I grew up in a middle class family, one that was poor enough not to have a second car or fancy holidays abroad, yet comfortable enough that we were never left wanting for any of the essentials such as good practical shoes, school books or hideous padded polyester anoraks. We did go on holidays, but it was to places like Wexford, or a trip to visit some remote uncle and auntie in an even remoter part of the world, like the outback of Donegal. We were never disappointed at Christmas, and in the run-up to a birthday party, there was a frenzy of baking culminating in a house full of giggling eight year olds and a spread of egg sandwiches, TK red lemonade and butterfly cakes sprinkled with hundreds and thousands.
We were jealous of the well-off kids and made great plans for when we’d grow up. But we weren’t poor.
What we didn’t have was the pulling together and sense of community that they had in the council estate up the road. In our estate, there was much less sharing and although my mother had to work around a tight budget, she never had to pull a rabbit out of a hat or try to glue a shoe back together. Nor could we keep up with the Jones’s in the detached houses with the sea views. They went to Spain and their kids came back with sombreros, sun burn and stories of swimming pools that nobody wanted to know about. They went horse riding and took ballet lessons while we did the free things like the girl guides and playing hopscotch until the rain washed away our game and nobody had anymore chalk. We were jealous of the well-off kids and made great plans for when we’d grow up. But we weren’t poor.
I was young, my peers were broke too and there was something romantic about being a struggling student with a waif-like appearance.
During my teens, my father died suddenly. So by the time I turned 18, I found myself in a new situation. I was in college and living away from home. I had to earn enough money to support myself and I did this by working in a bar two nights a week. The pay covered the rent and I lived off the tips. Somebody gave me a present of an old bike, and although I couldn’t afford clothes or books or anything really other than the basics, I was young, my peers were broke too and there was something romantic about being a struggling student with a waif-like appearance.
It was the 80s, so after college, I did what everyone else was doing and left the country. I had a spattering of German so decided to follow a friend who had started teaching English there. Within a fortnight, I was working for a language school and within a year, I had saved enough money to go and check out the fancy swimming pools and sombreros that I’d heard so much talk of years before.
Five years later I was running my own language school, driving a fancy two-seater sports car and dating a handsome German doctor who shared my taste in exotic travel and good champagne. Even after we got married and had three kids, things weren’t all that difficult when you had a live-in nanny and a housekeeper. It seemed that life was looking good everywhere, so when I was offered the challenge of starting up a training business in Ireland, it seemed like a great idea. We filled a removal truck and trailer, our camper van and Mercedes Benz and headed back to the Emerald Isle with the plan to continue generating bounty and opulence.
When my business challenge failed miserably, I decided that having to let the home help and nanny go wouldn’t be all that bad; after all, I’d have more time with the kids and I could be a better moral support to my husband who at this stage, found himself homesick, hating Irish pub culture and started to develop an emerging allergy to living in a climate of mostly rain
The pressure of living on less and feeling like a total failure didn’t help the atmosphere in our new life of intermittent rainfall and gale force warnings from Mizen to Malin. Eventually he threw in the towel, packed his bags, took one of the cars and headed back to Germany, leaving me with a cleaned out bank account and the three kids. It was almost Christmas and I realised that there was no way Santa would even manage to get a pair of shoes down the chimney, let alone an Xbox, two mobile phones, a drum kit and whatever you’re having yourself. Of course, I was too proud to ask for help, and besides, the St Vincent de Paul knew me – I had given them generous donations up to now, so how could I call in all of a sudden for my hand out?
In all my life I had never been in such a predicament, I didn’t even know who or what to apply for
I managed to juggle money around a bit and get a loan from the Credit Union. Eventually I had to go to the Social Welfare Office and apply for the One Parent Family Allowance. In all my life I had never been in such a predicament, I didn’t even know who or what to apply for, I thought it was still called the ‘deserted wives pension’, which I like the sound of, I imagined myself queuing up at a barred window with a shawl around my shoulders and a child on my arm with a few more pulling out of the bottom of the shawl. But no, it was all very civil; the only thing that was bizarre was the amount of money I was expected to live off. Now I understand now why it’s called the ‘breadline’. It is exactly that. You can afford bread, or to make bread, but if you filled your trolley at the supermarket you’d have the whole budget for the week gone already.
So what happened? Well first of all I learned how to cook a healthy dinner for four for under a fiver and that Charity shops are not places that sell grubby cast offs, but that you can get a designer blouse, bag or shoes all for under a tenner. I learned that when you’re kids grow out of their clothes, you iron them neatly and pack them into black refuse bags and pass them on to other peoples kids, and that if you do that, the same thing will happen to you. A whole seasons worth of clothes will land on your door, all in black refuse sacks just like the ones you gave away.
I realised that asking for help makes you humble, and that you make better friends when you have nothing, because it is you that they like, not the trimmings. I found out that the cheap bubbly in Aldi really doesn’t taste all that different to the real McCoy and that growing your own potatoes isn’t cheaper, but they taste better from your own garden and growing them brings you closer to the earth.
In many ways I became happier than I had ever been before
Inevitably, most people who find themselves stripped of cash will find that they have more time on their hands. I began writing, something I’d always wanted to do, and I found a fulfilment in this that I’d never felt with any other of my successes. The poet Robert Graves once wrote ‘There’s no money in poetry, but then, there’s no poetry in money.’ My values were changing dramatically, and in many ways I became happier than I had ever been before. I tried to be as positive as I could and I would tell myself that I lived near the sea, we were all healthy, and we had a roof over our heads.
Don’t get me wrong though, there’s no romance to being broke. Try explaining to your child that you just can’t afford the €120 for hockey because that is more than half of what you are trying to get through the week on, and think about the trials of constantly saying no to groups of friends suggesting a meal out, or even a few drinks. The cinema or the swimming pool on a wet Sunday afternoon was out of the question. Then there was the constant fear of something unexpected. I remember thinking to myself when driving once ‘if I get a puncture, I’m just going to have to abandon the car.’ And when my son lost his school jumper, they cost about €50 a pop; I knew that he’d just have to get through the rest of the year without another one. Thing is though, we always got through, something always turned up. I remember having about €12 one Friday that had to get me to Tuesday, when I knew the children’s allowance would be in. That morning a letter arrived to say I had won second prize in a poetry competition. There was a cheque enclosed for €50. That money meant more to me than few grand might have done in previous years, and yes, I blew half of it taking the kids for a swim.
In my case I got back on my feet again. The remorseful ex husband began to pay generous maintenance payments (possibly something to do with being chased by the department of Justice and Law enforcement for the recovery of maintenance from abroad), the kids got older and I started up my writing and consultancy business again. This time round though, I don’t have the assumption that once you reach a certain plane you will always stay on it. In fact, now that I’ve experienced both poverty and wealth, money doesn’t mean what it used to, because I know that without it, life isn’t much different, and these days I buy the cheap sparkly because I like it and not because it’s cheap. I’ll never go back to spuds that didn’t come from my garden and I’m convinced that walking the prom is more fulfilling than the gym. But I’ve also learned this: nothing is set in stone and life is as unpredictable as the Irish weather, so you should always be prepared that sometime you might need to pull a rabbit from a hat. Don’t ask me how it’s done, because I can’t work that one out myself, but believe me, I’ve done it more than once, and should you ever end up where I was, believe me, you’ll do it too, and you’ll come out on top in the end. Cheers!