Broke Politics: Freelance Survival Tactics

by Joanna Fuertes

Money, or the lack of it, was an omniscient spectre growing up—rarely discussed, always looming over us. My mother kept every single receipt in a biscuit tin. Each month, poring over her cheque book, accounting for every single penny. Grocery shopping would take hours as she would make a grid of the supermarket armed with a calculator, figuring out the best deal for each item by millilitre and gram. I’d cringe each time she'd return to the checkout to dispute a missing BOGOF offer. Each time a new Freemans catalogue arrived, my sister and I would agonise over our choices despite knowing that our dreams of sequin boob tubes and expensive trainers would never come true under mum’s iron rule.

One of the biggest family events was the arrival of a bottle-green Chesterfield sofa, bought on hire purchase, that took pride of place in our front room. Unlike the last sofa, we were forbidden from stunt-rolling and holding wrestling matches on it. Instead, my mum ritualistically rubbed beeswax into its leather and periodically cleaned every button hole. It was a far cry from my friend Elle’s house where we would lob sofa cushions across the living room playing ‘The Floor is Lava’. She had so much of everything. A room to herself with a double bed, a SodaStream—anything from Pop Tarts to Breville toasties for breakfast. I would come home after sleepovers and regale mum with tales of how far their garden stretched while she stood, robotically washing dishes in her work uniform, half-asleep.

One day, Elle’s mother invited herself in as she dropped me home. She perched on our sofa as if sat on a haystack. Despite the family’s best efforts, the leather of our beloved Chesterfield had begun to wear and we’d diligently masked barren patches with embroidered cushions and throws. Our visitor plucked up some exposed sponge, rolled it between thumb and index finger, and muttered ‘time for a new one,’ her eyes darting about, appraising the remainder of our front room. I noticed my mother’s face flush. I felt both angry and embarrassed, but could not have articulated why back then. If it were now, I’d tell her to fuck off back to her symphony-of-beige townhouse and forget all about it. Instead, it remained with me into adulthood. Were we poor? I’d never been left wanting and other friends were far less fortunate. In fact, for the most part, I was a spoilt child. So for an outsider to trigger such an acute sense of shame was jarring.

At the other end of the thrift scale was my dad. He would spend money at such speed I often wondered if it was a kind of Crystal Maze challenge. He didn’t make extravagant purchases, just useless (if well-intentioned) tat like miniature hoovers to suck up house spiders. At one point, my sister and I must’ve had at least 100 troll dolls—a rainbow-haired ocean of plastic figurines—on offer at some petrol station in Homerton on his way home from work. Around then, I also knew that if we were ignoring the person hammering on the front door it was either the TV license man or bailiffs, and we became adept at closing curtains and dimming lights so delicately it felt like a game. Looking back now, I think ‘Wow, imagine becoming a financial lemon because of trolls.’ But as soon as I started earning my own money, I found I’d inherited dad’s fear that cash left unspent would just rot, surely?

Aged fourteen, I got my very first job at a hairdressers, gingerly washing old ladies’ locks, smearing barrier cream on wrinkled foreheads to stop their lavender rinses running. On receiving that first, crisp £20 note salary, I headed into town to buy a pair of four inch, platform school shoes à la Cher Horowitz. I’d been waiting for the rush of spending my own, earned money and didn’t care that wearing the shoes required leaving the house in mum-assigned Clarks loafers, only to change on the bus. Their cheap pleather tore at my ankles, my toes were so crushed I walked like I’d had Chinese foot binding. But my mother’s reign of austerity was over, I thought to myself smugly, ignoring the blood pooling underfoot.

I have prided myself on being in work ever since. I waitressed, manicured, cleaned, biscuit-iced, cashier-ed, telesale-d and Christmas elf-ed my way to pay cheque after pay cheque, content that these roles were never to be my permanent lot in life. But the remnants of this attitude is something that now, as a jaded and underpaid freelancer, often makes me nauseous. Though my parents are polar opposites in their attitudes towards spending money, their pursuit of it was the same: necessity over choice. By contrast, I have pursued a career path that is gloriously self-indulgent and will never be well remunerated, because I believe it will nourish me mentally. But the possibility that my parents worked hard so that I would wind up a journalist who argues with strangers on Twitter for less than £30,000 a year, weighs heavily on my conscience.


* * *

In 2000, Professor Jeffrey Arnett coined the term ‘emerging adulthood’ in an article in the American Psychologist to describe: ‘young adults in developed countries who do not have children, do not live in their own homes, or do not have sufficient income to become fully independent in their early to late 20s’. Seven years later, the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression blew in and everyone unlucky enough to graduate or hit working age over the next five years was, in layman’s terms, fucked.

As laid out in excruciating detail in Michael Hobbes’ Highline investigation, the economic crisis may be over but the hangover from it has us on course for the: ‘scariest financial future of any generation since the Great Depression’. The maths of how we’ve got here isn’t difficult. Wages have ground to a halt while the cost of living has skyrocketed. Meanwhile, entire industries have disappeared into the ether, replaced with the dark and unregulated waters of professions like ‘social media manager’ and ‘lifestyle blogger’. All compounded by a mass exodus into a gig economy run on precarious work contracts, with staff jobs becoming such unicorns, salary stasis is keenly accepted in return for some semblance of security. The alternative being the masochism of self-employment or sacrificing work-life balance by ‘monetising’ your life.

If there is anything millennials will be known for (besides avocados and flat whites,) it will be our unhealthy fixation with The Side Hustle—turning what should be hobbies into income. So, do you stay on the Titanic, because the Titanic has free eye tests and statutory sick pay, or do you risk floating to safety on a door while documenting it on Instagram video? Personally, as with any mutually sadomasochistic relationship, I’ve found setting boundaries paramount in safeguarding my (financial) sanity. Where I draw the line is that I want my life to be lived—not monetised.

On top of the ceaseless merry-go-round of managing broke-ness and chasing extra income, like pretty much all of my peers, I’ve spent my twenties in varying degrees of debt, not including my student loan, as a result of just generally being alive. I used credit cards and my overdraft to supplement my income, with over a half of my monthly pay going towards keeping a roof over my head. At one point, burying my head in the sand, missing minimum payments, exorbitant interest and dodging HMRC snowballed into nearly ten grand of high-interest debt. The worst part being that this all happened when I was in full-time employment. Not to say I was the poster child of frugality, but once you’ve broken the proverbial seal of paying for an Itsu bento box on your maxed out Mastercard, it stops feeling like an act of nihilism. Still, something felt patently confused about being hounded by debt collection agencies while at a full-time job, with neither a glamorous holiday nor gambling addiction to show for it.

Last year, a study by the Financial Conduct Authority found that half of Britons could be classified as financially vulnerable with 1.4 million of us in serious financial difficulty and 25 to 34 year olds, the most over-indebted. The blanket classification of millennials as perpetual teenagers who fritter their incomes away on art degrees is, obviously, unhelpful. Furthermore, the identity politics around poverty has become a lot more complex—there being a crucial difference between being middle-class and falling into debt and being working-class and staying in debt, despite how bleak both futures appear.

As Hobbes points out: ‘Generalizations about millennials, like those about any other arbitrarily defined group of 75 million people, fall apart under the slightest scrutiny. Contrary to the cliché, the vast majority of millennials did not go to college, do not work as baristas and cannot lean on their parents for help. Every stereotype of our generation applies only to the tiniest, richest, whitest sliver of young people.

That sliver may carry many of the markers of prolonged financial strain such as not being able to independently afford property, large consumer debts, delaying starting families and job insecurity, yet working class millennials, ethnic-minority millennials and millennials not fortunate enough to live within commuting distance of major city job markets are on course for a level of poverty that will be catastrophic not only for our social mobility, but also our children's (if we can afford to have any.)

So, what can we do? After being unceremoniously fired from my staff job two years ago, instead of trying to get back into a nine-to-five, I came to the painful conclusion that I needed a head start on the hell-scape that is the gig economy and embraced self-employment. In just those two years, a breathtaking number of industry peers have either jumped or been shoved into freelancing behind me.

What I sense now is a sea change in the way our generation talks about money that could be critical to our shared survival, much as attitudes towards discussing mental health have begun to soften. The taboo of talking about money and accompanying idea of prying into anyone's earnings being vulgar, dates back to a time when you were expected to obtain a ballpark estimate of somebody’s wealth by how many ponies, castles and servants they had. In short, not talking about money has always been a privilege of the wealthy, now exploited by our employers and the state. That this attitude has stuck around for so long is nothing short of absurd given that trade of it is essential to freelance survival, and yet most of us would rather publicly analyse our bowel movements than go into detail over our incomes. Naturally, at the sharp end of this lack of transparency, you will always find the most marginalised.

So start blabbing.

Tell others your income, tell others your rent, tell others of your debt, and do so without embellishment or caveats. Go into every professional situation broaching the subject of money early, forcefully and without fanfare. We all need money—it’s finally time to start talking about it.


Photograph by Ingram Publishing / Thinkstock

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