“In August I took a huge leap of faith and decided to quit my £40,000 job with the charity for good.”
In our How I Manage My Money series, we aim to find out how people in the UK spend, save and invest to help them meet their costs and achieve their goals.
This week we speak to Helen Aitchison, 41, of Wallsend, who quit her job to become a writer earlier this year. A savvy saver with a penchant for vacations, she lives with her partner Paul, a data center facilities manager, and their four-year-old rescue cat, Eric. According to Helen, Eric is the head of the household. Helen and Paul would like to save enough money to buy a holiday home in the sun in Barcelona.
I grew up in a working class town called Wallsend near Newcastle upon Tyne and my parents taught me the importance of saving money and working hard. My parents have always worked hard and ran a house cleaning company for a few years.
When I was 15, I made extra money by helping my father while he worked as an entertainment security manager. I made about £15 for three hours of work ironing staff uniforms and handing out flyers. I have two degrees from Northumbria University, majoring in criminology and sociology and then social work.
In all, I have worked in social care for 20 years, including many years in domestic violence support work. For the last 15 years I have worked as an area manager at a national charity helping to support vulnerable people.
Between March and May of this year I took a three-month sabbatical. In August I took a huge leap of faith and decided to quit my £40,000 job at the charity for good. It was probably the worst time ever, leaving a steady job and career to start your own business, publish a novel and not have a stable income. But I took a chance and knew I had some savings to fall back on for a few months.
I started writing The Dinner Club in November 2019. I would write until 3am and all weekends. After submitting my manuscript to a small number of publishers, I was offered a contract with Cahill Publishing and it was published in March of that year. I have since published a number of short papers and my next novel, The Life and Love (Attempts) of Kitty Cook, is due out in March next year.
Sale of The Dinner Club were good, but it’s fair to say that most writers have to work multiple jobs unless they’re bestselling authors. With the help of The Business Factory in North Tyneside, I founded Write on the Tyne in May this year. I offer creative writing courses, mentoring and projects for community groups and individuals. My income from Write on the Tyne varies and can range from around £1,000 a month to over £3,000 a month.
I’ve been saving money carefully for about the last ten years. I try to put £500 a month into our joint savings account. My partner and I also have £10,000 in a fixed rate bond that we can access in an emergency should we need it.
I also put £50 a month into a private pension with Royal London. I worry that when I retire there will be an even greater lack of government support when it comes to financial and health support.
I used to buy clothes and cosmetics to relieve stress. However, in recent years I have stopped buying as much. I sell or give away clothes I no longer need, or I cut up unwanted items and use them as cleaning rags.
I also grow my own fruit and veg and when we eat out we look for Groupon or local happy hour deals. Instead of buying about 20 more items than planned in the supermarket, as I used to, I now do a large supermarket purchase in one evening. I mainly shop at Aldi and am always on the lookout for reduced meat and vegetables. I batch cook once a week, make my own sauces and freeze portions. I would say these habits have helped me save about £200 a month.
I pay an annual fee for my gym membership, and it’s a community fee, which means it’s a fair bit cheaper than many. I also get my hair cut by a nice lady who comes to my house. Other than that, the only other pampering I get is the odd massage.
I drive an old cracker, a 17 year old Vauxhall Vectra called “Big Viv”. Running costs me around £250 a month at the moment and the maintenance costs can add up. If the maintenance of the car becomes too expensive in the long run, I leave it and share my partner’s car.
My partner and I spent around £1,500-2,000 on family and friends for Christmas. But my friends and I have now decided that we will no longer exchange Christmas presents. Instead, I will be making food baskets for the elderly at the bread line in my hometown.
While I’m a good saver and hate waste, I love vacations. Paul and I go abroad about three times a year, at least two of which are in the US. We’ve now reduced our holidays to two a year and I’ve put £200 a month into our holiday fund. We have already booked a trip to Las Vegas next spring. While this won’t be a cheap holiday, we’ve been monitoring the prices carefully and got a good deal earlier this year.
The trip will cost us around £2,500 including flights and accommodation. I will not sacrifice my vacation and I would rather work extra hard or even take another job to make sure I have my time not only for myself but also for my partner as he works really hard.
The rising cost of electricity and gas has hit us, and while Paul and I have some wiggle room in our budgets, many people don’t. Our monthly gas and electricity bill has gone from around £160 to £260 a month. We make sure plugs that can be turned off are turned off, and don’t re-boil the kettle four times before drinking a cup of tea.
Looking ahead, I want my income to match or exceed what I earned in my last full-time job over the next two to three years.
In the future Paul and I would also like to be able to buy an apartment in the city of Barcelona in Spain for us and our loved ones to enjoy. I reckon we’d have to spend around £130k to £150k to be able to buy one.
Over time we may downsize to a smaller house here in the UK. Property is so much cheaper in the north of England and downsizing in about 10 years would free up equity which could help with our retirement plans.