Today, I ran out of money.
This is sadly not an unusual thing for me. In fact, despite my best efforts to budget, I tend to run out of money at least once a month. I have nine days until my next pay cheque, so I will now try and live a moneyless existence until then. This isn’t quite as bad as it might sound – I get free lunches at work, and can happily live off ASDA smartprice soup for years. I won’t be going out, or buy smokes for a week (probably a good thing). If I run out of liquid for my e-cigarette, tough. If my bike tyre punctures, tough. If I have a bad bout of CFS and feel in too much pain to cycle home, then tough, I won’t take a taxi. Tough.
I am acutely aware that I am in a privileged position of having a job and a salary. Many people my age don’t. I also have a salary that is high enough to cover my rent, my bills, pay off my various debts, and leaves me with a meagre amount of money to live off every month. When I say “meagre” what I mean is around £100 per month, which, let’s face it, is much much more than some people have to live off. I live frugally. I don’t eat much, and go out comparatively rarely. Most of the things I spend money on are to do with the upkeep of my house, and even when costs are shared I still have very little. If I wasn’t trying to put aside money every month into a PhD fund, I’d be living a less hand to mouth existence. But then, if I wasn’t putting aside PhD money, what would be the point of having a job?
The obvious answer to that is the frankly colossal amount of debt I am in. I owe, at last count, £17,000 to my bank, and various people. That’s on top of £25,000 in student loans (though thankfully with the latter is something I pay off when I am earning money, though the former will be sought regardless of my income). In other words, I owe £42,000 to various people, and in return, have one BA and one MPhil. I want to do a PhD, which will set my back another £13,500 (in fees alone, not including living costs), meaning that by the time I finish my PhD and am finally in a position to seek the job I want in academia, I will have £55,000 of debt before I’ve even begun the first real chapter of my working life.
The whole concept of debt is a weird ghost story. In the sense that none of the money I owe is real in any significant sense. Materially speaking, I have £1.28 in my wallet. That is all of the physical money I have in the world. Every month on the 26th, I get a little blue sealed envelope which informs me that £1500 is now mine. On the 3rd of every month, I transfer £1000 to my landlady. Every 30th of the month, I put £450 into an ISA. I have never seen any of this money. It has no corporeal form. It’s just numbers and promises. I went to an ATM and found that I had run out of numbers and promises – the £0.07 stared at me from the screen, informing me that the valuable ghosts that had once haunted my bank account had now departed, and the very real forces of the Co-Operative Bank were now tapping their watches impatiently, and wondering when I might find a few more spectres to head off the debt collectors. Ultimately, none of it is real. When I sit up late at night, agonising over how I am ever going to afford to live, I try to imagine the debt I am in in some physical form or another – as if someone might walk in and open a sealed steely suitcase, revealing neatly packed stacks of £50 notes. The largest amount of money I have ever seen in my life was one time I took £400 out of the bank to change it into Norwegian Krone. It was a rather less exciting sight: a wodge of rather crumpled £20s. Some of them has passed through many hands, resulting in the Queen’s face being smudged and distorted like she was on some sort of terrible trip on a vague approximation of meth. I’m sure one of the notes had been used to mop up barbecue sauce. Money, when stripped of its illusion of power, is really quite dull.
Yet once you get rid of those physical notes, those metal discs, those promises to “pay the bearer the sum of…” money becomes frightening again, because it becomes debt. The debt I currently have follows me around. It saunters to work with me, reclines on my sofa in the evenings, even has the temerity to perch itself on the edge of the bath while I shower. Periodically, it gives me a little tap on the shoulder, usually when I am buying a coffee or browsing Etsy or happen to be killing time in Waterstones and find an interesting book. I’m still here, you know, that tap seems to say. And I while I am getting a little bit smaller, in a few years time I’m going to swell up beyond proportions and then you’ve going to have a hand of mine on your shoulder all the time. One day, that hand might be the one pointing the debt collectors at your door.
The ghost of debt haunts my generation. I suppose all generations have debts, but I am reminded as I felt the presence of my own debt tutting at my empty bank account, of the fact that my parents’ generation had it better. My father, a staunch Tory, often boasted to me about how he went to University, did his Masters and PhD and never paid a penny for it. His Saturday job working in a Shell garage was literally for beer money. Twenty five years later, his son spent large parts of his first year stealing food from bins (that or starve, despite Cambridge’s promises of financial support, which failed to materialise), and his now older, disabled son is contemplating taking on a second or third job just to make it by. I haven’t spoken to my father recently, but I imagine he’s delighted by the shock Tory majority – my ghostly debts are also rather happy. With the prospect of greater cuts and privatisation, the ghost looks forward to gorging itself as what little money I have simply isn’t enough to stop its resistible rise.
And I carry on, into the remains of my 20s, followed dutifully by an ever growing ghost, gorging on other people’s money.
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