Since When Were We All Pretending To Have Money?

Photographed by Zaineb Abelque.
Photo for illustrative purposes only, the person featured is a model.
I'm going to be honest with you: I'm writing this piece because I'm broke. At the time of writing, I have £5 to my name and a bundle of debt from various life happenings in the past few years, including a relationship that ended which required me to take on the financial burden, moving cities and, of course, COVID. The interest on it all is crippling me. After the increase in rent, travel costs and bills, I’ve been getting by on a maximum of £40 a week for months, which – to give some context – is £3 more than a weekly discounted travel card in London. It's not a great state of affairs.
Another caveat: I have a good job. I’m a radio presenter and producer as well as writing on the side, all of which pays a decent amount and is very fun to do. And I'm very lucky. I get invited to free dinners and get to go to free events. Rarely, if ever, do I pay for gig tickets. This 'glamorous', fun side is what people see, because – like so many others who are privileged to have these sort of perks – it's what I allow them to see, and is realistically necessary for my job.
I'll buy a nausea-inducing round at work drinks because it’s what I've been conditioned to do but then I'll go without food at home to make up for it. I’ll go to a work event – basically mandatory in my industry – in my one nice outfit and if it overruns, end up paying for a taxi, which inevitably means that I’ll have too little to pay my bills, or I will be showering with hand soap because I didn’t have enough to buy the body wash I’ve just run out of. It’s privation masquerading as privilege and I’m in no way alone in it. Across the sweep and scale of the UK are young women setting up accounts to sell photos of their feet, exhausting themselves with two or three jobs or considering taking on one of the sugar daddies who creep into our message requests, just to keep the veneer up.

Stop dressing up for your Instagram posts and tagging that one designer piece you got off Depop when really you're eating leftovers in a 10-year-old dressing gown from Primark like the rest of us.

"I do wonder what I did wrong. While it’s true that I maybe chose a less lucrative career and potentially buy too many coffees each week, I don’t know how it’s possible for me to work this hard and still be barely scraping by," says Rebecca, 28, who is originally from Australia and moved to London three years ago in the hope of pursuing journalism. "I feel impossibly far away from ever being financially secure enough to own a home or afford to raise a child." She spent her first two years here as a live-in nanny, witnessing the wealth of others and living a strange aspect of it. Now, as a journalist for a London publication, she’s doing just another version of the same, still babysitting at weekends to make ends meet. She won’t be the only one.
The Office for National Statistics Labour Force Survey data, collected in 2020, highlights an ongoing class crisis in the arts (with data from the Trades Union Congress demonstrating a severe drop in arts and entertainment employment for women of colour in recent years). According to research by the Policy and Evidence Centre, individuals from working class backgrounds make up only 16% of creative occupations: film (16%), advertising and marketing (15%), architecture (12%), publishing (13%) and music, performance and visual arts (12%). And the National Council for the Training of Journalists' 2022 Diversity in Journalism Report found that 80% of UK journalists are from professional or upper class backgrounds, an increase of 5% since 2020. Rebecca is not one of them. "Because I work in lifestyle journalism I’m constantly surrounded by wealth, and I get to sometimes borrow the experience of it," she says. "I get to do things I could never afford for free and it should make me happy but it honestly just makes me feel depressed. I go to all these fancy events and have to pretend to fit in with people that are wearing head-to-toe designer, meanwhile nearly every pair of underwear I own has holes in it. What use is being sent a £200 face cream when one of the reasons your skin is so dry is that you can’t afford to turn your heating on?"
It's not just hunger and cold we have to worry about while keeping up these appearances; it’s loneliness and shame. Claire*, 28, works front of house in the arts sector and says: "I haven't ever been extremely well off but things have become notably harder the older I've become due to personal circumstances and also now the cost of living crisis. When friends invite me out to dinner or drinks, I often have to turn it down because I won’t have enough and don't want to ask [to borrow some money], and then when I do [go out], I just pay for myself and try to not worry until the next day. But it always means I have to ask my sister or get a loan out so I can continue travelling into work, which just makes me feel guilty and embarrassed. I ended up stealing food from the shop near my work for lunch once but I felt so guilty. I can’t do it again. It makes me feel like I'm less worthy, not successful, ashamed but then guilty for not asking for help or being honest. But I don't want to be judged or looked at as being poor."
Aspiration and almost cos-playing success to achieve success is no new thing. Think of Steinbeck having his characters preserve one pristine white shirt as their ticket out of poverty, or the modern extreme of Anna Sorokin, the Russian con artist who wore just enough designer items to act her way into the upper echelons of New York society. The desire to appear successful is old as time but now we have the addictive lens of social media adding another level of warp to our perceptions. Here, women in particular are 'self-starters' and 'hustlers' bedecked in Ganni and Jacquemus, looking like success incarnate and telling us that if we just work harder and have the right look we can be just like them. In reality we have no idea of their real financial situations or even their socioeconomic backgrounds. And we – particularly those of us from less well-off backgrounds – buy into the myth and often crumble under the weight of it. With institutions like Young Women’s Trust finding that young women in the UK are earning on average 22% less than their male counterparts, and that 62% of us feel that our prospects have diminished in the last six months, it’s no surprise that we can’t keep up.
Laura Horton understands this well. She’s the Plymouth Laureate of Words whose new semi-autobiographical play, Breathless (which has already won a Fringe First in Edinburgh and is set for a run at London’s prestigious Soho Theatre), took her a long time to write because of the shame attached. Breathless is all about Horton's quest to appear 'right', a hunger that led to an unsustainable sample sale addiction, which swiftly became something else.

Let's stop play-acting. Times have never been harder and our lives have never been more visible; let's use that for good.

Laura, now 39, was born and raised in a lower middle class family in Plymouth. She grew up perusing the pages of Elle, Marie Claire and, most of all, Vogue. As her narrator Sophie says in Breathless: "I could never afford the magazine, but saw the opportunity in a copy left behind on the bus." Laura, like so many others, dreamed of the day she might somehow attain that level of glamour, comfort and success.
When she entered and won a writing competition for a prestigious magazine at the age of 24, she was elated. That is until she went to the office and felt so shabby, so out of place and so ashamed that she didn’t return. She describes the moment in Breathless: "The others listed off designers and fashion photographers, name-dropped influential people they knew, talked about the colleges they went to. When asked where I went to school, one lady looked quizzical at the name of my comprehensive. I couldn’t keep up. Though I wanted that opportunity more than anything, instinctively I knew I wasn’t right for it. I didn’t have the right clothes, the poise…" And so began her obsession with designer sample sales and their promise of luxe at a massive discount, an obsession which led to her becoming what she now defines as a hoarder. 
"These clothes, seeing the labels, meant I could have this aspirational-looking life but still work within my means," says Horton. "But then with that, people think you’re doing better than you are, and friends who are doing well – like one friend who was a banker – would take us to these places and once just kept buying the most expensive bottles of wine and I didn’t realise. I’d budgeted for £20 and it was £80 each and I just remember panicking so much because that was my money for the week but I couldn’t say anything. It just makes you feel so self-conscious. And I still have that, even working as much as I do now." 
At the centre of all of this is anxiety: that we’ll be judged, that we’ll be found out, that we’ll be found wanting. So many of us prioritise appearances over being 'sensible' with our finances and, in the cost of living crisis we now find ourselves squeezed by, even sometimes jeopardising our health if we’re not staying warm or eating enough. But maybe, hopefully, things are changing. 
When I watched Breathless in Plymouth I was overwhelmed to see how many audience members thanked Laura afterwards for compassionately showing something they’d been secretly doing for years, saying that they now felt they had the language to talk about it with friends and family. Just a couple of weeks earlier I’d forced myself to post something on Instagram that I was simultaneously proud and ashamed of: I’d managed to afford a second pan for my new home in London after four months of living there.
The day-to-day expenses of just barely keeping up appearances and getting to the office had meant that I’d gone without so many necessities, and posting this I felt sick. Would people mock me and my choices? No, it turned out. People were relieved. "THANK YOU for talking about this!! So many people just assume," read one response from a teacher. "Ohhh mate I have BEEN here. Absolutely no shame in it, the squeeze is ever present now and almost a constant source of anxiety," read another, from a musician. "I feel you… As busy as I am, sometimes it just takes forever to get paid and you can’t make it work," responded a personal trainer. "I’ve been stealing toilet roll from work because I can’t afford it," said someone I’d always admired for their glamour on social media. Over the following weeks I had friends coming up to me to say that they’d been feeling the same but assumed they were alone. My inbox overflowed. 
I’m aware that so many people are struggling with more pressing matters, with children and partners to care for, and that these superficial drivers don’t even factor on their radar. I really hope that you don’t read this as my trying to equate the two; all of the women I spoke to were very firm about this, too. But these financial worries still have real impacts on both physical and mental health.
So my proposition is this. Let’s stop play-acting. Times have never been harder and our lives have never been more visible; let’s use that for good. Stop dressing up for your Instagram posts and tagging that one designer piece you got off Depop when really you’re eating leftovers in a 10-year-old dressing gown from Primark like the rest of us. Talk to your friends about money worries, about how much you earn and how much it’s being stretched. When people start ordering rounds, say that you just can’t afford it this week. No, it doesn’t fix the finances themselves but I guarantee it’ll leave you and them relieved. Struggling is a deeply lonely thing, unless we all do it together.
If you’re a young woman and have found yourself struggling in this new cost of living crisis, head to Young Women’s Trust for help, resources and to sign their open letter to the government asking for greater support for young women, all of which you can find here.
*Name has been changed to maintain confidentiality