Frugality and hope

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A recent study by ACOSS (Australian Council of Social Service) found that more than 3 million Australians live below the poverty line. Throughout anti-poverty week, much discussion has focussed on young school-leavers, generational welfare dependence, lone-parent families and older people living on the pension. A group which is largely overlooked in these discussions are those referred to as ‘mature age’ job seekers. Approximately 22 per cent of Newstart recipients are aged between 40 and 49. ANNETTE HILL shared with Crosslight the reality of trying to make a ‘new start’ while living below the poverty line.

I started at my first job fresh out of secretarial college when I was 16. I was a junior secretary in a suburban law firm and I loved it. My typewriter was electric, I answered calls on a PABX switchboard and my shorthand was lightning fast. I left that job, aged 21, for the glamour of working in the city. Silly me.

Now I’m 48, and I’ve been struggling to find ongoing employment for several years. The intervening decades were pretty good to me, the usual ups and downs, but these last few years, they’ve definitely been tougher. I find myself where nobody wants to be – relying on government benefits.

On a daily basis, I have to work at stretching my benefit to cover the most important of my expenses. As a single adult receiving Newstart, I live on $688.90 per fortnight.

That puts me well below the poverty line. Not nudging it, well below it.

The first amount I set aside every fortnight is $433.50; that’s half my monthly rent. This leaves me $255.40 to cover groceries, utilities, petrol, phone, credit card, insurances, internet and every other fixed and incidental expenses I incur. There is no wriggle room.

I’ve let my contents insurance slide and was only able to renew my car insurance because I have a generous mother. If my car breaks down it’s not getting fixed. I often have to choose between paying the gas bill or the phone bill. I’ve had to let go my practice of paying my rent early. Next month I’ll be transferring funds the day the rent’s due. That makes me twitchy, but it’s the only way I can manage things. Two text messages from the utility company is my limit, so tonight I paid the balance of my overdue gas bill, which took $200 of my $255.40. It’s the second day of the fortnight and that leaves me $55 and change.

Newstart is simply not enough to survive on but, strangely, the consistency of its insufficiency takes some of the sting away. I can’t afford all the basics, so I juggle. I move the pieces around on the board, study junk mail for bargains, forage in the deep recesses of my pantry and do whatever I can to stretch every cent as far as it will go.

In the colder months, I set myself a goal not to put the heater on until 11am or, if I can stand it, 1pm or 2pm. My father’s mantra, ‘put another jumper on’, rings in my ears and I layer up or make another warming cup of tea. Some days I make it through the day without heating the house, other days it’s just too cold and on the heater goes.

Hour-by-hour, I’m saving money. Frugality has become second nature.

Hand-in-hand with frugality is the work of keeping hope alive.

Hope is a funny thing. It can feel elusive, but if you work at it I think you can keep it within reach. It can’t depend on externals, or I’d be dashed on the rocks every time I send a job application out and hear nothing but crickets. The crickets have been deafening this year; I’ve only had two or three positive responses since February.

The one thing I have in abundance is time, so I spend it on applying for jobs and maintaining my emotional wellbeing. The latter is taken care of when I spend time at my art desk, visit the library, sit in the park on a sunny day or make a batch of pikelets. Hope isn’t expensive, but it does take work.

I also have to be diligent about maintaining my mental health. I recently found myself sobbing at a routine job services provider appointment. I was so demoralised by the futility of the ‘work for the dole’ program I’d been placed in and felt unsupported and trapped.

Although I was sobbing in front of a stranger in an office full of people, I had enough in the tank to insist that my consultant find me another option. If I hadn’t been working on keeping myself hopeful and happy, things could have really gone off the rails. It was a scary experience that reminded me how fragile my current position is.

That stumble reminded me of the importance of community. Being out of work can be isolating, as most of the time I’m home alone while everyone else is busy with their working lives.

I need to connect with people.

I am a blogger and a budding artist, so I spend a lot of time online reading blogs, chatting with friends near and far, writing, creating, sharing my art and finding inspiration. My online community has been so significant in keeping my spirits up. I find it hard to articulate the positive impact they have on me.

I’m also volunteering at an op-shop, which gives me the opportunity to connect with new people as well as learn new things and be useful.

The power of generosity has had a major impact on my wellbeing. I have received such kindness from people, it floors me. Right now I have three gift cards on my fridge, so the next time I need petrol or to top up on groceries, I’m covered – phew! I have enough eggs and lemons to start a quiche and lemonade empire, and I just received a wonderful care package from a bloggy pal in Queensland.

I am able to face the harsh realities of unemployment without going to pieces because I take care of myself. I’m blessed to have generous friends and family around me and, even when it feels like it will never end, I know that this too shall pass. It’s just taking longer than I’d like to get my new start.

On this week’s Friday Forum: should there be an alternative to Newstart for people seeking employment?

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4 Responses to “Frugality and hope”

  1. “Hope isn’t expensive, but it does take work.”

    Wise words Annette and I admire the way you are tending to your hope through this immensely challenging time.

    It’s clear to me that you have much to offer, including a talent for writing. I’m appalled by the inadequacy of Newstart, which forces you and others to make seriously unhelpful trade-offs. And equally appalled at the ignorance of those who think the unemployed live a life of leisure.

    May your ‘new start’ find you soon!

  2. Denyse

    You are to be commended for your resilience in a world where it is hard to read the truth of this poverty trap. My goodness, I had no idea of the extent of the number in which so many are facing what you are now too. I can only praise you for bringing this news to more than your world (as we already know via your blogging!) and hope that powers-that-decide may have a kinder and practical view about this growing social disaster in Australia today. Thank you for sharing the story I know you would rather not be needing to share. Best wishes for future paid roles in employment and that you continue to be valued for the volunteer role you already fill.

  3. Thank you my friends.
    You are the ones I mentioned in this piece, you lift me up when some days I just want to fall in a heap.
    Someone else close to you, in your family, your circle of friends, your neighbourhood, is just like me, they may present a brave face, but they are struggling.
    Look out for them would you, please? Share with them, whether that’s kind words, practical help, compassion – you’ve all got an abundance of these things.
    Share them, as I know you already do.
    Community really is everything.

  4. Really great article. Your outlook is amazing, it takes real resilience to maintain your world view after months of struggle. We could all learn from your resolve and commitment to positivity.