The economic horrors persist, but so do I

Minimum wage, dry January and Ibec: Sarah Shortall discusses the challenges students face at the beginning of a new term

There are certain sayings associated with people from Cavan: “He would peel an orange in his pocket.”;  “she eats the dinner out of a drawer.”; “he still has the Confirmation money in the bank.” The closest I’ve ever been to Cavan is Sligo, so I can’t verify the truth of these, and lately I would sooner say that they apply more to my dear friends. These sayings that I have heard time and time again have transformed into reality for me through my friendships. Is this what growing up is about? Having graduated before me, I was alarmed to find what tight-fisted civil servants, consultants, and solicitors my friends had become. Have you ever been sent a PayPal request for a portion of tomato ketchup? I have. Apparently, money makes people frugal, and rather mean. 

This is not entirely their fault. The cost-of-living crisis is real. So, I took a long hard look in the mirror and decided that things had to change. I must pay my ketchup debts, and start living within my means. Changes have been made, here is the matter as it stands: My Prêt à Manger subscription (or pyramid scheme) has been ended, teabags dry on the clotheshorse for later reuse, and full-fat milk, when mixed with water, actually becomes low-fat milk.  Dry January can be a real money saver if you manage to win the battle of will with the “fun half” of your brain :“We will absolutely refuse to partake of any alcoholic drinks this evening, will we not? Yes, we will not. Not under any circumstances.” This is the internal argument I have whenever I feel the urge to spend half my weekly income on three pints in town.    

Then, I remembered that as of January 1 2024, the minimum wage had gone from €11.30 per hour up to €12.70 per hour. Workers of the world, throw off your chains! This is a good thing for a few reasons: a full-time student working, say, 20 hours a week, will be able to afford things like food and clothing (not rent, obviously, and if you’re a postgraduate researcher then it’s still €8 an hour, sorry); staff shortages in the service industries may be alleviated; the lowest paid workers in the country, and those who spend the majority of their monthly income on rent, will see their quality of living marginally improve. A further positive is that Liveline will become a lot spicier as big business owners ring into Joe Duffy to complain about not being able to afford their skiing holiday this year.  

Although, the negatives are still overwhelming. There has been no increase in the sub-minimum wage rate that applies to those under 20 years old, who receive between €8.89 and €11.43 per hour, scaled according to age. Meanwhile, every member of Ibec has had a collective heart palpitation and proclaimed the impending collapse of society into anarchy – we should expect to see all businesses go bankrupt on the first payday of next month…    

Not everyone will find their budgetary difficulties fully eased by this extra €1.40 per hour”

Not everyone will find their budgetary difficulties fully eased by this extra €1.40 per hour.  It is the end of January and financial demands pull in all directions. If you find yourself like Buridan’s donkey, paralysed between a pint and a chicken fillet roll, you might like to reflect on how financial woes have been dealt with throughout history  – don’t worry, this donkey will not starve.

In 1729, Jonathan Swift anonymously published ‘A Modest Proposal’, in which he projected that the economic trouble being suffered by the impoverished Irish Catholics might be alleviated by selling their children as food to be eaten by the upper classes.  His essay caused a stir in the House of Lords, where the aristocratic speakers took a break from tearing chunks out of each other to wonder whether the Irish satirist might have a point. Swift’s essay created a backlash against British attitudes and economic policy regarding the Irish. It may have been a bit over the top, but such creative problem-solving is to be admired.    

In the Ireland of the 1960s, Flann O’Brien, in his Irish Times column, suggested that the economic strain of the “emergency” might be helped if the whole country were to take to the bed for one week of every month. By staying in bed, no energy would be expended. This would help to save resources such as fuel and food as, in his own words, it is work that makes you hungry, “…and walking around and swallying pints and chawin’ the rag at the street corner.”    

In the early 2000s, Carrie Bradshaw of ‘Sex and the City’ offered her advice on being broke in your twenties that was truly a summary of her times, saying, “When I first moved to New York and I was totally broke, sometimes I would buy Vogue instead of dinner.  I felt it fed me more.” I would suggest gnawing on a copy of Trinity News instead – it costs nothing and is easier to chew.

There are many ways to deal with being broke in your twenties in 2024. If you want to romanticise being broke you can imagine that you’re a starving artist or a waifish bohemian intellectual, stealing food from your housemates because you’ve spent all your money on Elf Bars. If you have financial stress, you can practice mindfulness and empathy by putting yourself in the shoes of oppressed landlords.  Eating less meat can also help save money, your dinners might not be as interesting, but holding the moral high ground is delicious. If you start to waver in your resolve, you can blue-tack a copy of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs to your wall (use mounting tape if you are still practising Landlord Empathy), to remind yourself that self-esteem and morality come after breathing, food, and shelter.  

As a student, the cost of living is particularly difficult. The defining moment of our day may be when the price of a flat white hit €4. The raising of the minimum wage will certainly help, but when especially cash-strapped, you might choose to nourish yourself with magazines in place of food, go to bed for a week, or publish an ironic essay about the upper classes eating children. Remember that our predecessors found ways and means, and so will we.