Austerity: A Modern (Un)Fairy Tale

Once upon a time there lived a woman called Helen. Helen was a fairly normal lady. She had two wonderful children, though she had sadly lost her prince charming. But she had a house, a life and was overall very happy with it.

Helen had an uncle, Uncle Banker, who was great. He threw lavish parties, got paid lots of money and generally had a great time. Helen didn’t really see much of him. He certainly never invited her to the parties with the rest of the wunch (for, of course, that is the collective term for bankers). But every time Helen saw her uncle, Uncle Banker said “don’t worry, Helen. If I’m doing well, we all do well. It trickles down eventually”. And he gave her a pat on the back, a wink, then went off to grab another magnum of champagne.

This continued for some time, until one day Helen got a knock at the door. It was Uncle Banker.

“Ah, right,” said Uncle sheepishly, “so there’s been a bit of a problem. Things went a bit awry at work and, well. I’m broke. Not only that, but I owe a lot of people a lot of money. I need your help.”

Helen agreed to do what she could. It was her uncle, after all.

“Atta girl,” said Uncle Banker. “And remember, I can make back all the money I owe, and then I can make back more money. We’ll all share in the benefits!”

Helen asked how much he needed.

“Ah, that’s the thing…” he replied sheepishly, before giving the amount.

Helen regretted asking how much he needed.

But Helen did what she can. She raided her savings, re-mortgaged the house, took out a loan and just about managed to get enough together. She was up to her eyes in debt, but she knew it was worth it. It was an investment.

“Wonderful, wonderful! And in return I want to introduce you to a dear friend of mine, Troy. I think you’ll get on, er, wonderfully!”

So Helen met Troy and he did seem wonderful. He was tall, handsome and great with money. He promised Helen things would be different. Things would change. That he’d help sort her debts out and give her and the kids everything they could dream of if they moved in with him.

Helen was hesitant. But she hadn’t really heard from Uncle Banker. She’d had a few phone calls cut short with a quick “don’t worry, I’m getting there. And when I’m doing much better, we’ll all be doing much better soon!”

But no money arrived.

After looking at all her bills, all the outgoings and wondering how she was going to make the repayments, Helen decided to move in with Troy. He’d be able to change things for her.

“Oh I’m so happy, you won’t regret it!” he said.

So she and the kids packed all their belongings into boxes and moved across to his house.

“Of course we’ll have to tighten our belts a bit, but don’t worry we’ll get through this. We’re all in it together,” he said, with a sympathetic smile. “Oh, and we’ll have to sell your house”.

Helen wasn’t sure. She loved her house, and it took her so many years to pay off her mortgage. Well, the first one.

“It’s a case of having to I’m afraid. We can’t afford the bills with all of our debts. We have to live within our means. Besides, my mate Larry is after a place, so he’ll take it off us!” said Troy.

Helen thought about it. It did seem a bit silly to be paying all that money out on a place that she wasn’t living in anymore… So eventually she agreed.

Troy handled the sale, and used the money to pay down some of Helen’s debts. But not much of it. Definitely not as much as she thought it would.

“Ah, you see it’s a tough climate, so Larry couldn’t give us as much as we hoped. But it saves us the running costs of the house, and it’s some money in our pocket, so it’s win-win!”

Helen wasn’t so sure. Her house was gone, at not even half the market rate. But what’s done is done, she thought.

“Oh, and I’ve got rid of the kids’ university funds. It’s about time they stop scrounging off us and make their own way in the world. They don’t pay anything towards the bills, so they shouldn’t expect a hand out”.

Helen didn’t think that was right. After all Troy and Uncle Banker both went to university without paying for themselves, and her kids had nothing to do with her financial situation. But, she guessed what’s done is done, so maybe it’ll make them work a bit harder. Make them pick a really useful degree so they can make money. That might not be what they wanted, but we’re all in it together, she thought.

The next morning Helen went to drive to work in her car. There was just one problem. It wasn’t there.

“Oh I had to sell the car, we couldn’t afford to have such a valuable asset just sitting there,” said Troy.

Helen explained that it wasn’t just sitting there, she needed it to get to work.

“But you can get the train!” Troy said.

It added three hours to her daily commute, but Helen did get the train. After all, we’re all this together, she thought. But the ticket prices are huge. In fact, within a few months, she’d paid out more on train fares than she’d made from the sale of the car. When she mentioned this to Troy he just said:

“Well Larry owns the trains, and he has to make a living! After all, do you want his children to starve?”

Of course Helen didn’t.

“Good, because he’s a top bloke. Got great business instincts too – he’s the one that bought your car, and managed to sell it for nearly twice as much as he paid! Definitely the kind of savvy bloke we want to have around. I mean, if he can make that sort of money, it’s bound to trickle down if we hang out with him more.”

It was all getting a bit much. Helen had to say something.

“Look, it’s not my fault you’ve got all this debt, is it?” said Troy, getting very defensive. “You lived beyond your means! You shouldn’t have gone on holidays, or fixed the boiler back when it broke, or bought all those books and toys for the kids. I mean, you were buying them new clothes almost every year! You shouldn’t have let them grow like that. If you’d been smarter with your money, not overspent, then we wouldn’t be in this situation.”

That didn’t seem quite right. Wasn’t she in this situation because of Uncle Banker?

“Of course not! If you’d had the savings, if you’d made hay while the sun was shining, it wouldn’t have been such a big hit. And now you wouldn’t need to be living with me, sponging off the hard work of others. We’re lucky to have people like Larry – did you know he’s offered to take some of the burden? He’ll take some of your debt off you, and get your Uncle to pay him back directly. That way we get a cash windfall to pay some of it down.”

This seemed very nice to Helen. Maybe Larry wasn’t so bad after all…

“Of course, he won’t pay the FULL amount. For every £100 of debt he takes, he’ll give us £50. But still, it’s off our plate that way, and he gets to make a little something for all his work.”

But. But. But. Thought Helen.

“Look I’m not going to argue. I’m off out so you’ll have to take care of your own dinner. Oh, and I’ve had to sell the oven and fridge. I got great deal from Larry. But there’s bread on the side and water in the taps. That’s more within our means. Right – I’m off out for dinner with your Uncle and Larry, I’ll send them your best wishes!”

And so Helen sat in the kitchen with her kids, eating stale bread with water to wash it down with. But she had to. After all, they were all in it together.