Over the next few months I’ll be adapting John Scalzi’s 20/20 blog series to talk about how life has changed over the last ten years, and maybe also how it’s stayed the same. Week two’s theme is money.
Ah, money. One of those subjects no one wants to talk about, but everyone is secretly nosey about. My relationship with money over the last decade has been up and down, and I hope it remains at roughly its current position for a while at least.
When I was twenty I had more money than my family had ever earned in my life, but that’s not saying much. I didn’t realise just how unusually poor we were until I was sixteen and applying to university. Everyone who was applying for financial aid had to line up in the sixth form centre and hand over some forms to the advisers who’d come in to speak to us. I joined the queue along with my friends, and then the head of sixth form came over and said she needed to see me in her office. I was deputy head girl, so this wasn’t unusual, and I expected it was some sort of school business.
We went into her office and she closed the door.
“We’ve made a special appointment for you at the end of the session,” she told me.
“Why?” I asked.
“Because your family’s financial situation is… complicated.”
“What do you mean?”
“Your family has an extremely low income.”
“But so do lots of families. That’s why we’re all lining up to talk about financial aid.”
“Yes, but I don’t think you realise how much of an exception you are. We anticipate that the finance people won’t initially believe how little money your family has, because they won’t believe anyone could survive on so little, so they’ll probably question you fairly extensively and they’ll want to look closely at all your documents. There’s nothing to worry about, but I thought you might not want to do that in front of the whole sixth form.”
She was right, of course, and I was grateful for her kindness. I’d always known we were poor, but I hadn’t known we were so exceptional as to merit being singled out like that. In my special slot at the end of the session I handed over my documents, had a long conversation with an increasingly mortified-looking assistant, and of course qualified for the highest level of financial help.
So by the time I was twenty, working a full-time job and freelancing on the side, I felt like I was absolutely rolling in money. I wasn’t, of course. I was earning about £18k a year, which isn’t to be scoffed at but isn’t exactly the height of fortune. I was renting a house in Oxfordshire, and I was commuting to work in London three times a week, and working from home the rest of the time. My job was split three ways: working in advertising (which paid the bills), researching at the university (which was fun), and translating books between English and French (which was fun and paid for some extra home comforts).
Throughout the next few years the amount I was earning gradually increased as I moved upwards within the company. By the time I was 24 I was earning a fair amount, managing an international team and generally doing a hundred things at once. I was also working 70+ hour weeks, sleeping in the office, drinking too much and feeling like I was going to explode from stress.
I quit my job and set out as a full-time freelancer. And then I lost all my money.
For the next few months I busked around London, but trying to make rent via busking a cappella is very hard. Also, singing for hours on end makes you hoarse, and singing in the snow when you don’t have a coat makes your immune system hate you, so soon I was too ill to busk, and then I had less than no money, and that’s not a good place to be.
I left my flat in London and moved to a cheaper rental in Brighton, a place I can’t stand but it was the only realistic option available at the time. Gradually I built my freelance empire, or rather I added more clients and tasks and income streams until I was finally able to move back to London again.
These days I’d say I’m on the higher end of financially comfortable, which is a very nice place to be. I can cover all the basics for myself and my mother, and give her enough money to also afford a comfortable style of living where she doesn’t have to worry day to day about finances and she could afford to go on holiday if she suddenly grew an adventurous streak. As for me, I can afford my home comforts plus either savings or other reasonably significant financial outlays. At the moment, for example, I am renovating my flat.
It’s a strange position to be in, having gone from very poor to fairly well-off to busking on the street to doing pretty well again, and of course I’d prefer to stay at roughly this level of income for the foreseeable future. Having said that, I am grateful for the dips I’ve been through in the past, because I know that although it makes life a shit ton harder not to have any money, I also know I can survive it. I wouldn’t like to earn a lot more than I currently do, because frankly I don’t think I need to, so if I have any say in the matter I’ll probably try to keep my lifestyle fairly consistently where it is at the moment.
The only thing I’d change if I could is that I’d restock my savings account, which is the plan once the flat renovations are done. I had a fairly good little nest egg until last year, when I unexpectedly took ten months off work due to the Melting Organ Fiasco, and therefore my savings account is currently hovering in double digits, which is not where I like it to be. But as long as nothing goes horribly wrong any time soon, it should be possible to rebuild it again. Fingers crossed.