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Tom Hodgkinson: 'My inner bourgeois soul has re-emerged'


Are we in fuel poverty?" Victoria asked me the other day. I decided to add up our annual fuel costs to find a definite answer. It seems that we spend £2,100 a year on heating oil for our Rayburn stove. We spend £1,600 on electricity. And there is about £400 on logs, and £120 on gas bottles. That makes an annual spend of £4,220. Our annual income before tax is somewhere in the region of £40,000 to £45,000. Therefore, if you accept the definition of fuel poverty as a situation where a household spends 10 per cent or more of its income on keeping warm, it seems we are indeed fuel-poor.

Heating is very difficult to economise on, because you have absolutely no choice in the matter. Oil prices are fixed: we cannot shop around. That is not the case with food. Good habits of thrift mean that it is possible to eat well fairly cheaply. The only way to save money -on heating is to be cold, or to return to the old ways, such as everyone living in one room to save money. Truly I give thanks to the onesie: they keep children warm at low cost.

Despite being officially in fuel poverty, I could not claim to be poverty-stricken. The average household income for my age group is around £940 a week, or £48,800 a year. So we would come in at slightly under average. I cannot complain about being hungry or cold. However, I do complain about being poorer than my parents, both Fleet Street hacks who benefited from a heavily unionised newspaper industry in the 1970s and 1980s, and managed to send my brother and me to posh schools, and live in increasingly large houses in the affluent suburb of Richmond-upon-Thames. But as we know, things are no longer like that in the world of journalism, where rates have come under increasing pressure in the past 10 years.

There are two options: spend less or earn more. In the past I have always gone for the "spend less" option. It has always seemed to me to be eminently sensible to reduce the outgoings of the household as much as possible, particularly for the precariously employed like me.

I have even made a study of thrift and investigated ways to reduce our dependence on money (and by the way, Mark Boyle's book The Moneyless Manifesto is full of excellent tips for living well on less money). And it is obvious to me how to avoid spending money: government figures show that our biggest expense is travel, followed by heating, followed by entertainment. So if we simply stayed at home and played cards in the evening round the fire, we'd save a fortune.

Our embrace of thrift has meant that, for example, we've never had a nuclear family holiday. I'm not complaining: we've had a lovely time working at festivals or renting cottages in Cornwall with friends and family.

But we've never done one of those package holidays, for the simple reason that they cost at least three grand and we don't have that sort of money spare. But this year I admit that my inner bourgeois soul has emerged once again and is doing battle with my anti-consumerist exterior. Yes, I have been coveting a week in Corfu. I have even solaced myself during the cold winter evenings by poring over beautiful websites featuring pictures of sun-drenched coves, charming villas and luscious olive groves. I have fed our Corfu fantasy further by reading Gerald Durrell's lovely My Family and Other Animals. I have even convinced myself that it is a child's right to go on at least one foreign package holiday during their childhood.

I decided to research how much I'd be earning if I'd followed a different path in life. Well, it seems that I should have got a job with the government. I discovered from official figures that a nurse with 25 years' experience working in London could be earning more than £100,000. GPs earn around £150,000, and the heads of county councils are on anything from £100,000 to £400,000. Head teachers similarly routinely earn over £100,000. Freelance journalist? Paf.

The result of all this research, I'm afraid, has been that I have made a firm resolution to earn more in 2013. But how? Books? The advances given out by publishers seem to shrink each year, unless you are Pippa Middleton. I am right now finishing a book about the ukulele, for which I will be paid a total of £9,000, to be delivered in three instalments over 12 months. Yes, I know, I'm lucky to have the commission at all. But no one could claim I am rolling in the stuff. All I wanted was one little holiday. Is that too much to ask? Oh woe!

Tom Hodgkinson is editor of 'The Idler'