An open letter to the self-employed . . .

Surviving, by Steve Moles

In the summer of 1992, I was made redundant; my wife and I survived for the next 24 months on unemployment benefit. We had a mortgage and didn't lose our home, but it was tough, really tough.

The lessons I learned then may be of some use to many of you today - what you're experiencing right now is life-changing, as it was for me then. The whole episode is seared into my mind and character. Many of the habits I acquired back then in order to survive I still maintain today. Sitting on my desk as I write is an old jam jar with a slot cut into the lid. Every night I empty whatever change is in my pockets and put it in the jar. I cash it up and use it for Christmas treats, even now almost 30 years later.

Since 1971, I had worked pretty much full-time, freelancing as a roadie. In the early '70s the pay was rubbish, but by the time I was cast adrift the money was good, better than many in fact, so the financial shock was acute. Let me say here and now, the reason I found myself in this situation was entirely self-inflicted. I managed to shoot myself in both feet and deserved everything I got; the music biz has no responsibility for the situation I found myself in. But, as the old cliche goes, 'that which doesn't kill us makes us stronger'. I'm really glad it happened because it set me on a path of renewal and taught me that you're never too old to learn new tricks.

What you'll read below is based on our personal experiences. It won't all work for you, especially for those of you that live in large urban areas, but some of it will work even for you . . .

That first night, Biscuits (my wife, as many of you will know her) and I sat down and went through the last six months of our bank statements. We identified and categorised every entry. At first you think you can carry on pretty much as normal, just prune a bit here and there, a bit of belt-tightening and you'll be fine. No, you wont. You need to cut, cut, and cut again.

There are obviously big costs that require attention. For most, the biggest is the mortgage. I called my mortgage company the next day. Don't hesitate,- the sooner you call them, the more they will characterise you as a sensible responder to times of strain and more readily consider your request.

The world was a different place back then, no Internet or mobiles. If you wanted to negotiate with your mortgage lender, you phoned them and spoke to someone at their UK office. That sort of access should be open to you now.

I prepared a spiel - you do need to think through what you will say. I told them my situation, I recounted my mortgage history - this was my second home on the way up the housing ladder, I'd been a mortgage holder for a total of five years, two homes. Most importantly, I reinforced the point that I had been self-employed pretty much all my adult working life and that I was resourceful and they could expect me to get back on my feet in the future and make good on my debt. All I asked was they transfer my loan to 'interest only'. I don't know if that's possible today, but you can ask. Truth was, I was in just the third year of my second mortgage and most of the monthly payments in your early years are taken up with interest anyway. The point was the unemployment benefit I received was just sufficient to service this monthly cost. What we would live on was another matter.

All other costs need to be cut, savagely. If you're running two cars, park one up right now, even if you have to put it in your garden; take a SORN (Statutory Off Road Notice) and get your road tax refunded. Cancel the insurance. If you can manage with public transport, do the same with the other one.

Utilities, gas, electric and water, you can't do without - but you will have to get by with less, a lot less. Put it this way - the house we lived in then was a late Victorian former Police Station up in East Yorkshire. Single skin walls, no double glazing, drafty old sash windows. That first winter we ran the central heating for two hours each evening as we sat and watched TV. (You can cancel your subs to Sky, Virgin, Now TV, Amazon Prime right now. There is plenty on Freeview/Freesat, far more variety than there was in 1992). After two hours the temperature would drop fairly swiftly, so we'd go to bed, usually at about 9:00pm. We would wear sweaters and tracksuit bottoms over our pyjamas and a bobble hat - I kid you not. In the deepest winter months, we would awake to find the window panes frozen over: thing was the ice was on the inside, the moisture from our breath had condensed on the glass and frozen. We soon saw this was not healthy, so during the day I would cycle for miles around the surrounding countryside, stopping off at little patches of woodland to collect anything worth burning in our open fire.

Now you've cancelled the TV services, cancel anything else you pay for monthly that isn't a utility. With one exception - life insurance, you need this to support your mortgage.

Private pension plans can be made 'Paid Up'. That means they are parked and can be re-started when you're back earning a living. There's no point in trying to cash them in - right now, with the stock markets dropping daily, they are probably worth far less than you have paid in.

The same applies to Stocks and Shares ISAs if you have them. Other savings, cash interest accounts: take care and use as required. But the gym membership and that monthly donation to the battered donkeys of Beirut, dump them now. And anything else monthly - just dump it.

Here's a thought slightly off my experiences in '92: like many today, I enjoy a good cup of coffee each day. Starbucks et al are now closed, but many of you will have capsule coffee machines at home. I have one, but it is now sitting in a box. Why? I read an article in one of the Sunday papers a few months ago, in the business pages no-less, that pointed out if you empty a few coffee capsules and gauge a median weight for the coffee therein, you will discover that you are paying, gram for gram, slightly more for your coffee hit than you would for caviar! (The article calculated a regular 250g bag of ground coffee from your local supermarket would, at capsule prices, cost approximately £36. I did the test, they were right!)

Similar to the coffee argument, you should give up all your sins now. Stop smoking. Yeah, easy for me to say. I had stopped on New Year's Eve 1990, just two months after the fall of the Berlin Wall. I'd had the internal arguments with myself about the health benefits for years, but it was the collapse of communism that did it for me. Suddenly the world could be viewed from a different perspective. Maybe the current events will help you - they're equally momentous. Either way, the fact is you cannot afford £10+ a day for a bad habit.

Booze, I'll come to later, but we did stop intake of all alcohol about two weeks into our time of poverty. After, that is, we had done the usual thing and got drunk a few times. Felt good at the time, but didn't last. Drugs: well, does anyone still take drugs in rock and roll? All I can say is, if you're prepared to stick a rolled-up banknote up your nose, you're now risking your life in a very real sense . . . How did we pay utility bills? Biscuits got a job paying minimum wage and it was enough to pay those bills and feed us. Your options may be smaller here, but you need to try.

Learn to cook from raw ingredients. Jamie Oliver started a helpful programme this March on Channel 4 - Keep Calm and Cook. You can make a good spaghetti carbonara for two from raw ingredients for less than a pound - we did then, and we still do today.

Starch, as all the panic pasta buyers know, will get you through. In Yorkshire we had two good alternatives. Down those country lanes that I cycled were entrances to farms: often they sold eggs and sacks of spuds. We survived mainly on a diet of baked potatoes and baked beans - that constituted 50% of our diet for two years; sometimes we'd share one portion of chicken kiev between us to go with it.

We also bought 25kg sacks of brown rice from Indian wholesale stores; brown rice is just so much more tasty and nourishing than white. Seeing as we lived in a former police station, there was no garden as such, but we did manage a couple of grow-bags of tomatoes each year. We didn't live off the land, but when the sloe berries and blackberries were in the hedgerows, we picked them.

As that first summer drew to a close we embarked on a 'brew your own wine' project. It takes time, but you have plenty of that. We collected elderberries from the hedgerows, many, many kilos of them. You need equipment, and empty wine bottles to put your produce in. The latter is easy, getting the equipment requires hunting, but it's not expensive. Elderberries produce a rough red, extremely rough when it's young, but after six months or so in the bottle, it's perfectly drinkable - though I doubt I could sell a single drop to a Frenchman. Once you get going, stocks soon build. By the end of two years, I had over 200 bottles maturing in the cupboard under the stairs. Even though we could now afford better, shop-bought wine made from grapes, we used every drop of the elderberry special - admittedly, mostly in cooking sauces. It is a great marinade for fajitas!

One other thing made all this bearable, our friends in the business. Charlie Kail, the founder of Brilliant Stages is a fine example of what I mean. That first winter he sent us, unsolicited, a Christmas hamper from Fortnum & Mason. I cannot tell you how much that meant to us at the time. Others were equally generous - not a flood of support but it was good to know that, much like right now, people were thinking about you and cared about your wellbeing. Keep in touch with your friends and colleagues and you will find ways to help one another. It's why, after 26 years of writing for LSi, I am still overwhelmingly enthusiastic about the work and people of the entertainment industry. Good luck to all of you.

(Steve Moles)

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