By Lacey Filipich BEng(Hons) MAICD
Like nearly one million other Australians, I sat transfixed in front of the television on Wednesday 6 May watching the first episode of the three-part SBS documentary ‘Struggle Street’. Leaving aside claims that it was not a fair representation of life in Mt Druitt and was simply headline-grabbing ‘poverty porn’, it was a glimpse into the lives of some people doing it tough. Very tough.
Despite all the press to the contrary, this documentary can do good. It is very tangible reminder of the one in seven Australians living below the poverty line. Looking at the ACOSS report, they’re easy to write off as numbers. After watching this documentary, they have faces and stories. Are there really millions of Australians so consumed with the daily battle of survival? I wish it weren’t so, but perhaps it is.
Since watching the final episode, I’ve been left with an uncomfortable feeling in the pit of my stomach.
My daily struggles are about whether I let my daughter watch too much television and how to squeeze more veggies into dinner without anyone noticing. Pretty paltry in comparison, really.
But how did I end up with a fabulous quality of life, where people like those in the doco missed out? So many hypotheses…
Security and Common Sense
My childhood wasn’t affluent. As a family of three (Mum, me and younger sister) we survived on my mother’s full-time income, which was initially around $30K per annum. My father didn’t pay much in the way of child support and Centrelink was less generous to single families back then. We wore our clothes for as long as they lasted, kept our car until it drowned in the 1993 floods then kept the replacement until I learned to drive it, and took modest holidays within driving distance. A fancy night out was dinner at the local Chinese restaurant.
Despite this, my overwhelming sense throughout childhood was not of wanting things I couldn’t have. It was of feeling safe, loved and like Mum had everything under control. No doubt there were times when she didn’t feel that way, but she never let on to my sister or me. My mum could make a dollar stretch to do what five dollars did for other families – she was simply a very smart money manager. And so, we grew up with that essential part of a happy childhood: security.
No-one shown in ‘Struggle Street’ enjoyed that same level of security.
Whether they grew up that way I don’t know, but it was painfully evident that these were people who were unsure of whether they could afford their rent, get a job or pay for enough food for their families. Rest assured, their kids know it.
Some of this is simply due to insufficient cash. Those without jobs, homes or a decent support payment from Centrelink are clearly in that group of one in seven Aussies living below the poverty line.
What stood out to me was also the prevailing lack of common sense about money management.
These people have not been taught basic money skills. They have learned some skills through necessity, but definitely not the minimum to provide any sense of security. Some of their financial decisions left me gobsmacked.
As a nation, we cannot afford to have our citizens ignorant of these basics. It’s just too costly – financially, and ethically.
While I agree there are systemic issues that governments and communities need to solve, those solutions will likely be a long time coming and will have to undo lifetimes of bad habits.
I’m of the ‘you need to look after yourself’ mentality. After all, some of these people won’t survive to see the necessary systemic changes implemented, if indeed they ever are. Their only chance of improving their quality of life is – rightly or wrongly – to do it themselves.
And so I have compiled below some simple money management tips. You can’t be blamed for not knowing what you don’t know, and if you didn’t have a role model who could pass on sensible money management techniques you probably wouldn’t learn them at school or watching your friends. So I’m assuming nothing – perhaps what many take as self-evident has simply not been explained before. Here goes…
Never buy food at service stations
In fact, never buy ANYTHING at service stations except fuel.
In an impressively enterprising move, two of the blokes on the documentary collected scrap metal dumped on the side of the road and received $29 in cash for their troubles. They blew the lot on takeaway coffees, salad and sandwiches in the servo that paid them.
Everything except the fuel at service stations is at a high margin. You are paying more than you need to. $29 spent on takeaway coffees and sandwiches in a servo could buy enough in the local grocery store to feed a family of 10. Don’t believe me? Try this: 1kg rice, 2kg budget beef mince, 2 cans kidney beans, 2 sachets of taco seasoning and some fresh veg makes a decent meal – and maybe even enough left over for some milk for their home-prepared tea and coffee.
When you’re skint, you have no choice but to get the biggest bang-for-you-buck food you can. Servos are not the place to do that.
Eat the healthiest food you can afford
Every home shown had that classic ‘I’m broke’ staple on the counter: cheap sliced white bread. They all had fast-food wrappers and packets too.
These are not good bang-for-your-buck food choices when you’re struggling.
Poor health is expensive, financially and emotionally. You cannot afford not to make the healthiest decisions you can, otherwise you’ll end up having costly health problems that will just exacerbate a poor financial situation.
Buying seasonal fruit and veg from local farmers markets is a good move if you can. Buying bulk dried goods like rice, lentils and beans is a great cost-saver and such items can bulk out a meal significantly with important fibre and carbohydrates. If you’ve got a decent freezer, bulk meat is also a great idea. And any meal can be jazzed up with some seasoning – a sachet of taco spices is my go-to (you may have guessed that already).
Resist consumer goods
There were people on that show with better cars, newer phones and flashier shoes than I own.
I can already hear the rebuttal:
‘I got that phone for $50 at Cash Converters. It’s worth $500 mate, it was a bargain.’
But you still spent $50 on it. That’s two meals for the 10-child family. If you had a working phone and you were simply upgrading, it was not a good choice.
Or: ‘What? I don’t have a right to own nice stuff too? Just because I’m poor?’
This will seem harsh, but… no. You do not have a ‘right’. It’s a privilege, and if you can’t feed/house/clothe yourself and your family, you’re not in a position to afford optional consumer goods. It’s got nothing to do with your identity or how much respect you are due. It’s all about prioritisation – you must prioritise basic human needs above consumer goods. That goes for every single human being on the planet.
Every spending decision you make has a cost. Ask yourself: what am I giving up if I buy these? If you are well and truly broke, you’re probably giving up rent, food or basic clothing. You can’t afford it. Sorry, but there it is. Spending money in this way now is increasing your chances of running short later.
That goes for motorbikes and bicycles that aren’t essential forms of transport too.
Owning a pet is a luxury
I know this one will cause much contention. Pets make people happier, and when you’re in dire straits and feeling isolated, a pet may be a much-needed support to help you get through. There are many more benefits – physical, psychological and spiritual – that I won’t list now, but I do know they exist.
But… if you have a healthy animal, it’s costing you money. Money that you’re not spending on your own health. If you are truly struggling financially, it is unlikely you can afford it.
So, think very, very carefully before taking on a pet. And if you do decide to have one, accept that it is your responsibility to provide for that pet over and above the welfare of your family. Take it as a challenge to earn more if you like, but don’t sacrifice your health for theirs. If you go down, they lose too – the only way for you both to be healthy is if you’re focused on your health first.
Accept that drugs and crime will keep you poor
What I really want to say is: if you’re broke, you can’t afford to smoke, drink or do drugs – not financially, and not from a health perspective.
No sh*t, Sherlock.
Focusing on the money ignores the many reasons people build these life-destroying habits in the first place. From what I can tell, it’s generally not a case of ‘Gee, I’ve got $50 spare, I’ll just pop down the corner and get some [insert drug of choice here]’. It’s far more sinister.
It seems those who can least afford it are the ones that take drugs (smoking, drinking, legal and illicit substances). Whether the dire financial situation causes the desire to take them or it’s the act of regularly taking them that sends people broke, I’m not sure. Chicken-and-egg time.
Regardless of the causes that drive people to take drugs and the effects it has on your health and cash situation, anyone taking them needs to acknowledge that taking them means accepting you’ll be poor. At the very least, you’ll be poorer than you could be.
If a pack of cigarettes costs $15 and you smoke a pack a day, that’s over $5,400 every year.
If a case of beer costs $30 and you drink two slabs a week, that’s over $3,000 every year.
That’s a decent car – including registration and insurance – you’re smoking and drinking away.
That’s just the money. There are endless negative health effects that will also end up costing you money, and cash may well be the least of your problems if you get a smoking-related cancer.
Then there are the extreme cases – those who resort to crime to fund their habits. If you go down the route of illegal drugs and eventually come to rely on stealing, you risk a conviction and perhaps jail time. This will do nothing but hurt your potential life-time earnings. You’re pushing yourself into a lower income life with very limited options to get out. It’s a one-way ticket to misery.
Taking illegal drugs is an incredibly costly mistake to make, and sadly one often taken when we’re too young to realise the full repercussions of our actions. But if you do make it, the outcome for your hip pocket will be bad. Maybe even catastrophic. If you’re happy with that risk, then be my guest. But don’t say you weren’t warned.
But I have a low income and I make it work!
Yes, you probably do.
I think of one of my best friends, a single mum with three kids and only very recently back into the workforce. I don’t know her exact income, but I’d guess she wasn’t far off the official poverty line before she started working again. She’s a shining example of making her meagre Centrelink and child support dollars stretch to the point where her kids are healthy and happy, everyone’s dressed respectably and they have a decent roof over their heads. Those kids are angels and they have every chance in life.
The difference between my friend and the Struggle Streeters is: my friend has a lot of common sense when it comes to money.
Where to next?
There’s no point blaming those folks who don’t have common sense when it comes to money.
If they had it, they’d use it. People rarely choose destitution.
We need to ask ourselves how they missed out on that basic knowledge. How did they not learn:
- To feed themselves cheaply and healthily?
- To resist instant gratification?
- To prioritise their spending so they have a roof over their heads, food in their bellies and clothes on their backs?
I can think of three possible causes:
- They didn’t have role models to teach them. Mum, Dad, sisters, brothers, aunts, uncles, friends… perhaps they don’t have anyone in their lives that’s got monetary common sense. Most of us learn about money through our families. If your family is hopeless with money, how do you learn any better?
- Money sense is not taught in school. You don’t get a class on how to manage a household budget, or what compound interest on credit cards really means. If the parents miss the boat, and the education system doesn’t cover it, what’s left?
- They don’t want to learn. Maybe they genuinely don’t see the point. Maybe they don’t think they’ll ever have enough money to really worry about being good with it. Or perhaps they think they’ll be looked after – by their spouse, their family or the government – so they don’t need to know. It’s a long shot, but certainly a possibility.
So what can we do to ‘break the cycle’? How to we ensure future generations of Australians get that knowledge so they’re not condemned to follow the same path?
We have to teach them.
If we cannot guarantee the parents have the knowledge and skills to pass on, we must help them to learn for themselves and help their kids learn too.
If the education system doesn’t have room to teach financial basics, we must find another way (this is why I founded Money School in the first place).
If you want an economic justification, you only need to link to our ever-increasing reliance on productivity to keep us financially viable as a country. How can someone be a productive citizen if they don’t know how they’ll afford their next meal? We need these people healthy and working as much as they need us.
It’s time for financial literacy to be on the public agenda. And if you don’t want to wait for the bureaucrats to make this essential change, it’s time you got yourself an education.