THIS WEEK: on money

Waving goodbye to control

I would describe my approach to money as controlled. Though I’m clueless about mortgages and am not usually genned-up on interest rates, I’ve always had savings and have avoided overdrafts. Bar the odd splurge on expensive wine, I am careful to live within my means – the thought of being in debt terrifies me. In fact, I only recently got a credit card and spent the first few weeks too scared to use it for fear of it (or rather, me) getting out of hand. 

Since the age of 15, I’ve had a regular wage coming in. My Saturday job at a hairdressers earned me £30 a week and the amount has slowly and steadily (emphasis on the slowly) grown throughout my twenties and early thirties as part-time shifts gave way to full-blown career. For the last seven years I’ve known exactly what’s going into my bank account and on exactly what day – which, I have to say, is hugely comforting.

At least it was. At of the beginning(ish) of this year I went freelance –  something I had been too nervous to do until fate forced my hand by way of the company I worked for going rather spectacularly bust. Suddenly that oh-so-comforting payslip was no more as I ventured out into the unpredictable world of being self-employed. Bring on the invoices! 

Freelancing is great. Honestly, I love it. But there’s no two ways about it, the money side can be tricky. It ebbs, it flows and it ebbs again. What you think you’ll have sitting in your account at the end of the month, you don’t, because invoices don’t get paid on time and – oh yes, don’t forget the tax! For those fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants types perhaps it’s all easy breezy, but for control freaky worry warts (hi!), it’s a daily lesson in NOT FREAKING OUT. 

I’m still new to all of this and have by no means got it sussed.  There have been plenty of nervy moments, not helped by the knowledge that I have an entire wedding to pay for in October – talk about less-than-ideal timing. However, in my few months of freelance money-making there are some things that have helped keep the palm-sweats at bay…

Number one is spreadsheets. Having not used Excel since my middle school days, I now have a spreadsheet that I religiously input all the details of every invoice, including date sent, the amount it’s for and when it’s due. This way I can see how much money is coming in and what I need to chase.  

Secondly, a ‘don’t touch it’ fund. As soon as an invoice is paid, I immediately put the tax into a separate savings account which I can’t touch under pain of death.

And finally, a good accountant. Unless you are numbers-minded or have the patience of a saint then I would advise finding an accountant who can help with expenses and tax returns. They cost around £200 a year and my freelance friends all say it’s money well spent. Organisation in the face of chaos – this is my method. And then a large glass of wine at the pub when it all gets too much – house wine though, I’m on a budget!

Wiping the sand from my eyes

I like to think that I’m not bad with money. I don’t have credit card debt, I don’t book holidays I can’t afford and, despite my job, I rarely buy new clothes. When I do they’re pretty considered purchases, apart from the once-or-so a year when I fall off the wagon spectacularly at sample sales.

When I was a teenager, working weekends in a cafe/as a plate-waiter/in a clothing shop/behind a bar, I was fast-fashion mad – I’d go to Topshop or H&M in my lunch break every Saturday to buy a new top to wear to the local pub or (horrible) club that night. But now – with the millstone of high rent, travel and bills around my neck – I’ve stopped those little buys. I like to think that the change is indicative of a more mature approach to money. 

It isn’t. If I had a more mature approach to money my finances would be in a pretty solid state. They’re not: I run down to my last few quid each month. And it’s not even really my money, since I live in my overdraft: payday takes me back to zero, but very rarely north of it. 

I blame a lot of different factors. My never-enough salary, my student loan payments, the cost of rent and travel in London. I tell myself that anyone would struggle to budget as I bury my head in the sand – just call me the money ostrich.

As I type, I’m sitting at my Ercol dining table, bathed in sunshine streaming through skylights set into my 12 foot ceilings in my split-level one bedroom (with a balcony) in leafy Highbury. When I took on this flat, I knew it would be a stretch – I could only afford it if I changed my lifestyle. I’d have to stop buying clothes, cancel my gym membership, reset those ingrained spending habits. 

And so I did – with one exception. It’s a big exception: food. I wouldn’t dream of popping into Zara to buy a ‘just because’ top in my lunch break, but I’ll spend £9.45 on a poké bowl and £4.00 on an iced oat milk latte without blinking – and then stop at Little Waitrose on my way home. Bringing lunch in from home is even more expensive: organic salmon fillet, organic green beans, organic rocket, organic tomatoes on the vine, organic figs as a mid-afternoon snack…

Dinners out cost a bomb, but my ‘money-saving’ light suppers at home even more, once I’ve bought La Fromagerie parmesan, Daylesford asparagus and a bottle from Borough Wines – and if I’m having friends round, all bets are off.

I’m literally eating myself out of house and home. So, what’s the solution? I need a financial gastric band. The first step is keeping track of my spending – maybe on one of Frankie’s Excel spreadsheets – and forcing myself to make eye contact with the numbers.

Once I’ve finished screaming into my vaulted ceilings, the second step is setting a budget, and the third – and hardest – actually sticking to it. Ahi Poké’s profits may droop, and that will be on my conscience. But I think it’s time. Just do me one favour: if you see me in Waitrose, look the other way – I’m already judging myself.