In this economy, we can't afford not to talk about money

Whenever I’d get money I wasn’t expecting I would call it ‘spendo’.

I don’t know where it started but, like all bad habits, I presume I got it off someone in my office.

In 2019, I got a tax rebate, naturally chanted ‘SPENDOOOOO!’, and my dad, having seen this cycle play out, put his hand on my wrist, looked me deep into my eyes and said ‘savo’. 

This was probably the deepest chat he and I had ever had about money. Like many Brits, I hardly ever spoke about finances, finding it incredibly shameful and just wanting the topic to go away.

Once, to avoid the topic, I suggested a pay decrease for a promotion. At this rate, I’ll never make ‘girl boss’. 

Culturally, money can feel taboo. And it is relative; the other day I was speaking to an American at a party who said she was travelling Europe for two years. I asked how much she was taking, meaning luggage and crucially, clothes, she replied ‘$6,000’. 

Growing up, my family never spoke about money.

Then, in 2004, my dad was taken into hospital after refusing his insulin. We later learned he was in debt, and lots of it. 

On the surface, it can be hard to understand how this happened. Up and down the country, people just like my dad, with steady incomes and moderate lifestyles, ended up way over their heads. People who didn’t have opulent habits but did have credit cards. By the 90s, it was easier to get credit than keep your Tamagotchi alive.  

Cards would near enough drop through your letterbox pre-loaded with credit from of-the-era banks.

Now, the source of money troubles is more likely to be soaring costs, inflation, real-terms pay decreases and the Conservatives’ mini-budget or budget foreplay, or whatever that was in September.

Whatever the reason, it doesn’t have to be tens of thousands of pounds, any money is too much money if you can’t afford to pay it. And then it grows – miss a couple of payments and thanks to compound interest you can be out of your depth. And not just financially. 

In 2018, a money and mental health policy institute report showed that in the UK each year, 420,000 people in debt consider taking their own lives and more than 100,000 people in debt attempt to do so.

As well as tackling fundamental economic problems, something must be done about our shame around and understanding of money – both can be killers.  

Right now, we can’t afford not to think about money

Because I was taught that it wasn’t nice to talk about money, I would try not to think about it. My exclamation of ‘Spendo!’ was a good way of dismissing an unexpected windfall.

Even though I grew up in the Naughties, superficially the era of ostentatious wealth, conspicuous consumption and bling, I wasn’t trying to get rich or die trying, I’m more of a get not broke and don’t cry trying type of girl.  

In the current climate, getting informed isn’t about boosting your savings and diversifying your passive income streams, it’s about keeping your head above water. 

Martin ‘Money Saving Expert’ Lewis is doing amazing work in this area, cutting your costs and fighting your corner. Whenever I get asked my three dream dinner party guests, he’s always one of them and not just because he’ll get a great deal on a job lot of wine.

I just hope he, Albert Camus and Paris Hilton hit it off. I’ve followed his advice on managing my overdrafts, switching banks to get the best deals and the easiest way to quit subscriptions, just for a few prime examples. (BTW three people and me get £50 if you switch to my bank, DM me).

Financial illiteracy is rife in the UK and as someone lucky enough to have received tertiary education, never once at any stage of my studies did someone explain debt to me, credit score or even student loans. Although, given that I found money so uncomfortable, much like the first year of my loan I probably would have had 0% interest. 

But right now, we can’t afford not to think about money. Sites like Money Saving Expert are lifelines, not only for their crucial lobbying but for their frank advice such as keeping warm. For people facing the very real question of heating or eating, sometimes this is their last port of call for tangible guidance. 

And beyond the budget, Mind and other charities understand the vicious cycle of struggling with your finances and struggling with your health. There are people you can talk to about your situation before it gets to a crisis point, as it did for my family years ago, and as I fear it might have for me. 

As I’ve tried to work on my relationship with money, I’ve found it’s better if I can at least admit that and talk about it with professionals or loved ones, or I guess now the general public.

The time ahead looks very difficult. I hope people get the help they need. And, in the meantime, I hope opening up and getting informed might help keep you afloat. 

I am glad Dad got the help he needed, and that he found a way to talk about money, even if it was just by saying ‘savo’. 

He’s doing OK now. I hope you are too. 

Chelsea Birkby: No More Mr Nice Chelsea is at Soho Theatre, London on Monday 9th January, tickets via:

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