Sound impossible, right? It near enough is, when you can’t live with your boyfriend, and don’t want to share a room with some stranger (Jesus Christ, never, ever, just no. I’m an only child and enjoy walking around naked. Enough said.).
During my second year away from education I somehow got myself into a terribly paid job. I don’t mean badly paid. I mean I was paid as little as it was legally allowed. Which, at the time, was £5.13 per hour, given my age (which was 20 at the time). For various reasons I didn’t manage to find a better paid job, and then I got promoted with better pay, so there wasn’t much reason to look anymore.
One word to describe living in London on such a low salary is nerve-racking. Because if I got ill and had my wages lowered even further because of sick pay (which actually happened when I ended up in hospital for almost a week and then off work for another), I would be on the brink of poverty and would have to ask my parents for money. Because there is never room for unexpected expenses, or treating yourself to something nice when more than half of your salary is swallowed by rent and bills.
I often read or hear that London is an amazing city. A city of opportunity. Where there’s so much to do and see. Concerts, exhibitions, cinemas, shops. Great for city breaks. Great for students. International and multicultural.
There’s only one problem with London.
It’s fucking expensive.
No. I really mean it.
To the point where, right now, I pay more for a room in a shared house than my friend in Glasgow pays for a whole flat. Oh the joys.
So, what can you do in London armed with £900?
The answer is: not that much.
But let me stop writing each sentence in a separate line, and explain my situation to you a bit further. Paint a (not particularly pretty) picture.
I was 20 years old. I moved to London because I wanted to get more independent. Take responsibility for my life. You know, stuff like that. My parents helped with the much needed cash at the beginning, but I was determined to make it on my own. I had a high school diploma, and 2 months of experience as a shop assistant in a grocery store. In other words, I had no experience. Not sure I would employ myself, to be fair. Either way, I started applying for jobs, loads of jobs. Got very few responses. One of them came from a hair salon. A fancy one. Damn, seemed like a dream come true. Fancy place to suit my fancy personality. I gladly accepted the job, and the fact that I will be paid a National Minimum Wage. Except, I wasn’t told that it will depend on my age (the two other places that offered me a job paid everyone the higher rate, regardless of age).
I spent the next few months working from 8.15am (paid from 8.30) till 6pm, with one hour of (unpaid) breaks broken into three shorter ones. You can quickly calculate that I spent around 50 hours a week at work. When you add 1h commute each way, that adds up to 12h spent away from home. With all Saturdays working (Sundays were off). By the time I was done, I was dead. Falling on my face, feet falling off after running around all day.
London turned from a city of opportunities to a city of 2h a day spent commuting.
Also, mind you, a lot of those opportunities are simply really expensive. Sure, there are some things you can do for free, like visit museums (which I don’t like much, and only do under extreme duress), but even a visit to the cinema will set you back a good few pounds. So will having a dinner out. Or buying something new to wear. Not to mention going to a fancy concert or seeing a play.
But let’s have a look at my expenses, shall we?
Rent: £500/month (excluding gas and electricity bills) for a double room in zone 3 (but I commuted from zone 2, where I got by bus), in South East London. And hour away from work.
Travel: ~£120/month for a zone 1-2 travel card . I don’t remember the exact amount, but it was around that.
Food: I would spend around £25-30 a week on food (there are around 4.3 weeks in a month, which adds up to around £110-130/month). I cooked my meals, brought my own lunch to work, very, very rarely had takeaway or ate out, it was usually for some occasion or as a treat.
Mobile: £10/month (indispensable, as you know)
Entertainment (i.e. Netflix subscription): £7/month
These are my basic expenses, and we’re now at £767. If you look at my average payslip, you will see that my usual take home pay was £870 (that’s after deducing some sick days which happened, and NI).
On top of that, there were bills which came, if I recall correctly, every 3 months, but would add up to another £30 or so a month.
So, I was left with around £70 after all expenses. That, ladies and gentlemen, is nothing. Because imagine you get ill, and you have to buy some prescription medication. You’re (at the time) over £8 out of the pocket on just one item on the prescription. Or if you have a cold – over the counter meds are not free either. Or you need new shoes, coat, or trousers for work, because you’re only allowed to wear black, and you’ve literally nothing black in your wardrobe (I look absolutely terrible in black).
And there are also other everyday expenses that I simply didn’t include because I can’t for the life of me remember how much I spent on that stuff. Things like laundry tablets, shower gels and toothpaste, some skincare, a bit of make up. Everything costs money, and it all adds up to a painfully high amount.
Yet, somehow, I’d usually be left with around £30 at the end of the month, which I could spend on a little treat.
I know, right? Shocker, especially after all this ranting/complaining you’ve just read.
But how did I do it?
I learnt to say ‘no’. To myself.
Let’s just put it out there: I am an only child. Not just for my parents. But I’m also my grandma’s only grandkid, and my childless aunt’s only niece. I always wanted for nothing. I had cool toys (Mr Arguably Honest still can’t believe I had a plane for my Barbies), nice clothes, and went to private schools. I wasn’t used to living on the budget. I could just pack up and go back home to mommy and daddy in Poland. But that’d be giving up. And I’m not the type of person to give up easily. But to stay on and power through, I had to make ‘no’ my new friend. Well, frenemy. Because, come on, who likes having to constantly saying no to treating themselves? No one, that’s who. Especially if it’s not because of jumping the minimalist train, but out of necessity. You literally have to say no to all non-necessities. And I do mean all, because emergencies happen. At least until the next salary comes and you know you have a buffer that you can spend on yourself.
(On a side note, I remember what was the first thing I bought with my newly improved salary when I got a pay rise. A bottle of olive oil. Cold pressed. £5.5 for 500ml from Waitrose. Priorities.)
Planned my meals
(If such a low salary is less temporary than it was in my case, you will probably want to plan other expenses too, like clothes shopping, saving up, etc., but I didn’t, so I will stick to talking about meal planning).
Living on £900 a month is something that I definitely wouldn’t want to endure again, but one of the things that I got out of it that has proven to be extremely useful, is meal planning. Every week, I would sit down with the internet and cookbooks, and look for recipes for some cheap and quick meals that I could make during the week. I would then make a shopping list, and go to Asda (conveniently located right behind my house). That’s it. Once a week shop. The less you go, the less you’re tempted to spend on things you don’t need (‘Ooooh, Starbucks cold coffee on offer for £1? *in the trolley it goes* Oooooh, a massive pack of digestives. Can’t live without it!’). Being on a tight budget also taught me one important thing. Being vegetarian is cheaper than being an omnivore. You can argue with me all you want, but it’s a fact of life. Meat is expensive. If you’re on a budget, I strongly recommend limiting it. As I’ve written before, I’m not a vegetarian myself, but I eat very little meat.
And do keep in mind that cooking is cheaper than buying ready made meals, not to mention healthier and more nutritious. And tastier. If I managed to cook after being out for 12h, then you can manage to cook too.
Saying no and budgeting for food (which was really the only expense I had control over) were my ways of living on this budget tighter than Dita Von Teese’s corset. But there are some other things I would like to mention here.
Have an emergency budget
If you can, try to set aside some amount of money every month, even if it’s just a small one, to create a bit of a financial cushion. I never managed to do that, which I regret, because when I was in hospital, my salary crashed to the ground. If it wasn’t for my parents, I wouldn’t have had enough to live on. Right now, I have a little bit of money put aside in a savings account, which gives me a feeling of safety in case something happens, or I have some unexpected expense.
Try to still do a good job
I know low pay can be demotivating. If I had a pound for every time I thought ‘I’m not getting paid enough to have to do all this stuff’ my salary would have increased significantly. But at the end of the day, it’s not the customers’ fault that my boss valued my work so damn highly. They’re not at fault here. So, despite not being treated particularly well, or paid half-decently, I still did the best job I could. Low pay is no excuse for bad work, I’m afraid, and I never buy that ‘oh, they’re not paid much, you wouldn’t smile either’ excuse. Because I did smile, even when I was knackered, and despite the fact that I could barely make ends meet. And then when you’re looking for your next job, you can proudly say ‘I do the best damn job you can imagine, you really want to hire me.’
On the topic of hiring…
Look for a better job
There is no obligation to stay in a low paid job. There’s also no reason to (unless you’re doing an apprenticeship, or something like that, where you’re effectively getting something in return, and which will lead to a better paid position later on). Honestly, no reason to be loyal to an employer who can’t be bothered to value their employees (and doesn’t realise that a relaxed employee will be a better one than someone who is constantly worrying about how they’ll feed their kids next week). I didn’t manage to find a better job, unfortunately, except one that didn’t offer enough hours, but I strongly recommend you try to. No job is worth living under so much stress.
Those few months I had to spend living on this joke of a salary where some of the most difficult in my life. Having to smile through tiredness, and not being able to treat myself to anything nice, was taxing. The number of tears I shed because of stress – immeasurable. But I got something important out of it. The sense of satisfaction. That I managed. That I didn’t give up. And then I asked for a promotion (yes, I went out of my way and asked), and my financial situation improved (though the stress levels didn’t).
These days, I no longer have to struggle like this, my current boss appreciates me and pays me fairly. And I truly appreciate that.
Living on a tight budget is tough. I really have some mean budgeting skills after that. But if someone tells you that money doesn’t buy happiness, please tell them to go fuck themselves. Or ask someone who lives in poverty if they agree. Because everything costs money, and I’ve never seen anyone who’s hungry who would also be happy. Holidays, experiences, little treats, books – those cost money. Money might not buy happiness. But it buys things that make me happy.