Two months before I was born, my parents sat side by side in Catford Homeless Unit, and declared themselves homeless.
Unable to make the monthly mortgage payments in the middle of the 1992 recession, they gave the keys back to the bank, and awaited their temporary accommodation: a dark, dingy flat in southeast London where I would spend the first three months of my life.
I suppose you could say I was born into money trouble.
For as long as I can remember, money has been a source of contention in my household. I learned my first lesson about money – specifically what it means to owe money, and that debt follows you, wherever you go, wherever you hide – early. On the day of my father’s death, when I was 6 years old, two debt collectors stood at the front door like Grim Reapers demanding payment of £1,500 none of us had.
Truth be told, my mum didn’t have enough money to bury my dad. Even in death, debt picks on your corpse for change and preys on those closest to you, clawing at everything you’ve left behind. In the grief-ridden aftermath of my father’s death, my mother received a letter from the bank about the money my parents owed for the flat they’d lost six years prior. Just like that, a shared debt of £75,000 for two became a £180,000 debt for one, and my childhood became ever-darkened by a shadow of money worry.
In many ways, living in a household so overwhelmingly in the red was exactly as you would imagine it to be; curious people at the door, the reams of letters that followed, half-understood overheard conversations. One specific company, Balfour Beatty, is etched into my memory – letters bearing their logo were constantly scattered around my house. Like cockroaches, no matter how many times my mum got rid of one, five more seemed to appear out of nowhere. I still shiver whenever I see those cold blue letters printed on an envelope or painted on the side of a van.
Growing up in such circumstances meant that much of my childhood "magic" could more correctly be described as illusion; ingenious tricks my mother had mastered to obscure the reality of how poor we actually were. “One year,” my mum once told me, “all your Christmas presents were bought from a charity shop because I had no money to buy anything new.” My mum’s sister made my first couple of skirts for school because my mum couldn’t afford the uniform. I was totally unaware of these things, among all the other cost-cutting adventures my mum undertook back then; more pressing to me at the time was how long I’d be allowed to play outside every evening.
Over time, I became more aware of the loopholes my mother had carved out to breathe air into a situation that was trying to suffocate us.
One December, a friend of my mum’s visited our house and brought along the newest Game Boy console. It was gleaming silver with a flip-up screen, and it reeked of expense. I played with it the entire time she and my mother chatted, desperately impressed with how much cooler it was than my old Game Boy. I was aware it was too expensive and too late to ask for one so close to Christmas, but even that knowledge didn’t stop me mentioning how much I’d love to have one of those for Christmas.
On Christmas morning, the very last present I opened was a shiny new Game Boy Advance SP, wrapped loosely along with two games. I was so excited by the Christmas miracle that it took me until later in the day to realise my new present wasn’t technically new. My mum had bought it from her friend once she saw how besotted I was with it. Amazingly, every birthday and Christmas my mother found a way to make something out of nothing. I had learned my second lesson about money: how to make the most out of very little.
Watching my mother struggle under debt’s colossal weight had some serious repercussions on the both us. My mum paid off her debt slowly: a homeowner loan and a personal loan, and settling with brokers to hand over every last penny she could afford. She managed to pay off the debt when I was 12, but by then our house had been irreversibly tainted by an oppressive concern with money. “Can’t afford” and “too expensive” were phrases I often heard leave my mother’s lips, and always with a hint of guilt, as if she were apologising for the fact her money alone would never be enough to provide for the both of us. Spending unnecessarily was absolutely taboo, and this fear of never having enough money mutated seamlessly into a dogged fixation with earning money. Here was my third lesson: the significance of work.
After my father’s death, my mum juggled three jobs to pay the bills and support her change in career as a teacher. She worked full-time for the government, as a carer for the elderly every other weekend, and taught for a few hours one day a week using her leftover days of holiday. I followed suit. Aged 16, I undertook my first summer job as an administrative assistant at a college, where I was paid £5 an hour. Less than a month after that job finished, I started my first weekend job as a waitress in a café where I was paid £25 for seven hours’ work, the equivalent of £3.57 an hour. I travelled an hour to that café every Saturday morning, just to experience what it was like to have my own money.
Indeed, the closest thing to nirvana for me then, and even now, was the splendour of financial independence. Making money meant I was not a drain on my mother, and by easing her financial burden, I was being a good daughter. I became so addicted to the gratification that came with making money that I worked whenever I could throughout school and university, despite the fact working mostly made me miserable.
I had imagined enjoying life at university without a job but after just six months on a maintenance loan that barely covered my rent, I quickly reached my overdraft limit. By the Easter break I was so desperate to secure a job for my summer back home in London that I took a job with a sandwich chain in central London – despite the fact I’d be living on campus at my university in Coventry until late June. Every Saturday morning for 10 weeks I commuted for just under two hours from Coventry to start my job in London in the morning, and every Sunday evening after work I did the reverse, just in time to start lectures again on Monday.
One early Sunday morning on the last train home, too exhausted to walk home from the train station, I rang my mum to pick me up. When I saw her car, I instantly began to bawl. “I’m just…so…tired,” I explained through tears. But even the most excruciating 10-hour shift felt better than the defeat I always felt asking my mum for money. It will always be better than the fear of having no money at all.
Over the course of my four years at university, I had seven different jobs, three of which I worked at the same time, just like my mum had done years before. A significant proportion of my final year was spent stressing about money. I worried about what I would do once I graduated, I worried about getting a job, and I worried about what it would mean to return to my house with no income. I graduated from university with an extraordinary debt of £32,000. Thirty-two thousand. I was in my overdraft by £1,000 and all that work felt like it was for absolutely nothing.
Acknowledging my own debt has forced me to revisit that first lesson I learned about what it means to owe money. My mother’s debt taught me resilience, it taught me survival, and it taught me about hard work, but it also taught me fear. Money scares me.
Some days, I am able to stave the fear off for just long enough to lead a life that isn’t completely preoccupied by money. Other days I can’t help but feel that I’ll never be free from its hold, as if struggling with money is somehow rooted in my DNA, as inevitable as my brown eyes. I often wish for the day I no longer have to worry about money, but also carry the sad knowledge that it will probably never come.
Like every good fear, my money worry lurks just beneath the surface of my conscious and I respond by choosing to pretend it doesn’t exist, by choosing ignorance over anxiety. My student debt is simply another number to me, my overdraft only a problem when it presents itself as one.
“What are you going to do?” my mum asked, when I laid out my student debt to her. “I don’t know,” I replied. I really don't know.
Gena-mour Barrett is a staff writer for BuzzFeed UK and is based in London.
Contact Gena-mour Barrett at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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