Right now, all 20-year-old Tommy Harper can think about is money.
But not in the way you might think. Tight in the grip of the cost of living crisis, Tommy’s not dreaming about what type of holiday his pay packet will afford him, or when he can get his hands on the latest must-have trainers.
He’s simply thinking about where he’s going to live and how much his next meal will cost.
Tommy’s financial worries first started when he left school, he tells Metro.co.uk. With dreams of being a musician, at 18 he went to music college, but soon found the travelling costs difficult to keep on top of, with his hour-long journey setting him back more than £50 a week.
Any money he’d managed to save from his part-time job glass cleaning at a pub quickly diminished, and Tommy found himself having to juggle his studies between home and college. Something that brought a different set of challenges to to the student.
‘I had trouble doing work at home because I couldn’t afford a laptop, so I wasn’t able to keep up with the other kids that were better off than me,’ he recalls. ‘The only place I could do my work was at college, but that was hard to get to because of travel costs.’
With his money disappearing, and feeling anxious and depressed about how far behind he was in his studies, Tommy made the heartbreaking decision to drop out of college just four months after starting. ‘I thought it would be better to get a job instead,’ he explains. ‘I felt like if I was earning money, I’d be happier.’
But it didn’t make him happier. Having landed a bartender job with a £300 a month salary, Tommy still worried about money, giving half his pay packet to his parents to help cover rent, gas, and electricity.
‘My mum and dad have never been financially stable, even though my dad has always worked,’ Tommy says. ‘They have always struggled to pay for things.’
Now, as the current financial turmoil continues to impact millions, the former student admits feeling the pinch more than ever – and is fearful of where it will all end.
‘It’s a far cry from what I imagined adult life to be like,’ he admits.
As the cost of living crisis continues to cripple people across the UK, Tommy’s struggles are reflective of a huge number of youngsters his age.
New research from the charity Centrepoint has found that 49% of young people, aged 16-25, have been forced to go to bed hungry in the last 12 months and more than half have struggled to buy food.
‘We’ve heard from some who are not getting the nutrition they need because they’re eating nothing but pasta and others who are skipping meals completely, sometimes for days on end,’ says Billy Harding from Centrepoint.
‘Young people are already forced to choose between food and other essentials and getting into debt because they don’t have enough money. If bills and the price of the weekly shop continues to rise then that’s only going to get worse.’
Harding is particularly worried about the most vulnerable young people – those completely reliant on Universal Credit but receive less than claimants older than 25.
‘When the benefit was cut by £20 a week last year they were hit hardest and lost around 25% of their income,’ he explains.
‘Most young people on Universal Credit want to get on with their careers or education. The current crisis – where they’re forced to skip meals or get into debt – puts the brakes on that because it leaves them struggling to concentrate in college or makes working difficult.’
Paying for food and bills isn’t the only thing troubling Tommy though. His mental health has taken a hit too. In the last month, he has battled with overwhelming anxiety and ended up leaving his job as a bartender. ‘I’d find myself taking holidays because I didn’t have enough money to get to work,’ he admits. ‘It was just too much to cope with.’
While social services have offered to help his parents and younger brother to get into a more suitable property than the two-bedroom they are currently living in, when they do move, there won’t be space to take Tommy with them.
‘So I have this whole plan of moving into a hostel and then eventually finding my own place,’ he says. ‘It will make it easier to focus on myself and look for a better paying job that will help me pay off my expenses.’
Tommy says he still dreams of working in the music business one day and can often be found in the music room of the Onside Youth Zone. But admits that although he’s looking for opportunities that can help him achieve his goal, it’s hard to feel positive while living on Universal Credit payments and looking for a waitering or retail job to supplement his income.
‘I’ve always been the type of person to do things myself, but now I feel very nervous because anything could happen,’ he says.
‘The fact that things are starting to get worse – and could still get worse – is just unbelievable.’
However, it’s not just young men feeling the crunch. Research has also found that women under 30 are uniquely impacted by the cost-of-living crisis as a result of an income gap between them and young men due to more unpaid caring work, such as looking after children or young siblings. It means they are more likely to be in part-time jobs or not working at all.
In their recent annual report, the Young Women’s Trust found that 40% of the women aged 18-30 they spoke to said their financial situation has got worse in the last year. Nearly a third were in debt all the time.
‘Young women really are at the sharp end of the crisis because they were already closer to the financial cliff edge to start with, earning significantly less than young men,’ explains Claire Reindorp of Young Women’s Trust. ‘Life is pretty bleak for many them right now and we need to see some action.’
In the same survey, a third of the mothers spoken to revealed they had missed meals so their children didn’t go hungry. That figure rose to over half for single mums.
‘Young women are telling us that they feel stuck, without choices, spending all of their energies on surviving rather than thriving and unable to get off to a good start in their lives,’ adds Reindorp. ‘It doesn’t need to be like this.’
In her Pembrokeshire rented house, Natalie* says she finds herself worrying daily about how she is going to provide for her family of three. The 22-year-old mum, whose son is a year and a half old, feels the full weight of carrying the responsibility for herself and another human being.
‘I shouldn’t have to live my life stressing every day and looking for ways to get money,’ Natalie says.
Before she was pregnant, Natalie worked as a dinner lady in a school, picking up shifts with an agency in hospitals in Crawley, England. Then, in February 2020, while expecting her son, she decided to move into her own place closer to her partner in Wales.
‘I was doing alright maintaining our money,’ Natalie remembers. However, after her partner moved in with her, the couple ended up losing a chunk of money when their individual Universal Credit claims turned into a joint one.
It means that although Natalie is now working as a receptionist at an office, the increasing price of living is still causing the family a huge financial strain and they struggle to pay for the most basic needs.
She recalls a time recently when she topped up her gas and electric with £10 each, expecting it to last for a few days. ‘But no, it literally only lasted for that day,’ she says. ‘When the next price rise comes in October, it’s going to hit hard. I’m going to prepare for it, but it is going to be worse than it is now and that scares me a lot.’
Although the family have cut their food budget down to £200 a month, there are days Natalie and her partner – who is currently out of work due to mental health issues – choose not to eat so that they can prioritise their son.
‘We don’t really think about us,’ Natalie admits. ‘We haven’t gone to a food bank yet, even though we are running low. But we did have a donation from one delivered to our house the other day.’
‘I have so much mum guilt,’ she adds. ‘I just want my son to have a good life. But this is the world I am bringing him up in. I’m doing the best I can, but everything is out of my control.
‘This just shouldn’t be the new normal. The government needs to step up and do more. I’m scared about what the future is going to be like if no one does anything.’
Young people who have had experience of being in care are already vulnerable as they start their journeys into adult life, however charity leaders are warning that the current financial crisis could tip them over the brink of poverty and ‘set them up to fail’.
‘We know from our direct experience of supporting young people leaving the care system that one of the greatest challenges they face at the moment is the cost-of-living crisis,’ says Carin Laird, Senior Project Worker at Barnardo’s Plymouth Care Journeys.
‘Living on your own can be difficult without the support of friends and family nearby, and it can be particularly challenging for care-experienced young people once they reach 18 when they are expected to start living more or less independently.’
Laird’s project works with multiple young people and one small step she and her team want to see is the introduction of free bus travel for care leavers up to the age of 25. ‘By doing so, we can help make sure care-experienced young people have the best possible chance to build a brighter and positive future,’ she explains.
Following months of just scraping by, 25-year-old Graeme Langdon feels he’s finally keeping his head above water, for now at least.
At 10, he was placed into foster care as his mother was no longer capable of taking care of him or his siblings.
With the help of a foster family, Graeme managed to get a good education but when he wanted to go to university at 19 – and no longer a child under the care system – he simply couldn’t afford to.
Instead, he moved into shared accommodation filled with disadvantaged young people. ‘It felt like a quick transition into adulthood at 20. All alone,’ Graeme recalls.
After 18 months, he moved in with his girlfriend and got a job as a vessel firefighter, making £500 per week. Finally, he thought, his future was looking up.
However, in the space of two years, not only had his relationship broke down, but Graeme also became homeless after losing his job in the pandemic.
Initially he moved in with his sister until he found a place with his best friend, where they shared the bills. ‘And this is when everything really started going wrong,’ he recalls. ‘We couldn’t figure out how on earth everything was costing so much.’
Graeme remembers reading his energy meter and seeing there was just £5 left. ‘I took a ten-minute shower and it had already dropped by three quid,’ he recalls.
To balance out the increasingly high prices of gas, he and his housemate often had cold showers to save money.
Soon, Graeme needed two jobs to pay the bills – one in a call centre, the other in security. ‘Big sacrifices still had to be made,’ he says. ‘We would go without eating well for quite some time. We typically ate noodles and crackers, sometimes chicken and rice – the basics. It sucked.’
Eventually, the financial pressures impacted their friendship and Graeme oved out in February 2022.
‘As a young person, you are not equipped to deal with these kinds of struggles,’ he admits. ‘We shouldn’t be having to worry about these things. We should be thinking about college, university, and what our next steps are.’
‘Young people are the future,’ adds Graeme. ‘They’re going to shape generations to come. It’s imperative we find a way out of this.’
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