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Stepping off the train at London’s Waterloo station, the stark reality of having nowhere to sleep that night caused a panic I could no longer bury. It was a Sunday evening in the summer of 1999 and I was 23. I’d slept at my Mum’s flat in Wiltshire while she was away that weekend (I had a key for emergencies and this was one) but now I needed to be within striking distance of central London for work the next day. A friend’s offer of a sofa for the night had fallen through and I was running out of ideas. I had no money, only my annual travel card, and a small bag of clothes. How had it come to this?
A month before, I had left my boyfriend of six years, with whom I had been living. Our flat, still in the early months of a year-long lease, was essentially his, while I continued to shell out my half of the rent and bills. Things had been so unbearable that the prospect of homelessness seemed preferable. I didn’t do the predictable thing and leave him in the lurch to pay the full rent himself. Had I done that, he said he’d abandon the flat, evade payment, leaving us both vulnerable to acquiring County Court judgements against us. Gathering the funds for a deposit and the first month’s rent for somewhere to live was, therefore, impossible. My modest salary left nothing spare.
Things had been so unbearable that the prospect of homelessness seemed preferable
It took months of finding creative solutions to my ongoing homeless state. I often slept on friends’ floors or sofas, and I tried house sitting for holidaying colleagues. I was exhausted and numb.
After finding me in a distressed state in the office bathroom one morning, my boss gave me some long-overdue good advice which spared me more unnecessary struggle. She urged me to meet the agent who managed our flat that same morning. My (genuine) tears were enough for him to agree to end our tenancy early. We’d lose our deposit and a month’s rent, but we were freed. It seemed entirely possible, then, that I might be okay.
No one knew the full extent of my descent into debt. My mobile existence and grief-clouded judgement led to me missing loan repayments, while direct debits for bills went unpaid. My post was being returned to sender as I had no forwarding address. This does little to inspire confidence with banks or utilities. I was grateful for the numbness I felt. This emotional anaesthetic came in handy as the bank cancelled my debit card, and demanded I cut it into two and return it. In those days, there was no negotiating with rigid and demanding lenders. The endless, aggressive pursuit of unpaid bills was a daily blow I could barely cope with. I didn’t want to ignore the debts. Keeping tabs on my account when I had no home base was a struggle (online banking wasn’t yet a thing). I felt ill as the ATM revealed my bank balance and, knowing there was little I could do to correct it, I fell into a deep apathy.
No one knew the full extent of my descent into debt
By the end of the summer, I had moved out of the old flat and had scraped together enough money to rent a room in a shared house, but the debt took years to clear. Fees and fines had accumulated, and debts had increased beyond recognition. Some lenders took legal recourse, some agreed to minimal monthly payments, and some I just struggled on with. My student loan repayments were taken direct from my salary (no leeway there).
Once, when a mortgage looked achievable early in my marriage, my credit rating still proved inadequate. Our bank manager, who was of the more approachable and pragmatic variety, concluded that most of the financial ‘mistakes’ he’d encountered were a direct result of unhappy life events, such as divorce or bereavement.
Years later I can happily say that I am married with a home but, lessons learned, what would I tell my 23-year old self? I’d give her a stern talking-to about the living arrangements with my ex, for a start. I’d urge her to call the bank and other lenders before things got too hairy. I’d beg her to tell someone – anyone – and maybe I would have found support rather than the ridicule I expected. I’d tell her that pride is such a waste of emotion and that, despite it all, you will be okay.
Clare Lawrence, nicknamed 'Coupon Clare' at college, lives mostly in Cornwall. Proud mum to Gregory, she'll stop at nothing in her quest to save cash!