Cost of living crisis 1: Energy

Quick reminder to come and get your flowers (or a random selection of inspiration, poor jokes from me and photos taken my by daughter) on my Insta.

The soaring cost of living crisis is real. You don’t need to understand inflation, changes in base interest rates or why the stock market is having a wobble to know that your supermarket shop is costing more. Indeed, there are so many cause-and-or-effect conversations about the macro-economics of it all that at the moment I don’t care. But I do know that I just got a water bill for the equivalent of £4,000. And that’s just one of my skyrocketing utility bills which are stacking up like an angry little bomb waiting to go off.

I wanted to write a few posts looking at different aspects of what is going on and why, and how we can navigate it and stay sane and solvent. Starting this week with energy as it’s top of mind, and one area where increases are making a terrifying dent in people’s pockets.

Even the moths have flown. Photo by Towfiqu barbhuiya on Unsplash

So what can you do about your energy bills?

My focus here is for the UK though a lot of the household tips are universal. Whilst I live in Denmark, the utility market remains a total mystery. We don’t have many companies, especially since in urban areas a lot of energy is from the Kommune or local council. This means there are no switching or price comparison services. So whilst prices are going through the roof the options are a) turning everything off or b) saving money elsewhere.

In the UK, energy costs have already doubled for many households and will likely rise by October to almost £3,000. With the median income in the UK being £31,400, this means that energy only (not even all utilities) is costing households 10% of their income. Unfortunately switching deals is not likely to make any difference and is not even available to most unless you get an ‘existing customer’ deal. And watch out if you do switch since exit fees have gone up 10 times in the last year.

The idea of creating competition in the energy sector in order to benefit customers has only created a monster market where providers can do what they like. Issues in Ukraine are exacerbating fears around supply, but these price rises have been coming for a while and are only possible on the back of the ‘competitive’ set up.

Pulling money from your bank account all the way into the horizon. Photo by Matthew Henry on Unsplash

The main things you can do to save energy are things we should all be doing anyway for environmental purposes. Unfotunately some of them require an outlay at the start which might not be possible in these belt tightening days but some are pretty simple.

Big outlay changes

  • Look at your heating system. Is your boiler efficient? There are simple ways to check. Generally putting in a new boiler unless you absolutely have to isn’t going to save you anything, but when you do, shop around for the most efficient kind going.
  • Think about insulating your house more efficiently. When I was growing up my best friend had cling film across all the windows to reduce heating bills, so it doesn’t all mean huge outlays on triple glazing. There are some great tips on insulation from the Energy Trust – such as fitting a hot water tank with an insulating jacket at a cost of about £25 which will save you £35 a year in heating costs and 115kg of carbon dioxide emissions.
  • Consider generating your own electricity. This can be very expensive, and most of the government grants have ended. But with the energy crisis likely to be long term, it’s worth exploring if you have any spare cash to invest here. Solar is the obvious one for homes, with a lot to think about before you take the leap.
  • Check if your appliances are energy efficient and consider replacing them, once they are dead, with a focus on efficiency. White goods especially – fridge, freezer, washing machine, oven – are massive energy leakers.
Turn off that tumble dryer! Photo by Brina Blum on Unsplash

Day to day changes

  • Use your timer and thermostat. This is the easiest way to save money and help the environment, just having the heating on when and where you actually need it. Go through the house and turn down radiators where you don’t need them on.
  • Turn down the thermostat already. Most money saving and environmental groups recommend 68 degrees (20 celsius) in the winter. Remember how cold your grandparents’ house was? You’re aiming for a bit warmer than that. Don’t expect to be walking around in a t-shirt, instead invest in a fluffy dressing gown and socks, and pretend it’s intentional hygge.
  • Decide what you will use less. Tumble driers are particularly energy heavy: dry outside in the summer, or get a couple of clothes racks and dry inside. When I lived in a badly ventilated flat, drying clothes inside contributed to mould and meant that I had to have the heating on and the window open so I used to go to the laundrette which takes time and money in a different way. So one to think about how best to manage depending on your circumstances.
  • Turn off all standby appliances, including turning off plugs which aren’t in use. My grandparents always turned everything off at the plug at night in case of lightening – this isn’t a bad idea just in order to stop energy leakage.
  • Make sure you have a full load every time you turn on the washing machine or dish washer. Wash your clothes at 30 degrees – it really does work. Use the eco setting if you have one. The one on my dishwasher lasts 3 hours and is really noisy so I load the dishwasher during the day then put it on after breakfast when I leave for work.
  • Check out your fridge and freezer. Fridges should be set between 3-5 degrees, and freezers need defrosting regularly (this is a job on my list. Note to self – do not do this with a knife or you will regret it). Fridges actually work more efficiently when they are nearly full so add that extra milk or whatever and you will save on the energy bill.
  • If you are really struggling, there might be help: Citizens’ Advice can help out.
Protest signs in London 2022. Flickr/Gary Knight

Finally, consider the politics. My blog is about personal finance, but this is so closely linked to politics that it’s hard to keep out. There might not be simple answers, but the people who are already the most vulnerable are going to be the hardest hit and the most hurt. And that’s something we can all care about.

Valentine’s Day Massacre: The financial inequality of single parenting

I originally posted this in February 2021, but it contains such critical reflections on financial inequalities that face single parents that I wanted to come back to it. Things are even worse one year on: the impact of repeat COVID lockdowns but without the financial cushioning; soaring utility costs; rising inflation – in short, a cost of living crisis which is exacerbated by stagnant wages and new challenges in juggling work and childcare. So I have made some updates but the message is broadly, unhappily, the same.

Being a jolly sort of soul (and, obviously, single), Valentine’s Day seemed like the perfect time. I considered doing a post on self-care and self-love and how this relates to FIRE, but whilst it’s great to work on being positive and hold yourself to account, sometimes it’s necessary to look at structural inequalities and burn. it. all. down.

This isn’t a post about how hard it is to do all of this on one income, though that’s true. There are more single people in the world than ever, around 45% of the adult population in the global North, and there is evidence that they are happier than married counterparts. I am not an evangelist for the single state – indeed I would be happier in a commune than living alone – but I do sometimes imagine what I could achieve if I was part of a couple with the added energy, income, time and other resources and it makes me dizzy.

There’s a lot of love out there, even if you’re single. Duh. Photo by Paweł Czerwiński on Unsplash

So no, it’s not just jealousy or the basic ‘2 incomes is better than 1’ point. In the UK and many other countries, ‘couple privilege‘ is a real thing: outside of the obvious difference in having two incomes, there are tax privileges to having a spouse for example. There are a myriad of hidden costs to being single, from holidays to supermarket norms, not to mention the cost of housing and how single people are viewed as a greater risk in terms of accessing a mortgage.

In addition to this, for single parents there are punitive financial measures specifically designed to impact on us. Don’t forget that our current Prime Minister called the children of single mothers “ill-raised, ignorant, aggressive and illegitimate” (ironic given his contribution to the creation of single mothers). And don’t his policies show this belief. Changes and restrictions in benefits (most of which are not actually spent on ‘dole scroungers’) including family benefits are pushing single parent families even further into poverty. The British charity the Child Poverty Action Group have talked about the ‘war on lone parents’ and cited evidence that current policy really does try and make it harder for single parent families, presumably as a deterrent for the terrible mess we make of society.

Research in the UK shows that this approach has been so successful that it is not possible for a single parent on median earnings to reach a decent minimum living standard. Indeed, the gap between earnings and costs are getting worse thanks for austerity and benefit cuts, and price rises. For lone parents working full time on median earnings, the shortfall has risen from 6% to 16% in the past ten years.

In 2019, the overall cost of a child up to age 18 years (including rent and childcare) was £185,000 for lone parents (up 19% since 2012) and £151,000 for couples (up 5.5% since 2012). A greater cost, on half the possible income. It feels hard because it IS hard.

Maybe we should be angry instead of ashamed. Photo by Miguel Bruna on Unsplash

In a previous job where I was posted overseas for a British company there were significant benefits available for a spouse that I was unable to tap into for either of my children’s secondary parents – their father, or their grandmother. These benefits included the cost of flights to spend time with us, or if one of them had wanted to live with me, pension contributions. I lost out on around £20,000 per year because those benefits could only go to someone with whom I had a very particular intimate relationship. I felt totally judged by 1950s hetero normative rules: you can have the money if you still go to bed with the person with whom you had children, but if not, forget it.

The attitudes here, both in the treatment of those on benefits and low wages, and those of us in a much higher tax bracket, are united by the same message. You have failed, and you should be ashamed.

And we are ashamed. Parents who have to bring up their children on the bread line already feel like they are failing without being told. A New York Times article talks about how normal this all is. Whilst being frugal, getting a side hustle and so on are the building blocks of FIRE they are also par for the course when making ends meet. It’s the same shame that stops people asking for help; stops them checking to see if they have the benefits they are entitled to, or asking for adjustments to working hours. It’s the same shame that in my own petty way, stopped me from questioning why I was paying 50% of a bill where I was clearly not benefitting from 50% of the purchase.

I am blessed to be able to bring up my children without stinting – on luxuries as well as the basics, where we are frugal it’s out of choice – but I am also constantly anxious about what happens if I can’t work. We don’t have a second income to lean back on. We don’t have a plan B.

Lessening that anxiety is one of the reasons that financial independence is worth so much as a single parent. There are loads of brilliant exes out there who co-parent and equally share the financial burden but I can honestly say that I don’t know any of them myself. When you have sufficient issues with someone that you made the enormous decision to break up your family, relying on them financially can be challenging however easy it is. Sometimes the plan B just isn’t possible.

But sometimes, we also need to think about how society – and communities like FIRE – can help us create new plans. Love is so much more than just romantic: for our kids, for our community, our planet and each other. Happy valentine’s day to us all.

Love one another, wherever you are at. Photo by Priscilla Du Preez on Unsplash