Working as a security guard and a bouncer, I’m trained in “restrictive intervention”. Anyone who gets too rowdy or too close is first asked to tone it down. If they turn violent, the bodycam gets switched on, and the attacker may find themselves folded up like a deckchair.
But there’s one bloke who makes all my training evaporate. He comes to my house every day. He wears grey shorts, a red top and carries a high-vis handbag. He’s the postman. And every time he shows up, I pray the envelopes he’s holding aren’t marked “Your bill is enclosed”.
In my job keeping people and property safe on a university campus, I earn £10.71 per hour. Working 16 12-hour shifts a month bags me an average £1,400, after tax. I’ve always been comfortable earning a modest wage. Since I began working at the age of 15, I’ve picked jobs based on two guiding principles: I don’t want to have to tell lies all day, and I don’t want to get work calls beyond the car park.
In my various roles over the past 25 years, working on a gun range, in a lead factory, as a labourer and shifting boxes, those two rules have never been broken. Getting a job in security taught me a third: once the uniform’s on, you need to help people.
This year, the drumbeat of news about inflation has made me increasingly anxious. In March I stumbled across the term “working poor” in an FT article about a cleaner and her delivery-driver husband. They were ditching weekend trips away to visit friends and family because they could no longer afford them. I’d never heard the term before. I started to wonder if it included me.
I did some googling. My hourly rate puts me at more than a pound above the Office for National Statistics’ 2021 low-pay threshold of £9.40. But I’m below the national median average of £604 a week, or about £31,400 a year. So on my wages alone I’m worse placed than the average Brit, but better off than the low-paid.
This is sort of reassuring. But with inflation hitting a 40-year high of 9.1 per cent, including a reported 6 per cent rise in food prices and a 33 per cent rise in fuel prices compared with a year ago, I can’t help wondering if at some point in the next year my job will become unaffordable.
I decide to start tracking my bills and my spending as closely as possible. If I can work out where the money goes, I’ll know how much room I’ve got to absorb the apocalyptic-sounding deluge of price rises coming our way.
I clock off at 6pm and race home, pulling the outdoor cabinet key from my security vest. It’s March 31, and tomorrow the energy price cap is set to jump by an average of 54 per cent, or £693 a year per household. Like everyone else in England, I’m desperate to submit my gas meter readings beforehand. But the website is jammed, so I make a note to do it when I’m off shift the next morning.
At 5am, my reading is successfully submitted. My phone tells me my monthly wages have come through: £1,434.48. Two years ago, in lockdown, it was £1,411.86. Until the recent price rises, I haven’t minded that it’s not budged much. It’s not like I’ve taken up yachting.
The first set of monthly debits are on my phone too. The gas breakdown cover comes out at £26.57, which is worth paying as it’s a lot easier to swallow than the doomsday scenario of the boiler breaking down and having to find thousands of pounds to replace it. Bulb’s monthly electricity bill, one of the few that comes in the post, is luckily still set as per my contract at £44.74, and the gas bill at £27.47. I breathe a sigh of relief that the rise in the energy cap isn’t yet affecting my bank balance.
I arrange a celebratory trip to visit my parents. Since I sold my van in 2010 — a tough choice but necessary in order to swing the mortgage — my girlfriend, our daughter and I have walked everywhere. If we go beyond work or playground pick-ups, we use public transport. Although transport prices seem to have been steadily creeping up, the 40-mile trip to my parents only sets us back £18.15 with a family railcard.
Dad’s a Londoner, born and raised in the East End; Mum’s from south-east Germany. He charmed her while she was over on a holiday that she’s yet to return from. Over lunch, Dad tells me how the insecurity that low-paid workers face right now isn’t the future he worked for. His generation went on strike and missed wages to get the right to sick pay, weekends off, job protection.
He went from working in a fur factory to building sites to being a draughtsman for the Greater London Council until the building got turned into the London Aquarium. Zero-hours contracts are a sign my generation has been mugged, he says. I should get the union involved. I tell him my last email to the rep went unanswered — maybe they’re on zero hours too.
Mum is even more vocal. Why are politicians who are already on more than 80 grand a year getting a pay rise of £2,200 while everyone else is getting hammered? She was a typist who raised three kids, which makes me think she must’ve also been a bank robber, because my girlfriend and I can just about feed one. She always makes me smile when she speaks Cockney rhyming slang in a German accent.
Before my next shift, I brace myself for the mortgage payment to make its monthly dent in my bank balance. Thank God the amount is fixed for the next two years at £656.97 a month, but I dread to think what the interest rates will be when we have to remortgage in 2024. I check the online food order. I eat porridge twice a day. The way I see it, Brexit shouldn’t impact too much on the price of groceries if they come from Scotland.
On the days when I’m on duty, from 6am to 6pm, I pre-make my special turbo salad: a mix of spinach (£1.05), peanuts (46p), tomatoes (90p), brown bread (£1) and Colman’s mustard (£1.65). It revs me up like Popeye, keeps me going for 12 hours and works out a lot cheaper per fistful than a Starbucks sandwich.
I’ve always been pretty good at economising. I keep fit by using the kitchen floor as a gym, doing press-ups, lunges and dips on the gap in the worktop. They say muscles are made in the kitchen; mine literally are. And so far, food has been one of the easiest ways I can save money.
My girlfriend realised once we’d moved into our own house that we could get rid of the previous owners’ dishwasher and rely on elbow grease. If it’s my turn to wash up, I’ll only ever use the cold tap or the kettle to spare the boiler. I’ve also long since given up milk in my porridge. I use the kettle for that too.
I avoid discounts for stuff I wouldn’t normally buy when I’m doing the online grocery shopping, as it’s just another way to get tempted into spending on what you don’t need. Trolley, an app and grocery-price tracking site, has been a great resource to see how much our regular items have changed over time and to find the cheapest deals.
My job also occasionally provides small bonuses in the form of uneaten food. Every so often while locking up, I’ll discover a meeting room where board members have left some of the spread they ordered completely untouched. I still remember the delight on my girlfriend’s face when I introduced her to the gourmet onion-bhaji sandwich.
She gets to skip buying lunch too. Working in a school for kids with social and emotional problems, she gets a canteen meal as long as she helps keep order. You need to keep your carbs up when distressed pupils are attacking each other and you’re the referee.
My girlfriend’s job and the stories she brings home are part of the reason I class myself as well-off, namely because I had a warm, loving and safe upbringing. My nan’s advice about avoiding the “never never” (buying on finance) has kept me from going too deep into debt.
Every time I get tempted by something extravagant, I think of the magpies I sometimes watch on CCTV, the ones in the car park who are trying to headbutt wing mirrors or pick glossy posters off the walls. I guess flapping around trinkets and shiny stuff for too long can drive you a bit crazy, especially once you realise most of it ends up as clutter.
The car park was the site of another lesson. A few years ago, a university academic who is also a psychotherapist asked me to help set up her in-vehicle Bluetooth. As we were chatting, she told me that the blokes who sit in her chair don’t cry because they never got a Scalextric or put a Lotus in the garage. They cry because their dad didn’t cuddle them.
It’s why I’m grateful that, despite the mornings, evenings, weekends and bank holidays I often have to spend at work instead of with my family, those shifts buy me some weekdays off. I can go to the park and throw pine cones with my daughter after school, meet Mum for a milkshake after she leaves work.
I’m walking through a graveyard that we have to patrol when I start to smell something weird, almost like marmalade. As I get closer to the odour’s source, something clicks in my brain — it’s urine. Three junkies are sitting in some bramble bushes. Around their feet, different-coloured syringes are spread out like crayons, along with empty blister packs and burst sharps containers. It’s like someone’s booted open a biohazard bag from the bins in one of the campus’s nursing-simulation suites.
One of the junkies is trying to inject his mate but can’t find a vein. He’s put so many holes in him I think it qualifies as acupuncture. I’m glad I forked out a month’s fun money (£64.85) on a pair of TurtleSkin needle-proof gloves.
In a happier occurrence, HMRC emails me to say I don’t owe any tax aside from the Pay As You Earn amount automatically deducted from my salary. I’ve been doing a bit of freelance writing and have declared everything I earn, but luckily it’s not enough to get taxed. I log into my portal at work and find my tax deductions have actually dropped by £48.40 since last month, and my national insurance has fallen by £20.78. Maybe things are looking up. In a few days, my girlfriend will transfer over £630 to cover her half of the mortgage, the bills, insurance and after-school club fees.
The next day, I’m guarding the library, working with my shift mate Joe. He’s got three other jobs — supermarket-order picker plus Deliveroo and sometime decorator — and a kid on the way. I tell him even his work ethic can’t prepare him for being a parent. When I get home, I find my daughter has tested positive for Covid.
In a stroke of luck, this has coincided with four days off duty for me, meaning we don’t have any childcare issues until Friday, when my girlfriend’s bosses thankfully let her have a day off. Two negative tests later, my daughter is allowed back to class. To cushion it, I treat her to lunch in Pret A Manger, where the filter coffee has gone up from 99p to £1.10. I always carry a loose pound for rough sleepers so they can buy themselves a hot drink. Now I’ll have to move up a denomination.
Come the morning, my girlfriend’s tested positive, plus another bloke on my shift. Everyone’s had Covid twice now apart from me, and I really don’t want a rematch after the first round left me feeling like I’d upset a load of Luton fans.
A message from the student-accommodation manager puts my worries in perspective: the university is letting one of its houses to a family of Ukrainian refugees via the council. Security need to get the keys ready, so I head to the safe room and tag them up on yellow and blue fobs, then write “Vitajemo” on the labels. Hopefully, Google has translated “Welcome” correctly.
My next day on duty is a Saturday, and I’m buzzing: the £150 council tax rebate from then-chancellor of the exchequer Rishi Sunak to provide some “fair, targeted and proportionate” help is there on my phone. Part of me’s tempted to draw it out as cash just in case it disappears. Not that I don’t trust a bloke who needs help tapping his card at the petrol station.
April edges towards May. I’m on duty over the bank holiday. The monthly insurances are going out: home, critical illness, mortgage protection. When we moved in just ahead of the first lockdown, these came to £139.14 a month. They’re pretty much the same — maybe the system has forgotten us.
Then the gas bill comes in. It’s gone from £28.47 to £95.97.
For the first time since school, I’ve been working out percentages. Out of my £1,434.48 post-tax pay each month, about 23 per cent goes on paying for my half of the mortgage, or £328. I can’t economise there.
Food for the household wipes out 31 per cent, which leaves 46 per cent for bills, life, everything else. But with the bills this month totalling £748.70, that’s 52 per cent of my take-home pay. This would be some very scary arithmetic if it wasn’t for my girlfriend transferring her half across. It’s a godsend I’m not a single parent trying to keep the house going on my wages alone. I wouldn’t last a month. It would be me in the graveyard trying to find a vein.
This, I realise, is why the Institute for Fiscal Studies, the UK economic research institute, recommends looking at your net household income — not your individual wages — to work out how you compare with the rest of the population. When I fill out its online calculator, the results say that with my girlfriend’s salary added to mine, and because we only have one dependent, our household after-tax income of £3,452.16 puts us in the “seventh decile”.
I’m not sure what a decile is, but it goes on to say that although my hourly wage is below the median, our joint household income is actually higher than around 61 per cent of the UK population. That explains why we still have enough breathing space right now to save a little (I put £10 a month into a current account for my daughter and £50 a month into an ISA), go on some day trips and have two takeaways a month.
I use up one takeaway when I’m on duty one Sunday. The burgers and chips to share cost £28.37, but my shift mates and I take turns buying, and I’m happy that this month is on me. Mostly because I’m working with my shift mate Sam, who’s kind enough to give me a lift home most nights, and he needs a treat after having to take action against a female intruder. She’d refused to leave the site Sam was guarding, so he called the police, at which point she climbed on the bonnet of the squad car and did a number two on the windscreen.
Every time “energy” starts trending on Twitter, I read how the price cap is forecast to rise again. The latest estimates say it could go as high as £3,244 a year in October due to surging gas prices. It’s “genuinely a once-in-a-generation event”, according to the boss of Ofgem, the energy regulator. Food prices are also going up. I can’t face looking at the calculator again. I don’t need to, to know that my family could be in trouble.
Did I take a wrong turn somewhere? Since secondary school, I only hoped to earn enough money to put a roof over my head, enough grass to practise penalties and maybe have one hot holiday a year for me and my family.
People will say that if I want more money to live on, I should’ve bettered myself and found a higher-paying job. I agree, but then who’s going to do my job? Don’t they deserve a roof and a bit of garden as well? And would they enjoy being a security guard as much as I do?
I do a litter-pick with my daughter for her cubs group. If I ever get to retire, I plan to spend my free time doing the same thing but solo: get up, clean the streets, go to bed. The work takes me back to one of my most rewarding jobs, cleaning a multistorey car park. I’d grab my headphones, my tongs and a black sack and slowly make a neglected place look better. Maybe in my twilight years I can do the same. I only hope GTA will still be releasing soundtracks by that point.
It’s 6am on a Saturday. I clock on to find a student has suffered some kind of episode in the night and smashed a door down with a fire extinguisher. Everyone is understandably shaken. There are longer-term questions about the person’s care and the best way they can access help, but in the meantime we have to deal with the immediate aftermath. We calm the flatmates down, begin clearing the mess, then prepare to drive the impromptu renovator to a new residence that my bosses have arranged.
As much as I love it, there are times when this job feels a little dangerous. Not for the first time, I wonder about buying a stab-proof plate for my protective security vest. I google the cost of one. It’s £73. I decide I’ll just be unfailingly polite instead.
George Bass is a security guard at a UK university
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Original Source: ft.com