What I’ve learned from doing this Tenner Week

tennerLast week I completed another ‘live on £10 a week’ challenge, and, as always I’ve come away from it with some new experiences and insights. Challenge really is the right word for it – it does force you to pit your wits and resources against something that isn’t entirely easy, but eventually you come out the other side with all sorts of useful ideas to go forward with.

This time around, it has thrown up several different themes for me. These include routines that work in the short-term but not in the long term, health and self care, friendships and social embarrassment, time management, planning for the future, the way our society currently treats those on low incomes and benefits, and much more.

I’m not going to say “hey, let’s look at the learns” because frankly that’s only for total twunts, but here goes anyway…

Good food and health

The first thing in my mind during a Tenner Week is a slight anxiety about eating healthily. I know that it can be done, but I’m also aware that it’s going to involve extra effort and usually some compromise. Then, once my menu is planned, I start to feel much happier – and I look forward to my evening meal even more than usual.

I often joke that we eat better in this house when I cut the budget right back, but this time around I have realised that yes, as well as being funny, it’s definitely true. We don’t just potter along making vaguely OK choices, we actively choose to look after ourselves properly. Our everyday non-budget diet is much healthier than average, but we just sort of dropped into a routine before. This time around I’m going to try to build on the previous success, and keep up the fruit and veg, and the water, and all that.

The same goes for general health and fitness. I make an effort for Tenner Week, and then start prioritising other stuff once I have more to spend, but the truth is that it’s very easy to make your daily routine healthier with regular activity and not spend any money at all. So I’ve scheduled more activity in, using manageable time slots that are short and easy to stick to. I’m using an app called Lift that keeps you accountable, and I’m only doing stuff that I really like rather than stuff I think I should be doing.

Do you have any tips for sticking to an exercise regime? Other than fun, and accountability? I’d like to hear them.

Social anxiety when you’re broke

Tenner Week can cause a certain amount of anxiety because chances are you’ll have to say no to some social event or other. I was invited to a couple of things last week that I couldn’t attend because both events had entry fees. Well, I have to admit it, it caused me to feel a fair bit of social embarrassment and a little stress. My only option was to be open and honest and say why I couldn’t go – and this time around people responded with openness and decency too.

The reason I get a bit stressed is really down to a bad memory or two. In particular, when I started freelancing, my cash flow changed a lot, and I had to change my spending habits accordingly. Someone who I thought was a great friend got very sniffy about it and took it personally. I thought they were perhaps being insecure, so I tried to explain what was happening with my finances, and that it wasn’t about them, that I still wanted to see them but that I’d prefer to do something cheaper instead.

To cut a long story short it was the beginning of the end of the friendship, and I ended up kicking myself for not realising sooner that this person was not actually the great friend I’d thought they were. In the present day, when I have to tell someone I can’t afford to do something, this memory rears its ugly head – but from now on I’m going to tell myself that A) it’s an event from the distant past that isn’t actually happening right now, and B) if something like that does happen again in the future, it’s probably for the best in the long run.

Bet I’m not the only person who has worried like this about saying no to things I can’t afford.

A break from the old routine

As well as living on £10 a week, Tenner Week also has an optional TV diet where you limit how much TV you watch. This strips back a lot of short-term coping mechanisms that many of us have that maybe aren’t doing that much good in the long term: shopping when we feel down or worthless, numbing ourselves with TV so we don’t have to address that work or family situation, surfing the internet because we’re bored, and so on.

It’s easy to get lost in humdrum everyday life. Tenner Week takes that safety blanket away, and gives you some time in the wilderness to think about what’s pissing you off, and what you want to get rid of. Then you get some time to decide what’s good that you want to keep, and what your hopes are for the future. It’s a process, and over time I’ve learned to completely trust in the process, because even if it starts off with discomfort, I end up somewhere good at the end of it.

And I don’t care if it looks like I’ve gone off to sulk in a cave, it works out great. I also realised last week that I’d ticked off more than 75% of my To Do list for the year, and we aren’t even half way through 2013, so I’m cutting myself some slack for the rest of June. Meanwhile I’ve had a few interesting new ideas here and there, so watch this space.

Dispelling misconceptions of poverty

Cutting your outgoings back to the bone can really make you think.

Choosing to temporarily live on a very small budget is an active choice, but being forced to live on a very low income is a completely different matter. The home I grew up in was an impoverished one, and although it wasn’t openly talked about, I learned very quickly not to waste food or break things. I also learned to not expect much, and not to make requests, and to keep my head down because people were stressed and angry most of the time.

Living in poverty is not charming or romantic in any way. It is not a lazy, carefree existence, where spongers laugh at getting one over on the grafters of this world. It is anxiety, it is stress, it is a lack of choice, it is a lack of options and opportunities. Once you are down, getting back up again is far more difficult than you might think. Being in poverty is being incredibly vulnerable, and you’re soaked in stigma and low self-esteem. Both the vulnerability and the stigma seem to be growing, and it scares me.

Last year we were cheering on our paralympians and waxing lyrical about how amazing and resilient and noble they were, this year we’re calling them benefits scroungers and cutting off the lifelines that allow them to lead dignified lives. It deeply troubles me that thousands of families are now relying on food parcels, even though I have nothing but respect for the charitable people who are running these schemes.

It feels like we’re going backwards as a society in terms of basic decency towards our fellow human beings. Yes, there are a few cheats and thieves out there, but they are far outweighed by those who are in genuine need, mostly through no fault of their own. Huge numbers of people who are entitled to benefits don’t claim them, often because of the stigma, and the amount that goes unclaimed seems to far, far outweigh the amount that is defrauded – yet the mainstream media does not reflect this.

It’s increasingly socially acceptable to be abusive and bigoted towards those who are sick and infirm, or bringing small children up in trying circumstances, or who’ve lost their jobs in unscrupulously-performed company ‘restructures’. Well, if you’re having a bit of a hard time yourself, why not make yourself feel better by dumping your bitterness on people who are trying so hard to keep their heads above water that they don’t have the time or energy to fight back? Never mind that the ‘facts’ don’t really add up, just go for a few easy, convenient sound bites, and bully and scapegoat away to your heart’s content. Maybe it’ll keep you busy enough that you won’t notice the multiple billions of unpaid tax sloshing around at the top of the tree.

It’s time to say a huge ‘no’ to this lazy, sloppy thinking, this wilful, deliberate ignorance and lack of imagination, of empathy. I’m not going to be sucked in by it, because I have first hand experience of what it’s like to be powerless at the bottom of the economic heap. Choosing to live on a low budget for a short time reminds me, for good and for bad, of the reality of what it was truly like to be flat broke. It puts me back in touch with the way I really feel about a lot of things, and increasingly it’s motivating me to speak out and act. Again, watch this space.

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