If you are British avert your eyes NOW. I’m about to talk about money.
I’ve been wrestling over whether or not to publish this post for a while now, but events of the past weeks lead me to the conclusion that I must.
I’ve noticed over the last while, many self proclaimed middle class people who ‘give poverty a go’ by setting various rules and limitations to their spending/finances for a fixed period of time, which may range anything from a week to a year.
Let me first state that I do not doubt at all the earnest well meaning and absolute good intentions that lead people to challenge themselves in such a manner, and that these experiments are often of some great, perhaps even life-changing value, to the participants. But there is nevertheless something about it that makes me feel deeply uncomfortable, and wary that a danger of unintended patronising thinking/behaviour lurks in the shadows.
There are two main flaws that immediately strike me. Poverty is not usually a choice, and it’s consequences are serious. The person embarking on such an experiment chooses to do so, and can protect themselves from the effects.
For example, one such scheme involves living on around £5 per day – apparently the amount one would currently receive on benefits in the UK. Included in this scheme, however, are guidelines including such concessions as not counting ‘necessary and unavoidable costs, such as MOT and essential home repairs.’, not including expenses that would disadvantage a child (eg. schooltrips, etc) and also, to allow for a self determined pot of money to be set aside as ‘a buffer, which is as an emergency fund that you do not intend to use unless it is necessary’.
Admittedly, if left untouched this buffer, as well as earnings not spent, is then given away to a chosen cause at the end of the financial fast. But my point is, that for a person living in poverty these things would be impossible, and therefore allowing such concessions, while sensible and practical, undermine the grim realities of true poverty, which is neither sensible nor practical.
By definition being in poverty means not being able to afford ‘essentials’, the lives of children are acutely and cruelly affected and certainly no one in dire financial straits would have access to a buffer in case of emergencies. Friends who recently volunteered on a day of Social Action painted the walls of a families council estate home which had been bare concrete since the day they moved in 6 or more years before!
My prime reason for writing this blog is to document and examine my attempts to eat well and cook adventurously on a minimal budget. I read a lot of food blogs, and a fair number of them make the same claim. So, after this rant, it seems reasonable enough that I should lay down some sort of context for what exactly I mean by using the term ‘minimal budget’ to describe my own circumstances.
Although I could certainly be accused of having middle-class aspirations, this blog is not some worthy experiment of self-imposed ‘poverty’. This is my real life and I cannot retreat to my leather sofa and cashmere throw with a glass of Chateauneuf-du-Pape and a box of Sea-salted Caramels when it all gets too traumatic a week/month/year from now. Well, who knows, a year is a long time and maybe I’ll have saved up for a box of Sea-salted Caramels by then.
Wealth and poverty are highly relative subjects. I’m always reminded when I think on this theme of a line from the Beautiful South song ‘Hooligans Don’t Fall In Love’:
‘… there’s always someone with a bigger car,
There’s always someone with a bigger cigar,
If you’ve been far, There’s someone who’s been further than your far…’
I don’t want to get involved a debate about whether or not I am poor, or how rich or poor I really am world terms, I’m just laying it down plain and simple that as a single person living in Central London I find it impossible to live the lifestyle that I would actually like to live on the amount of money I actually have to spend.
Yes. I know. I used the word ‘actually’ twice in one sentence. It’s because I’ve been watching repeats of Charlie and Lola. Can’t say I did warn you about my middle class pretensions though.
So here it is. My total budget for everything – and I do mean everything – except my rent, council tax and bills (phone, electric, gas, water, debt repayment) is £50 a week and that’s how it’s going to be for The Foreseeable Future. (This has been the case for the last 3 years, but in case you’re wondering, my personal definition of The Foreseeable Future is 24 hours. Life is unpredictable). For some that probably looks like a fairly decent sum, for others it might seem impossibly low.
Whatever your opinion on the amount, that is how much I have to satisfy both my hunger and my appetite. If I spend more one week, then something must be sacrificed the next, otherwise, unavoidable debt accumulates. If I spend less the money gets carried over. This does not often happen.
As a single person, at least I have a strange kind of freedom – if I wish to eat nothing but Parma ham and asparagus, and am prepared to not buy toilet paper or shampoo in order to fund this habit then I may do so.
I frequently make such concessions. For example, I recently decided to take part in Charcutepalooza. Spread over the last two weeks I have spent almost £60 on different types of salt, weighing scales, a hygrometer, cheesecloth, butchers twine, duck breasts and a whole pork belly.
The unavoidable consequence of of having made this choice is that I have £40 to survive on for two weeks. I’m going to be eating a LOT of chickpeas and beans, probably plain, perhaps with a tin of tomatoes thrown in. I don’t expect any sympathy for making this decision. Equally, I hope I will not be judged.
I think there is another aspect to this ‘wealth and poverty’ thing, and that is mindset, or attitude. Some of the time I accept my circumstances, hard as I find them, and don’t feel impoverished. At other times I have overwhelming urges for a 30+day dry aged steak and feel hard done by and resentful. Such is life.
I am also very very fortunate to have friends and family who are generous beyond belief with their patience and support – both emotional, and sometimes fiscal. In fact, I was recently treated to an excellent steak, more of which in a future post.
On reflection, I find there are no absolutes and no clear answers to the dilemmas posed by living in a world of plenty, but where so many are lacking. We must each find our own way to deal with the issues, and if, for some, that means a defined period of fasting then despite my criticism, I still support it. In fact here is a link to an inspiring example of one such attempt.
I suppose the best I can do it is try to approach life in the following manner: Suck the very marrow out of the great bits, savour the good bits in a lingering fashion, make every effort to enhance the flavour of the Okay bits with plenty of garlic and olive oil, and as for the unpalatable bits – let us hope that there will always be a bowl of steaming mashed potatoes.