people at church, who just need someone to listen.

Two; by taking on a personal challenge, to be less materialistic and to spend less. In the first instance, it doesn’t matter too much if my spending levels are still relatively high, so long as I attempt something that is difficult for me. In time I can work on beating down my expenses further. For now, though, I’m satisfied that I’m trying. When the going gets tough…

Wow, 30 days already! Thank you so much for reading (almost 2,000 views in the first month!!)

Day 28: Cashback Queen

Hi everyone! Say “Happy Birthday” to my Mum, please 🙂

Tell me something, readers, is this cash-back thing a really well-kept secret, or have I just been oblivious to the whole movement?

Recently I signed up for a cash-back website, as part of my Money-Making Challenge.

Essentially, instead of buying things directly from a shop’s website, you find a link on the cash-back website, which tracks your purchases, and gives you cash in proportion to how much you spend.

The only snag to this approach is that, as with discount voucher websites, you have to be very disciplined in only buying what you would have bought anyway – deal or no deal.

So, for example, I’m in desperate need of a new pair of shoes for work. Rather than going straight to the retailer, I go via the cash-back site to the same page. I buy the shoes, with free delivery and am also given 6.5% of the price off the shoes, in cash, for making the transaction. Mental, or what?!

There’s another money-spinner on the website. Once you’ve downloaded the free app onto your phone, you “check-in” whenever you get to a shop featured on the site. This action of clicking to check-in earns you between 5p and 15p. Yes, okay, it won’t make me a millionaire overnight, but it all adds up very quickly. If you’ve got time on your hands, you can spend ten minutes walking in and out of shops, clicking, and earning yourself a couple of quid.

Getting paid for window shopping? Now that’s what I like to hear.

I realise several of you will be worrying about the Orwellian feel to this; retailers track everything I buy from one centralised site. My movements are also followed, by that apparently harmless act of “checking in”.

From my perspective, retailers already have much of this information. Think of those side-of-page adverts that show you the dress you were just looking at on another website yesterday. Or CCTV, which could follow our movements up and down the country, if anyone felt like doing so. Equally, my Nectar card has already categorised me into one of six groups, as a result of each and every purchase I have made, from paint at Homebase to milk at Sainsbury’s. Tesco’s Clubcard, and other loyalty cards, do exactly the same.

This is just one more option for Big Brother to watch me, and it doesn’t feel any more or less sinister than those other ways.

Sorry, freedom-fighters, I’ve lost my integrity: I’m opting for the cash these days…


Day 7: Ah, ah, ah, achoo-sday

Hi. Thanks for reading; I had 114 readers yesterday, which I’m extremely chuffed about!


I’m downsizing. It had to be done. Although there’s no official figure defining “rent poverty” in the UK, the housing department in the U.S. offers a guideline as 30% of your net monthly salary, a percentage which includes electricity, gas and water. I suppose that overlooks the statistic showing that London is the second most expensive city in the world for property rental.

Even excluding the utility bills, my current rent reaches 43% of my take-home pay, so it was logical to look to my largest outgoing as the first place to start slashing expenses.
My new rent is almost 40% less than before, and brings the proportion I spend on accommodation down to a much more reasonable 31% of my net wage.

In order to downsize, though, I have to rid myself of those pointless items, bought as a result of my old want-it-buy-it mentality. It’s harder than it sounds, let me tell you. How can you look at a wardrobe of clothes, all in perfectly good condition, and, for lack of storage space, arbitrarily give them away? I have a knack for remembering the price I paid for things, down to the penny. This is a curse, rather than a gift, when it comes to decluttering. I may as well be setting fire to a wad of bank notes. Still, I can’t live in a room where my possessions reign supreme, where I have to crawl through the clutter like the distressingly out-of-control hoarders you see on TV.

It’s not just clothes, though.

Check out the half-used pill packets pervading my living space. I’ve got enough Sudofed to cure the common cold and enough ibuprofen to knock out a hippo for several days. Why? Well, every time I get a cold, or have a headache, I go the pharmacy and buy a box of tablets. Being the nut case that I am, it has apparently never occurred to me to finish off the packet I opened the last time. Perhaps I forget that I have ever been ill before.

This odd, slightly random collection is symptomatic of one thing (and that’s not the ‘flu…). I am programmed to buy. In order to stick to the budget, to clear the debt, to start saving, I have to stop buying so many things that I don’t actually need. I have to stop and think.

Oh, and the next time you hear me sniffle or sneeze, do me a favour. Remind me that I don’t need any more medicine.

Thanks for reading! X


Day 6: Just Another Manic Monday (couldn’t resist, sorry…)

Hi readers! (I have readers – it’s VERY exciting)

Back to work Monday blues? Look to Noel Coward, who advocated that “if you must have motivation, think of your pay cheque on Friday”.

I had a busy weekend in my new status as “recovering shopaholic”. It was interesting how many people got in contact to let me know that they were in a similar situation to me, living beyond their means, and dipping into credit or savings by the end of the month. I suppose it shouldn’t have been such a surprise.

Last Tuesday, the Independent reported that women have an average £22,418 of debt. 11% reported keeping their debt levels hidden from their partner. I find it upsetting that so many people (and women, especially) are secretly in debt, and running a monthly deficit. It also makes me question whether the stigma over debt is as bad as ever.

In years gone by you lived within your means, and society looked down on those in debt. Now, everyone’s encouraged to take on credit cards and payday loans, in order to buy a new sofa, iPad, or shiny Mini. Yet people are pretending that they can afford all this, while hiding the credit card bill. It’s a sham, to show to the world that they are successful, that anything you can buy, they can buy better.

Just take heart that if you’re struggling to make ends meet, many others are in the same boat. If I’ve learnt one thing from writing this blog, it’s that getting deeper into debt to keep up the façade is just plain silly. True friends will support you, not judge you.

Right, I got a bit soppy there, so let’s get back to the practicalities, shall we?

When it neared lunchtime on Sunday, I idly considered wandering over to Caffè Nero to pick up an overpriced sandwich. As Savvy-Saver-In-Training, though, I stopped myself. Instead, I opened my kitchen cupboard and found a Narnia of hidden foodstuffs. This included two hot cross buns with a February 2012 use-by date. Oh dear.

Digging a little deeper, I found a whole load of tins (use-by date late 2014). I even got a couple of my 5-a-day in the form of a can of ratatouille. Chucking the veg, some couscous and a tin of mackerel into a saucepan made a super-yummy meal. Much more delicious, in fact, than a mass-produced, bland Nero panini. Carbohydrate, protein, vitamins and minerals; a cheap, nutritionally balanced and delicious lunch. Win!


Day 5: The Poverty of Affluence

“The more you believe that happiness comes from material wealth, the more likely you are to be depressed, distressed, and anxious – and the less actual well-being you’re likely to experience”

To Buy or Not to Buy, April Lane Benson, PhD

“Now that the Birkin’s been lost to the Wags, we’re all about the classic St Louis tote (£580)”

From today’s Sunday Times, Style Magazine

A teenage girl recently visited Uganda as part of a church trip. On her return, she announced to her parents that she was getting rid of many of her material possessions; she had realised that she didn’t need everything that she owned.

For me, there are two aspects of our society that are revealed by this anecdote.

Firstly, that the surroundings we grow up in are, to us, the epitome of “normal”. Challenging our norms is nigh-on impossible, precisely because we do not realise that our “normal” is something that could be objectionable to some. The girl didn’t realise that she had masses of unnecessary “stuff” until she was confronted with a world completely unlike her own. It took this journey to the other hemisphere for her to understand that her “normal” world wasn’t, in fact, normal at all.

Secondly, our culture of “keeping up with the Joneses” or “affluenza” is exposed. As April Benson writes, in ‘To Buy or Not to Buy’, our society has started to believe its own consumerist lie: that the more material possessions we own, the happier we will be. So, in a state of paralysis, we march out to buy the latest i-gadget, 600-quid handbag or ever-larger flatscreen television. If we could all simultaneously take a step back and examine our own behaviour, what would we think? If, say, we were all dumped in the middle of Uganda, or Malawi, or Burundi, with nothing. Would we look at families struggling to pay for food, water, healthcare, and sanitation, and think that those UGG-stamped boots, or latest version of that smartphone were still so essential? Maybe. But, I would argue, probably not.

How hard is it to change your notion of the norm? I visited Malawi in the summer of 2005, and it was one of the best experiences of my life. In 2010 I went to Africa again, and saw slums, sewage-strewn townships just outside of Cape Town. Both of these challenged my own behaviour; I felt superficial, selfish and extremely privileged. It wasn’t long, though, before I fell back into step, marching along to the consumerist bandwagon’s tune.

Let’s be honest here. Living without succumbing is pretty difficult. It’s all very well saying that our desire for material possessions is superficial or ridiculous, but could you step off the merry-go-round? I won’t pretend I’ll be living like the average Malawian, but I am trying to take a step back to examine my personal, skewed, norm. The way I’m approaching this is to question myself every single time I’m about to hand over my money. Do I need this? What would happen if I didn’t buy it? Can I afford it, factoring in everything else I have to pay for this month?

Hope you’ve had a great weekend, thanks for reading. x

Day 4: Down in the Dumps

They fuck you up, your mum and dad.
They may not mean to, but they do.

Extract from ‘This Be the Verse’ by Philip Larkin.

Wouldn’t it be nice to blame everything on your parents? “Nature or nurture, it’s your fault!” you might scream when they tell you off.

What happens, though, when you acknowledge a fault in yourself, a trait that neither parent exhibits nor condones? So it is with my profligacy. Apparently I spend more than both parents put together on going out, clothes and, indeed, anything else you might care to mention. Now that is embarrassing…

Even with a detailed plan showing how I’ll repay the loan, the Angels aren’t happy. Every day I get a taser-like prod, reminding me of where I’m going wrong.
We haven’t bought a new car. We don’t live in an expensive area of London. We don’t go out. We don’t buy new clothes. We never put the heating on. Oh, and just to really ram the point home, ‘we paid for your education’, you ungrateful little madam!

Well, bully for them. Maybe when I’m dressed in rags, driving an old banger back to my flat in Peckham, where I’ll freeze to death sitting there alone, doing bugger all, I’ll be a smug martyr. Until then, I’ll focus on having a life, while living within my means, and saving up to pay them back.

Once the debt’s repaid, I might just have to celebrate by driving my brand new car to a shop in one of the most expensive areas of London, where I’ll buy a bottle of champagne to take back to my toasty warm house. There I’ll sit with all of my beautiful, lovely, brilliant friends, wearing ALL the clothes I own, enjoying myself, having fun, and praising the good Lord that I’ve not (so far) made the mistake of having a materialistic, money-sapping child. Amen to that.

Day 1 : Facing Up To It

Like an alcoholic at her first AA meeting, today I’m taking the first step in admitting that I’m in trouble, and that I need help.

The debt crept up on me. Every month I’d get a couple of hundred pounds worse off, but I shrugged it off. Somehow, in my head, I was rich. It didn’t matter if I had the shadow of a steady deficit, because I’d be fine. Why? Because I’m middle class? Because my parents and grandparents never got into debt?

Mine is an old-fashioned family, where the word “debt” is synonymous with “shame”. It’s just not done. My parents have never bought a sofa, holiday, car, house or telly on credit. They work, and they save. I suppose I assumed I’d live my life in the same way, without actually putting in any effort to do so.

Admitting it, then, is the first step. I’m using two overdrafts and a credit card. I’ve got a car on credit. A mobile phone on a lengthy, pricey contract. I tied myself into a year-long gym membership because I could afford to do so at the time.

Deep breath. I’m in debt. I’m overspending to the tune of £200 a month. I need to change. This is my journey. Now. Live. Today.

Step 2: Potentially even harder, even more humiliating. I scuttle back to my parents. The very people who have brought me up to live within my means, and tutted and scowled at my compulsive purchasing and ugly materiality. I ask for £500, to stop the debts from boiling over.

In return for a promise to live more frugally, and to pay back the loan by 30th November, I am thrown a rubber ring. Now I just have to learn how to swim…