Tulo, an African refugee in the UK, is living in challenging circumstances. She relies on state benefits and uses a local food bank. As inflation soars, bringing higher fuel and food bills, her financial situation is likely to worsen. Yet how is it she has one of the happiest dispositions of anyone I know?
An active member of her local church community group, Tulo (not her real name) has a wide circle of friends. The emotional support she gains from her social network sustains and enriches her in a way that money, beyond a basic level of sustenance, never can. She says: “I have lots of friends [in my community group] and many of them are much worse off than me. I feel part of something special here that money can’t buy.”
Compare her outlook with that of a 35-year-old investment banker I had as a client when I was a financial planner. Let’s call him Peter. Despite earning around £1mn a year, Peter hated his job, worked long hours, had few friends and was prone to bouts of depression.
I had shown Peter that he could give up his job tomorrow and never have to work for the rest of his life if he lived a modest lifestyle. His answer was always the same: “I just need to accumulate another £1mn, then I’m done with this job.”
I remember asking Peter what things gave him joy in life. He thought carefully and replied, “I love painting. I love losing myself in the process.” When I asked him how often he painted, he replied, “I don’t have the time with my job. And anyway, I’ve not painted since my mother died when I was 20.”
Peter had suffered the loss of his mother while he was still at university. By immersing himself in a job he had come to hate, he may have felt he could address emotional problems that I suspected lay unresolved at her death. But there are few such issues that can be addressed by the accumulation of financial wealth.
Readers may regard these examples as extreme or special cases — or even irrelevant during a cost of living crunch that is plunging more people into financial distress. If you are unable to afford food or a roof over your head, dealing with emotional concerns is likely to be low on the list of your priorities.
When more people have money troubles, it’s no surprise that mental health issues will be on the rise. While money can’t make you happy, its absence can cause stress and anxiety. And when you feel frightened and anxious about money, it’s easy to become overwhelmed and not seek support.
Money worries are far from unusual. In a recent financial wellbeing webinar I gave to more than 1,000 people from some of the UK’s biggest employers, I asked attendees how they felt about their financial situation. More than 60 per cent were slightly concerned, while 15 per cent were worried and concerned. Twenty per cent were cautiously optimistic and only 3 per cent were totally relaxed.
Citizens Advice Bureau offers free personalised and practical help to people in financial distress, as do debt advice charities such as StepChange. But there is high demand for the services offered by these organisations and getting an appointment can take a while.
Offering a helping hand to someone trying to cope with their money troubles could be the most caring thing any of us can do right now. This could mean anything from talking through the issues, helping complete applications and providing moral support.
While a significant minority of people are struggling financially, an even greater number are not. A surge in holiday bookings and strong demand for property and second-hand cars over the past few months suggests many are feeling financially confident.
But just because you aren’t struggling to make ends meet and are willing to spend on luxuries and other non-essentials, having a high income doesn’t stop money worries. Research by Salary Finance, a small loans provider, found those earning £90,000 or more a year had almost the same level of financial worries as those earning between £10,000 and £30,000.
There still seems to be a stigma in talking about money, which means many suffer in silence and those who can help don’t. But there is no shame in having money worries, and the cost of living squeeze, which affects millions of Britons, makes talking about them easier.
We all need to feel that we have control over our lives, and have choices that make life more bearable or fulfilling. Being part of a tribe or, in modern parlance, feeling connected to other people can give us this sense of security.
The best thing we can all do in these tricky financial times is make time for each other. It’s far easier to cope with financial adversity when you don’t feel alone.
Help at hand
Financial help is available from the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP), local authorities and numerous local charities and community groups. While the DWP assesses in-work and pension benefit claims, local authorities are responsible for other financial benefits and support. Each local authority has its own assessment criteria, and not all help is means tested.
Financial help from local authorities includes:
Council tax reductions and support payments
Access to the Household Support Fund
Discretionary Housing Payments
Referral to a food bank