How I got a top haircut for £8.50

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(£8.50 = US$11 or €10.)

I was back in England recently, and one thing I find hard when I’m in a new place is to find a good hairdresser. I’ve had some real hair disasters the past few years as I’ve moved around a lot. I wasn’t going anywhere near my ‘go-to’ hairdresser in England on this trip, so I looked up an old hairdresser from my second stop, a city where I worked for many years.

He’s now a salon manager (he’s done well, good for him!) but a cut and blow dry with him would cost over £70. Yikes!

Having dismissed that as being way beyond my budget I then decided to have a look for a hairdresser in the first town where I would be staying, a place I had never visited before. Looking around Google maps at the town, I spotted a Further Education college. (For readers across the Pond I think you call them community colleges, but I may be wrong. In Britain that’s where you can go at 16 to study vocational subjects like catering, construction trades and hairdressing.) So I had a look at the college’s website – they do hairdressing and have a salon!

I fixed up an appointment; a cut and blow dry is £8.50 with a Level 2 student, and £10 for Level 3. I was very limited in the range of appointments as there are only a limited number of lessons in the salon – this is after all a teaching environment where students get to practice their skills on real clients.

I went along there on my appointment day and it was a nicely designed salon. I think that the 18 year old Level 2 student who cut my hair will do well in her career; she was friendly and outgoing, but applied great care and attention to the task in hand. As with other FE college appointments I’ve had in the past it took an hour and a half, longer than high street salon appointments, but these students are learning so you do need to allow extra time and have some patience.

The tutor listened in to what I told the student about what I wanted done, and she made sure that the student knew exactly what she needed to do. At regular stages in the cut, the progress was checked by the tutor. In addition to a cut, I asked if I could have my hair texturised to take out some volume; this is an advanced technique so once my hair was dry, the tutor did the texturising and it gave the student a tutorial in advanced cutting.

The final result was brilliant! It’s win-win all round – I got a great cut, the student got real-life practice and the college got some extra income.

High street salons are a lovely environment, but so expensive. If you need to cut back your budget it is worthwhile to consider a college for your hairdressing; I have never been disappointed with a college cut. Many colleges do beauty as well as hair, so if you feel that you have to give up your manicures or back massages, you could consider your local college for an occasional treat. Colleges that run catering courses often have restaurants too, where you can get a meal for a very reasonable price – though maybe not at weekends. Do check out your local college for what they offer, you might be surprised.

If there isn’t a college near you, there are many competent hairdressers who work from home, many do so as they have caring responsibilities for children or other relatives. My go-to hairdresser was a senior stylist at a top salon but she created a salon at home after having her youngest child, and her technical expertise is first class. A cut and blow-dry with her costs £25 – her cuts in the salon used to be about £70. No contest.

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Facebook does not make you famous!

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Well, it could make you famous if you have a post that goes viral, but the chances of that are gazillions to one.

My apologies for being quiet for a while, but I’ve had 3 trips back to England in 3 months. I had to put a lot of planning and organisation into these trips, I got back from the last trip a week ago and even now I feel like I could sleep for a month. At least I won’t be travelling again until the autumn, when I go back to England for good. It’s been great to spend time in various places in continental Europe, but there’s no place like home.

Recently I’ve been watching the BBC programme Shop Well for Less; if you’ve not seen it, the two presenters put overspending families on a week or fortnight of austerity in order to help them to live to a budget that is within their means. Having lived frugally for nearly 10 years now, I am shocked by the families’ spending habits.

One woman on the programme stuck in my mind, she is a beauty therapist and she said that she couldn’t possibly wear the same outfit twice. She explained this by saying that she has her photo taken all the time when she’s out, and so many of them end up on social media, she couldn’t possibly be seen wearing the same outfit twice, she has a reputation to live up to…

Whaaat?? It’s Facebook, not the national press!

I’ve had a great time in England catching up with my friends, one of whom is an old school friend who beats me hands down at super-frugality. We were talking about this programme and I mentioned this ‘different outfits’ comment, and she said “I know loads of women like that”.

So, this was not an isolated example on Shop Well for Less. I explore the effect of society on spending habits in my book, especially of celebrity culture, but even after all my research I was floored at how deeply ingrained the mimicry of celebrities’ lifestyles seems to be in the lives of ordinary people with national average salaries. Having grown up in the 70s (and I’m glad I did) I have seen the rise of celebrity culture as a phenomenon. Of course we admired our favourite pop stars and actors back then, but talentless people generally didn’t get a claim to fame and we never felt the urge or pressure to rush out to buy designer clothes and accessories. It was either Chelsea Girl or the market stalls.

I like a quiet life anyway with my feet firmly on the ground, and I am more interested in the flesh and blood people around me and their welfare than I am in celluloid celebrities. I really don’t get the desire for fame, don’t people realise that it can be hell? If you’re not happy with your life now, having loads of money to buy shiny trinkets will not make you happy. Having a great deal of intrusion into your private life certainly won’t make you happy either.

Finally, I think that everyone likes to hear about dirt being dished on celebrities. (It’s called schadenfreude.) That’s what tabloid journalists are looking for all the time; do you remember the woman in Worcester who was exposed as a lottery cheat? The press really had their knives out for her.

Be careful what you wish for…

“Would you like a receipt?” Of course I would!

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I’ve just been back to England for 4 days, the first trip back for just over a year. Little has changed; I spotted a couple of road improvements, a couple of building sites now have pristine buildings on them, BHS is no more and a few shops have changed names/ownership but it looks pretty much the same. My friends are still as wonderful as ever.

It’s always an opportunity to stock up on things that I can’t get across the Channel so I save up and have a spree. This takes me into several shops and one thing that I noticed at many major retailers was that I was always asked:

“Would you like a receipt?”

Huh? What’s that all about? Of course I want a receipt!

It happened so often that I thought that it’s either a move designed to reduce paper waste (laudable), or a step towards digital receipts. I recently read though about contactless card payments – which I refuse to use – that they don’t show up even as pending transactions on your bank account for a few days.

So… if you’re not getting receipts, how can you keep track of your spending? Just how many people carry a notebook and record every expense as it arises? Is this why a third of young people are too scared to look at their bank balance? Also, if you don’t have a receipt for your goods, how can you prove that you bought them if you’re challenged by a security guard? Do they now have CCTV everywhere in a shop to record everyone’s payment as proof they’re not a shoplifter?

Yes please, gimme my receipt. I’m going to take my fistful of paper receipts for my CASH payments back home, even the one for 25p, and I’m going to record every expense that I made through the day so that I can keep track of my finances. No-one’s going to accuse me of being a thief either, as I can prove my purchases.

How to avoid debt consolidation disasters

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Looking back, some of the worst decisions that I made were to consolidate my debts when they started to spiral out of control. I did that quite a few times before everything fell apart and I was forced to get rid of my debts once and for all. On the face of it, it’s a sensible move – to put your total debt into one loan with a much lower interest rate and pay it off.

Then you’re debt-free, yay!

All well and good, but my best intentions fell by the wayside and I never followed it through to the logical conclusion. I did little to change my spending habits; if I saw something I liked, I bought it. If a holiday took my fancy, I’d book it. I cut up my cards whenever I consolidated my debts but didn’t cancel them. Once the expiry date came round, I would get a new card through the post. I would usually be feeling the pinch because my bank account struggled to cope with all my impulse buys, so the round of overspending on credit started again. I even consolidated twice with secured loans against the house; what a dumb thing to do.

I learned the hard way – if you’re going to get rid of debt this way, you have to see it through to the end!

If you consolidate your debts, don’t take on ANY more debt until the loan is paid in full.

One option that avoids an interest-paying consolidation loan is to consider transferring to a 0% interest credit card and having a blitz on the balance to repay the whole sum as soon as possible. This is a much less expensive option than a consolidation loan.

Debt consolidation can be a good thing to do in some cases, but not all. You really need to be disciplined to avoid entering into any further credit until the consolidation loan is paid off. If you are going to do this:

  1. Before you approach lenders, get advice from a non-profit making organisation such as StepChange or the Money Advice Service. Consolidation may not be the right choice for you.
  2. Don’t take out a secured loan against your home – it could put your home at risk if you become unable to keep up the repayments.
  3. Pay off your credit and store cards with the loan and cancel the accounts straight away.
  4. Prepare a budget and stick to it.
  5. Rethink your spending; only buy things that you need, and set a limit for occasional treats.
  6. Get out of the habit of impulse buying. You can admire something without possessing it.
  7. Once the loan has finished, put the amount of the loan repayment that you’ve become used to paying into a savings account so that you can buy things that you need without resorting to credit.
Disease Called Debt

Prices too good to be true? They probably are.

Head in Hands

A friend of mine was scammed before Christmas by a fake shopping website that offered branded goods at fantastic prices, and I’ll share a few things that are worthwhile to know so that it doesn’t happen to you.

The website has now disappeared, but I had the chance to look at its pages before it vanished in the ether. It was supposedly a UK website with a co.uk address, but the information on the site broke several British online trading laws. From a bit of online research, I believe that the company was based in China. Unfortunately my pal didn’t know this, he ordered a pair of branded boots for about £50 and received a fake pair of Adidas trainers.

He paid by debit card and under the Chargeback scheme, if a trader does not fulfil certain contractual obligations (such as, in this case, not supplying the correct items) your bank can request the money back from the seller’s merchant bank to which the payment was made. My friend made a claim through his bank and got all his money back.

How can you tell if an online trader is legitimate or not? Firstly, check for reviews on Trustpilot and other review sites. Although the website that tried to scam my pal is gone, I have found a similar one that appears to be run by the same people here and it has dreadful reviews on Trustpilot.

It is a legal requirement for any UK company that trades online that they must provide their business name, contact details and address. If you look at the scam website, this is nowhere to be found; a contact form is not sufficient.

You also have certain legal rights to cancel an order placed online. The online store that I have linked above does state that you have a right to return the goods, but looking at the Trustpilot reviews for these companies it seems that they have no intention of refunding your money, even if they send you the wrong goods.

Look carefully at the terms and conditions; even though this masquerades as a UK website, they are clearly not written by a native English speaker. This is a classic:

“If the problem about the item is not big enough, please do not make fuss about it. We will be gratitude if you take care of it by yourself. And for the unfit size problem, to send it away as a gift is a good choice and also can save your precious time and avoid the unnecessary waste.”

In other words (I think, from trying to work out its meaning), if it’s the wrong size, give it to someone else! Great customer service, don’t you think? (Not!)

So, in summary;

  • If it’s not a company that you know and trust, read its T&Cs and company details carefully.
  • Check reviews.
  • Know your consumer rights and redress.
  • Try to pay where possible by Paypal or credit card; it is easier to get your money back if things go wrong.
  • If in doubt – shop elsewhere.

Photo credit – Alex Proimos, reproduced under creative commons license, https://www.flickr.com/photos/proimos/4199675334

Disease Called Debt

Sale time! Get Out of Debt Hell reduced for one week on Amazon

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It’s January sale time!

A lot of us are on a tight budget this month, so I am running a Kindle Countdown deal for one week on my ebook Get Out of Debt Hell, and the paperback version will also be reduced for one week too on UK and US Amazon.

UK Amazonebook, 99p and paperback £5.99

US Amazonebook, $1.99 and paperback $7.49

Offer runs from Thursday 12 January to Wednesday 18 January. Grab a bargain whilst it lasts!

Best Foot Forward – 10 Important Soft Skills to Teach Your Children

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This is a guest post from Tara Woods Turner, author of Beyond Good Manners: How to Raise a Sophisticated Child’, an excellent guide for parents on how to raise a confident, responsible child – attributes that will contribute to a child who will manage their finances responsibly. More detail on encouraging these skills in a child can be found in Tara’s book.

Although it may be years before your children are ready to impress the board of directors or company CEO with their impressive skill-sets it is never too early to teach them the soft skills they need to succeed. In addition to making them more well-rounded and responsible individuals, mastering the following skills will also give your children a crucial advantage academically and socially during their developmental years.

1. Verbal Communication

Children should be taught from an early age that clear communication increases the chances that they will be understood and consequently, have their needs better addressed and met. Enunciating clearly and confidently not only conveys meaning more proficiently but imbues the speaker with qualities of intelligence and poise. Children often fall into the habit of responding with monosyllabic sounds as opposed to articulated ones but it is never too late to reverse this trend by encouraging your children to answer questions completely. Yes and no are just as easy to speak as it is to grunt while nodding the head. By adopting strong communication skills your children will see improvement in their interpersonal engagement with family, teachers and peers.

2. Non-Verbal Communication 

It is equally important that children practice effective non-verbal communication skills. The most important of these include making and maintaining eye contact during introductions and conversations and posture and bearing. Children who fidget, stand with crossed arms or who rock back and forth on their heels during conversations, for example, may unintentionally send the message that they are defensive or evasive, setting a negative tone with their correspondent from the outset of the interchange.

3. Attentiveness

Staying focused often proves to be a challenge for the best of us and is especially true for children. However, becoming a more attentive person can have lasting benefits for them as they navigate socially and academically. Giving children small, manageable tasks to see through to completion is an excellent method to increase their level of focus. This will translate into the ability to engage more meaningfully with others, especially helpful as they work on group projects and manage work teams on their own. In addition, attentiveness is a vital soft skill necessary to interpersonal communication success. Your children will gain a reputation for whole engagement and further enhance their ability to retain and utilize what they hear.

4. Positivity

Smile and the world smiles with you is an old adage that continues to endure and enjoy relevancy today. While it may not be necessary to adopt this maxim literally the underlying message is a valuable one to instill in your children. Positivity works on a feedback loop and children who approach life with such an attitude are more likely to create self-fulfilling prophecies of positive engagement. Most importantly, children who look for and embrace the positive are better able to inspire the same quality in their peers, thereby making cooperation and group cohesion more likely. Teach your children to take advantage of any opportunity to be helpful, optimistic and supportive in their interactions with others and you will raise children who will be seen as indispensable as peers, colleagues, team members, friends and partners.

5. Being a Team Player

This skill ties in closely with #4 but varies slightly because it is a bit more proactive in approach. Solid team players possess the ability to work well within the group dynamic, contributing their personal best while giving others space to do the same. This is an especially helpful skill to develop in your children because it increases their sense of interconnectivity and social interdependence. Children who understand that they are an integral part of the whole grow more secure in their ability to affect change and influence outcomes.

6. Humility

Children who can accept constructive criticism and learn from their mistakes are poised for success as they set and achieve their goals. It is never easy to be informed that you are on the wrong track or that your output is less than stellar, but growth can not occur without this and the earlier children are taught to view criticism as a tool and not as an indictment the stronger and more productive they will be. It also happens to be true that humility is a rare trait, making it as admirable as it is valuable.

7. Accountability

Accountability is just as crucial as responsibility when it comes to positive engagement with others. Fostering this trait in your children will enable them to grow in integrity and trustworthiness. Children who keep their word, do their best and uphold their obligations are ones who understand that they are earning regard and admiration on the strength of their own merits. Being accountable will garner your children increased privileges and responsibilities, a reward in and of itself.

8. Basic Etiquette

Good manners are indispensable when it comes to showing respect for ourselves and others. Children who are polite, considerate and thoughtful have an immense social advantage – the results of which are long-lasting and visible in every aspect of their personal, social and professional lives. By teaching your children even the basics of etiquette you equip them with the tools necessary to make good impressions and increase the pleasure others experience in their company. The positive impact this will have on their self-esteem, interpersonal dynamics and prospects can not be overstated.

9. Leadership

The ability to lead is often a natural one but there are ways to teach your children to replicate much of this quality in their own lives. Leaders have the ability to see what others have to offer and find ways to bring those skills to the forefront. Your children may or may not be comfortable taking the lead in a group setting but teaching them to appreciate what others bring to the table helps to establish key leadership qualities and traits. Others include delegation, conflict resolution, problem-solving and project management. Children who exercise patience and thoughtfulness embody these leadership skills because they are able to analyze situations before they act. They understand things holistically and are able to see the end result and not just individual components, making them proficient at showing others better ways to accomplish established goals.

10. Adaptability

Flexibility is also a vital soft skill that children can benefit from immensely. It has been said that the only thing constant is change and what better way to prepare children for this inevitability than to teach them to be adaptable? As your children set goals help them envision scenarios in which their optimal outcomes may have to be achieved by other methods. By understanding contingencies they are able to develop back-up plans and alternate routes by which to arrive at their desired goals. In addition to cutting down on frustration and a sense of hopelessness. being highly adaptable encourages children to be creative, resilient and optimistic, qualities that are important in every aspect of life.

Success lies at the crossroads of preparation and opportunity and instilling these ten soft skills in your children will better equip them to make the transition to successful adulthood with efficiency and ease.

About Tara

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I am an etiquette consultant, best-selling author and online content contributor. I received my certification in general etiquette and etiquette for children and teens. As author of the Beyond Parenting series I have been a frequent guest on radio talk shows, podcasts and blog spotlights. A Salisbury, NC native, I currently live in New York, NY with my husband and our hyperactive puppy, Catherine.  When I’m not working or writing I collect vintage books and letters and Pleasant Company dolls, and I spend far too much time analyzing James Taylor lyrics.

http://www.tarawoodsturner.com

Twitter – @OhTaraTara

Facebook – https://www.facebook.com/tara.turner.5249

g+ – https://plus.google.com/111329352319531953601

Tara’s book ‘Beyond Good Manners: How to Raise a Sophisticated Child’ is available on Audible and also as an ebook and paperback on Amazon:

UK Amazon

US Amazon

 

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Time to practice what I preach – a bad habit successfully ditched!

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Bad habits can be a serious drain on your finances, especially when they impact on your health. This is an excerpt from my book Get Out of Debt Hell:

“You may be in your 20s, 30s or 40s and still feel fit and strong and thoughts of old age and infirmity may be far from your thoughts. It is possible to remain fit and strong from your 50s onwards (barring accidents and health problems) by investing in your health now. From my first-hand knowledge of friends and family who have had the misfortune to have unexpected and serious health problems, I am fully aware of the extra financial costs that ill health can incur and of the ensuing worry and anxiety. With spending cuts, it is looking increasingly likely that you will not be able to expect the state services to solve in an instant any mobility problems that you might have in later life.  Any bad habits like overeating, smoking, lack of exercise, recreational drug use or excessive drinking that harm your health may not be manifesting in problems now, but they will be storing up to blindside you at some point in the future.”

I’ve been good at looking after my health except in one area – I’ve battled with smoking for many years. I rarely drink alcohol, I eat healthily, exercise daily and don’t use drugs (medicinal or recreational), but I could not ditch smoking; I even smoked through the IVA. I wasn’t deluding myself – I knew the risks that I was taking. I had my first smoke when I was 12 but I didn’t form a habit until I was 15, though I wasn’t a heavy smoker back then as it was a habit that I had to conceal from my parents and teachers.

“Just give it up!”

If you’ve never smoked, that’s probably what you would think but that’s an appeal to the rational. Bad habits are not that simple though, they always have a psychological trigger that keeps you hooked and the rational and emotional sides to our personalities are often oceans apart. In my case the triggers were frustration and boredom. A couple of people I’ve known with drink problems both had major disappointments in life that prevented them from the career path that they really wanted to follow.

There comes a time when you get really, really worried about your health

I’ve had a smoker’s cough for years, but I have been feeling my lung function getting worse every winter. Earlier this year I started to wheeze when I put my head down to go to sleep.

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It’s easy to put it off when you don’t feel an immediate threat to your health but these symptoms have worried me. I just don’t know when I’ll reach the tipping point, after which I’ll have a chronic and irreversible condition. In addition to that, a friend’s partner had a heart attack last year and he is about my age. Since then, they have both quit smoking, they eat more healthily and get plenty of exercise; I was able to catch up with them recently and they look fantastic. They were the sort of people that I thought would never quit, but they did it; so I thought, if they can, so can I.

Strike whilst the iron’s hot!

I’ve been across the Channel for a while and tobacco is much cheaper than it is in Britain, so the cost incentive wasn’t so great. However I’ve been closely monitoring how much I spend on tobacco – €60 per month, that’s about £50.

That’s €720/£600 per year going up in smoke!

I’ve recently had a surge of positive news that has helped me to quit. I’ve wanted to change course from what I’m presently doing, but I’ve had various disappointments and obstacles in my way. But – recently, everything has fallen into place! Hurrah!

So, knowing that frustration was a hook to keep on smoking, I decided that this tide of positivity was the perfect time to quit – it certainly was, it was easy. I bought nicotine patches but only needed to use them for the first week. The results so far after quitting two weeks ago are:

  • €30/£25 saved
  • No wheezing when I go to bed
  • Noticeable lung function improvement
  • More energy and clearer thought processes
  • Blood pressure and pulse well into the normal range
  • Skin looks better
  • Clothes and hair don’t smell of smoke

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In addition to all that, I feel much more positive at achieving something that I knew that I needed to do for a long time. All that money that will be saved will be a great help for my plans too!

If you need help and advice on quitting a habit that’s bad for your health, your GP will be able to help. You can also find many sources of support online, the NHS has various resources listed on its website – http://www.nhs.uk/Livewell/Addiction/Pages/addictionhome.aspx

brokeGIRLrich

Spread the cost of your Christmas food shopping

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All the Christmas goodies are starting to creep onto the supermarket shelves, so if you act now you can start to plan your shopping to spread the cost so that you don’t have a massive food bill in December. Aim to get all your non-perishables by the end of November – then all you have to buy in December are fresh foods with a short use-by date. I’ve compiled my tried and much-tested to-do list based on a traditional Christmas dinner, but if your meal is less traditional there are still ingredients that you can buy in advance.

Step One

Make a dedicated Christmas shopping list of everything that you’ll need and cross things off when you buy them so that you don’t end up buying them twice.

Start to make room now

Reorganise your food storage; tidy it up and use up any food that is near its use-by date. Blitz not only your shelves but also your fridge and freezer. Defrost your freezer and/or fridge-freezer if it’s not been done for a while. Keep any old bread in the freezer for breadcrumbs if you’re making bread sauce and stuffing (well worth the effort to make as they taste much, much nicer than made from a packet and they’re really easy to do). Bread is still fine to use when it has that dried whitish edge to it, it’s just freezer burn that is caused by water molecules leaving the food and doesn’t mean it’s bad or mouldy. Just trim it off if you don’t like the look of it, though you won’t see any difference if you turn it into breadcrumbs.

What to start buying from September

Jars of cranberry sauce and mincemeat

Any tinned foods and packet foods that you might use

Dry ingredients for baking

Dried fruit if you’re making a fruit cake

Alcohol for the festive period (keep it hidden and out of temptation’s reach! Attic, maybe? In a well-taped-up box?)

What to start buying from October

Meat for freezing

Frozen vegetables or fresh veg for freezing

Christmas pudding

What to start buying from November

Table crackers and paper napkins (though you might have got these last January when reduced in the sales!)

Nibbles – nuts, crisps, chocolates and snacks (ditto the advice above for alcohol – hide them)

Desserts that are suitable for freezing

End of Nov – perishables with a longish use-by date such as butter and eggs

December – ahh, nearly done

Once you’ve done that, all that will leave you with is a small shopping list of perishables to get a couple of days before the 25th. Check out the opening time on the 23rd or Christmas Eve, it’s often 7.30am now so get up early and you can get it all done before the crowds descend like an invading horde. You’ll then be leaving whilst dozens of cars are frantically looking for a space.

The Diminishing Memory of Destitution (and what I learnt from my grandma)

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Family in Bethnal Green, 1900

“No man is an island”

This is a fairly long post as I have a correlation between debt and poverty at the end that I am trying to back up with evidence, so grab a cuppa and get comfy.

I propose in my book that we need a deeper and more critical look at how society and culture have a subconscious effect on how we feel in an ever-increasing consumer society, and that examining this is vital if we are going to tackle the underlying causes of our debt problems. One of those aspects that I briefly discuss in the book is how the memory of abject poverty in Britain is diminishing and I’ll explore that here in more detail, and how it relates to the growing debt problem in Britain.

I’d like to be clear, I am not dismissive of current poverty in Britain; it certainly does exist and there is also an unacceptable level of homelessness, and it is a miserable state to be trapped in poverty. There is a distinction though between poverty and destitution. Destitution is poverty where you have absolutely nothing to fall back on, and there was a time where there was no state help and when I was younger I heard first-hand accounts of this time.

Most of us haven’t experienced a time when there wasn’t a safety net

The system of National Insurance was introduced in Britain in 1911, providing free medical treatment and 26 weeks’ sick pay. Prior to that, old age pensions were introduced in 1908 for the over 70s and Labour Exchanges were set up in 1909 to help the unemployed to find work. It wasn’t until after the Second World War that National Insurance would also provide unemployment benefit.

Prior to these welfare benefits the main option for the destitute was the workhouse, though charitable institutions sometimes helped people in desperate situations. This was still the moralistic age where the ‘deserving poor’ were helped however and if there was any hint of perceived idleness or immorality apparent to the charity, help could be refused.

What I learnt from my grandma

My gran, born in 1901, was one of 10 children in a poor household living in a small 3 bed terraced house. Her mother also took in and raised a local child who had been orphaned so that the child wouldn’t have to go into the workhouse or some other institution. My great-grandfather was a factory worker, so he didn’t earn a huge wage and his wife would also do anything possible to bring in money and to feed the family on a tight budget, as well as having a football team of children to raise. Although my great-grandmother was illiterate, she was a proficient midwife and well-known for this in the area, having learnt midwifery from her mother. She would also lay out the dead for burial, another skill learnt from her family; the local area was poor and its people were not able to afford the fees of a doctor or a hospital to deliver a baby or an undertaker to prepare the dead for burial. My great-grandmother’s modest fees were affordable.

The children would also bring in money in various ways from a young age by doing odd jobs such as deliveries and their earnings were handed straight to their parents. They were handed back a farthing, ha’penny or a penny occasionally for treats such as sweets. Everyone, young and old, pulled together to bring in money and it was spent sparingly, and the reason for this was the horror and stigma of the workhouse.

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Lambeth Workhouse, men’s dining room

I heard from my gran just how terrified people were of the workhouse; it was the ultimate shame for the poor, but the choice was the workhouse or starve. In my gran’s youth, the workhouse had become a more benevolent institution than it had been in the past as compassion for the poor was increasing. It had also become mainly a place to house the elderly, orphans and people with physical and mental disabilities who had no-one to look after them. In an appallingly insensitive move, the city’s workhouse building later became a geriatric hospital and the elderly hated being admitted there; in their minds, they were ‘going in the workhouse’ and my poor great-grandma spent her last days in that hospital too. On the other branch of my family I discovered that my great-great-grandfather had died in his old age in a workhouse. This came as a complete surprise to the older members of my family; it had never been discussed, such was the shame and stigma attached to it.

Many people today look upon the thought of themselves claiming state benefits with horror and shame, but I don’t think that the depth of the stigma is anywhere near as intense as the fear of the workhouse over 100 years ago. At least if you claim benefits you can lead a fairly normal life, albeit on a very low income, and make your own decisions. You don’t have to move into a regimented institution where you have to wear a uniform, eat the most basic food, perform monotonous work, live by a strict timetable and be segregated by gender. Sounds like a prison, doesn’t it?

Britain at war

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People in Britain went through the Second World War with some hardships such as rationing of food, petrol and clothing, also people living in cities would be at risk of bombing at night. My parents told me about uncomfortable, damp and dark nights spent in their air raid shelters in the back garden, sometimes spending several hours in there until the all-clear sirens sounded.

The nation pulled together and most did their bit to keep a semblance of normal life. Flower beds and lawns were turned over to grow vegetables and there was a ‘make do and mend’ attitude to clothing and other essentials. Britain also benefited from imports from countries such as the USA and Canada that included food imports, which came at a high cost; 2,825 merchant ships were sunk by U-Boats. For those who managed to escape the worst of the bombing they were adequately fed and clothed and it is said that the reduced diet made the health of the nation the best it has ever been, but the situation across the Channel was much worse.

A case study of Italy – abject poverty through war

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Families left homeless on the street after the bombing of Milan

I’ve chosen Italy as it’s a country that I know well, I used to visit friends there in the early 1980s and I’ve also had the chance to visit a few times again to see friends more recently. I heard about people’s wartime experiences during my earlier visits and also I am grateful to my dear friend Paola Laghi for sharing her parents’ reminiscences.

Rural areas in Italy were already very poor before the war, which is the main reason why there was much emigration not only to the United States but also to many countries worldwide. In the later years of the war, hardship increased considerably and food was scarce; cities and towns were frequently bombed as the Allied forces attempted to defeat the Axis forces. I once visited a family in a rural town and we ate roast chestnuts one evening. The lady of the house told me that roast chestnuts reminded her of the war, as there were often times when she would get home from school and that was all there was to eat and nothing else – chestnuts that had been gathered from the local woods. The winter of 1944 was particularly severe and the people struggled to survive with a lack of food and fuel; 1944 also saw natural disasters such as the explosion of Mount Vesuvius and earthquakes.

Many Italian men and women fought back bravely against the Fascists, even though the death penalty existed not only for being a partisan but also for anyone found to be helping or giving refuge to partisans, and also for aiding escaped Allied prisoners of war.

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Italian partisans in the winter of 1944

Paola’s family lived in the region of Emilia-Romagna in an area that suffered from bombing attacks and her aunt died from gangrene after she lost a leg in a bombing raid. The family lived in a 2-roomed house and the children shared single beds, though Paola’s mum and her sister eventually went to stay with family friends near Lake Como in the north for safety. Towards the end of the war and in the aftermath many people had little money and they managed to survive by bartering goods and services. Paola’s grandmother was an excellent seamstress and obtained food and other necessities by paying with clothes that she had made. After the war, Paola’s parents married in 1950 and lived in an old, tiny house and the door had a wide gap at the bottom that the landlord refused to fix, so they had to stuff a sack in the gap to keep out the worst of the winter weather. I’ve experienced Italian winters, it’s not always hot and sunny as some believe and its winters can be very severe. Her mother had to work even when she had her first child, who would play in a back room whilst she worked.

Paola’s parents managed to find work in England as a driver/handyman and housekeeper/cook; at that time it was fashionable amongst the well-to-do to employ an Italian cook. They were struck by the relative prosperity of England, even though rationing still continued and to Britons it was a time of hardship – but to Paola’s parents, it was paradise. By the time they emigrated they had a child but they were not allowed to bring him with them, and it would be five years before they were permanently reunited as a family; such was the sacrifice they made in order to get themselves financially secure. Paola says that when talking about these years her mother would say ‘”non saprete mai quanto siete fortunate” (you’ll never know how lucky you are).

How this relates to personal debt problems

On one of my early visits to Italy in the 1980s, I met a young engaged couple and they talked about getting a home, but they hadn’t saved up enough yet. I asked if mortgages were easy to obtain, and they were horrified! They said that you should never, ever borrow money, not even to buy a house and I later found out that this was a common sentiment. This was at a time when Britain’s credit boom was taking off and personal debt in Britain would see an ever-increasing rise every year to staggering levels.

Sadly, this is changing. Whilst many Italians still prefer the use of cash and are often very prudent with their money, card use and borrowing are increasing and consumerism is on the rise. Credit card companies are targeting countries such as Italy that have low card use with a blitz of advertising. Gone are the days when you would see many battered old Fiats on the road; you still see some around, but there is a predominant desire for a brand new car. Italy is starting to feel like Britain in the 1980s in this respect.

There appears to be a statistical correlation of personal debt and abject poverty within living memory. Of the EU countries with the biggest levels of personal debt, six of the top ten were largely unaffected by occupation, widespread destruction of property and extreme poverty during the war. Britain is the 7th most indebted and Italy is at number 16. It’s interesting to see that many of the countries with the least personal debt are in eastern Europe, an area that suffered great deprivation and destruction in the war.

Maybe that’s why our debt problem is such a huge problem in Britain – we no longer have a paralysing fear of destitution. It could be that it is in our mindset that even if we don’t have a home or a job, the state will help us out and there is no danger of starvation. Nevertheless, reduced circumstances lead to a miserable life so it is a worthy education to learn about the prudence of our ancestors and how they coped with a level of poverty that is unimaginable to us today.

Photo credits:

PLA Collection/Museum of London

http://www.vauxhallcivicsociety.org.uk/history/lambeth-workhouse/

http://www.boltonswar.org.uk/pr-recycle-06.htm

http://www.comune.cinisello-balsamo.mi.it/pietre/spip.php?article654

http://www.treccani.it/scuola/lezioni/storia/resistenza.html