Tomorrow evening Buzzfloyd, the Badger and I are going to see Ken Loach’s I, Daniel Blake. The movies is quite a big night out for us, so it’s odd to have that coming up without exactly being able to say I’m looking forward to it. I feel confident it will be an excellent film, and I care deeply about its subject matter – but I find it harrowing to think about.
Nonetheless, think about it I have, ever since I first heard of it.
And I wanted to share with you some of my own thoughts about dodging poverty.
I have never been in the desperate circumstances of people like those portrayed in the film. I know there are people whose lives have suddenly spiraled down, circumstances beyond their control pitching them into destitution. That has not happened to me simply because when it did there were one or two blessed souls there to catch me. I can’t tell you about them because the whole net of circumstances involves others whose privacy I must not betray. But I will be forever grateful to the two or three who stepped in to help me get out of the mess that fell unexpectedly onto my life. Even with their help, the way back was arduous and long.
But, though I haven’t ever got to the level of poverty the film portrays, life has required me to focus on budgeting and plan carefully. What I want to share with you is the strategies I keep in place – and please don’t assume I’m a wealthy person playing games; in fact don’t assume anything about my circumstances at all. You do not know them. But I share these strategies because I have found them useful and still do.
Secure housing is a pearl of great price. If you ever have money, when you do have money it is the number one priority. If you can get clear of renting and own a place outright, for the rest of your life you have a buffer against poverty. Owning a house brings overhead and maintenance costs of course, but in the UK you can let out one room tax free, which income will cover your basic outgoings for utilities etc. If you own a house you have an income. If needs be you can live in a shed or live in the garage, and let the rooms in the house.
I find it immensely frustrating when I see friends and relatives prioritizing foreign holidays, expensive consumer items, gourmet food and alcoholic drink, over securing their own place. Some people never get the chance to own their own home, but if you do it’s a golden chance. Take it.
Owning few possessions and sleeping on the floor also create great flexibility in living arrangements, allowing several people to share a relatively small house, which saves huge amounts of money.
Everyone needs water. You pay for mains water. When I sold a book I bought a very expensive water filter. We now get all our drinking water free from the spring – pure, delicious, and bottled spring water is an expensive luxury. If I hadn’t earned the money to buy the filter, I’d chance drinking it from the spring anyway. We also bought (and these were not very expensive) three large water butts to catch the rainwater from our roof. These water our plants and are good for rinsing things, flushing the toilets, washing up etc. No good for drinking water, but excellent for anything else. If we ever ran out of money and had our water cut off, we would not suffer greatly.
HEATING, COOKING, LIGHTING
Every dwelling I’ve lived in – sometimes a small caravan, once a barn, other times a shared house – I’ve made sure I had some facility for lighting a fire. In the summer I gather fir cones and wood from the forest floor, and store it up in bags and cardboard boxes in the corners of my home. I save packaging and junk mail for kindling. Any time you have money, a little wood-gas stove or Kelly kettle is a good investment. If you never have money, a small fire-pit dug outside (really small, a foot across is fine) with a salvaged rack to stand a saucepan on, will give you a perfectly good place to cook and keep warm, and firewood is easy to scavenge for free.
When I had some money, first thing I did was put in a wood stove. Then you can cook indoors out of the rain, for free – and the fire offers lighting as well as heating and stove-top cooking if ever you can’t pay your fuel bills and the gas/electric is cut off. Plus you can heat the rainwater you gathered from the roof to wash yourself, your clothes and your crockery.
At our place we have solar panels for electricity and solar tubes to heat our water, too. This saves a lot of money, plus the government pays us for what we contribute to the national grid. When my father died, he wasn’t rich but he had a little in savings. What he left me put those panels on the roof.
At some supermarkets you can get excellent yellow-ticket bargains on past-sell-by-date food. I have done that, but not much – the shops near us sell poor quality food at feeble reductions (on yellow ticket I mean, not in general), so the saving is too small for the even smaller benefit. It’s an option some people make work triumphantly, though – as is dumpster diving, which I have never done.
But I have looked out for produce left for gleaners at the end of the day by greengrocers or vegetable stalls in the market. There’s often aggressive competition for these freebies, so I haven’t done it much.
In my garden I plant with a view to eating. Fruit and herbs are expensive store purchases and have the added benefit of returning year on year without having to buy seed each time. They just keep going. You don’t need a huge garden. You can even grow apple trees in pots. You can plant rosemary, lemon balm, mint all free from cuttings, and thereby keep yourself in herb teas all year round. I also plant sage and lavender – great flavouring herbs and almost impossible to kill. Lavender and lemon verbena also save you the expense of fabric conditioner – wash your clothes in rain water and they’ll be very soft, dry them on the herb bushes and they’ll smell great. Line drying is also free, saving the expense of buying and running a machine.
Finding out about foraging plants saves lots of money. Ramsons, dandelions, nettles (leaves to cook, flowers as a grand tonic), chestnuts, hawthorn leaves, mushrooms if you can find where they grow and know which to avoid, blackberries, wild apples – all these and many more are an absolute boon when money is short; high nutritional status, no financial outlay.
Getting in staples when you do have money protects you for when it runs out. I would buy:
Sea salt (the minerals are nutritious)
A big bag of oats – rolled or steel-cut
A big bag of brown rice
A big bag of lentils
A bag of millet
A bag of quinoa
A large pack of dried milk
Oils – best you can afford, and coconut oil doubles for toiletries too
If I had these in store, with dried or fresh herbs from the garden, foraged greens and fruit, I could keep going through lean times - perhaps purchasing a box of eggs (look for homes who keep hens and sell at the roadside) and a bag of carrots and one of onions, and a cabbage.
For meat-eaters, offal is very nutritious and cheap. The other day I got a pack of lambs liver for £1.40. Shoulder of lamb for the same quantity of meat was £7.00 on special offer.
When you have money, tinned meat or fish is cheaper than fresh and can be put by for when the money runs out. Also, if you have a freezer and the electricity has not been cut off, frozen anything is cheaper than fresh.
Beware of stocking up on the empty calorie carb stuff like white pasta, white flour, white sugar, white rice. Better to get the oats and dried milk to make porridge to fill you up, then forage the greens and scavenge left-overs – on white carbs and sugars you just get tired, fat and sick, which makes things worse.
A bottle of cheapest washing up liquid (US dish soap) plus a bottle of spirit vinegar for soaking burnt pans, cleaning toilets, fabric conditioner and any number of other things, bicarbonate of soda – and you’re good to go for most things. If you have coconut oil to cook with, that’s also handy for a moisturizer and against tooth infections (oil-pulling). Liquorice roots are the best toothbrushes of all, need no toothpaste and are very cheap.
CLOTHES, UTENSILS, FURNITURE, BEDDING
Freegle, Freecycle, charity shops, and eBay. Also friends circulating outgrown baby clothes and equipment. Grace/gift economy generally. I have bought bedding, furniture and curtains, but also found it easy to come by for free. Incidentally, floor-living is very cheap and maximizes living space. A double duvet works well as a pad to sit on in the day and folded in two (half on top, half as a pad to lie on) for a bed at night. A dressing gown is a great investment for cold nights – and days. A hat is a must – a huge amount of heat escapes through your head, because your body prioritizes keeping your brain stably warm. Gloves, socks and scarves are likewise priorities, because at your wrists, ankles and neck large blood vessels sit near the surface. For people who don’t run cars, shoes are valuable: when you do have money, good shoes are a purchase to consider.
Some people have little choice about where they live, but if you can choose this is important. I live in a poor town. Hastings is a pocket of poverty within East Sussex which is a pocket of poverty in the otherwise prosperous south-east. That means the fancy shops don’t last long, but the ones for poor people thrive, which extends all our options. And we have an accumulation of people who know how to live in poverty. And here by the sea there’s a lot of common land useless for building on, plus the sea itself – so nobody who can’t afford holidays needs to suffer.
In poverty, people can be your greatest asset – they keep you from despair, from starvation, from going mad. Choose wisely, because there’s also the other sort of people who can develop what started as mere anxiety into sheer hell with very little effort at all. Be a good person and keep good people round you. In poverty, perhaps surprisingly, a group is an advantage.