In the past few months I have sat down with 5 separate families to talk about their relationships with Christmas and money. Their responses have been interesting, emotional, frank and I hope helpful to some of you.
I’m sure you can appreciate my keeping their identities anonymous and assigning them different names for the purpose of these posts.
Names: Kelly and Luke
Bio: Kelly and Luke live in London and have been married for 13 years, they have 2 daughters aged 5 (Lorna) and 3 (Karen).
Luke is unemployed and Kelly works full-time as a supermarket manager.
I met Kelly and Luke for a coffee at a very cold Euston Station earlier in the Autumn and both looked sheepish and worried as they sat down. We started talking straight away about how they found themselves in debt. “When Luke was made redundant we thought things would be alright. We were paying out quite a bit in childcare for Karen and also for a child minder to pick up Lorna after school, so we thought Luke being off work for a while would help in that area.
It did for a while but soon our savings started to melt away and we started to panic.” It’s at this point, Kelly looking visibly distressed, nips to the loo.
Luke continues “Kelly really struggles with our lives being out of control and not knowing what will happen and when. We’ve had a really bad year. She is working 60-70 hour weeks and she is on a decent wage but it doesn’t match the hours she puts in and it doesn’t support our mortgage without us taking out more loans.
I’ve tried to get a job. First off all I tried to get a job in my industry (journalism) but you know and I know it gets harder and harder every year. I’d take a low paid job, I don’t care but every job that should be at the lower end of the pay-scale in the media is handed to students as so-called internships without pay.
I went to the job centre and they got me a zero hours contract in a shop where I didn’t get the chance to show how hard I can work and I barely got enough hours to buy a weekly shop.”
Kelly sits back down at the table and after a glass of water mentions she is ok to continue. She nods to Luke and he continues on “Kelly took out a loan just before last Christmas, I think we both got sucked into the pressure to provide a lavish Christmas for our kids. We had friends taking their kids to Lapland and buying iPads, I suppose a mixture of jealousy and feeling useless overtook us.”
“And more than that” Kelly continues “ I know I felt like I was working my life away and never seeing my husband or kids. I wanted to relax and have a good Christmas, you know? I didn’t have it in me to have a nil-by-mouth existence at Christmas. So we took out a loan at the end of October 2013. We had a good Christmas, actually we had the appearance of a good Christmas because deep down I was worried about our loan. I remember putting the turkey and all the trimmings on the table and knowing once the repayments and interest started, that meal was going to end up costing us the best part of £350-£400! It started to eat away at me.”
We sit in silence for a moment or two whilst Kelly takes a deep breath and reaches for Luke’s hand. She starts “We broke up at the start of February, essentially we broke up because of Christmas” she explains “The money pressure snapped us, it broke us. We’ve been together for such a long time and faced so much together, I hadn’t imagined something like money breaking us but it did. We loved each other but we couldn’t look at each other without spewing the worst kinds of words. We both became so bitter and jaded, we couldn’t stand to be around each other and it all came down to us taking out that bloody loan. The worst part was the kids starting to notice and asking why we were sitting in different rooms each evening. When Lorna asked ‘why don’t you laugh any more Mummy?’ I broke down and couldn’t take it anymore. Luke left three days later.”
“I went back to Dorset to stay with my parents, I got a bit overly friendly with drink whilst I was there” reveals Luke “and to be blunt, it was shit. I was 39, unemployed, without my children and facing divorce from the woman I love. I spent a lot of time crying.
I couldn’t stay with my parents for long, they were in the process of relocating to Hong Kong, so I ended up crashing with an old friend in his studio apartment.
We were two middle aged men, without a washing machine, sleeping in a tiny prison cell of debt and baked beans, the stench was pretty specialist” laughs Luke.
“The girls wanted to come and stay but there was nowhere for them to stay and at any rate what could I feed them? I was feeding myself thanks to a food bank who gave me 3 days worth of food, which I managed to stretch for quite some time.
Kelly reaches across the table to hold Luke’s hand “We were both diagnosed with depression at different points over the spring. For me, being told I had depression and I hadn’t just become an angry, bitch-faced witch lifted something of a fog. The doctor gave me anti-depressants and after about a month I started to run partway to work and felt all the better for it.
In June I drove the girls down to Dorset to see Luke, he was a mess and all I wanted to do was hold him and tell him everything was going to be alright. Thankfully those days were warm, we didn’t have to worry about spending money on activities for the girls, they were happy sitting on the beach playing in the sand. I think we learnt a lot seeing them enjoy something so basic and to be quite honest, cheap! Those peaceful few days beside the sea did us all the power of good. We talked, we talked a lot and we continued talking once me and girls had got back home. After 3 weeks and just before the summer holidays Luke came home.”
“I’ve just had some temp work in an office” smiles Luke, “it felt good to contribute again. The temp work ended last week but I have a job lined up with a local newspaper, which looks like it will fit in really well with looking after the girls.”
We finally get round to eating our lunch once the air has lightened and I ask about their Christmas plans for 2014.
Luke starts “Christmas will be different this year…” Kelly continues “it has to be, we can’t let Christmas kill us. What we have is too good, we can’t break us again.”
They both laugh “We’re really depressing aren’t we?” chortles Luke “We will still celebrate Christmas this year” he continues “but we are going to do it our way with little regard for what other people are doing and we won’t spending lavishly. Definitely no loans, we’re still paying off the last one!”
Kelly reaches round to hug Luke “It will be humble, small and concentrated on family. We’re lucky to have what we have and to have survived to tell our story as a couple, we’re going to focus on that.”