We're middle class and successful – so why are we as poor as church mice
22:03 GMT, 7 November 2012
The trip to our local ice-rink was a special treat at the end of a largely uneventful half-term holiday. Constrained by a cash shortage and the bitter cold, we had spent much of the week at home, our three children venturing out only for the occasional play-date with friends.
So, eager to prolong our outing, they had no sooner taken off their skates than they began pleading to be taken to the adjoining cafe for a hotdog and drinking chocolate.
They must have known there was little hope of my saying yes, but someone, somewhere, clearly told our trio that God loves a trier.
Hard times: Helen Carroll with her three children, from left, Daniel ten, Christian four and Isobel eight
The problem, you see, is that we didn’t have the 33 it had cost our family of five to get into the ice-rink — we simply handed over a debit card and it was added to our ever-expanding overdraft. Spending another 30 in the cafe was out of the question.
I realise my husband and I are by no means the only ones struggling to make ends meet during these recessionary times. What is harder for me to understand is how, by any measure, we can be middle-class yet still as poor as church mice.
My husband, Dillon, is a university lecturer with three degrees and a doctorate, all from top universities, while I have been a writer for more than 20 years, working freelance since before our eldest child was born, nearly 11 years ago.
Granted, I have worked only part-time since becoming a mother, determined to spend as many hours as possible with my children, but my gross earnings have exceeded a respectable 30,000 most years — 6,000 of which we spent on childcare until our youngest started school in September.
In addition to his full-time lecturer’s post, my husband also works evenings and weekends for two other academic institutions, marking postgraduate exam scripts, supervising dissertations and tutoring A-level students online.
'We are not extravagant. We rarely eat out or order takeaways, and summer holidays are a luxury we can't afford'
I don’t know anyone who works harder. He stays up until 1.30am most nights, leaves before 7am most days, and puts in more than 60 hours’ work every week.
Dillon’s pre-tax earnings are nudging 50,000, which now means that his taking on any additional work would jeopardise our child benefit payments of 188 a month, or 2,256 per year.
Under new rules coming into force in January, if one parent earns more than 50,000, a family will wave goodbye to a proportion of their child benefit. Those with a salary of 60,000 will lose it completely.
On the face of it, we may appear to be one of those families the Government believes can live without child benefit.
However, unlike Angela Epstein, Shona Sibary and Antonia Hoyle, who all wrote in the Mail last week about the allowance being withdrawn, I believe my family truly represents the squeezed middle for whom every penny counts. Like them we are middle-class, but those three writers and their partners have joint salaries in excess of 100,000, which is way more than most families can dream of earning.
Their beginnings, I’m sure, were not as humble as mine. One of six children, I was raised by a stay-at-home mother and a father who worked in sales, was reliant on commission, and was repeatedly made redundant.
Both my parents were academically able, but came from working-class families and left school at 16 to support themselves.
Every penny counts: Helen and her husband struggle to make ends meet even though they both have good careers (posed by models)
If either were alive today, I’m sure they would be proud that I had climbed the social ladder. They would also be astonished that Dillon and I find it impossible to survive without getting into debt. We are not extravagant. We rarely eat out or order takeaways, and summer holidays are a luxury we can’t afford.
We have a three-bedroom house in London, but for the past five years have been able to pay only the interest, not the capital, on the mortgage. We have a car, but had to borrow 10,000 to buy it this summer when its 11-year-old predecessor gave up the ghost.
Our children, at a state primary school, are usually well turned out, though most of their clothes are hand-me-downs from relatives and friends. Dillon and I both wear winter coats bought at our local Cancer Research charity shop.
We spend 8,500 a year on the mortgage, 4,500 on utilities including energy and the phone, 12,000 on groceries, 2,500 on insurances, 2,500 on council tax and 3,600 on loan repayments.
'Having always worked hard, and with two relatively decent wages coming in, we never imagined it would be this tough'
Petrol costs us 1,800 a year, school dinners 920 per year for two of the children (the youngest has a packed lunch), school trips around 300 a year, and after-school activities including ballet, swimming, football and Brownies about 1,000 a year.
I know our outlay is fairly typical, and there are families far worse off than ours. I often ask other middle-class couples with public sector or unpredictable freelance incomes how they survive.
Our friends, Tim and Lucy, a self-employed graphic artist and a primary school teacher, have moved their son and daughter into one bedroom and let their third room to a lodger to raise an extra 500 a month. Having a stranger share our home — even if it helped keep the bank balance in the black — is an unbearable thought. Anyway, what tenant wants to wake to the noise of screaming kids at 7am
Other friends have saved a fortune on childcare by relying on grandparents — some travel 200 miles to help out on a weekly basis — so they can pursue careers.
Those from wealthier stock periodically inherit 10,000-plus when a relative passes away.
Having always worked hard, and with two relatively decent wages coming in, we never imagined it would be this tough.
As I write this, I am wearing a shirt, jumper, trousers, two pairs of socks, slippers, a scarf and a fleecy dressing gown because I work from home but can’t afford to have the central heating on during the day.
It comes on in hour-long bursts when the children are around. Between times, when they complain of feeling cold, I tell them to put another jumper on. Nevertheless, we spend an astronomical 2,300 per year on fuel bills, which swallows every penny — plus an additional 50 — of our child benefit.
I do worry that people might wonder why we’re not managing better. Take Halloween. It was our turn to have the neighbours over, following our annual trick-or-treat trawl of the streets.
Super nanny: Many grandparents are helping with childcare to save costs for parents (posed by model)
For the past few years, I’d managed to avoid being the one to make warming cups of tea for the adults and dole out sweets to the children, not because I don’t enjoy playing host to these people, all of whom I like very much, but because I am acutely embarrassed by the neglected state of our house.
I do my best to keep it as clean and tidy as anyone can with three young children, but I’ve had to learn to turn a blind eye to the peeling wallpaper on our rickety staircase and the once-cream, now frankly obscene, living room carpet.
Despite our status as a professional couple, we simply do not have the cash to pay for decorators, or to replace the carpet with a more practical wooden floor.
And because we spend most of our waking hours either working or taking care of the children, we don’t have time for DIY.
For us, the definition of middle-class appears to be time-poor, money-poor. I recognise that our problem may be, in part, rooted in our 20s when we should, perhaps, have got on to the property ladder.
Instead, we rented flats in Central London before finally moving to North London — to one of the few areas of the city where we could afford a mortgage on a family home — four months before our eldest child was born.
Angela Epstein reported on how her family will struggle by losing child benefit in last week's Daily Mail: But many families would dream of earning 100k
We also chose to have three children, six years apart — Daniel, ten, Isobel, eight, and Christian, four — which, without doting grand-parents on the doorstep willing to take care of them for free, has meant ten years of paying for childcare, totalling 60,000, to enable me to work three days a week.
And, of course, unlike my native Yorkshire, London is the most expensive place in the UK to live.
Consequently, having switched universities for greater job security last September, it now costs my husband 100 a week in train fares just to get to and from work on the other side of London.
I once believed financial peace of mind was the very least you could expect when privileged enough to join the ranks of the middle-class. Having been awake since 4am worrying about how we will pay for Christmas, I now know better.