My approach to money was evident from a very early age: I saw it as a method of obtaining things I wanted and I had no interest in hoarding it. This attitude was evident and constant from the age when I was given pocket money through to when I earned it for myself. At the age of sixteen, for example, when I earned £10 a week working in the kitchens at BHS, I would go out at lunchtime and spend the lot on a combination of albums (£3.99), 12″ singles (£1.99) and singles (£0.99). (And how I enjoyed those journeys home on the bus looking at my spoils!)
Later, at university, I became acquainted with both overdrafts and credit cards, and consequently spent my holidays earning money to pay of the spending of the previous term. I’m not sure this was entirely reckless – I knew I’d pay the money back – but I found it easier to spend money that I would owe rather than money I’d earnt.
I wasn’t that long out of university before I was married and having children. Quite a lot of children. I don’t think my wife’s attitude to money was much worse than mine but the fact that she was now spending money that I would have to repay caused a terrible amount of friction in our marriage. And, in truth, she ran up some significant debts clothing and entertaining four small children and herself.
All through this time, certainly from shortly after our first daughter was born, I was working as an IT freelancer, earning more with each contract so that we were always able to service our debt, and the chickens only really came home to roost when we divorced and I was suddenly confronted with the full consolidated amount. And solely responsible for it.
But I’m a chap who has more than his fair share of luck and it was around this time that I pretty much doubled what I was earning and, for once in my life, I forgot about spending and concentrated on clearing the debt. And then, abruptly, after a couple of years, the debt was gone and suddenly all this money coming into my bank account was mine. Life was good. We did up the house, which was run down when I bought it, went on holiday and generally enjoyed having some cash.
Now, for years I’d dreamt of running my own business and I’d had a little hobby company alongside my day job for a few years. In 2004 I suddenly had an amazing opportunity to make that hobby company my full time job and, without too much consideration, I took it. I employed some people and everything went well for a while before I began to realise that I was out of my depth. There’s a book called something like “The E-myth” which is all about people who start businesses because they are good at something and ignore the fact that they’ve no experience of running a company. Well, that was me.
I’ll spare you the details of the company’s fall from grace but suffice to say that I had to remortgage my house to pay the salaries whilst we struggled to deliver the work we had to the quality we wanted, but never making a profit. By this stage I had stopped paying myself. My second wife, who stuck with me all through this, bought the food, whilst I tried to keep the bailiffs from the door, the telephone connected, the electricity flowing and a roof over our head.
This was stressful enough in itself but at the same time I tried to keep up appearances. My daughters still had all their music lessons and, in our social life, I bought rounds of drinks I could barely afford. Couldn’t afford, in fact. I’ve always been a sound sleeper but now I found myself waking at two o’clock every morning to lie there worrying. And I’ve always enjoyed a drink but now, for the first and only time in my life, I found myself drinking to relax, downing a couple of glasses of wine within minutes of walking in through the door. My wife wanted me to go back to working freelance but I had all these people relying on me for their salaries.
And I learnt something else during this time, which is the appalling way in which our society permits businesses to behave towards their debtors. Credit card companies who didn’t ring me during the week would ring me six or seven times on my home and mobile ‘phones at the weekend to harass me about payments. The mortgage company, scenting a mortally wounded customer, were interested only in repossessing the house and not in talking to me about ways in which I could restructure my payments. It was hellish.
But I stuck with it. My company’s ethos and approach to business began to pay dividends. Our problem changed from “where’s the work coming from” to managing cash flow, in itself a huge problem for small businesses but trivial compared with the prospect of going bankrupt.
So, these days I can’t complain. I get paid regularly along with everyone else and those credit card bills are getting cleared. I can’t remember the last time the mortgage company had to call. That said, I recently had some confusion regarding my council tax that resulted in a debt collection company getting involved. In the end I went into South Lakeland District Council to sort it out, which we did to our mutual satisfaction. Oh, except there’s still the bill for the debt collection agency.
I spent a couple of minutes cogently explaining just why I shouldn’t have to pay this bill: I had been in communication with SLDC at the time, trying to sort the matter out. There was simply no reason for involving a debt collection agency and, therefore, no reason why I should pay for them being invoked by the council. We argued. I didn’t lose my temper, I rebutted and, eventually, the fine – for that’s what it amounted to – was waived. My issue here being that SLDC simply invoked the debt collection agency at the time because I wouldn’t submit to their (erroneous) arguments. An action they then expected me to pay for.
So, it’s been a weird few years. I went from being well off to experiencing the unsympathetic attitude and, at times, aggression that businesses will display to those who are in a parlous financial situation. I was certainly broke and yet do remember that I always had the safety net of returning to the freelance world if I needed it. That wasn’t much solace at the time, for a variety of reasons (including not wanting to admit I’d made a mistake) but I can’t imagine what it’s like not having that option, of having nothing to lighten a bleak future, no cause for optimism.
And now I see the wealthy in power, screwing the poor and the disadvantaged, whilst the middle classes do nothing, perhaps grateful that Osborne’s ideological cannons are not trained on them.
In conclusion then, I’ve been poor – although not in poverty – for several years this last decade. It seems now that I was always optimistic but a moment’s reflection recalls so many dark days and anxious, sleepless nights. And the worst thing was not the worry about looking after my family but the stress induced by the companies that will all rely on to make our lives work. Believe me, without fail, they are all bastards.
PS The Co-op, the ethical Co-op, was the worst of all.