Where credit is due

I lost my income and accidentally learned what it feels like to be a Universal Credit claimant

19th February 2018

Growing up in a working-class Hull household, you learn there’s a fine art to being skint. By the age of 10, you become a connoisseur of concealing your embarrassment over qualifying for free school meals and at 15, you’re an expert in scouring the pound shop for the finest glitter eyeshadow before a night out. Getting by on hardly any money gets into your DNA.

By your thirties, you expect things to be rosier on the financial front. This wasn’t the case for me. As a freelance financial journalist, I was bringing in just enough to cover my expenses and had only a meagre amount in savings – things were just about manageable if the next payday was on the horizon. Then, just before Christmas, I lost the freelance job I’d been counting on to cover my bills for the next few months and had no other work in the pipeline. Fuck, fuck, fuck. This isn’t supposed to happen — especially to a financial journalist.

Six weeks – it’s a joyous amount of time when it refers to the school summer holidays, but a terrifying prospect when you have 42 days of rent to find and 126 meals to pay for with absolutely no income

I’m not alone. The terror of this financial abyss is shared by tens of thousands applying for the controversy-ridden Universal Credit. This new single payment, which replaces six of the most common benefits including tax credits and jobseekers allowance, forces claimants to wait five or six weeks between filling out their application and receiving any money. Six weeks – it’s a joyous amount of time when it refers to the school summer holidays, but a terrifying prospect when you have 42 days of rent to find and 126 meals to pay for with absolutely no income.

So, what’s it really like to go six weeks without any money at all coming in? It’s probably not an experience any of the brains behind Universal Credit will ever have to endure, but here’s every humiliating detail…

Week one

Funnily enough, it doesn’t start off too badly. In fact, these are the seven days we all fantasise about… sleeping in, watching Dinner Date marathons and not yet having to stress too much about money.

“This is a blip, people like you don’t lose their jobs and go on the dole.” These are the horseshit lies I tell myself.

Proper grown-ups would take this time to face facts, draw up an action plan and adjust to a new diminished lifestyle, but losing your job is a terrible experience and I wallow in self-pity… for too long. Looking back, the financial journalist in me is now furious at my stupidity. This should have been the time to get my finances in order.

I’m too embarrassed to tell my family

I’m also too embarrassed to tell my family about my upcoming financial woes. After the age of 25, you’re not meant to need your mum to cover your rent.

Week two

Boredom sets in. When all your friends and family are working full time during the day, you fade into social oblivion during normal office hours so you’re not only skint, but lonely too.

Even when I do meet up with friends for dinner, it’s full of awkwardness. Rather than confess I only have six pounds left in my budget for the week and I can’t afford to eat, I pretend to be recovering from a nasty bout of norovirus. I didn’t want them to pick up on the stench of joblessness emanating from me.

How the fuck do you pay a £750 rent bill with absolutely no money coming in?

Then there’s another nagging question: how the fuck do you pay a £750 rent bill with absolutely no money coming in? There’s always the option to sign on, of course, but this is a tricky one for the freelance journalist. Yes, it’s guaranteed income every week and can help pay your rent, but it’s also pretty much impossible to take on any paid work and claim benefits. I wasn’t ready to give up on freelancing just yet.

Week three

The week passes in a daze of applying for completely unsuitable jobs (at my lowest, I even consider sending my CV to a football mag), but everyone knows companies never hire this close to Christmas. If I had been signing on, I’d honestly struggle to prove I’m at the grindstone eight hours a day applying for jobs since there’s so little to apply for.

You can easily imagine how a suddenly skint single parent with three kids could resort to an extortionate payday loan

Worries about rent are joined by worries about funding the festive period… tipples with friends, presents, train fares home. Being single and childfree, I’m perfectly happy with cut-price celebrations, but you can easily imagine how a suddenly skint single parent with three kids could resort to an extortionate payday loan if it means the kids don’t have a shit Christmas.

Week four

This is the time my salary would have been paid if I’d kept my job and also the week an overdue freelance payment is meant to arrive… naturally, it doesn’t. Any other time, the missing money would have been an annoying fact of freelance life. When you’re in financial freefall, it means I struggle to pay my phone bill, which is inexplicably twice as high this month. Fuck… what about my credit score? My mind rages with horror stories of people who’ll never get a mortgage because of one missed payment. I also have a missed call from HSBC. The five-year-old child in me is too scared to check my balance.

The five-year-old child in me is too scared to check my balance.

Positive news on the job front. I finally get some bites on freelance work. “Can you meet me for a coffee or a quick pint?” I start mentally totting up the costs of a meeting that could come to nothing… £13 train fare, £10 on drinks. I feel stingy and I hate it. It’s not me.

Week five

With my bank balance now hovering below £100, I resolve to spend only the money I have in my wallet and any loose change lurking around my flat. In one particularly humiliating episode, I spend half an hour rooting through my pockets to scrape together enough for a frozen pizza.

I also commit to memory the time the local supermarket starts to reduce the stock hitting its best-before date (around 3pm, if you’re interested). I see the same poverty-worn strangers fingering the reduced pork pies and cold meats every day. Sometimes, there’s a sense of solidarity among the cash-poor bargain hunters, others there’s almost a brawl over a half-price fish pie.

No policymaker defending the six-week benefit delay has ever had to do this

This week hammers the reality home. Subsisting largely on 55p noodles and supermarket own-brand 17p cola, I feel sluggish, shit and am convinced I look nearly 10 years older.  One thing I’m sure of: no policymaker defending the six-week benefit delay has ever had to do this.

Good news for the week. I talk to my landlord and explain I’ll need to pay the rent a week late. She’s understanding. I’m lucky. What happens to people who aren’t so lucky? This is how private tenants end up on the streets.

Week six

My rogue freelance payment finally arrives and I’ve secured freelance work to replace the gig I lost. I’m far from flush, but have just about enough money to scrape by. I’ve been lucky. I’ve had family who’d have been willing to help me out during a rough patch and just about enough in savings see me though. Nevertheless, it’s bloody terrifying to think what must happen to people who don’t and I’m not sure how much longer I could have held on.

I’m not sure how much longer I could have held on

Which is another problem with Universal Credit. There are endless media reports of claimants whose application goes awry and are adrift with absolutely no idea when their money will come through – according to data from the government’s own Department for Work and Pensions, roughly one in six claimants waits longer than six weeks for their money to arrive.

What I should have done

As a former financial journalist, I wrote articles every day giving advice on how to manage your finances during a rough patch. It’s laughable to think how unprepared I was.

Without sounding too preachy, here’s what I wish I had done when joblessness struck.

Another thing to come out of losing your job: it’s a reminder never ever to judge anyone for being in the shitty financial position that could happen to any of us at any time.

19th February 2018