Squeezed Middle: Cheesed off and strapped for cash

Broke-ness crept up on me stealthily, like adulthood.

Alice O'Keeffe's "Squeezed Middle" column appears weekly in the New Statesman magazine.

How did I get here (not here, our local branch of 99p Stores – I walked – but here in life), I can’t help but ask myself, as I pause next to a shelf of no-brand tortilla chips and glance from one hand to the other? In my left I have some organic mature cheddar, purchased minutes ago in Sainsbury’s for £2.90. In my right, I have a packet exactly the same size with “Signature . . . A Cheese to Please” emblazoned across it. Price: 99p.

When and how did I become a person who notices the price of cheese? Let alone a person who considers returning a block of organic cheddar to Sainsbury’s and purchasing a cheese product of questionable provenance from 99p Stores, for the sake of saving £1.91?

It didn’t happen overnight. Broke-ness crept up on me stealthily, like adulthood and the ability to enjoy The Archers. Four years ago, I was throwing money around like Paris Hilton on speed. I’d buy ridiculous dresses and only wear them once, go on holidays to Brazil, spend £50 in one night on cocktails. I rarely bothered to check my bank balance, let alone stick to a budget.

Then I had two children and the economy hit the skidders almost simultaneously. I had never believed people who told me that kids were expensive. A baby only needs a drawer to sleep in and a few nappies, doesn’t it? Well, no. Kids also need somewhere to live and that is currently extortionately, cruelly expensive. Kids need you to look after them, and they don’t even pay you a minimum wage. If you try and earn some money, they need childcare, which costs as much as, or more, than you earn. Your household income is halved and then halved again, while your outgoings are doubling, tripling . . . it’s your basic, reliable recipe for economic meltdown.

I look back to the cheese. I originally bought not just Sainsbury’s cheddar but organic Sainsbury’s cheddar. Worrying about money all the time is so boring. I add variety with the full range of traditional middle-class worries: harmful chemicals in the food chain, the fairness or otherwise of trade, intensive farming, the destruction of hedgerows . . .

A woman in a bobble hat pushes past me, heading for the Baby Goods section. She loads two boxes of toxic-looking fragranced nappy bags into her basket. Her daughter, dressed head-to-toe in pink, is clutching a bumper bag of Haribo. It must be bliss not to worry so much. Baby crying? Feed her Haribo! Can’t be faffed to wash smelly nappies? Wrap them in plastic and stick them in the ground! Short on cash? Get a City job, flog dodgy financial products, retire at 35, job’s a good ’un.

Perhaps that should be my New Year’s resolution: 2013 will be the year of sod it all. Decisively, I drop the packet of Signature . . . A Cheese to Please into my basket and inch my overloaded double buggy towards the checkout.