Putting food on the table: the cost of living for our families

Posted by Douglas Dowell / Friday 15 November 2013 / Cost of living Children's centres The Red Book

For families whose income has gone down, every penny counts – and as the cost of living goes up, the struggle to make ends meet gets even harder. 

I heard this time and again during the in-depth interviews with families for The Red Book 2013.

Helen, who I interviewed in West Yorkshire, had plenty to say about rising costs. I was struck by the depth of scrutiny she devoted to every little thing and every spending decision.

Helen’s husband works shifts, but as she says: ‘My husband’s hours at work got cut recently, and when we informed the tax credits office, they put the money down as well. So now we’re about £50 a week worse off than we were – that’s food shopping for all of us.’

Helen knows everything there is to know about prices: ‘We’ve never been frivolous with money so we were already on a tight budget. This just made it tighter.

‘When you do the same shopping every week you notice what’s going up. The basic baby wipes were 18p last year and now they’re 60p – over three times the amount.’

Gas and electricity bills have had a major impact too: ‘Usually we pay a set amount each month. But they’ve sent us a letter as a one-off to ask if they could put the direct debit up by £50. It’s a lot of money, £50.’  We hear a great deal about the impact of rising fuel prices; for me that brought it to life.

The rising cost of living, combined with falling incomes, has made managing everything else harder: ‘We bought the house when we were both working full time, before the kids. The mortgage is nearly £500 a month and when Adam’s on £240 a week, it’s a lot.

‘We’ve not missed any payments but sometimes we go without paying other things that need to be paid. I’ve borrowed a couple of times off family, to pay the mortgage.’

The squeeze has had a big impact on the whole family: ‘You feel bad when you can’t give the kids what you want to. Food-wise, it’s just the bare essentials.’

Free activities are crucial: ‘We did take the kids swimming, but not recently, not since they’re old enough that we have to pay for them. It’s a lot of money, nearly £5 for one adult. There are fewer free things than there used to be. There was a local play centre that was really cheap, about £1.20 a child, and that’s shut.’

Helen also brought home to me just how much a lack of money impacts on everything else – including ‘free’ activities. I remember how she weighed up the trips she made to a nearby park, because the bus fare cost money.

The other thing I took away from speaking to Helen was the impact of shift work and unpredictable hours. In principle, working might be an option for her – and she would like to do that in future. But it’s very hard to square that with the nature of Adam’s job - if you don’t know when your husband’s hours are going to be, it’s hard to plan for childcare or to make sure that someone’s at home.

In Helen’s case, this is compounded by the fact that her family, and thus her support network, are in Wigan – far away from West Yorkshire. There’s no easily available fall-back. But at the same time Adam’s work is in Dewsbury, and there’s no money spare to allow him to try and find a different job anyway. As she says, ‘If anything ever happened with Adam’s work, we’ve not even got the amount saved to cover the mortgage for the next month.’

Helen’s story is just one example: all over the UK, our services are seeing increased need driven by the rising costs of food, fuel and living. From the stories I’ve heard interviewing families – and not just for the Red Book – these costs are having a real impact.

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