Nicola’s Pandemic Diary III: Let’s Talk Finances

Nicola Simpson

Talking finances seems to still be a bit taboo in Ireland and the UK but living in such an unequal society it feels like we ought to be talking about it more. Recently there has been a lot of coverage of personal finance in the media with the introduction of the furlough scheme and other people learning just how challenging it is to live on benefits for the first time. People in our country are living in complete destitution and it makes me feel ashamed that we continue to elect people who are quite happy that others rely on charity to put food on the table. Since moving away from my parents at 18 I have always made a budget and try not to live beyond my means. There were times when I did have a credit card and an overdraft, but generally I try to keep borrowing to a minimum. I think it's a skill I saw as a child as my parents figured out how to make their income stretch to cover the bills and something that was reinforced formally when I studied Home Economics - which in my view is far more important a subject than it gets credit for!

I have been living with my husband since I left school. We married at 22 so our situation wasn't typical. We bought our first house the year we got married and moved to the most affordable part of South Belfast – our house cost £60,000. I had been in a car accident and had a small claim, my husband had a small inheritance and we were lucky to have enough for a deposit. Before we bought our first house we were at times quite frivolous with money, we both had jobs and worked hard when we were at Uni but we also didn't think quite so much about the future. One year we booked a holiday to Ibiza on a whim because it happened to be raining when we walked past the travel agent. My personal income has been a bit up and down over the years. I was diagnosed with fibromyalgia in my 20's and since then I have only had a few years of full time employment. Other times I worked part time or did voluntary work or not at all. Despite at times being very unwell and reliant on my husband for basic personal care I was refused disability living allowance or employment and support allowance. Not having any income of your own changes how you feel about yourself. I felt invisible at times. Luckily I was able to manage the symptoms of fibromyalgia and over time gradually do more paid work. I had to work hard to get there but there was a certain amount of luck involved too. In 2016, after finishing a PhD my husband was offered a permanent lecturing post. He had left another career to go back to Uni and it was a bit of a risk but it paid off and he is much happier in his current job than he ever was in his previous career. The lecturing job meant a move from Belfast to Derry but we were ready to leave the city by then and wanted somewhere quieter to live. We rented a flat for a while before we bought a house. When it came to choosing where to buy our earlier experiences and the unknown element of my illness, which can jump up and bite you in the ass at any time made us cautious not to over extend ourselves. We wanted somewhere we could afford on one salary and hoped we could pay off our mortgage sooner rather than later.

Shortly after buying our new house we decided we were in a position to start a family, my health was looking good and our financial situation was stable, well as much as it ever can be. It was never my hope to be waiting until then to start a family, it's just how it was. I knew that starting a family would make it more difficult for me to return to work as I wasn't sure how pregnancy and looking after a baby would impact on my health, so when my last job finished in July 2018 I decided not to look for work. This meant while I was pregnant and after having the baby I didn't qualify for any maternity benefits, which aren't much but would have been useful all the same. With Covid-19, luckily, our financial situation hasn't changed as my husband has been able to work from home. It has been a difficult time figuring out our working/living arrangements but at least we aren't having to worry about money on top of everything else. My husband earns £35k per year as a lecturer and a little more for some additional work. We usually have somewhere around £2500 income per month after tax, student loan repayments and pension contribution. My husband works hard but so does my mum who is a cleaner and gets paid a lot less! Maybe Covid will make us re-evaluate the value and importance of some jobs. As well as my husband's income we also get £21.05 child benefit per week, which we put into a savings account for our son to use in the future.

I'm very conscious of how easily you can go from being in a good position to a difficult one so we are working towards having 6 months of living expenses in the bank and trying to pay off our mortgage sooner by making over payments each month. If I do return to work, we may have to re-evaluate how much we can overpay on the mortgage since we will have childcare costs, and other expenses and with my work history and experience I'm unlikely to be earning a high wage.

Although I talk about budgeting, we don't really set a budget for spending on additional things, the luxuries like days out, one-offs or holidays. We just try to see what savings we have and keep things to a level we are happy with.

Since lockdown I haven't been in a single shop. Everything I buy now is online. My husband does the shopping for essentials on one of his days off work. I suspect I spend more now on non-essentials than I did before lockdown but it's hard to be sure. I've got a spreadsheet with all our planned expenditure which I use to keep on track of things, along with online banking using an app on my mobile. This month we got refunds from our summer holiday which sadly we had to cancel. It was to be a couple of weeks walking in the Yorkshire Peaks and Dales along with a visit to York. We have friends who live close by and were hoping to catch up with them too. I'm really disappointed we can't go, we spent ages planning the holiday, choosing possible walking routes and finding accommodation but I'm very grateful we got the refund.

Big expenditure this month was on the rates bill which we decided to pay in one go rather than spread the cost like we did last year. I spent a ridiculous amount of money on bulbs and plants for the garden. They won't be delivered until September, but hopefully they will return year after year and be a good investment. Having a garden has been such a saviour during lockdown. The entire experience would have been much more difficult in our old house, a small terrace with a concrete yard and limited opportunities for walking. Here we can go out our front door and be on a quiet country road in 5 minutes.

Anyway – this has turned into quite the essay but I didn't think the numbers on their own would mean much. Here is our spending for the month with some short descriptions/extra info. I've rounded to the nearest £.