Picture: Gerrard Gethings

Living hand to mouth in midlife

Being badgered by HMRC is seasonal for Kate Spicer, along with her cycle plenty and penury. What does it mean to be the wealthy hand to mouth?

Three years ago, in my late 40s, I wrote a book about my rackety life and the part my dog played in restoring it to more wholesome order. As I wrote, the big question was, Should I be frank about how abandoned my life was – late nights, parties, missed deadlines. Frankly, a lot of booze. “Just make it about the dog,” one close friend said, fretful. Completely certain, I said ‘no’ because honesty (and the entertainment value in other people’s catastrophes) struck me as more important than reputation.

Being broke: More shameful than drugs

It was another subject that gave me pause, and repeatedly had my fingers hovering cautiously over the keyboard. How terrible I am with money, how frequently I am stone broke. Debt, errant spending and the pathetic lurch of a life spent living hand to mouth had me cringing in shame way more than any seedy criminal activity would.

Being badgered by HMRC is a seasonal thing for me, like asparagus and gulls eggs. No savings, no pension, no healthcare insurance, the only place I can see any meaningful sums next to my name is in the loan accounts that I have dragged around behind me for my entire adult life like a sack of fetid underwear. I won’t be able to retire, ever. If I lose the ability to think, type, stack shelves or write, it’s game over. I live hand to mouth. I am, in the parlance of economists, a HtM consumer.

How do I keep myself living hand to mouth?

What this means is I’ll spend the last £20 I have in the world on a cheap blow dry. I sometimes scrump change from my boyfriend’s pockets to buy the dog a packet of mince. I racked up little debts at the coffee shop, the greengrocers stall, the newsagents. I still borrow money from my Mum occasionally. And when payday comes, Whoopeeeeeee! It’s big tips all round, fine wines, cake in white boxes, gifts and grand gestures. 

I don’t plan, but my partner does

Complementary needs theory is a mate selection theory that attempts to explain why individuals choose the mates that they do. I believe it to be a very smart theory. I live with a man who is obsessed by his credit rating and as we settled down together, he urged – no, begged me – to manage mine (mostly, I suspect so that his credit rating wasn’t adversely affected).

We live together, I make the bills and I keep very quiet about the fact that the other day I was £7 off (OK, OK, over) my overdraft limit. I white-knuckled it as mortgage paying day approached. The air felt thin, my brain struggled to focus on anything but this impending financial drama. And then? I made the mortgage because by some miracle that had nothing to do with financial planning I got paid for something the very same day.

Phew! When you live HtM there’s a great reliance on the universe providing. Once the universe has provided, I breathe different air. My relationship gets better when I have money in my account. I feel safer, more confident and grounded. As my finances move back to the knife edge, the oxygen is removed from my atmosphere again.

I’m part of the wealthy hand to mouth

Poor people are forced to live hand to mouth. Poverty has wide reaching risks to human life. It is crushing, hobbling and decimates hope. Make no mistake, I am not rich, but neither am I poor. HtM living does not always translate into poverty, but poverty always means living hand to mouth. 

So why does someone with a reasonable income, who has a mortgage on a flat in an expensive part of London, live the disquieting financial patterns of the poor?

In The Wealthy Hand to Mouth, a Brookings Institute study from 2014, it was estimated that of 38 million Americans with no savings, two thirds of them were not poor. Like those two thirds, I instinctively adapt my spending to track changes in income: income goes down = spend less, income goes up = spend more.

We need to understand the psychology of debt

There is also my debt, not insane amounts, but enough. The capitalist system exploits desperate people in need of money with usury, with crappy rates of interest. Debt is responsible for so much misery. 

The psychology of debt is well-studied. It is debt that keeps poor people poor. Debt forces people to live in the moment, which sounds pretty Zen, but isn’t. The “live now because the future is terrifying” attitude meant that I always put instant over deferred gratification. Debt makes it hard to complete the marshmallow test 

The madness of it is that you experience a roller coaster of living HtM that is normally reserved for the unfortunate and poor. In the early 19th century, the English essayist and philosopher, William Hazlitt, wrote, “The poor live from hand to mouth, because, in general, they have no hopes of living in any other way. They seldom think of the future, because they are afraid to think of it.”

Debt can make us reckless

I’m with Hazlitt here, who wrote those words in answer to the theories of Thomas Malthus, the pious economist who blamed the poor for all their problems. Debt makes you rash, it makes you go, Fuck it.  

Singaporean study from 2019 found that removing debt from the poor had clear and positive consequences on their decision making. That living with debt created a “bandwidth tax”, using up essential space in the mind.

Why am I like this?

Is this the chaotic and unsettling life I’m doomed to for the rest of my days? Or is it a habit – like drinking or smoking – that can be given up? I feel no self pity, but I do wonder why am I like this? 

When I was in my first job in my early twenties at a business publishing house, the managing director’s PA and I were friends. She was a Black woman from a working-class family, she dressed smartly and had not been to university. I was a middle-class white woman, the daughter of a doctor, I did not dress very smartly and had just graduated. By roughly similar ages she owned two flats and I had…two loans. Why wasn’t I more like her?

What’s the root cause of my money problems?

Perhaps I was entitled, spoilt and babyish. Perhaps I had a very poor attention span. Perhaps low self-esteem made me treat money like a drug, or a stick to beat myself with. Certainly, I think you can learn and inherit bad juju around money. There’s a theory that kids who learn music are better at saying no to the one marshmallow in favour of the two. The Perhaps could go on for ever. The way money was discussed in my family was almost entirely negative – money was associated with loss, fear, self-pity, lack and resentment.

I always dream that one day that something I write will win me big cash money prizes. When I dream about other things, I mentally bat the ideas to the queue behind that like, the woman who thinks her life will be perfect if she loses three stone.

The real problem with living hand to mouth

Two centuries on from Hazlitt and Malthus and the problem with living hand to mouth remains, which is that you can’t ever really dream. Dreams require a solid base and a rainy day stash for their implementation. And, as I cringingly admit here, I’m just the cash incontinent fool who earns and spends.

Kate Spicer’s Money Diary: Coffee and dog food

Note: This piece contains affiliate links.

Monday

5.30am – Today is the day I get my life together. Drink warm water and lemon juice in bed, skim papers. Make plans: walk dogs early, at desk before 8am, finish latest book proposal, pitch story ideas pegged to the news…

6am – Fall asleep to sound of driving rain
7.30am – Cortado and fresh beans from Coffee Plant. £6.80
7.40am – Pass market. Buy veg including cauliflower (expensive, £3!) and bread, and cheese, and pay dry cleaner, £77.80
11:00am – I feel bad that my dynamic plans for the week are consumed by errands and dogs. Pass Holland Park’s lavish oligarch’s corner shop, Supermarket of Dreams. Buy another coffee but definitely won’t have a croissant with it, even though it’s the really buttery flaky Ottolenghi variety. See Torres black truffle crisps. Buy two bags…and a croissant. £12
11.15am – Order dog training manual from Abe Books, second hand, £3.39
11.57am – Finally sit down to work, faff about and doom scroll in under-achieving, late-start-to-the-day misery.
7:00pm – Wonder if I can salvage the day by eating something healthy. Not likely, man pulls out sausages

Tuesday

6:00am – Switch off alarm, go back to sleep til 7. Important to be well-rested
7:00am – Coffee Plant cortado, £1.80
1015am – Dogs poke my arm, which means, ‘Oy, walk!’
12:00pm – Pitch some ideas to a paper.
12.30pm – Postman brings a final demand for a parking ticket, decide it’s time to pay all my car related debts – speeding ticket included. £220
3.30pm – All pitches come back no. Get over it by pulling up weeds in the garden.
4:00pm – Give old dog his heart pills, order another four months worth from petdrugsonline.com, along with herbal supplements for the young dog. £227
6.30pm – First brow, leg and bikini wax in six months. £50 plus £5 tip
715pm – Pass posh kebab shop, Fez Mangal. That’s supper sorted. 2 x posh kebabs £27.50
10:00pm – Reading brilliant Tessa Hadley’s Late in the Day. Think, bet she doesn’t spend her whole day farting about. Feel low.
12:00am – Take a quick look at Vestiaire as I set my alarm for dynamic 6am start. Those grey silk Chloe harem pants have dropped in price… £200
1:00am – Read The New York Times for an hour, type a quick pitch to an editor about restaurants post lockdowns NYT digital.
2:00am – Finally start wrestling with agitated iPhone trashed sleep.
3:00am – Awake fretting so take massive gulp of CBD.

Wednesday

6:00am – Switch off alarm and sleep.
8.30am – Follow up my 1:00am pitch.
10:00am – Editor calls. Probably wants story, will let me know later.
11.30am – Ed calls to say she wants story 1,200 words by 4pm. I’m walking the dogs and can’t get home fast enough on foot, catch cab. Gett, £7.40 + £1 tip. Work straight through 4pm, 5pm…
6:00pm – Manage to file copy.
6.30pm – Walk dogs to Lea & Sandeman to buy a single bottle of good red for meditative appreciation of artful winemaking and decompressing from deadline fail.
7:00pm – Buy six for the case discount, then 12 for the free delivery as can’t get home with a case of wine and two dogs. 6 x Bourgougne Aligote and 6 x Bourgeuil, £193.20 (but I saved £23 on the case, then again, I spent nearly £200 on it).
7.30pm – Wine, bag of corn nuts and almonds from the Turkish shop £4.50 eat with some raw carrot (that’s all the food groups, I think).

Thursday

Got two interviews to prep for today. I sit in bed all day doing research because I can. Order vile bright pink £14.99 “snuffle mat” from Amazon to amuse dogs when I go out.

Friday

6:00am – Alarm goes off and actually get out of bed, I have to present a Zoom interview with an AI robot “artist” for the intelligent and glamorous sounding Association of Women in the Arts. I panicked last night and begged my hairdresser to come over and fix my mop
7:00am – Hairdresser cuts and styles my hair at mate’s rates, £100
9:00am – Do make up in courtesy car and stop at Supermarket of Dreams £4.50
10:45am – No courtesy car to take me home, bus £2
11:45am – Young dog has eaten all the wooden spoons and we’ve no dog food. Drive to pet shop for tray of tripe £19, and cook shop for spoons, £15.
1:00pm – Visit posh butchers, stash of bones for dogs and chicken breasts to escalope for humans, £7 and £14.
3:00pm – Lunch at Locanda Locatelli, tube £4. Drink amazing Soave. Lovely to see friends even though we are outside and it’s bucketing down. £302 (but friend insists on paying). Return bus fare, £2.
6:00pm – On way home pick up prescription for HRT £28.05 and eyebrow dye at chemist, £6.90 – 51 year old lady-essentials.
10:00pm – Go to bed early and plan to read. Quick peek at Vestiaire, end up buying another pair of harem pants, Louis Vuitton this time. I now own six pairs of harem pants. Why? £150.

Saturday

7:00am – Can-do boyfriend up with the lark and dynamically achieving loads. I make a lot of noise about weekend chores (are they any different to weekday ones) but don’t achieve much except choose an outfit for lunch and dye eyebrows and buy a rib of beef and raw horseradish. £34
2:00pm – Lunch at Joy. Jolly. Fetch dogs afterwards and go for impromptu Covid-appropriate microparty in friend’s garden. Boyfriend pays for my lunch.
5.30pm – Corner shop run for booze (rosé, vodka, tonic, ice, lemons) and Twiglets, and cheeky pack of cigarettes, £86.43
12.23am – Call black cab and two humans and two dogs go home, Gett taxi £17.

Sunday

8.30am – Lie clutching head.
10:00am – Go for dog walk. Leave poo bags at home and have to buy emergency stash, as I’ve stopped I might as well get some crisps too £2.05, and healing espresso, £1.80
11:30am – Stop off at Portobello Juice for a Supergreen smoothie, manageress gives me a locals’ discount and throws in a free charcoal shot (good for hangovers apparently) £5.60.
3:00pm – Go to office and decide to create incredible level of order so that next week is the very best in my life.
5:00pm – Boyfriend puts head round door and finds me lying on the floor half asleep and listening to an audiobook, Johann Hari Chasing the Scream £24.58.

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