United Kingdom

TOBY WALNE lived on £179 pension and could barely survive a WEEK

People surviving on the basic state pension face an even tougher future after the Government broke a 'triple lock' pledge to protect them from the rising cost of living. 

Those who retired after April 2016 receive just £179.60 a week while pensioners born before April 1945 get a derisory £137.60 – topped up to £177.10 if they claim pension credit. 

Last week, I decided to experience what it was like to live off such a pittance. Although only an experiment, I found it discomforting.

Sunday lunch: Toby Walne decided to experience what it was like to live off such a pittance of a basic state pension

MONDAY 

Waking early with a sense of foreboding, I have no desire to stir from my bed. With the prospect of surviving on just £25 a day for the coming week, more time under the duvet seems like a good idea. 

But I am distracted by the sound of letters hitting the doormat. Normally, I dash down to see what the postman has brought. But not today – it could be bills I am unable to pay. 

Sitting at the kitchen table with a cup of tea, I do some back-of-the-envelope calculations. 

For the purposes of this financial experiment, I pretend I'm living alone in a modest home – though thankfully the mortgage has been paid off. I am paying £20 a week for electricity and gas, though with a looming 12 per cent price hike this autumn it could soon be a choice between turning the heating on or a hot meal. 

Then there is £10 for water rates, £14 for council tax and £13 for a combination of internet access, insurance and a TV Licence. 

A third of my weekly pension – £57 – has been used up and I have yet to step out the front door. My original £179.60 has already shrunk to £122.60.

TUESDAY 

Usually I shop at Waitrose, but not today. I am at Aldi with a budget of £50 – the same value of unused food that the average family throws away each month. 

I have enough to buy bread, tea, milk, butter, fruit, vegetables, baked beans, potatoes, pork sausages and chicken for the week without too much hardship. 

But there is no room for any luxuries – such as the 'must-have essentials' on offer in the shop's central aisle: for example, a £50 cordless chainsaw. I push my trolley towards the checkout, avoiding my usual sins; craft beer, wine and gin. Usually I can blow £50 on alcohol alone when shopping. It also requires an iron will not to be seduced by tempting extras – cheeses, cured meats, crisps, biscuits, stone-baked bread, chocolate and coffee beans. 

It all feels rather virtuous, but I know I couldn't live like this for longer than my experimental week. Just £72.60 left.

WEDNESDAY 

I am in a foul mood. The novelty of living like many pensioners has worn off. I long to jump into my convertible car and enjoy that wind-in-your-hair sense of freedom motoring brings. But running a car while dependent purely upon the state pension would be a non-starter. 

With unleaded petrol now at £1.35 a litre, the average price of a secondhand car £14,000, and insurance, taxes and running costs adding a further £500 a year, the maths does not stack up. 

I break into a sweat at the thought of being without wheels in old age. I walk a quarter of a mile from my Hertfordshire home to the nearest bus stop so I can travel into Bishop's Stortford. 

The five-mile bus ride takes half an hour and would be free for a pensioner with a bus pass. But there is a catch. There are just three Number 20 buses a day and I have a two-hour wait for the next one. I trudge back home defeated. 

The only upside is that I haven't spent a penny all day. 

THURSDAY 

Where normally I would quietly grumble at how charity shops clutter up the high street, I am now happy to rummage through their clothes racks. I'm pleasantly surprised by both the quality and value – I buy a couple of shirts, jumper and jacket for £30 to prepare for the winter ahead. I'm quite pleased with my purchases, but spoil my spot of bargain hunting by spending a further £10 on a record and two books at St Clare Hospice Music and Bookshop. It feels like a real treat. 

I redeem myself by cancelling a barber's appointment (which would have cost £15) and do a rather bad job cutting my own hair with a razor. 

I also walk past Bishop's Stortford Food Bank in the centre of town. Inside the church hall, volunteers are enthusiastically filling boxes with donations from supermarkets – biscuits, cereal, beans, tinned fish, pasta, tinned fruit, tea, coffee and toiletries. 

Cutting it fine: Toby trims his own hair to save the cost of a barber

The food bank helps those most in need – people living on universal credit, the unemployed as well as those struggling on a basic state pension. Yet many older people are too proud to seek charity. 

I've got just £32.60 left to last me tomorrow and the weekend.

FRIDAY 

Normally, Friday night involves a meal out or a trip to the theatre. But not this week. I trundle down to the pub at the bottom of my lane for a couple of refreshing pints of Hadham Brewery ale, a packet of salted peanuts and salt and vinegar crisps. A bargain three-course meal. 

I sit listening to others talking of trips abroad next year if this cursed epidemic is ever put to bed. I am living vicariously on the pleasures and experiences of others. 

I return home with £20 and decide it should be put aside for a future unexpected financial crisis – for example, the boiler breaking down or the roof springing a leak. But, of course, you'd need a lot of savings to meet the costs of such a calamity – another one of the many issues about living off such a small income. 

THE WEEKEND 

Usually, I wake early on a Saturday morning and plan my weekend: seeing family and friends, having a few drinks, and slumping in front of the TV to watch paid-for Formula 1 racing. 

A lack of money has put paid to these options. So I spend the weekend in the garden, cutting turf so I can turn part of the lawn into a flower meadow. 

I would have hired a rotavator for £50 to complete the work, but it is too expensive. Yet toiling with a garden spade and fork is free and rewarding work. Grass and flower seeds from hedgerow and overgrown verges cost nothing. My Sunday roast is beans on toast. It is disconcerting not going out and sharing interests with others – being shut out of the hectic consumer spending world. I have discovered – misguided as it may be – that money brings a sense of identity as a member of society. Struggling to survive on a state pension has been a sobering experience. 

Of course, I am lucky because I can now escape the temporary shackles of having little money and return to life as a member of the country's workforce. But I now have a better understanding of the difficulties thousands of pensioners – particularly single women – face living from week to week.

SHAMEFUL... PENSIONERS ARE BEING TREATED WITH CONTEMPT 

Angry: Jan Shortt is General Secretary of the  National Pensioners Convention

I applaud Toby Walne for trying to survive on a paltry state pension for a week. But attempt it for three months and I believe he would have found it almost impossible to bear.

Sadly, for me, it represents a life sentence. I must survive on an income of less than £200 a week – comprising the basic state pension and a tiny income from a private retirement plan. 

The suspension of the triple lock is a terrible betrayal for the elderly who every day have to make some really tough choices – whether to eat, pay bills or put the heating on in winter. 

Our basic state pension is one of the most inadequate in the developed world and this is shameful. The latest figures show spending on state pensions accounts for 4.7 per cent of the country's gross domestic product – less than half that of France, Finland or Austria. The average for developed countries is 6.5 per cent. 

Meanwhile, household costs have been rising faster for pensioners in this country than for workers over the past decade – and it is only going to get worse by breaking the triple-lock pledge and cutting the link to wage earnings for next year. 

There is also an expected hike in energy bills and council taxes on the horizon – not to mention the cruel decision to scrap free TV licences for the over-75s made last year. Dignity and financial independence for the most vulnerable in society are now under threat. Those making the calculations on what elderly people can get by on live in cloud cuckoo land. 

Yes, we can survive financially – but only if we are willing to sacrifice even the smallest of luxuries and there are no unexpected bills that could push us into debt. It is contemptible how the Government is now treating the poorest pensioners in such a demeaning way.  

                                Jan Shortt General Secretary, National Pensioners Convention 

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