’You just have to get by’

A study of the coping strategies of low-income households in Great Britain

Project duration: March 2010 to September 2010

“I'm disabled and I've actually got arthritis. My hands get pretty cold so I have to try and heat them up. I put the fire on for five minutes then I've got to turn it off again because it costs too much... if I put it on my husband goes mental because we have to pay the electricity and gas.” 

Joyce is middle-aged woman living in fuel poverty with her husband and son. It's a low-income household, and they struggle to stay warm in winter.

And there are millions of households like them. To get a picture of what life is like for the individuals and families affected by fuel poverty – many of them elderly, disabled or otherwise vulnarable – CSE interviewed 50 households as part of a study (published September 2010) into the realities of living on a low income in a British winter.

The study is called 'You just have to get by: Coping with low incomes and cold homes' and it offers a striking glimpse into the world of the fuel poor. You can download a copy here

CSE’s Will Anderson was the study’s principal researcher. “Most of the debate around fuel poverty focuses on numbers – the millions of households living in fuel poverty, the percentage of income spent on fuel and so on” he said. “But what about the people themselves? How do those facing fuel poverty feel about their situation? What strategies do they use to cope? And what is it like when winter represents a daily struggle to stay warm?”

The starting point of the study was a survey of 699 UK households living below the official poverty line. This was followed by the in-depth interviews of households like Joyce’s.

What became clear is that families or individuals on low incomes will fear the onset of winter as rising energy bills and promised cuts to welfare benefits threaten to push them beyond the limits of their already hard-pressed budgets.

Among households with an annual income of £6,000 or less, nearly two-thirds said their homes are cold in the winter, with single-adult and lone-parent households hit especially hard. And the rise in the tax threshold announced in the government’s ‘progressive’ budget won’t help because these households are already below it.

Many interviewees expressed a determination to make ends meet despite the financial pressures of everyday life. But all too often the cost of avoiding debt is going cold.

“If it gets far too cold, I go to bed. Last winter I spent more time in bed than I did downstairs. I go to bed early, you know? But during the day, I would go into the kitchen, shut the door, and put the gas heat on in the kitchen like where I have my food and what have you, and then about four o'clock I'd retire to the back room or dining room as you would call it and put the heating on in there, and there I'd stay.” (David, widowed, retired)

It all too often also means going hungry. Our study found that low-income households with highly constrained budgets typically cut back their spending on both fuel and food.

While hunting for bargains was an effective cost-saving measure for food, many households felt that their only option for reducing energy bills was to turn the heating off for prolonged periods or heat only one room. Many were doubtful that the deals being offered by energy companies could deliver real savings. Low income households are not only debt averse, they are also risk averse. Many of our interviewees preferred to stay on a higher tariff that they have learnt to cope with – albeit by drastically reducing their energy use – rather than risk switching to a tariff that may not be all the energy supplier claims it to be.

Will Anderson and co-author Andrea Finney from the University of Bristol’s Personal Finance Research Centre, say changes to public policy should always consider the consequences for the most deprived households, who are already struggling with energy and living costs.

“Welfare cuts and higher energy prices will result not only in an increase in the number of households in fuel poverty but also an increase in the severity of their hardship.”

More voices from the report:

We were freezing. Sometimes we slept in the living room because I cannot afford to heat up every single room. If you put your central heating on that can use, just for a couple of hours, it can take two or three pounds. I put ten pound on each meter every week and that ten pound has got to last me from week to week. There is no extra money to go and put extra on it, do you understand what I'm saying?” Lucy, not working, single, living with 12 year-old granddaughter

“I would put the heating on just when my boy got home from school. About half three, I'd perhaps have it on till he went to bed. If it was just me, if I could manage not to, I did so. I had three blankets sometimes. I’d just go to bed early, snuggle up in bed just to keep warm... Like I say, if you have to go out to walk the dog to keep warm and then you come in and the house is cold, you think, bloody hell, it’s just made things worse really.” Emily, young single mother, not working, living with one son

“Well, put it this way, I've managed, I've had to... I just do my own thing and cut back where I can and I just manage week to week. It’s something you’ve got to do.” Lisa, single, middle-aged, not working, disabled

“In terms of juggling money, my bills always get paid. Yeah, my heating, my rent, my what have you. They always get paid. It's sort of socialising and stuff like that that falls back.” Matthew, single, middle-aged

“I put [the heating] on and then suddenly realised how much it was costing so turned it off. I turned it off at the wall. At the moment I have got a quilt around me on the sofa because it's bloody cold... To be honest with you, I haven't had a meal in the last four days and I’ve still got to wait till Saturday because I don't have any money. [All I have eaten is] toast. And I have just run out of sugar and I am about to run out of milk, so, it's a matter of black tea or black coffee, so that's it. I just have to, I do without.” Brendon, young, single

A version of this research paper was published as 'Coping with low incomes and cold homes' in a special section of the academic journal 'Energy Policy' (publ Elsevier) entitled Fuel Poverty Comes of Age: Commemorating 21 Years of Research and Policy.

photo | Grant Bierman | creative commons

Relevant downloads and links:

Stay up to date with our work - sign up for our fortnightly newsletter