If you’re offended by people talking about money, you might want to look away now because I’m about to get into it. The idea that some topics aren’t “polite” so you should pretend that everything’s great while lugging around your secret shame is so British, and so alienating and stupid. But while I am sharing some stuff, I’m not looking for advice (ever) or handouts
I once had NLP which I hated because it’s basically paying someone to tell you everything you’re doing is wrong and just change the way you think, dummy. The practitioner was from Lancashire and the best thing about our appointments was that when I said something negative, she’d add in her thick accent, “At the mor-ment.” So: I don’t have much money… at the mor-ment.
I know, no one does — the economy stinks, Cameron wants everyone (except him and his pals) to live in a state of permanent austerity and who can afford to eat out every week anymore? But I seriously don’t have much money: no regular income, no money for clothes or shoes or holidays, no way I could move out of my mum’s and cover rent and utilities even if I did feel well enough to try.
While I am, y’know, a proper professional journalist, my health holds me back in a lot of ways. Unlike freelancers who do activities then write about them, or have meetings with clients then do copywriting for them, I need to do stuff that’s solely based at home, am limited in how many articles I can take on, need a rest most afternoons, and take anywhere from a couple of days to a couple of weeks off after a big deadline. Given that journalism involves putting yourself out there again and again without losing momentum, and given that I simply have less time and less energy than someone without a disabling illness, I’m not rolling in it. I’m not even tip-toeing in it.
But I am getting some work, and building some momentum, and was feeling more positive about my career than I had in a while when I got a letter from my bank in June saying that if I didn’t pay in £500 every month my account would be downgraded and I wouldn’t be able to receive text alerts about my balance, aka: the last thing I’d ever want. I was undaunted.
Then a month later, I got a letter saying that if I didn’t pay in £420 a month, the bank would remove my overdraft facility. Now I was daunted. I realise that’s less than half of most people’s salaries, but it’s a lot of money to me, less than I’m bringing in on a consistent basis. Some months I make more than that, other months… no. (Many months.)
I started to panic. I couldn’t stop crying and shaking and the thought of having to phone the bank to explain that I can’t pay in that amount because I have nowhere to get it from filled me with terror. That’s it, I told myself. I have to give up on the idea that I’ll ever get better, cut out stuff like yoga and rest that might actually help my health, and just devote all my time to trying to get work. I need work. I need all the work! Then I’d collapse into tears again.
A couple of days later, I tried writing to my bank to explain that I didn’t have the money and asking if they would give me a year to get my act together. I explained that I’m ill so haven’t been able to work as much as I’d like but that I’ve been bringing in more commissions in the last few months, and if they could give me a year, I probably would be earning that much. I printed out a copy of the spreadsheet I keep for tax returns (still have to do them even when you don’t pay ‘em). I poured my heart out about how hard it is to cope financially and emotionally when you have a long-term illness, how I’ve had to rely on benefits and my parents in the past, but am trying to become independent. I told them I joined the bank 23 years earlier and had been a loyal and reliable customer ever since, never going over my overdraft limit despite swathes of time when I had no money coming in at all. I told them I’m earning more now than I have in about five years, and it didn’t seem fair to penalise me. I said I know I’m not entitled to an overdraft but that I need one right now. PLEASE.
The reply I got to all of this was an impersonal note asking me to phone them. So, after procrastinating for about 28 hours, I finally did. And boy, was it a doozy.
When I look back on that call now, it’s like I dreamed it, except the sensations of regret and humiliation are all too real. The (unfortunate) woman who answered asked me —perfectly kindly— if I was having trouble meeting my financial commitments, and I was off. “That’s. The Thing.” I said, teeth gritted, everything tensed. “I’m. Not. I’m managing FINE, except now I have this letter saying that I have to pay in £420 a month for no apparent reason, or you’re going to take away my overdraft.” And that’s as calm as I got for the next forty minutes, as this (unfortunate) woman and I went back and forth, me becoming tearful, raging, and filled with panic, her becoming increasingly snappy and exasperated.
She told me that it’s “just a new policy” that people have to have 40% of their overdraft limit coming in in order to keep the overdraft, and that it’s a way to ensure customers don’t get in over their heads. (You know how making life more difficult for people makes it so much better?) I pointed out that the institution she was defending had made £9.2 billion in profit in the last six months and that my not meeting this arbitrary goal wouldn’t affect them in any way. I talked (oh lord) about all the places I’ve been published, and begged to be given a year’s leeway. She told me she couldn’t do that, that if I wasn’t earning enough, I wasn’t entitled to the overdraft, that when I signed up I was told they could take it away at any time.
I cried that by threatening me with that, she was condemning me to bankruptcy, which seems especially harsh considering I’m still within my overdraft and always have been. She said she wasn’t threatening me, just trying to give an overview of the situation and… I don’t know what else, because the rest of the conversation is accessible only to me in occasional flashbacks of shame, when I have to stop whatever I’m doing in order to shudder.
Finally, after what can only be described as hysteria on my part, she told me that they understand that not everyone can pay in £420 a month, at least not straight away, and that they really just wanted me to commit to paying in something. I said my earnings (and the willingness of publishers to pay) can be erratic so I didn’t know what I could commit to, and she was like, “How about £50?” And I was like, Oh.
Suddenly, way too belatedly, I realised that if that was all they wanted from me, there wasn’t a problem. I could do £50. And when I started to pick my way back through the conversation, I saw that about oh, 90% of it was completely unnecessary. Yes, it’s unfair that I got ill and that I don’t have a proper job and that global corporations don’t care about what’s best for individual customers because they just want to make money. But that’s how it is. And it doesn’t necessitate a meltdown, a panic attack, or an overwrought phone call.
Instead, I could have said: This is my situation, can we work out a solution? And everyone would have remained polite. I have all these feelings around being hard done by and never getting better and ending up on the street and banks being monstrous, so I was crying and worrying about being made bankrupt and not wanting to move into a homeless shelter because they don’t have Wi-Fi, when all that was happening was… essentially nothing.
For a few seconds, I saw what life might be like for people who just deal with what’s actually happening, instead of what they think is happening, and it was a revelation. The bank didn’t care about my sad stories, and that’s OK. That’s not their job. I’m the one who has to deal with all that. But maybe in future I could remember that I’ve always survived and kept going, instead of creating a drama out of thin air. At least when my call may be recorded for training purposes.