Money had always been tight for Liz*, even when her children were little. “My ex-husband was a gambler and would bet on the horses,” she tells SBS. “Sometimes he would lose all my wages in one night. I’d go to our neighbours and borrow money from them – I was always behind. So when we split up I thought, ‘I have to manage my money’.”
Liz’s children are adults now, but she still keeps to a firm budget due to her limited income. “I receive the disability pension of $877.10 a fortnight as a single person,” she says. “That’s all the money that I get.”
Nationally, around $115.0 billion was spent on cash payments in 2015-16 (including unemployment, age pension, disability support pension, veterans’ affairs pensions and carer allowance) and while that sounds like a lot of money, in reality, for people like Liz, it amounts to receiving just over $20,000 a year.
“I really budget myself on what I can afford and if I can’t do it, then I wait until the next fortnight or the next."
In 2014, the poverty line (50 per cent of median income) for a single adult was $426.30 a week. Just under three million Australians live under the poverty line and women make up 52.6 per cent of people living in poverty in Australia. Liz knows she is perilously close to dipping below the line. “I look for specials when I can when I’m shopping,” she says. “I buy a tray of mince and when I come home, I put half in the freezer. That way it gives me two meals. I do the same with sausages and chops.
“When I pay my bills they are automatically taken out of my pension, and the same with my funeral fund – what I don’t see I don’t miss. Occasionally I’ll go out for coffee or lunch with friends but that’s when I know I have a little bit of money so I afford it.
"I don’t mind buying no-name brands for some things, but certain things do taste different. I also buy in bulk - I buy big tin of International Roast [coffee] and it lasts me for months.
“I really budget myself on what I can afford and if I can’t do it, then I wait until the next fortnight or the next. I also have money put away to buy the kids Christmas presents. That way it’s not putting a strain on me having to feel bad that I can’t get them something. I don’t buy extravagant presents though - I spend $30-$40 each on them.”
For many older people, home ownership affords them substantial protection against poverty, as they can use their income for other non-housing related living costs. Liz however, lives in social housing, which means she is provided with rental housing below market rates. In June 2016, there were 394,000 households living in social housing. “I live in a three-bedroom public housing unit,” Liz says. “I need the three bedrooms as my grandkids often come and stay with me. I’ve been told that if I move from here I’ll never be able to get another public housing unit, so I’m staying put!”
Liz and her daughters spent their younger years in social housing in a “bad area”, but moved away 16 years ago. “I’m so glad I got my daughters out of that area,” she says. “I still see people who live where we used to and so many of their kids are ice addicts. I just thank the lord it didn’t happen to my daughters.”
Research has shown that neighbourhood disadvantage has a strong association with higher perceived stress; lower perceived safety and greater substance use involvement.
“We recently lost a friend of ours from the old area,” says Liz, “he was only in his early 40s but he was on ice and took his life. That really brought it home to me. It’s not a good area to bring children up in. I’m so glad I got my kids out of there.”
Liz’s adult daughters both work full time and in one of them, Liz can see her own frugal management of finances. “One of my daughters is thrifty like me and shops the way I do,” she says. “But my other daughter? She’s of the, ‘If I want it, I’ll get it’ philosophy. It gives me a heart attack! She’ll tell me she’s going out so she needs something new, and I’ll think, ‘Are you serious?’
“It is hard to hear when she says that she’s spent money and she shouldn’t have. But what can I say? She is in her 30s and I can’t tell her what to do. I do sometimes slide a comment in, but she always gives me a dirty look when I do!”
“My two daughters are very good to me, so I don’t feel that I miss out on an awful lot."
Although Liz is one of the two million lone-person households in Australia, her children are supportive and she takes great pleasure in spending time with her grandchildren. “My two daughters are very good to me, so I don’t feel that I miss out on an awful lot,” she says. “I see my grandkids really regularly. I take one to school every morning and that keeps me active. That really brightens my week when I see them and look after them.”
Liz is determined that just because she is living on a budget, her grandchildren won’t go without. “I have a little bit of money put away so that if the grandkids ask to have McDonald's I can do that,” she says. Last week my grandson who is 14-years-old said, ‘Nan, can I have some money because I’m going to Bondi Junction with my mates.’ I gave him $20 because I didn’t want him to miss out. I don’t want him to feel like my kids felt – they couldn’t come to me and get money because their father would have gambled it away.”
Life has never been easy for Liz, but she has been tenacious in making the best of what she has. “I wanted to prove to my daughters that you can do it by yourself,” she says. “You don’t need a man to take care of you if you budget and shop the right way. If I can do it on a pension, then they can do it too.”
*Name has been changed for privacy reasons.
If you or someone you know needs support, please contact Lifeline on 13 11 14.
All six episodes of Struggle Street series two are available to view on SBS On Demand.
Struggle Street series two is produced by KEO Films with funding support from Screen Australia and Film Victoria.