When E and I were students we were broke. We never had any money. Back in those days there were still student grants. I think E had a full grant which, like today’s student loans, was barely enough to survive on. His parents were unable to provide any money on top of his grant, so he had to be careful with money. I didn’t qualify for a grant, but unlike lots of students who didn’t qualify, my parents weren’t rich, they could just about afford to support me, but there was no question of anything above or beyond the amount that my Dad had carefully calculated what would be equivalent to a grant.
I managed by reaching the limit of my overdraft every term, then working weekdays and evenings in the holidays to pay off the overdraft and try to save a little (to my utter humiliation my Dad also used to insist that I went to see my Bank Manager every summer to agree how to clear things – I used to dutifully trot along with my handwritten accounts, nervous as fuck, to apologise for daring to use my overdraft. I couldn’t sleep the night before). I was also very lucky in that my best friend, and landlady (still my best friend, but probably very grateful to no longer be my landlady) often helped me by lending me cash. I’m still grateful to her for that – she never made it awkward or made me feel bad. It’s how I have always tried to be with people, about any favour I do, ever since. In the three years I was at University, I had no holidays, and, apart from getting the overnight coach from Birmingham to Glasgow to see a lovely friend, every now and then, no weekends away. In my third year, the financial pressure was such that I got a job during term time too – working in a pub for four or five evenings a week.
Being students though, we were somehow never short of the cash for a pint. It was the early days of cash machines, and we learned that we could spend £50 in the supermarket on a card (with the paper-swipe machine) and then nip over to the cashpoint and withdraw £50 before the £50 we’d just spent registered with the bank. Cash machines dispensed £5 notes in those days, so we could go to the very edges of overdraft limits if needed. We also had cheque books and cheque guarantee cards – we knew that cheques would take days to clear, so if we were really struggling, we’d just write cheques for a few days and hope that the bank wouldn’t bounce them. I can still recall the sickly nervous will-they-won’t-they decline my card feeling when trying to pay at the supermarket – and the amazing high if it was approved, even though I knew I had no money in my account. We could even get cash back on supermarket shops, even when our accounts were at their overdraft limits (still not sure how – I guess information to and from the bank wasn’t as instant as it is now) – meaning that we could get extra money to pay for a few rounds at the Student Union.
We used to trek across a field to a Tesco which was about a mile from campus (and from which many a hardy student had been pushed home in a shopping trolley), where, because we’d decided we were paying using a cheque, we’d buy *all the stuff* we loved – our favourite used to be chicken wings and dips – and then we’d head back to E’s flat, or my house to enjoy our feast before going out for the evening. It felt good – we felt like we were winning. It was nice to have delicious stuff instead of sensible stuff. It made me feel grown up, carefree, and (somewhat ironically) like I was in control. It was nice to buy nice things, the things that everyone else seemed to have.
It all sounds very cavalier, and it was. We got into debt partly because we just didn’t have enough to live on, partly because we chose to get into debt so we could have fun, and partly because we were young, with our whole lives ahead of us and we were confident that we would clear it all within a few years of leaving University – we had bright futures, it was inconceivable that this debt would be forever.
Thirty years on, and for me things have changed. I hate debt. I sent 25 years with E gradually coming to terms with the fact that his attitude to debt wasn’t just a student thing, it was his take on life. Don’t get me wrong – I agreed with many of Es decisions re money. We had nothing when we started out together, we didn’t have cash deposits or savings (in fact we had to borrow the deposit for our first flat from my Dad), so we chose to take risks, we chose to take on a certain amount of debt, in order to see benefits in the future, we chose to speculate to accumulate. We were also both working in industries and moving in circles where people had a lot of money, we could see what there was to achieve and we both worked hard to try and achieve it for ourselves.
At some point, though, there was a parting of the ways. I began to find the debt invasive and scary. I think, if he was honest, E did too, but (ever the ostrich) I think he chose to ignore it. We had several financial crises over the years, but each time we were able to re-mortgage and start again. As the years went on, I began to be ever more conscious of our ages and the fact that, unlike in the early days, we couldn’t fix our hopes on pay rises, better jobs and thirty more years to clear debts. We had to sort things and we had to sort them urgently.
Singapore created a mountain of debt – E didn’t pay his taxes to the tune of around £30,000, and, because we weren’t being paid enough (we moved there for his company), we both ran up credit card debts, just to live. Again, being us, we were never short of a bottle of wine, but it left a heavy legacy of debt that would take us until E got the legal settlement from his company at the end of 2016 to clear.
E left at the beginning of 2017, and since then – until October 2018 – I had manged pretty well. I’d had to accept a small amount of debt, but I was in control of the finances for the first time in my life, and, for the first time in my life, they were ok.
Obviously, E’s withholding money from me for nearly six months (so far to the tune of over £10,000) has created massive problems for me, and this month has been the month where I’ve reached crisis point. Until now, I’ve managed, and with the help and support of my family and friends, I’ve kept up with the mortgage and bill payments and have managed to keep paying the food bills.
I was optimistic that the CMS would start taking payments from E (including some of the £4,500 arrears that he owes me) this month,, but a phone call to them on Wednesday made me realise that it could still take them weeks to start paying me any money. Apparently, they have to first try collecting from E, then paying to me, but if he doesn’t pay them, then, and only then, will they ‘consider’ collecting directly from his salary. Not only that but they ‘have’ to give him a certain amount of time to send them his bank account details before they can even start considering if he’s complying with their wishes.
Faced with this, faced with the impossibility of paying the mortgage, paying the bills, buying food, faced with the weight of everything pressing down on me, do you know what I did?
I did something that E would be proud of. I thought ‘fuck it’ and I went to the supermarket, with my credit card, and I bought everything I couldn’t afford. I got Easter Eggs for the kids, salad, fruit, fruit juice, fresh chicken, houmous, pots of herbs, the shampoo that makes my hair feel nice, and my favourite wine. My trolley looked like a stereotypical Waitrose Shopper’s dream. It cost £100. Just like those days when E and I used to get everything we wanted at Tesco – for a while it made me smile, for a while it made me happy. When I got home, it made me cry.
It also gave me a teensy moment of insight into E’s current life. I realised that, even though he is probably up to his eyes in debt, he’ll still find a credit card somewhere to fund nice things for he and P. It made me wonder how much a Florida wedding, a flat in Canary Wharf and a trip to Singapore cost and how much of that cost E has put onto credit cards and loans (or how much of the 2016 cash he spent on them, whilst leaving the cards and loans he’d told me he’d pay off, unpaid), I wondered just how much financial trouble E is actually in. I felt a glimmer of pity for him.
The thing is, I had a moment of madness, but I’ve learned. Debt is not a way of life for me anymore (for the moment, it’s a nasty reality, but once I’ve sold the house it will not be an issue). By contrast, E’s whole life has been based on spending money that he doesn’t have. I can’t see how that will ever change. He’s still the 20-year-old kid that I met back in 1990, forever chancing his debit card and hoping for the best. The difference is he’s now 49, the financial tide is coming in and I’m not sure he can swim.