While the cost of living crisis carries on, young women all over the country are worrying about the expenses associated with the upcoming festive season. For many, the ‘most wonderful time of the year’ will be anything but as they struggle with travel, presents, elaborate meals, celebratory parties and family visits, all of which come with a hefty – and unattainable – price tag.
Charlotte-Louise Chapman lives with her five young children and younger brother in Cardiff and is already feeling an overwhelming anxiety at the thought of buying Christmas presents for her children. “I’ve got just enough money to feed and pay my bills,” said 30-year-old Charlotte. “To be honest, I’m not looking forward to Christmas.”
When Charlotte moved into her own rented house eight years ago, she was looking forward to creating a new life for herself. After being a carer for her mum as a child and then fleeing domestic abuse as an adult, Charlotte moved into her three-bedroom house hopeful for her future. Now the cost of living crisis is taking its toll and Charlotte is struggling to keep up with the expense of caring for a large family.
“It makes me feel like crap,” Charlotte said. “I’m worrying, panicking and overwhelmed. It feels like the world is on my shoulders. It’s a lot of stress.”
In recent months Charlotte’s food bill, which has to cover enough to feed seven mouths, has gone up, as have her gas and electricity payments. “I’m putting in £40 every two days for gas and electric,” she said. “I don’t want my kids to be sat in the freezing cold and I can’t afford luxuries like electric blankets to stay warm. The charity Home Start Cymru just bought me extra quilts because I can’t afford them.”
Currently receiving universal credit, PIP (personal independence payment) and child tax credits, Charlotte is just about able to cover her necessities but with the holidays approaching, she is worried about how she will give her children the typical Christmas experience. “This year I really want to get bikes for the children so I’m going to have to use Halfords’ payment plan to get them,” she said. “The girls are having some makeup. But they want clothes and toys, too – they’re kids. I’ve explained to them we are struggling but it isn’t nice for them. All their friends have this and that, and they get bullied because they haven’t got the same. I always have to say no. I’ve had enough of always saying no.”
As the children receive free school meals, the family will receive a small amount of money from the government to last through the Christmas holidays. Charlotte plans to use the money to buy the ingredients for Christmas dinner.
“It is going to take us until about April to get back on our feet financially after Christmas,” Charlotte said. “All the worry is impacting my eating habits and my mental wellbeing.”
In a recent survey of over 1,000 young women in the UK, carried out by the Young Women’s Trust, 62% said that their future prospects have worsened over the last six months. In the same survey, four out of five young women said they have little or no trust in the government to provide the support they need during the cost of living crisis.
“They can’t heat their homes – some can’t even light their homes,” said Claire Reindorp, chief executive of Young Women’s Trust. “They’re telling us that they’re struggling to feed themselves and their families.”
The Young Women’s Trust research found that young women are disproportionately affected by the rising cost of living. “They earn less than young men to begin with,” said Reindorp. “Young women are more likely to be working in lower paid jobs, more likely to be on benefits and doing more childcare and other unpaid work.”
As the holidays approach, Reindorp worries for young women who feel like they are only just holding it all together. “The holiday period will be really tough for so many,” she said. “As we enter a new year, it’s a time when people look ahead and think about what they want to achieve in life but with the cost of living crisis only getting worse, many young women are left with no hope.”
Jamie* recently moved into her own rented flat and had begun to feel that life was back on track following a short stint of homelessness. Just as she thought that things were settling down, every one of her expenses skyrocketed.
“Everything has gone up,” she said. “It’s insane.”
In the last six months, Jamie’s rent has gone up by £30 per month, her gas and electric bills have doubled, and spending on food has gone from £50 per week to £80 per week.
She has started to use food banks when she can’t afford the food she needs to survive. “It’s so embarrassing,” she said. “I’ll pull up in the car and put my hood up because I don’t want people to see me in a situation like this.”
When the contract for the admin job she had been working came to an end a month ago, Jamie started claiming universal credit. After paying her necessary bills, there is no money left over for extras.
“I can’t even cover the necessities at the moment,” Jamie said. One of her few ‘luxuries’ is buying food for her cat, Jamie’s only company when she feels lonely in her flat.
Jamie declines invitations to go out with friends for drinks or food, admitting there is no way she can afford it. As a result of saying no to socialising, she constantly feels the bite of loneliness. “I’d love to go out with them but I can’t afford it,” she said.
With the holidays weeks away, Jamie would love to buy her mum and sister presents but knows there is no spare money available. “I’ve been through some really hard stuff recently and they have helped me to get out on the other side,” she said. “I just want to be able to give back to them. I know if I spoke to them, they would be totally fine not to have anything. Who wants to sit down on Christmas Day and tell everyone they couldn’t afford to buy presents?”
Jamie had hoped to use the government’s cost of living payment to buy some Christmas presents for her family, get a few new pieces of clothing or go for a meal with friends. “But I had to use the money for a huge food shop,” she said. “I don’t know what the food situation is going to be like for the foreseeable future. I just thought it was best for me to buy as much food as I could.”
Jamie would love to cook a meal for family and go out with friends over the holidays like she has in the past, but not this year. “It’s disappointing, embarrassing,” she admitted. “It’s one thing after another. I just feel like I am drowning.”
Young women are struggling to survive daily when they should be setting themselves up for their futures. “We need politicians who are responding to this crisis to really listen to these young women,” said Reindorp. “Politicians who hear about the horrendous living conditions because of the cost of living crisis; hear about the lack of flexible work which is keeping them at home; hear about the sexism and discrimination that is stopping them going further in their careers.”
For women who are experiencing or have experienced domestic abuse, the combination of a cost of living crisis and the holiday season is crippling.
“This winter, we are sending a clear message that the cost of living crisis shouldn’t cost women their lives,” said Emma Pickering from the domestic abuse charity Refuge. “We know that as the festive season approaches and bills continue to rise, many women experiencing abuse will be having to make the unthinkable choice between their physical safety and economic stability.”
Lisa*, 23, recently escaped an abusive partner after enduring nine months of gaslighting, controlling behaviour, rape threats, stalking, physical violence and financial and verbal abuse. After being placed in a refuge, Lisa now has her own home and is trying to get life back together in the wake of the trauma she experienced.
“The cost of living crisis is suffocating and extremely restrictive,” Lisa said. “I’ve managed to put myself in a situation where my money is mine to use. No one else is meant to have a say in how I can spend it but I feel like I’ve gone back to when I wasn’t allowed to buy something as a treat or go to lunch with my mum or buy new clothes without asking permission.”
With the prices of everything going up, Lisa is reliant on the generosity of family and buy now, pay later schemes to cover her necessities. “I feel like I’m trying so hard to keep my head above water,” she said. “I can’t afford to slip down the slope into debt but it’s like I don’t have much choice in the matter. I’m fighting for control over something that is meant to be in my control anyway.”
Even though Lisa is safe from her abuser, she feels trapped by the cost of living crisis. “I’m in a situation where I still can’t really take a breath to appreciate or even acknowledge that I’m still breathing because it’s like everything costs more money than I’m able to give,” she said. “It almost makes it seem like I didn’t really escape. I merely evaded suffocating but I’m trapped again. It’s horrible. I don’t want to be in this situation again. I just want to breathe without worrying I’m going to crumble under all the pressure to survive.”
Lisa would have loved to spend this holiday season treating her family with lots of presents but wasn’t able to put money aside this year to afford much.
“The cost of living crisis has made Christmas something I’m dreading,” she said. “We all deserve to have something nice under the tree as a pick-me-up from all the stressful things we’ve gone through this year. However the only ways I’d be able to make that happen is either to go into debt, hunt down the cheapest price or postpone certain people getting gifts until after Christmas.”
“We can’t let this cost of living crisis cost young women their futures,” Reindorp said. “As the government makes its choices as to how to get us out of this crisis, they must listen to young women instead of leaving them behind.”
*Name changed to protect anonymity
If you are a young woman impacted by the issues discussed in this article, brought on by the cost of living crisis, please contact Young Women’s Trust.
If you need help to get safe, you can contact Refuge’s National Domestic Abuse Helpline on 0808 2000 247, available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week for free. Or you can visit www.nationaldahelpline.org.uk to fill in a webform and request a safe time to be contacted or to access live chat (available 3pm-10pm, Monday to Friday).
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