Your Cash: Lady in the red

You're happily married, with beautiful children, your own home and a decent salary. Yet you're permanently, hopelessly broke. Sound familiar? Lisa Markwell wonders why her generation never get the credit they deserve
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The Independent Online

With all the logic of the hopeless loser, I thought if I bought a ticket for the recent EuroMillions £120m lottery rollover, I would win. In fact, just to sure, I bought 10 tickets.

Because I'm writing this, and not having a foot massage while aboard my 400ft yacht moored off the Maldives, you'll realise that It Wasn't Me.

Like my middle-class, middle-youth contemporaries, I'm living beyond my means and woefully unable to curb my spending. Splashing out £15 on an almost unwinnable bet is foolish, I admit, but that's about as far as my lucidity on matters monetary goes.

I'm in a permanent state of denial/concealment about my finances. The average debt for women over 35 is £8,200 or so, but I'm in the bracket spending vast amounts more, bumping up that average. I would buy a financial self-help book, the kind that Alvin Hall and Martin Lewis get rich writing, but I'd rather spend the money on a Topshop blouse.

I'm 41, I've been married for eight years, and our total household income is roughly double the national average - a journalist and a builder in London are two well-recompensed professions. But upgrading from a two-bedroomed flat to three-bedroomed house six years ago is when the black ink started to run red. Plus, we've got two pre-teen children who are pricey little buggers, even though they're at the local state primary.

Things could be worse. I could be a twentysomething attempting to spend my way into an affluent oligarchic lifestyle. These poor souls have been christened Yippies (Young, Insecure, Paying the Price of an Idealised Existence). So I'm not a Yippie. Yippee!

It's entirely expected that, as a nation, we're in debt in our twenties. The hedonism attached to wasting that new salary. No mortgage, no kids, no pension. Being skint is all part of the game. These are the people buying mobile phones that also do sat-nav, record TV programmes and probably order your pint for you. They're the mad fools pre-ordering the super-hot new gadget Nintendo Wii (whatever that is) and dropping three figures on a Friday night out.

But, by the time I was 40, I fully expected to be in the black and enjoying the finer things in life guilt-free. Wearing expensive shoes, eating out three nights a week and flying to exotic places on holiday. Enjoying the fruits of my labours, in other words.

Instead, I'm shovelling money into a bottomless pit with no discernable pleasure; I feel a low-level dissatisfaction that I'm caught in a retailing spiral, rather than high-level pleasure at being able to afford nice things. I'm good old-fashioned profligate. Well, I say "old-fashioned", but it's a phenomenon that has flourished only since people of this generation were old enough to fill out a store-card application form.

Our grandparents didn't spend much money because they lived during the war, a time of frugality and little choice. Our grannies didn't stress about getting hold of organic pomegranates, or if their highlights needed a touch-up.

We can't blame our parents either for the ludicrous habit of spending money we don't have. They didn't do it. My sixtysomething mother, when asked, said she would have felt ashamed to be in debt at my age, and would rather stick a pin in her eye than admit in polite society that she was "bad at maths". That's a line that's now blithely uttered as dinner-party chit-chat. "Look at me, I never open my bank statements, ho-ho."

However, my parents' generation have got at least one thing to answer for. They gave us a taste for the finer things in life by taking us to Spain and Italy when we were young; I remember watching them drink wine with the Sunday lunch (so sophisticated!). They saw the possibilities afforded by a modest disposable income. Their generation were the first to travel freely, as package holidays came within their reach. They kicked a ball that us thirty- and fortysomethings (omega) are now running with. We're now running with it towards a goal that we're never going to reach, if that metaphor isn't too tortured.

The facts: it's going to get worse. The average debt for those in the 45-54 bracket is £16,800, and 37 per cent of us have no savings for a "rainy day". Duh and double duh. In the last year, 1.4 million calls have been placed to Citizens Advice Bureaux asking for debt advice, up 11 per cent from 2004/5.

So it's not just me, then. I'm not going to invent an acronym for us, but goddamn it, we're everywhere. Married, two children, living in one of Britain's more up-and-coming enclaves (yes, I know we all say that) and taking foreign holidays. It costs £180,000 to raise a child to the age of 21 (at state school), times two. Add the hefty five-times-the-salary mortgage, plus panic pension payments because you didn't start till your thirties. The sums, like the drugs, don't work.

Is it our own fault? I can't blame anyone for the fact that I take my children out to an upmarket pizzeria on Saturday when I'm losing the will to live, or for buying a £9 bottle of Rasteau to numb the post-Pingu pain in the evening. I could economise (shudder). But we live in "because I'm worth it" times. (I've changed my mind, I think I'll call us the Biwi generation.) We're victims of professional pester power, if you like.

Advertisements for products, clothes and gadgets that are entirely unnecessary are shown to be - here comes the science - "must-haves". These things have not only a built-in obsolescence (is your original iPod still working? Thought not) but also a built-in boredom. I don't want a Dualit toaster any more, because I've heard that the Porsche one's better. And so on. A wise woman recently said to me that "the only must-haves are food and clean water", which while true, doesn't acknowledge our desire (which we feel is our right) to keep up with lifestyle trends.

At the moment, I'm actively encouraging my children to read the Argos catalogue (hey, it's reading) and write prolific Christmas wish lists (hey, it's handwriting practice). Now watch me struggle to pay for all that battery-operated tat they've been lapping up.

It's not just the professionals who wish to part us from our money. Our peers know how to place us, status-wise. We buckle under the pressure when inviting people round. We may no longer get out the silver and put on a posh frock, but that simple "kitchen supper" consists of 20 quid's-worth of Iberian ham and a buttery Semillon - and that's just the starter. Can't be seen to be slacking on the foodie front.

A friend invited the fellow parents from her daughter's primary school class round for drinks recently. It was an early-evening, bring-a-bottle affair. "So why did I spend £200 in Majestic and £70 on mini pizzas?" she wailed the day after. Because she didn't want them to think she was not chic and a paragon of good taste, that's why. It's the Alain de Botton- identified status anxiety.

I do my weekend shop in Sainsbury's and spend £50 more than I would in Tesco. I justify that by saying "I'd really like to do my shop in Waitrose, but I'm economising." Sad, isn't it, the delusion?

It's rather like that other financial voodoo that we women do. As we scoop up three tops in Zara, our inner voices say "it's only £x", as if that justifies the spend. And then, when we take two of the tops back to the store, the money refunded is somehow "free", to be frittered on something else, guiltlessly.

If I told you that I added to my pack of credit cards because getting an American Express Red card was an act of charity, I'd be right, sort of. In fact, it would have been a darn sight more economical to just write a cheque to an Aids charity for £300 and forget the card.

Look at me in the picture on the previous page. There I am, surrounded by the spoils of my lifestyle. (The husband drinking from a washed-out mayonnaise jar because all our tumblers are broken and unreplaced, not pictured.)

I've spent hundreds of pounds on kitchen kit, colour co-ordinated and whiz-bang modern. I can say, hand on heart, that I do use all of it, as I'm an ardent cook. But do I now have the required funds to fix the boiler (fan heater keeping my feet from freezing also just out of shot)? No I don't. Rainy-day money is not a Biwi thing.

And if I sound like a totally self-absorbed bitch, I should point out that I work full-time - have done every day since my 19th birthday. This generation work hard, and since they don't have time to play, they spend. That's also where the children come in. The lion's share of my own shameful debt (apart from mortgage) is all about gorgeous family holidays. OK, we could have gone to Norfolk, but after two years of rain-sodden jigsaw compiling, whale-watching in Canada and a beach club in Turkey were just... essential.

And if our next half-term break is going to have to be Center Parcs as a "claw-back-the-cash" gesture, I can at least feel safe in the knowledge that there'll be plenty of other Boden bikinis in the splash pool, if you know what I mean...

During my own inexact research for this feature, I found only two women not in debt (bar the mortgage). Both were raised by very poor parents and live in fear of the bankruptcy courts. One says shrewdly "I've never been overdrawn. But I live in a tiny flat, and I know when I have kids it'll all change."

Spendthriftery definitely reaches its zenith when children arrive. But I'm a parent myself, and it's entirely possible that in wanting them to have treats, and me to have treats, and us all to spend time together doing nice things, I'm sending us to hell in a handcart. Won't it be lovely for my daughter to inherit my vintage trendy shoes, I think as whoops, there goes another couple of hundred. "Not if she's wearing them to visit you in debtor's prison" could be the rejoinder.

Being in a financially precarious position (God help the Biwi if interest rates take a hike) is no picnic. The shredded nerves of my peers are something to behold, even as we're booking ice-rink tickets for 20 children, or treating our brother-in-law to a Smythson diary that he'll never use.

At Shopaholics Anonymous they teach the addicts to say, on being drawn to some meaningless geegaw, "Do I need it, or do I just want it?" How sensible.

It's time to stop the madness, if only we could. We're not going to be worth anything soon. A little sacrifice isn't going to make us social pariahs. I'm sure with a little ironic twist, kitchen suppers of jacket potatoes with cheese and baked beans could become simply super. Meeting at the park for a walk instead of in the gastropub for a blow-out is better in every way. We're not doing our children any good to live on the never-never.

The approach of money gurus Alvin Hall/Martin Lewis is faultless: "Don't spend what you haven't got." It's a bit like the only diet that works: "Eat less, move more." Do we listen? Do we fuck.

Must go, a whole slew of Christmas catalogues has just arrived with the post. It's almost as if they know what I'm like...

Lisa Markwell is features director of 'Easy Living'.

She has donated her fee from this article to Barclaycard

Follow the money: Average weekly spend of a family of four, in the top 20 per cent income bracket

Food £72

Alcohol, tobacco, narcotics £14.80

Clothing and shoes £52.40

Housing (inc bills) £62.10

Household goods and services £65

Health £11.80

Transport £131.60

Communication £16.20

Recreation and culture £109.30

Education £38.20

Restaurants and hotels £75.90

Miscellaneous goods and services £89.80

Other £187.80

TOTAL £926.90

Source: Office for National Statistics

Oh, Yippie: The hard facts about professionals who are 'Young, Insecure, and Paying the Price of an Idealised Existence'

74 per cent of young professionals working in well-paid industries say they are struggling on tight budgets. 61 per cent feel the need to socialise as part of their job, at an average cost of £1,700 per year. 60 per cent say there is an expected lifestyle for someone in their line of work, yet only 17 per cent feel they can afford it. 36 per cent believe they are expected to live in fashionable areas, though 91 per cent struggle to save enough to get on the property ladder. 60 per cent find dressing for work expensive: young professionals spend an average £1,000 on work clothes a year.

Source: Consumer Analysis Group for Standard Life Bank

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