On 14 March 2019, I sat down and, with trembling fingers, set up an anonymous Instagram account under the handle @myfrugalyear, with this as the bio: "£25k of credit card debt. £2k of overdraft. £0 accessible savings." I had just finished adding up what I owed, and it terrified me – I felt like there wasn’t space for it in my body, that I needed to channel it into some external vessel, or it would consume me. I screenshotted my spreadsheet and nervously tapped out my first post, imagining that I might gain a handful of followers who would help me to hold myself to account as I tried to resolve this.
What happened next changed my life in a number of ways. It rerouted my career. It changed my goals. It made me more patient, kinder. It opened my eyes, and it made me check my privilege. It put me in touch with the most amazing people, and it gave me a platform. It’s the reason I wrote a book.
My book is for you if you’ve ever felt worried about money. If you have debt. If you struggle to save. If you live payday to payday. If there’s always too much month left at the end of the money. If you’re technically comfortable, but still terribly anxious. It’s for you if you stop checking your bank balance on the sixth day of the month, or if you’re afraid to check it at all. If you wake in the night with the heavy weight of an unpaid bill sitting on your chest, or if you can never find quite the right time to discuss your money worries with your significant other. If someone’s had to bail you out, and you’re struggling with the guilt. If you find financial literature in general opaque, or smug, or intimidating.
It’s not a prescription or a one-size-fits-all plan for how to manage your money. It’s not about getting rich quick, or aggressively paying off debt at the expense of all of life’s pleasures. It’s not about bullying yourself into frenzied frugality and then beating yourself up when, inevitably, you need to buy a new toothbrush on a ‘no spend day’. It’s not about making a promise never to have debt again, or to overpay on your mortgage, or to retire early. It’s about gaining control of your finances, so that you are able to live peacefully with your past decisions, enjoy life in the present and plan for the future you want.
I hope that, if you read it, you will see something of yourself in those pages. I hope you will realise that you’re not alone. That everyone else isn’t living an Insta-perfect life, free of financial stress, while you peer in through the Crittall windows, struggling to get by. That there are others whose lives and bank balances have been affected by redundancy, illness, addiction or loss. That you’re allowed to feel angry about being let down by the benefits system or screwed over by childcare costs. That everyone else isn’t making better decisions than you. That very few people are immune to the pressures of social media, and the temptations of relentless offers and promotions, the crippling expense of starting a family. That there’s no need to be ashamed if you’re not quite where you’d like to be, or even if you’re nowhere near.
I hope it will help you to rewire the way you think about money, to be kinder to yourself and to make better choices. To have the confidence to open up to your partner, friends and family, or to speak to your bank. To get to a place where you and your money can coexist in peace. To reach your goals, but not at the cost of everyday happiness.
Your finances are fixable, but there are probably other things that need a little bit of mending first.
A huge part of my journey (I cringe at the word, but I’ve yet to find a better one) is unpicking the way we think and feel about money, our assumptions about other people, what we feel entitled to and the habits that follow. Ownership of our actions is vital for success in creating a better situation; I know, because I have spent years blaming external circumstances and waiting for things to change, and it has got me absolutely nowhere. The truth is, though, that usually the factors contributing to our own unique financial situations are myriad and complex, and not entirely our own doing. The political, social and economic climate, our background and upbringing, education and mental health all play a significant role.
So, while taking responsibility for our own part in things and identifying the behaviour we need to change is important, we also need to acknowledge that this problem is deeper and more profound than a simple inability to say no when faced with a 15% off code or an invitation to a night out.
According to the Trades Union Congress, as of January 2019, UK average household debt stood at a staggering £15,400. This is clearly a bigger issue than too many holidays, haircuts and houseplants.
Austerity has had a devastating effect on household finances generally. For those of us raised during the comparatively bountiful late 1990s and early noughties – ie millennials – the financial landscape we have had to navigate in adulthood is nothing like the one we were promised and prepared for growing up. We are priced out of the housing market. We have more debt than previous generations. Our wages have stagnated. The careers that once offered job security and competitive wages – teaching, emergency services, anything in the NHS – no longer offer that stability. A veil of despondency has fallen over many of us, because what’s the point in saving if we’ll never be able to afford a house, or if we’ll have to work until we die, because we can’t afford to save for a viable pension? In an era where there doesn’t seem to be much of substance within our grasp, the instant gratification of a mini break or a slogan T-shirt is infinitely harder to resist.
As Ben Elton would say, “a little bit of politics there”, but it’s important to recognise that we’re usually not the only ones to blame.
You may be asking yourself why I’ve chosen to write about this now, while I’m still very much in the middle of paying off my debt, rather than in a couple of years’ time, when what I owe is all but a distant memory. During my (not infrequent) bouts of imposter syndrome, when my brain rounds on itself, I ask myself why on earth anyone would want to hear about matters of finance from someone who, at the time of writing, still has over £20k of credit card debt. Is it not deeply hypocritical? Is it not the blind leading the blind? How will people respond to a book that is being written on a five-year-old laptop that will only charge when closed, resulting in a sort of perverse, enforced time management technique that actually hampers productivity? Or, as I prefer to think of it, a unique incarnation of Hugh Grant’s 30-minute method in About A Boy – just without the playboy lifestyle to match.
Certainly, writing from a place of solvency, with a bank balance firmly in the black, would be a far more comfortable experience. It would save the awkward, stilted conversations with extended family members, where I try to explain what I’m writing, and why somebody thought it would be a good idea to give me a book deal. It would be far more straightforward to say, “Well, actually I had a lot of debt, but it’s all paid off now, so I’m writing a book about how I did it,” than, “I’ve been in the sh*t, financially, for quite some time now, and I’m only just starting to turn things around. I started an Instagram page to hold myself to account, and it turns out that quite a lot of people feel the same way, so I’m writing a book to help us all get on top of our finances.” Quite the mouthful.
There is an assumption, which I shared until quite recently, that you have to be in serious financial difficulty to experience money anxiety or insecurity, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. I want my book to be for everyone who has a less than perfect relationship with money – whether you have big debt, or whether you just find it all a bit baffling and want to start feeling in control. I want it to be for anyone who has ever felt a jolt in their stomach as they glance at a bill, or felt the need to lie when relatives enquire about how saving for a house deposit is going, or struggled to stick to even the most meticulously planned budget.
Holding off until my debt was clear would also have saved the difficult to navigate subject of book advances and how that might have affected my circumstances. (I’ll get in there early and say: not much at all. While I don’t think I need to disclose the exact sum, I’m happy to reveal that it was significantly less than the sum of my debt, and will be paid in four tranches – the first of which I’ve not yet received as I write this.)
Despite all of these complications and uncomfortable conversations, I concluded that there is a plethora of books where people recount their past failures from a distance and – inspiring though they often are – I didn’t want to sit down in front of my computer to write about this, only to find that my access to these emotions had long expired. As someone who has given birth to two children, I can attest to the fact that the human psyche is quite quick to forget pain, and I have come to realise that it is usually when you allow yourself to be vulnerable in the moment that you are of the greatest help to others. I felt that my book should recount the journey in real time, with all of the lumps and bumps that are often smoothed over with the passage of time and the fickle nature of memory, like a big pair of psychological Spanx. I knew how important those peaks and troughs would be to somebody in the same situation – that the minutiae count when it comes to matters of money in real life.
Real Life Money: An Honest Guide To Taking Control Of Your Finances, by Clare Seal (£14.99, Headline), is out now.
Real Life Money: An Honest Guide To Taking Control Of Your Finances, by Clare Seal (£14.99, Headline), is out now
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