“You are not the contents of your wallet.”

This week, I sat down and looked at my financial situation. I had been putting off doing this for a while, because I have been merrily drifting along pretending that things like race entry fees and gigs and holidays come from a mythical, never-emptying bank account that is completely separate from the one I use for everyday things.Also pretending that I don’t need to use savings for this stuff. Also putting ‘small’ purchases on my credit card and letting them build up where I used to completely pay it off at the end of the month without fail. I’ve gone from being financially self-aware to being the sort of person that has her debit card details memorised so that I don’t even have to pull it out of my purse when I want to buy something online. This is bad.

Like this, but with me in jeans and the bags containing more in the way of books and tickets and running shoes and pedals and stuff...

Like this, but with me in jeans and the bags containing more in the way of books and tickets and running shoes and pedals and stuff…

When I first moved to London I was completely and utterly horribly dead broke. I went through undergrad uni lucky enough to be a) living in one of the cheapest places in country in terms of rent and so forth and b) have supportive parents. Doubly lucky because although I wasn’t eligible for a grant, I come from a place where the government covers (or covered, because I believe this is changing now) tuition fees as long as you passed your course. So I passed, and then moved on to an MA. Same deal with the tuition fees, but this time I was otherwise financially supporting myself, working at a sandwich bar part-time while I studied.

The job made my feet ache and was exhausting, but I worked with the loveliest people and had an awful lot of fun there. My bosses were sort of surrogate parents and friends and would not let me take an extra shift if they knew I had an essay or draft due. I could confide in them about pretty much everything (and did). I love them and miss them. The part-time work thankfully covered the basics of rent, which was an astoundingly low £35ish a week. Towards the end of my write-up year, I also landed a job at the local newspaper after I did some work experience there, filling in as a reporter until they could find someone more permanent who had actually studied journalism, which helped. But all the same – my bank account, which I had managed to keep more or less in the black while an undergrad, had crept further and further into overdraft territory. By the time it came for me to move, I had almost nothing to move with except my credit card.

I asked the bank to increase my overdraft, with a view to paying most of it back with my first paycheck – but my first application was rejected because they said they didn’t think I really needed the money (I had been too honest about my minimal spending habits, and they disregarded the part where I was moving and needed to lay a deposit on a room). The second time I amped things up and they refused, saying that they didn’t think I had the means to pay it back (missing the part where I was due to start a full-time, well-paid (in comparison to current income) job in about two weeks and needed the money to get me to said job). Classic bank stuff.

This is the same bank, by the way, who wouldn’t let me take money out on my debit card while abroad, but were happy to overcharge me to take money out on my credit card (because I had no other option). Should I name and shame? Barclays. Screwing over their customers since 1690. Most complained about bank (officially) in 2011. Supporter of bad politics. Yep. Incidentally they put a hold on my first pay check from that job as well, claiming that a sudden influx of money was suspicious. I had to go in in person and ask why it was taking so long to process.

ANYWAY.

So, I scrounged and begged. My lovely bosses gave me pay in lieu of holiday days (completely out of the blue, and right when I most needed it). Finally, reluctantly, I borrowed money off my parents to move and survive the first month, pre-payday. I’m not kidding about the reluctance – I was and am nothing if not pig-headed about my independence, and have been known to have flat-out hissy fits when people try to nicely give me stuff that I think I ought to be able to provide for myself, especially when that stuff is money. My parents will vouch for this.

And then, finally, LONDON! London. London is an expensive place to live. Truly. People say that, but you don’t realise until you move from, say, North Wales to Peckham just how huge the difference is. My rent in my first place was very reasonable. Extraordinarily reasonable for the size of my room and the flat I was in and the area and how utterly nice my landlords/flatmates were… sometimes I really land on my feet (I’m especially aware of this after hearing people’s horror stories of moving in with folks they met via gumtree.com). But that rent, bills included, was still more than three times the amount I had been paying. And then there was the transport. And the needing to eat.

It is so, so easy to spend a tenner a day on lunch without even registering it, but I was so broke I was buying those little £1 sushi packets and sandwiches from M&S and calling it a meal. And eating an awful lot of porridge for breakfast and dinner. I lost a lot of weight. At one point a co-worker bought me a steak so that I would eat properly. An honest-to-god steak from Waitrose. I was also still fairly regularly travelling to and from North Wales, which was a healthy £70 each trip. I still had stuff to pick up, in fairness, as well as an on-going on-and-off relationship with Coffee Monster. I was clinging on by my fingernails for about six months. And then I’d had enough.

Turned down for a contract phone because of my credit rating, despite my steady income and never having missed a payment, I decided it was time to sort things out. So I became a budgeting queen. I made spreadsheets and a plan and found a supportive online forum. I became obsessive about seeing how much I could save each month, pay off my credit card, get out of my overdraft, start an ISA. I knew exactly how much income I would have each month and where each pound was going and what I could save for. I questioned every single thing  I wanted to buy and every time I put a magazine back on the shelf instead of buying it, I went home and paid the cost of the magazine towards my credit card. I was very lucky not to have a student loan to pay back. I was in nowhere near as much trouble (things were tight but I wasn’t in trouble) as some of the people whose stories I read on the forums. I successfully dragged myself out of debt on a wage significantly lower than the one I’m on now and started putting money in an ISA and felt in control. It was great. I stuck to being mostly in control for a couple of years. And then.

You know how people say that dieting doesn’t work because you just put the weight back on? It’s been a bit like that – not too badly like that, but enough to make me realise I need to get my act together. A nibble at a chocolate race here, a bite out of a delicious gig there, a massive spoonful of new bike. I started earning more money and got overexcited and felt rich (my version of rich doesn’t involve a huge amount of zeros after the first couple of numbers). I went from living in a room in a flat shared with two other people to living with my boyfriend and two dogs. I had enough money to enjoy myself a bit, but instead I started enjoying myself a LOT. And now I’ve looked at my bank accounts and realised that although it’s nowhere near as bad as it was when I first moved to London, if I don’t get a handle on my spending, I will be back in that situation.

Part of the problem was going to Paris, where I disregarded my budget and decided to enjoy myself and still haven’t really paid that off. Instead I came back to London and organised more stuff and buried my head well and truly in the sand. In fairness – some of it is totally not my fault. For example, I did not expect both dogs to crack their teeth on a pebble that they smuggled into the flat and need expensive dentistry. On the other hand, budgeting superstar me would have had a vet fund, in which I would put a certain amount of money per month so that it’s sat there waiting for exactly that sort of eventuality and the cost wouldn’t have taken me by surprise.

So. It’s time to take advantage of being in a situation where at least I CAN get a handle on these things. I am painfully aware that a lot of people aren’t lucky enough to look at their finances and take a deep breath and know they can deal with it. Seems doubly assholeish, therefore, not to do something about it when I can.

Last weekend, I wrote lists and budget plans and I’m going to be stingy as hell about most things, and make an effort to save for stuff instead of just crying “I must have it NOW!” and then running with that thought. I will be doing more trawling of Freecycle when I need something, and less of Argos. I will start a race entry fund, so that I can save to enter my next race – the upside to this health thing is that now at least I have time to do this. I have committed to making lunch at least four days a week. (Unfortunately that also means I’ve basically committed to being late to work for four days a week as well. Turns out I’m not so good at reorganising my morning. Between this and all the doctor stuff, perhaps I should not be taking having an income too much for granted.) I will be finding fun, free ways to spend my time, and cancelling the stuff I pay for but don’t use, like certain magazine subscriptions.  And once I’m back to being less broke, I will NOT be celebrating with a fucking shopping spree.

I may not be the contents of my wallet (or bank account, or whatever) but it does help to have something in there.

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