Boil water for pasta in a kettle. Take a shower at work. Ditch fairy liquid. Put on a jumper or two – but don’t worry, feeling like you’re about to freeze to death in your own home is actually good for you.
As the UK faces acute financial stress and ruinous energy bills, it’s good to know that all they have to do to deal with the cost of living crisis is employ some simple money-saving hacks as devised by various broadsheet newspapers, commentators and former Conservative minister Edwina Currie (her tip: put tinfoil behind radiators).
Inevitably, it turns out that tin foil will not save you from your fuel bill. Energy experts have already dismissed the advice, saying it would have no effect on costs. Alas, this hasn’t stopped an epidemic of people who will not struggle with the cost of living handing out “helpful” tips on how to cope with an unprecedented assault on living standards. In the same week the energy cap increased to £2,500, the Times suggested “making two cups of tea or coffee at work a day, five days a week – saves about 16p”. Don’t spend it all at once.
Even Martin Lewis – the self-described “money saving expert – has become probably the most prominent public advocate for government intervention, saying he is “out of tools” to help people. That being the case, what is the deal with all these rich people posh-splaining poverty?
Elgan John is an activist with Food and Solidarity, a group in Newcastle that provides food packages to those who need them. The group recently held a session giving “non-patronising money saving tips”, as he put it.
He said that “tips” like the one Currie gave are, “not intended as actual advice. It’s intended to refocus. The idea is that this isn’t about a material reality. It’s about a lack of something in the person who is poor – it’s about [saying], ‘These people are poor because they don’t know how to do these things’.”
In other words, helpful “tips” can be a way of stigmatising poor people. Professor Imogen Tyler, a sociologist at Lancaster University, has called stigma an “exploitative apparatus”. She notes how, as chancellor, George Osborne claimed the “shameful” culture of benefits dependency in the UK as the rationale for austerity, which radically changed the welfare state and saw poverty rates shoot up.
Currie was a minister under Margaret Thatcher, who in 1978 told the Catholic Herald there was “really is no primary poverty left in this country”, only people who “don’t know how to budget, don’t know how to spend their earnings, but now you are left with the really hard fundamental character – personality defect.” According to the Institute for Fiscal Studies, during Thatcher’s rule, rates of poverty went from 13.4 percent of the population to 22.2 percent – a big rise in the number of people who have “personality defects”.
This idea that being poor is poor people’s fault has maintained its popularity among well-off windbags. In 2017, amid concerns that 900,000 children would lose their free schools under a cut in the Tory general election manifesto, Isabel Oakeshott, a right-wing pundit with links to former Conservative Party deputy chairman Lord Michael Ashcroft, chided people struggling to give their children breakfast before school for “failing woefully in their basic duty as parents.”
When someone replied, “let’s hope there’s lots of cornflakes at the foodbank”, Oakshotte shot back: “A bag of porridge costs about £1; will last a family all week and is far more nutritious than cornflakes,” apparently never having heard of own-brand cornflakes and failing to realise that porridge also costs money to heat up.
“Poor people are the money saving experts,” says John, but notes that taking seemingly simple steps to save money is, ironically, harder for people with little of it in the first place.
I ask John about batch cooking – often advised as a cost-saving measure because you only have to pay to heat the oven once, reheating in the microwave.
“What stops people is not having the capital to outlay on large quantities of goods,” he says. If you’re on an energy prepayment metre, used by many low-income households but costing more to run, you have to know your leccy won’t run out. “We had an example of someone’s freezer going off and them losing all of that food.”
Dr Neil Simcock, a social geographer at Liverpool John Moores University who specialises in fuel poverty, distinguishes between “good faith advice” – which might tell people what benefits they can access, or how to get their home better insulated through energy efficiency schemes – and “bad faith advice”, which “pretends that the energy price crisis can be solved through these kinds of behavioural hacks. It’s saying the root of the problem is people’s wasteful consumption, which is totally false.”
“These are systemic problems,” Simcock explains. “It’s about our reliance on expensive volatile gas, it’s about the pricing structure of our energy tariffs, and it’s about the worst insulated homes in Europe. And more generally we have this crisis of insecure work, poverty.” These issues, he adds, are “obscured” by the likes of Currie and other commentators.
They are illuminated, however, when bad advice comes from energy providers themselves. In January, Ovo Energy had to apologise, after it published a blog of “10 simple and cost-effective ways” to stay warm and keep bills down, including wearing extra layers and keeping moving by “cleaning the house, challenging the kids to a hula-hoop contest, or doing a few star jumps”. It also advised “a cuddle with your pets and loved ones to help stay cosy”, which prompted a tongue-in-cheek “Hug Yer Dug Day” from Glasgow residents protesting against energy price rises.
Dr Caitlin Robinson a researcher on spatial inequality, with a particular interest in energy poverty, at the University of Bristol, says, “They’re providing an essential service to people but they’re also making a profit from that – I think it speaks to some of those tensions.”
“We aren’t talking about energy for luxury items here, we are talking about serious levels of poverty and destitution for millions of households that won’t be able to afford the basic necessities of warmth, heating water, and lighting.”