As a child fantasist, interested in luxury, I was always quite obsessed with Stuff. My dad was a South Coast Del Boy: his long-line of jobs included being a mechanic, a fish delivery driver, a handyman and later, something of a wedding planner. The moment I turned 14, had highlights and a push-up bra, I started working with him at weddings most weekends and all through the summer, flirting with guests and showing old ladies to the toilet. I’d save up for Mischa Barton handbags, diet pills, amplifiers, DVD boxsets and gig tickets. It was the 00s, baby.
I appreciated the simple nature of graft: it paid for Stuff. Money – the focus of all my parents' stress and household arguments – seemed uncomplicated to me then. Working made me feel important and it bought me love or happiness, or Stuff, which all felt like the same thing.
At university, my mental health meant I wasn’t very good at the education part, or even, really, the socialising part. What I was brilliant at was working, and since I desperately needed money, I sleepwalked through uni and got a full-time job selling trainers in Covent Garden to rich overseas students, balding men and Chinese tourists. By the end of those three years, I sort of had the cash to go on holiday and do an MA in London.
I say sort of because, obviously, I grossly underestimated the living-in-London part and had to extend my overdraft into the thousands. Once I finished my MA, I started freelancing (£16,000 a year) and next got my first job in media (£18,000 a year). I left after a depressing meeting with HR who told me I’d never make much more than a grand or so extra in the next few years and to quit while I was ahead.
By this point I was mentally fried so began to pay for regular therapy, which I still pay for now. I believed that one hand washes the other – if I can think clearly and function well, I can work harder and better and I’ll get more money in return – which is only half-true, if you buy into neoliberal lies about productivity and progression.
At the same time, I kept extending my overdraft to keep up appearances. The little expenses like going for after work drinks with colleagues or meeting a potential editor who might give you work, not knowing if they’ll pay for your coffee or not, start to add up. Somewhere my almost unconscious financial mantra became that if I kept going, I’d be on more money and eventually it’d all even out. ‘A bit of debt now,’ I told myself, ‘and it’ll all balance out in a few years.’
But after a few years and small pay rises, my debt became more my own fault. The bigger the debt became, the more numbers didn’t mean anything to me and so I justified expenses: ‘I’m hilariously anxious and I work hard, why shouldn’t I buy myself this little thing that I can’t afford?’ I was bolstered by others around me having things with ease – ‘If everyone else in this city/industry/from uni goes on about five city breaks a year, why shouldn’t I go on one!’ – which, of course, is gutting but irrelevant.
I was the master of fiddling with bulging overdrafts to make it happen, without ever looking too hard – a magician! But by ignoring numbers, I was ignorant to the fact that the interest had snowballed as it did. The overall interest and charges were nearly £200 a month. It ended one lunchtime during the Christmas holidays when my card bounced at the till. My back felt sunburnt with shame. I left my food at the counter, choking out an apology and sat on the concrete around Finsbury Square, getting a damp arse, trying to extend all my overdrafts. I’d maxed out them all and played every game in the book. I could see the Mario “Game Over” sign dropping down and fencing me in.
If I’m being honest with myself, much of the debt didn’t feel like my fault. The debt that did was largely tied up in impotent – and wholly unproductive – rage at related societal issues: renting, lack of stability, worsened mental health as a result of the aforementioned. Why should I treat my finances with any respect, when they are central to the system that disrespects me!
I borrowed some emergency cash from mates, told family I wasn’t doing presents that Christmas and booked a meeting with my bank. I had just over £7,000 in overdrafts, £500 in unpaid therapy bills, a few hundred I owed my sister and a pissed off therapist. With all my wheeling and dealing, moving flat every six to 12 months plus the unauthorised overdrafts, absolutely no one would give me a credit card, so I couldn’t dance from one zero interest card to another as my parents advised. I had to stop this interest getting any higher.
At the bank, the person advised me to take out a loan for all the money I owed plus a tiny bit more to make sure I’d not go back in overdraft. For the first time in a decade, I was in the green. Each month I’d pay £100 directly into the loan, and £200 into a savings account, which, once I’d saved about a grand or so at a time, would go into my bank again and shift it over.
I didn’t understand the sorcery behind why that was the quickest way to do it, with the least amount of interest, but for whatever reason, it was. It took about two and a half years to pay off completely, and would’ve taken longer had I not freelanced and got some money through selling my first book in the US. I could’ve been more stringent – there were plenty of months where I just transferred the £200 right back – but I didn’t want to scrape by like I had previously.
This is where I say: don’t be scared of the bank. You’re a “customer”, for your sins, and it’s their job to help you. The individuals who work there are people with empathy and know quite a bit about basic debt management. Just go and cry at a financial adviser at your bank and be honest about everything. Once you’ve done that, be realistic about how stringent you can be per month, with each “essential” and “the odd treat”, like dinner out or an item of clothing. Stop buying beige food from Pret or Starbucks or any other chain that barely pays their taxes and reduce or eliminate your coffee addiction.
I’ve found it to be mostly true that rich people are the least generous and more stingy with cash – that’s why they keep so much of it. The irony is that the more you focus on your money and become hyper-conscious of how you’re spending it, the less time you spend thinking about money. The less I spent, the more I was happy with “just the basics” and the compulsion to spend on inessentials died down. I feel almost physically repulsed buying a Pret lunch now.