Tuesday briefing: How the cost of living crisis really hit home

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Good morning. When the severity of the cost of living crisis started to become clear in early 2022, the Guardian’s community team took up the story of how it was affecting ordinary people’s lives.

Taken together, the pieces that resulted form an extraordinary diary of a period of deep collective anxiety. They shed light on the individual sacrifices and deprivations that come with every new 10th of a percentage point on inflation or interest rates, every new hike in the energy price cap: deciding whether to give up food or comfort, yes, and also reassessing the small pleasures that make life worth living. As John, a 54-year-old postal worker from Berkshire, said in August: “I’ve not got as much to look forward to … My mindset is now just go to work, do long hours, pay for basics, don’t expect more.”

For today’s newsletter, with the help of the Guardian’s community editor Caroline Bannock, we’ve gone through some of those stories, and brought together a selection that outline an acutely human crisis. “We often feel like we see the canary in the coalmine,” Caroline said. “You don’t quite know if something is happening, and then two or three people say the same thing – and we ask other readers about it, and a huge number of people come forward. So much of what you hear is shocking. But it feels important to be able to tell these stories.”

Guardian and Observer readers have raised more than £770,000 so far for charities dedicated to helping those struggling with the cost of living crisis. Read stories of their impact here – and you can donate to the appeal here.

In depth: ‘Quite early on, people were starting to say: It’s going to be heat or eat’

View image in fullscreenSarah Moorby: ‘Basic commodities have become luxury items.’ Photograph: Christopher Thomond/The Guardian

February: inflation hits 5.5%; fears one-off £200 energy discount would not be enough

“The only other option will be to turn the heating and electricity off. They’re basic commodities that people should have access to, like shelter, food and water. But now they’ve become almost luxury items. Even if I did turn the heating and electricity off and sat in a duvet in the dark, I would still have to pay standing charges. Also who wants to do that anyway? That’s not living.” Sarah Moorby, 39, welfare assistant, Cumbria (pictured above)

Caroline Bannock: “People were suddenly seeing this incredibly precarious situation coming down the track. There was a huge shock as people realised, oh my God – this is really starting to affect us. Quite early on, we noticed that people were starting to say: It’s going to be heat or eat.”

March: the war in Ukraine leads to a sharp rise in petrol prices and news that energy bills will rise by 54% from 1 April

“I used to put £24 or £25 [of diesel] in a week and it’s gone up to about £36 … Normally I’ll buy things like beef or chicken or pork – I’ve had to cut it all out, I’m not having meat at all. It’s not healthy food that I’m swapping it for, it’s all carbohydrates. I live on my own – I can go without putting the heating on … I’ve never ever had to do anything like this in my life.” Steve Bowater, 52, NHS delivery driver, Sheffield

April: prepaid meter users are first to feel the impact of price cap rise

“I’m really quite frightened. There are times previously when I’ve run out of credit on my meter and just had to sit in the dark, and I’m worried that might be more frequent … You try to live when the sun’s up.” Tim Hooper, 50, Norfolk

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CB: “Prepay meters make it more expensive, but it’s the worst-off people who have to use them. And it affects other things, for instance if people have to drive to their jobs and fuel costs go up. Those are the people who feel it first. One of the themes that comes through, as well as hardship itself, is a sense that you have no control over your life.”

June: Biggest rail strikes for 30 years over pay and conditions

View image in fullscreenEuston Station during one of the year’s rail strikes. Photograph: Neil Hall/EPA

“There is no justification for us to get poorer every year. We have a very responsible job. The first line of the job advert says signallers are the guardians of safety. We worked through the pandemic not questioning the pay freeze or the withholding of annual bonus, but now inflation is seriously affecting our standard of living.” Signaller, 50s, Surrey

CB: “When we asked people going on strike, they said: Well, we can’t afford to live – it’s completely unmanageable. But then when we asked readers who aren’t striking, most of them are completely supportive. People really do feel that we’re all in it together.”

July: Petrol hits 191.5p per litre; increase in disability benefits lags behind inflation

“The cost of fuel is making it so I have to choose whether to eat or pay for fuel to go to work. Two to three months ago I would have a little money left out of my pay packet to do a bit of what I want to do. Now, I just go to work and come home, and am struggling to pay my bills. If they increase again, I won’t be able to pay. It’s getting to the point where I can’t make it work any more.” Richard, 45, full-time NHS healthcare assistant, North Yorkshire

“We have an oxygen machine, which is expensive to run. We get some reimbursement for that but we also have a stair-lift and get no help with the gas even though my parents are very vulnerable, especially my mother … We have no savings and, unbeknown to my parents, I am missing meals so they can eat proper portions. Most conversations are about money and price rises.” Michael (a pseudonym), 35, disabled and living in a council flat with his elderly parents, south Wales

August: Ofgem increases cap on energy prices to £3,549 a year for a typical household; Don’t Pay UK campaign gathers pace

“My pay went up recently, but [the rise] got completely swallowed up by the cost of living, so I’m back to square one. I try to eat half my dinner and save the other half for lunch the next day. I can’t see a way out. We’re told to put lots of jumpers on, but we’re not over-consuming, we’re just trying to heat our homes over the winter. It’s disgraceful. What are Ofgem for if they’re just increasing the price cap? I’m really worried about my future.” Lindsey Parker, 43, occupational therapist, Brighton

“I’m a working single mother of four. In April, my monthly bill shot up from £100 to £167. That’s already £802 more a year … I will cancel my direct debit. I’d rather be in the scary position of not paying my bill than being unable to buy food and other necessities this winter.” Kayleigh, hotel housekeeper, Milton Keynes

September: Liz Truss announces energy support package, but Kwasi Kwarteng’s budget sends mortgage rates spiralling

“Whilst I’m very pleased that a lower cap has been introduced, the reality is those on universal credit will be paying twice as much for energy than they did last year … I have turned off my hot water, unplugged everything I’m not actively using, completely revised how I cook to economise. The ends just don’t meet any more.” Tim Hooper, 50, unemployed, Norfolk

  UK retailers hit by footfall decline amid cost of living squeeze

“I’m really worried about it. Conservative policies probably protect people like me. I wouldn’t vote for them but this has turned into a major pitfall. Will I have to sell? Will I be able to sell, or do I cough up and try and weather the storm? I feel this is the first time the middle classes are going to be pushed on this. This is a bit of a wake-up call.” Henry Langford, 31, London

CB: “When it started to hit mortgages in this major way, people were stunned. We heard from so many of them. One woman who’d been saving with her husband for 16 years told us she’d been completely blown out of the water, or a firefighter who has to refix next year and just can’t afford it. One thing that really came through is that they couldn’t believe how directly this one mad moment in politics was having such a far-reaching impact on their lives.”

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October: extreme measures as temperatures drop and price rises kick in; ‘March of the Mummies’ childcare costs campaign launches

View image in fullscreenA March of the Mummies protest in London in October. Photograph: Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

“I live under rugs anyway – although I’m 52, I act as if I’m a 99-year-old. My flat can get quite damp because it’s a Victorian conversion … It goes straight into my knees like arrows. I have put a curtain over the bedroom and sitting-room doors to keep heat in if I am using [heaters]. I really don’t know how I will cope this winter – whether to use the central heating to protect my health and build up debt, or live in a state of misery.” Ilona Hughes, 52, living with a disability, London

“You have to be earning a huge amount for childcare not to be unaffordable. We have a joint income of almost £80,000 and it’s stretching us – I have no idea how those earning less manage … No one but the highest earners can comfortably afford childcare, especially on top of the cost of living crisis.” Lauren, 34, communications professional

CB: “One thing we’ve seen time and again is that the people who are most affected by everything are women, and particularly single mothers. They feel the squeeze in every single part of their lives.”

November: some people seek second jobs to stave off financial hardship; disappointment at Rishi Sunak and Jeremy Hunt over autumn statement

“I felt having a pizza delivery job was embarrassing initially, but I’m grateful I’ve got the opportunity to do something to improve my financial situation … I’ll soon be earning £43,000 in my main job, but this won’t touch the sides. Another driver at the pizza place is quitting soon and I’ll ask for their shifts, so I’ll be doing around 75 hours per week. It is a massive stretch – I’m knackered. This really isn’t how I was expecting my 40s to be.” Jo Thompson, 44, NHS senior analyst and pizza delivery driver, Lincolnshire

  ‘I never thought we would go back to this’: Gordon Brown speaks out at Fife’s ‘bank of food banks’

“The support for bills is not good enough, and the windfall tax on energy companies is pitiful given their massive profits … The below-inflation pay rises in the civil service have meant for me that things have got more expensive … Central government civil servants are often forgotten about, [whereas] nurses and teachers make the news. They certainly deserve better pay, but so do we.” David, 30, civil servant, Sheffield

CB: “I don’t think people believe that this is just all beyond the government’s control because of Ukraine and the global situation. What we heard from people of every background was: they have stuffed us. There is a huge amount of anger.”

December: cold weather plus Christmas costs tip many people over the edge

“To keep myself warm I wear my pyjamas, dressing gown and coat, with gloves and hat if it gets too cold. It’s ridiculous having to do this to keep warm in your own home, but it’s what I have to do – it’s dress like this or freeze. I can’t afford to buy enough food to last as it is. There’s black mould in near enough every room. I go around cleaning it off and it just comes back again.” Clifford, 48, Glasgow

CB: “One cafe owner whose business has been devastated told me: ‘I really hope seeing more and more people struggle might actually make the government do something for once.’ I am surprised about the range of voices who come to us – it’s probably about the belief that we can do something.”

Today in Focus

View image in fullscreenCan I Tell You A Secret? Photograph: Design/The Guardian

Catch up with Can I tell you a secret?

The Guardian’s daily podcast is taking a break over Christmas, so why not use the time to catch up with the Guardian’s six-episode podcast, Can I tell you a secret? Guardian journalist Sirin Kale investigates the story of Matthew Hardy, a cyberstalker who terrified people in his hometown and beyond for over a decade.

His harassment would often start in the same way, with a fake profile posing as a young woman asking a simple question: “Hey hun, can I tell you a secret?”. This series attempts to untangle his web of deception to find out how and why he wreaked havoc over so many people’s lives.

The best of the Upside

A look back at this year’s good news

View image in fullscreenEva Bee’s illustration Illustration: eva bee

Thursday 25 August The climate crisis, the cost of living crisis, the pandemic – there are many external factors that make life hard to bear. But Timothy Hampton, a professor at the University of California, Berkeley, has authored a book about how being cheerful on the outside, can help you, and those around you, feel it on the inside. Cheerfulness, he says, is not happiness or optimism or hopefulness, but it’s something you do. It’s how you talk to people, or the way you choose to view the world.

“It’s ephemeral,” Hampton says. “It comes and goes. It’s a resource of the self, an uptick in one’s emotional wellbeing that raises your energy levels briefly. We don’t really recognise it, unless we’re doing it.”

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