Tuesday, 3 September 2013

On Finances and Identity

Some thre years ago or thereabouts - how time flies - I was part of a team that created this website:



Of course, the prices are somewhat out of date now - what isn't though, is the concept of being able to feed the multitudes a healthy diet on not very much money, as long as you were in possession on some wits, some skills, and a lot of enthusiasm.

Because that's what, to me, true poverty is - lack of skills, lack of community support, lack of imagination and lack of hope.  I have been skint many times - but I have never, ever felt poor.

Which is why I believe that it's down to us - each and every one of us who can - individuals, communities, and the society as a whole - to teach those who can't.  I am pleased and proud to be living in a society that, in some ways, looks after its weakest members - in the form of providing financial assistance to the people who are not lucky enough to be able to earn their own keep at a particular point in time - but I do not believe that this is where we should leave it.  Pouring scorn on the people who do not have the skills to make the most of the benefits bestowed on them speaks little of the people the scorn is directed at - but speaks volumes of those who are directing it.

This isn't only about people who are not working and in receipt of benefits, either.  This is about us all - in fact, the above website was created in order to help primarily all those people with decent incomes who have, for whatever reasons, found themselves in reduced circumstances - whether that's a paycut, a loss of wage, or that dreaded cause of most bankruptcies in the United Kingdom, overcommitment.  Because the attitude of "we are worth it" can, and often does, lead to living beyond your means.

And as Charles Dickens said through the mouth of Mr Micawber:

"Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure nineteen [pounds] nineteen [shillings] and six [pence], result happiness. Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure twenty pounds ought and six, result misery."

Simple enough, right ?

Except it does not seem to be. 

Three years ago, whilst we were working on the Cheap Family Recipes website, Weezl, the creative brain and the web designer behind the site, told us about a crisis of identity that she and her husband were going through because of their conscious decision to live below their means. In fact, they took this decision so far that for a number of months Weezl was feeding herself and hubby on 50 pence a day - healthily, of course.

Now, why would anyone want to do that ?  Why would anyone want to deprive themselves of the things they could afford ?  After all, they worked hard - surely they could go out and spend on playing hard.  It's OK for poor people to be scrimping and saving and picking nettles to make soup - but not for two young professionals bringing in a decent income, now is it ?

Well, they thought otherwise.  They looked at the money they'd be paying to the bank as interest on a mortgage for their dream home; they looked on how many years they would have to work to earn that money;  they looked on their desire to start a family and assessed their priorities, and decided that time spent with their loved ones was, to them, of greater importance than the time spent at work, earning money.

They were after financial freedom - freedom to stay at home with their young kids; freedom to work part-time if they so wished; freedom to volunteer and contribute to the community rather than giving all they had to the daily grind of commuting, and working, and earning.

It can be hard, though, this swimming against the current.  One day, Weezl came online and told us of a conversation she had with her husband:

"Mr Weezl and I had a really interesting conversation the other day about the way that people define themselves and create an identity through spending.

We talked about the different identities our friends have created in this way, and how attractive a lot of those choices seem to us.

We also talked about how 'not spending' is probably perceived as an identity too, and yet it is something we sometimes both feel a little bit lost because of.

DH is a dentist (currently doing a PhD) so frequently meets up with peers from uni who are defining themselves with boats and cars and skiing.

Mostly he feels fine, but sometimes he wonders who he is.

Not really making any point here... just musing "

And this really struck a chord with me. Not even because I identified - but because I used to work in debt collection, and dealt daily with the people who did, and got into trouble because of it.  Besides, there is more than one way to suffer a crisis of identity - yet this is a really common one, and one that can show its debilitating results literally overnight.

How many people would feel they've lost their identity if suddenly their bank took away their overdraft ?  If mortgage rates were to rise ?  If their bills doubled unexpectedly ?  If their job was gone ?  How many of us, in short, know who we really are, not defined by what we do, what we spend or don't spend, what we do for a living ?

And I have always been really uncomfortable with the idea of defining one's identity through something as transient as the distribution of money. It's a point that has already been made - that if you define yourself through your spending on boats and cars - or clothes and shoes, for that matter - then if your income is suddenly reduced and the spending has to be redefined, then you don't just have the material hardship to contend with, but also a serious crisis of identity.

Or worse even -  people like who made a conscious decision to quit spending end up losing their sense of identity as a result.

Now, we all know that some people do define their identities through spending.... But I really do believe, rightly or wrongly, that these people can be divided into two camps - one who is so uncertain of their identity that they hide behind a consumerist construct, so they really define themselves by no more than their spending, and those are the ones that will most struggle when this construct is stripped away by circumstances. Or even if it isn't, because the fact that this is not a true representation of their identity will mean that they will seek to spend more and more in search of satisfaction and contentment that will never come.

The other camp is the people who use this consumerist construct as a convenient shorthand for what their true identity is. So while they might say - and think - that they are people who spend on cars and boats, people who spend on fine dining at Gordon's, people who shop in Waitrose, people who shop for clothes and shoes - in truth they are people who boat and drive fast cars, or people who like good food, people who like pretty things. These are people who will be able to see a slash of their income as an opportunity rather than an identity crisis - people who will find another way to sail and drive, more appropriate to their new circumstances; people who will host OS dinner parties at home or go looking for treasures in charity shops. Because, you see, I believe that for anyone who does know who they really are... It can never really be about money; money is always just means to an end, no more and no less.

Trying to illustrate the point further - I believe that I truly do not feel that my identity has ever been entangled with my spending habits to any extent. True, I will use the label "I am a frugalista" or some such as that convenient shorthand when contributing to a moneysaving forum - but is that who I really am ? By no means.

But who am I ? I did, for many years, define myself through a construct. My identity, I firmly believed, was that of a writer. I wrote all my life - I earn money writing since I was 15 - and that was who I was. Yet when my circumstances changed and I was no longer able to write professionally - inability to meet deadlines pretty much puts a stop to that nonsense - I did not lose myself altogether. I just realised that what I thought was my identity - a writer - was just one facet of it, just one viewpoint of the whole - and that what poured in to fill the gap left by words - the kitchen, the garden - was another aspect of the same. 

So I then thought of myself as someone who creates something new and usable out of very little - new worlds out of a collection of characters as represented by the letters of the alphabet; fruit and vegetables out of seeds; meals and treats out of the fruit and veg.

But even that wasn't quite right. Did I really create ? Or did I just find what was already there, in potentia ? I believe the latter. Because the former not only gives credit where it's not due, leaving aside for now delusions of grandeur, but also leaves out another important part of who I am, a part that always informed whatever I did - and that was the part that liked to help people. I help people in my paid job, and I love it. And the biggest role in my life, and the one that parted me from my identity of a writer - the role of a parent - that is the one that can under no circumstances be stored under the label of a creator. I am not my children's creator - I am their custodian, and their facilitator on their journey to adulthood, independence, and identity of their own.

And that is how I finally found out that this is who I am, my true identity - as a custodian and a facilitator. And once you have that sorted, the rest is smooth sailing no matter how bumpy the road. And no matter how many metaphors you mix.

My thanks to the reader Paula for reminding me of this, because three years have passed, and life has moved on, and there were many non-finance related occasions when I lost sight of who I was....

But more on that on another occasion.  In the meantime, take a good look at your finances, and ask yourself - are they a true representation of who you really are ?  And should they be ? 

And if they're not..... What can you do to change it ? 



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  2. Hello, third time lucky as tablet didn't want to play!...As stated before Allegra, a thought-provoking and insightful post. Thank you for writing such interesting and inspiring material. I only hope that one day my blog will rival yours for such note-worthy posts. Thank you again.

    1. You are very kind ! :) Could you give us a linkie to your blog, please ? I'd live to read it and your profile does not lead to it.

    2. Hi Allegra, I fear you will be very disappointed if you read my blog, I only did it for one month before life took over and it got abandoned and it's really just me waffling on about wanting to lose weight!
      However, you have made me want to resurrect it and I'm currently in the process of writing a mammoth catch-up post since life has taken quite a U-turn since the beginning of the year so if you are still interested then the link is http://broadbean2runnerbean.blogspot.co.uk/.
      Good luck!