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Monday 20 January 2020

On just €196 a week, it hurts to part with the pennies

Life on the poverty line challenges you to discover a bargain in everything you buy, says Alison O'Riordan

Imagine having to make every penny count and map out a weekly budget with almost military precision. I put this to the test, by living on a social welfare payment of €196 for a week.

Surviving on the dole, or on the minimum wage, sounds less than ideal and close to impossible, but for many out there it is the norm.

Widespread unemployment and job cuts mean many have to grapple with the realities of coping on slim earnings, and instead of having more money as they grow older, they have less.

The truth is that it is possible to live on this amount a week, as so many people out there do, but as they tell me, to call it 'living' is to use a very loose definition. Welcome to my week on the poverty line.

I began by abandoning my car and walking everywhere. Then I ditched my bill phone and was mobile free for a week. Thirdly, instead of buying coffee every morning, I made it in my modest kitchen.

The sole luxury I refused to give up was my apartment -- or my financial prison of negative equity.

I began this test in trepidation, fearful of the fact I would not be able to survive in Dublin, one of the 50 most expensive cities in the world.

Each minute of each day I found it painful to part with the pennies and the pounds as I paid for transport, food, clothes, household goods and the odd bit of entertainment.

With discount shopping being the priority, I had to abandon the sweet-smelling baked bread aroma of Superquinn, in favour of the price imperative Aldi in Rathmines. I found it very hard to ditch the big boys, Dunnes and Tesco, for the new German chains. However, I had no choice but to embrace the slashed prices in the no-frills warehouse-style store.

In my pre-poverty days I would have been inclined to ignore them -- the dreary sameness of the products and the no-basket policy would drive me mad -- but reality soon bit and I continued with my cardboard box in hand.

Simple changes in spending habits can make a huge difference to precarious financial situations and I was overjoyed at the till as I parted with just half of what I would normally pay for a weekly shop in Tesco or Superquinn -- including a jumbo packet of Extra chewing-gum.

As I loaded my fridge with chorizo, salami, cheese, mushroom pate and Tuscan-style ham, it was bargain land at its best and it made for good packed lunches, instead of three-course lunch menus on the quays, surrounded by solicitors in smart suits.

I found myself visiting the free-to-enter Natural History Museum and the National Gallery of Ireland on Merrion Square. As I wandered the corridors I saw many young people like me discovering the meaning of frugal living, by taking in local treasures in order to tighten purse strings.

I even froze my gym membership and joined the vast numbers of joggers on the streets each night, the whole lycra-clad herd of them.

The love of pounding the streets was a cost-effective way of keeping fit without dishing out €70 to Westwood each month. I managed to get my hair cut for €10 in the House of Colour in Capel Street by a student -- it even included a free blow-dry.

Not to mention blagging samples of shampoo and conditioner from the receptionist afterwards.

As a movie lover, I was rather put out that the silver screen proved too expensive, but luckily, there was a free cinema night called 'Cinema In The Open!' at Dundrum Town Centre. Watching my all-time favourite movie Mamma Mia meant myself and my stoney-broke friends had a fun-packed evening under the open sky.

With my newly adopted income for the week, it was imperative that I should cut down on my going out, from twice at a weekend to once.

So, I treated myself and a friend to a night in with the Marks & Spencer's meal for two offer designed to appeal to cash-strapped couples.

This meal came with a dessert and a bottle of wine for €12.50. As we watched re-runs of Gossip Girl on box set, with teabags for eye masks and olive oil as cleanser, your humble journalist felt she was living like a queen.

A Saturday afternoon would normally consist of hitting the high-end boutiques of Clarendon Street to find a new outfit for that night but yesterday, those pipe-dreams were forced to fade into oblivion as I embraced cut-price fashion fixes.

As I wandered through Dunnes Stores it yielded surprising results. I was amazed to see fashionable pieces that challenged the collections of London, Paris and New York.

Later, I passed Topshop and looked longingly through the window, like a love-sick puppy. However the new bargain-hunter inside me insisted that I head to Penney's for the affordable yet trendy clothing.

As I had to save rather than splurge, Saturday night on the tiles consisting of having drinks in a friend's house with bargain-basement grisly beer stuff.

I gritted my teeth and sucked it up; this was simply all I could afford. The era of gulping down Cosmopolitans was long gone.

Later that night, when we ventured out to a bar, I did not buy one alcoholic drink; instead I had a naggin of vodka in my back pocket and topped it up with coke every half hour. As I went up to the ladies toilets, I saw that I wasn't the only one doing this.

As the night progressed and my vodka diminished, I had no choice but to go on the dry for much of the night. Being off the gargle was tough at times, especially as the beery romanticism and boozy goodwill got underway and I was really starting to enjoy myself. However, the same can't be said for many people living in this situation long term. It is predicted that more than 120,000 people -- or 5,000 a month -- will emigrate by the end of next year to escape unemployment.

This means the equivalent population of an Irish city will leave over the next 18 months. My future, like many, was once rich with promise and is now filled with uncertainty and disappointment.

A week like this leaves the lingering belief that emigration may be the only way to a decent life, instead of sticking it out and just about surviving each week.

There is only so much of walking the hills, picnics in the park, borrowing a bike and bring-your-own-booze party one can take.

I was forced to go where the best value was and to get the bargain.

The financial impact of this week has taught me to live more frugally, despite refusing to replace my Brennan's bread and Barry's Tea, and is not something I think I will ever forget.

Others, however, have a different story to tell and a week like this can so quickly develop into months of hardship, when the prospect of proper employment seem to grow more distant by the day.

As they face into winter, the general economic turmoil will only worsen.

Sunday Independent

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