What Bargain Brits on Benefits taught me about Universal Credit

Last night, I could have watched the latest ‘must-see’ programmes on Netflix, BBC iPlayer, Britbox or NOW TV (yes, I have subscriptions to all four at the moment, but c’mon it’s lockdown, don’t judge). Instead, I watched Bargain Brits on Benefits on 5star, a channel most people might overlook if they haven’t got a taste for reality shows and docusoaps. So BBB won’t get written up in the Sunday Times Culture section anytime soon but I recommend it to anyone who has never lived on Universal Credit.

I have been very lucky that there has never been a time in my life where I have needed to survive on benefits. And for the most part, this is about luck. As I get older, I increasingly understand how much of life is determined by factors outside our immediate control – the family we’re born into, the kind of education we can access, the environment and peer group surrounding us, the job opportunities available, the presence of role models and mentors. My feeling now is that stories of people ‘overcoming’ every barrier in the book ala Dolly Parton are fantastical exceptions to a bleak rule: the more objective disadvantages someone is born with, whether that’s growing up in poor, cramped housing or an area with high unemployment, the more the odds are stacked against them.

Except…that’s framing things in terms of outsized success. The rags-to-riches narrative is an unhelpful one. Why should we aspire to multi-millionaire status as the ultimate sign that we’ve ‘made it’? Why can’t having work that pays the bills and a little left over to treat the kids, or ourselves, be enough? That’s all most people want and need, and it’s hardly unreasonable. And yet that goal, for too many people in too many parts of our country, seems outlandish. It doesn’t matter what your personal politics are: surely nobody thinks that’s acceptable, however much we may disagree on how to rectify it.

And yet what’s amazing is how well people cope in these circumstances. As many have pointed out in the last week, people who have to get by on Universal Credit are, more often than not, the best budgeters in the country. Their personal finance savvy cannot be matched. What they can do with £30 worth of food puts the rest of us takeaway goblins and mindless snackers to shame.

Meet the budgeting ninjas

And so it proved on last night’s edition of Bargain Brits on Benefits, where former cook Gary managed to get TWENTY MEALS out of ONE slab of pork from the butchers, costing a few quid a pop. Hayley was creating meals for her whole family costing THIRTY EIGHT PENCE each. Lee, a circus performer, was living out of a former horse box and picking up lunch for SIXTY NINE PENCE and “living by the yellow label” everyday.

I am a money blogger of ten years’ experience but I doff my hat: these are moneysaving ninjas of the first order. I was particularly impressed by Hayley’s folders where she documented every meal and accounted for every ingredient that went into her meals. Her husband Ritchie is a taxi driver – or was before Covid hit. We watched him learn from the ‘moneysaving queen’ about how to get toys and treats for the family within budget: adding up as you go along on your phone calculator was her secret.

What I liked most about BBB is that, unlike other programmes about people about benefits, it didn’t demonise, caricature, patronise or ask us to take pity. It celebrated and humanised. And what struck me most about everyone on the programme was how content they seemed. Easy to fake for the cameras, you might (cynically) say, but I would respond: watch it for yourself and tell me if you still hold that view afterwards.

The Universal Credit uplift: worth every penny

Watching Juanita, who was on UC due to depression, scour charity shops for designer discounts clearly gave her joy, and it gave me joy too. It reminded me of my own upbringing, and how much pleasure and purpose was derived in our family from finding bargains in local charity shops and making every penny count.

Lee talked with genuine joy too, about the simple life on the road he had always craved and having someone he loves by his side. It instantly shrunk my lockdown gloom and made me feel embarrassed for having mourned nights-out and holidays.

Despite the huge challenges they all faced, the BBBs had decided to take control and be the boss of their lives. In a time where we all feel helpless and pushed down by our circumstances, I learned and took away more watching this show than reading any number of self-help books or ‘surviving lockdown’ articles. But it also made me think: why on earth would any of us want to make these people’s lives even harder? Why would we knowingly reduce the lifeline they all need to survive? Why would we object to putting this money straight into people’s pockets, into the community, where it can genuinely make all the difference?

This week, we have been debating whether to continue giving £20 extra to those living on Universal Credit. Judging by the incredible Bargain Brits on Benefits, it’s worth every penny.

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