14 November 2011

Can you pay my bills?

Pay your own bills, ladies
Ah yes, as Destiny's Child once sang…can you pay my bills? I'm guessing that Beyonce & co don't have too many problems paying bills these days but I've had problems, myself. A few years ago I found myself out of work for the – I think it was (they all blur into one) – 4th time.

And finally, I got over my fear and signed on for Jobseekers Allowance. It took some swallowing of pride. A lot of swallowing of pride. I'd been working since the age of 16, when my dad dragged me to a local shop to apply for a part time job. I was used to earning my own money. Even though I'd been made redundant or had fixed-term contracts come to an end before, I'd always had just enough to keep myself going to the next job. But this time I had no choice. And anyway; I'd earned it. Hadn't I been paying my taxes and NI all those years?

It wasn't an easy experience. Going to the Job Centre every fortnight, I found that the staff seemed to be a little confused by me. They didn't understand what a web editor does. When I presented a spreadsheet of recruitment agencies I'd contacted and jobs I'd applied for, they wearily asked me to name two agencies I was registered with. They – unsurprisingly – couldn't find any jobs that fit my experience. When I went on the computers at the Job Centre, I was offered 16 hours a week jobs as a barmaid. In Leeds. Two hundred and fifty miles from where I live. That's one hell of a commute for 16 hours of minimum wage. And all this was for the princely sum of what I think was, at the time, £64.50 a week.

Of course, every penny counts, and it helped me from starving to death. But what about my mortgage? My gas and electricity bills? The broadband I needed to search for and apply for jobs? I had no option. I wasn't eligible for support with my mortgage or bills. I didn't have a partner to help carry the burden. My meagre savings quickly dwindled to nothing. I had one resort: the three credit cards I had an account with. This was before the credit crunch, and credit cards had been falling over themselves to get my money by giving me credit I couldn't keep up with. I was their ideal customer; I'd always paid on time, but never quite paid off the balance, giving them some nice juicy interest. They upped my limit often and sent me "credit card cheques", which allowed me to "pay" money into my current account.

All the bills began to mount up with horrifying speed, and the credit cards were the only solution I could see. I was aware I was putting off the inevitable but my main priority was to keep the roof over my head. The Jobseekers Allowance didn't even scratch the surface, and my debt grew monstrous in my desperate scrabble to survive. My soul died a little each time I went back to the Job Centre, and each time I wrote myself a credit card "cheque" so the mortgage and bills could be paid for another month.

Since then, happily, I've found work. And since then, less happily, the credit crunch has happened. There's been a lot of blaming of victims since then. People who lived beyond their means; people who borrowed more than they can pay. Benefits are being slashed (although I understand the JSA is now an extravagant £67.50 a week). But sometimes good, honest people who want jobs get cornered. I'm not a "hard-working family" (as the politicians love to rhapsodise about) and I haven't been irresponsible. I haven't gone off on yachting holidays with my credit cards. I just tried to stay warm and dry. And I'll be paying the price for a very long time to come.

(Incidentally, every year when the budget comes out, and whenever cost of living is in the news, you'll hear me rant about the politicians' and media's focus is on the cost to "families". Being single and child-free is no Jimmy Choo and champagne life either. We don't get discounts, other than Council Tax. It's really hard when only one income is going in and the bills are still going up.)

While I have a permanent job now, with what should be a decent wage, I still barely make ends meet. The legacy of all that debt still bites deeply. The cost of living is going up, but wages aren't. I'm grateful for my job. And in a way, the credit corner I found myself was a blessing; I can no longer borrow so I'm forced – and have learned to – live within my means.

I'm aware, though, that I'm only a paycheque or two away from being in dire straits again. I'm also aware that a permanent job isn't really so permanent anymore so redundancy is a constant fear.

I'm glad I live in a country with a safety net, no matter how small. Don't get me wrong. But I'm watching what's happening in this country with an ever-growing sense of despair. The utilities companies are putting up prices on a regular basis, despite making very fat profits, and the government does nothing to regulate it. The benefits are being cut and I honestly can't work out how people can find a way out, no matter how much they want to work and pay their way. And the bills keep coming. For those who are in the position I once found myself in, wanting a job but unable to find one and with nowhere to turn, I despair.

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