Clare Seal on paying off debts and taking control of her finances | Lifetise
Hello and welcome back. Today’s guest is Clare Seal, the creator of the My Frugal Year Instagram account, founder of The Financial Wellbeing Forum and author of Real Life Money: An Honest Guide To Taking Control Of Your Finances (Headline 2020) and The Real Life Money Journal (Headline 2020). She works to address the deeper causes of debt and financial difficulty, discussing how mindset, privilege and circumstances contribute to our financial lives and emotional wellbeing.
Hi Clare! How are you doing today?
Hi, very well thanks, Caroline.
Thanks so much for coming on the show we’ve been wanting to have you on for ages. So it’s great that you’re able to find the time. And I just kind of wanted to talk a little bit about where you’ve come from, where you’re at now and maybe starting off from what made you decide to start the My Frugal Year Instagram account?
This is quite often the first question whenever I’m doing interviews or whatever. I’ve been asked that a lot. And I think the answer probably is there was a bit of a moment of madness. I think at that moment, I felt so overwhelmed by everything that actually and it felt quite nice to have an external sort of vessel to pour into. You know, just a way of, of letting it all out and getting it all down, not on paper but in an Instagram post. But also, I think I’d seen kind of murmurings of people talking about finance on Instagram. And I thought it was quite interesting. And also, it felt quite sort of poetic, I mean, Instagram and social media, and the whole comparison thing was a big part of my issues with spending. So it felt sort of poetic to be able to use Instagram to go in the opposite direction, almost. And to use it as a tool to kind of bring myself out of that situation. So there’s a real combination of things, I think.
Your very first post, I think, was an image of all of your debts listed out with a total. Just the thought of that is quite scary. What did it feel like putting that out so publicly into the world?
I mean, I don’t think I ever would have put it out to 70,000 people as it would be right now! I had like, single digit followers at the time I pasted that. I mean, I literally just started the account.
Also, in those very early days, I thought I’d get kind of couple of dozen followers who might shout at me if I bought too many lattes! I wasn’t expecting any of what followed or the community. That’s been great. So I think that’s kind of quite crucial. Because I think, the way that you frame the question probably makes me out to be a bit braver than I actually am!
But, you know, I’m, glad that I did it. And I’m glad that it’s still there for people to see. Because for me, now looking at that, it’s shows progress. And I think it’s, it’s really, really hard to face what you feel are real lows in the moment, but they do give you a real anchor point, for any journey to look back at how far you’ve come, essentially. So, starting with the account in the first place was a bit of a sort of moment of, ‘I don’t know what else to do’, you know. But i’m glad and I think I one of the things that this has all taught me — talking about this so openly, is that actually, sometimes when you open up a bit, you just realise it’s not just you. You’re not alone, there’s loads of other people in exactly the same boat. And that, in turn makes it easier to talk about. So it’s kind of a bit of a positive snowball effect.
Yeah, I’m sure that it’s definitely felt like that, for the audience looking at it. But when you first started posting, and for the first year, you stayed anonymous. Was that out of a fear of being judged? Was it that you wanted it to be separate from you? What was the thought process there?
I think it was the kind of dual things that always coexist. The internal shame, and then the fear of the external judgement, because both of those things exist a lot around money. One of the things that I just hear on a daily basis from people is ‘I can’t tell anyone, because I’m too ashamed.’ I’ve like always known that I was quite bright, you know, academically, especially. And, you know, I’m very good at crosswords, I’m quite good at maths. And I felt like my poor relationship with money undermined that or contradicted it somehow. And talking about it in relation to myself, it felt like it sort of betrayed that I actually, I was just pretending to be clever, because if I couldn’t manage something this fundamental… It made me call everything that I’d always thought about myself and my abilities in all of the other areas of my life into question. And I think a lot of people feel like that as well. So it was kind of about separating it out from me. And I’m glad that I did that for a while, in a way because it did help me to process the actual problem and find the solution without worrying about what people were thinking about me.
But I think there was a finite amount of time that that could last for. Because over the course of that time, part of my message really became that not automatically having a great relationship with money or knowing how to live within your means, or whatever is not really something that we need to be ashamed. It’s not part of your personality or your DNA. It is a problem to which there is a solution. And if you start seeing it in that way, it starts to feel far more manageable. But I couldn’t obviously continue talking about not being ashamed while remaining anonymous — it would have been quite disingenuous. I think it I can really see the reasons why things have panned out the way that they have, even though when I was going through the kinds of anonymity and then the transition to being me, I felt like I was kind of stumbling blindly through it. So that’s added, like an extra facet to the journey, I think,
What you said about feeling very smart and capable in other areas of your life. And this was one area where it didn’t seem to work for you, and you almost couldn’t compute why that would be the case. And therefore you’re thinking, hang on a second, is it an anomaly? Or am I actually just not that good, and I’ve been kidding myself, in all of these other areas?! But in a lot of the other areas, such as academics, you’re taught how to do stuff.
It’s really weird, I think, that money is one of those things that we sometimes feel we should innately be good at, we should innately know how to do it. Whereas with most other things, we don’t expect that we would know how to do unless you’ve been taught to — unless it been part of our education. But there’s something about money, maybe because it’s so fundamental to our lives, that we give ourselves a story that is, well, we should know how to. But why should we? How?
Absolutely. And I think one of the parallels that I draw quite frequently, and the more I talk about it, or think about it, the more they seem to have in common, but it’s, it’s a bit like eating, like, it’s very difficult. We’re not ever really taught, apart from copying our parents in the same way that we do with money, we’re not really taught how to have a decent relationship with food. And, you know, I have compared my issues with food, for example, to my issues of money, publicly in the past. I think quite a lot of people had real like lightbulb moments. Because again, it’s one of those things that’s fundamental to life. It’s not like, you know, narcotics or alcohol, you can’t just go cold turkey, you have to deal with money in the same way that you have to eat. It’s a bit more complicated an area to have issues. And that’s not saying that it’s any easier any more difficult to deal with. But it’s more complex, you can’t just opt out of money.
Completely, and this partly why we started Lifetise, and why we have this podcast, particularly to talk about like the emotion and the feelings behind our relationships with money and the choices that we make — because you can’t extricate it. There are so few of us in the world, for whom money is just this abstract thing. It’s just numbers on the ledger. Money comes in, money comes out. We have no emotional attachment to it. We make entirely rational decisions at all times about it. I don’t know anybody like that, not one single person. So the longer that we keep pretending that it’s like that, and it’s not this weird, messy, highly personal, highly emotional thing that we’re all dealing with, like we can’t actually move forward.
Yeah, I think you’re right. I think there is kind of this rhetoric that you should just know how to do it. And certainly, I found from kind of older generations, you know? Misunderstanding around how things have been through the generations that have followed. Because, you know, I was, I was on Times Radio a couple of weeks ago, and someone texted in to say, “you have to be a selfish halfwit to get into debt, and it’s simple, don’t spend more than you make”. Every time that happens, it strikes me anew that there are loads of real misconceptions around, like how complex your relationship with money can be. You know, again, it’s very similar to how often people who’ve never had a complicated relationship with food will say: “well, if you want to stay the same way, just like don’t eat more than you burn off”.
I agree, like the messaging that we hear around debt in particular, it’s all around how you only get into debt if you’re bad with money, or you’ve got crazy uncontrollable spending. There’s always blame attached to it, there’s always a sense that you’ve done it to yourself, that it is something that could otherwise have been avoided, and it’s your own fault. But actually, most of the people that I speak to who are worried about debt, it’s usually some combination of life events, or, you know, setbacks. I mean, look what 2020 showed us, you know, there are going to be plenty of people who now find themselves unable to make their payments on debts or having to take out loans or having to use their credit cards, just to tide them over. So it’s this very simplistic view, that it’s just because you’ve spent your way into it — and that is just not accurate.
No, and I think I think that’s, I think that’s right. And I think it’s really like perpetuated by stories that we, you know, stories that we see in fiction, you know, there’s very little realistic representation. You’ve either got kind of like the Ted Hastings figure who made a bad investment, and then hid the fact that he has all these debts makes him feel like very questionable character. (Or sorry for anyone who doesn’t watch Line of Duty — you’re missing out!). Or you have the like Becky Bloomwoods, and the Carrie Bradshaw’s who, you know, spend all of their money on clothes and shoes and handbags, and it sort of that then perpetuates this idea that women are frivolous creatures who spend all their money on superficial things. Which, you know, it’s very ironic given that we’re fed the message from when we’re children, that i’s only our appearance that matters. But that’s probably a topic for another day — I could talk about that for hours.
For me, it was a combination of, I definitely didn’t have a very good sense of living within my means or money management from the moment I entered the world of earning and spending my own money. But at the same time, I hadn’t been working very long, and I wasn’t on a very good salary when my first son was born, he was unplanned. You know, the toll that childcare and maternity pay takes on your finances is massive, even if you have plans and save for it. And so there’s that and then I got married, then I had another baby, and, and all of that just those big life milestones that I had kind of earlier in my life than a lot of my peers.
And coupled with the fact that I just had this very sort of toxic like push-pull relationship with spending, where I kind of used it as both a crutch and like a bit of a stick to beat myself with just culminated in a situation that was out of my control. And actually, once it gets to a certain point, you do just think, like screw it. I’m already in this rubbish situation. Like, you know, I think the more you feel like there’s no way out. Or, you know, the more difficult it feels, the more the easier it is kind of save it for future you and think I’ll be right in a couple of years on earning more. I’ll be all right when I get x bonus in January. And I just don’t, you know, I don’t think we can out-earn a broken relationship with money. I think you will always, you know, you have to fix the fundamentals first, which is very much what the last couple of years has been about, for me.
But yeah, no, you’re right like that there is, especially, especially when you get into sort of five figures, you know, when I say to people, £27,000 pounds, I can see designer clothes and flashy cars, like in their eyes. And it’s not, it’s not that at all. It’s, it’s a big combination of things like normal things.
Life! Life things. Your debt was £27,000. And that does, it slightly makes you catch your breath. Not in any way to shame, but just in a way to say, that’s, you know, it’s a significant sum of money for you to have to then look at, and work out how to deal with.
I definitely can see the sort of gravity of it now and understand why it was weighing so heavily on my shoulders.
That’s a number where you must have looked at it and just thought, what do I do? Where do I start? And that feeling of overwhelm is what we hear from a lot of people that it is: where do I go from here? And how do I stop hiding from it? Where was your starting point?
I think you’re right. And I think that’s where that like paralysis comes from. It feels like the monster is so big that you don’t even know it, like you would feel like sort of snapping at its ankles. But I think the moment for me was on, it was a phone conversation with like a customer service advisor at my bank. And it was mid month, I was in an unarranged overdraft. And she asked me when I’d be able to come back within my arranged limit. And I was just saying, it’s going to be the end of the month — payday. Like, I just heard myself say, there’s no money left. And she was really nice to me, she sort of like refunded some bank charges, which brought me just about within my limit. And it was just, it sort of was like a bit of a joint breaking point and turning point in that I knew that things had to change. I just had this, like, very strong feeling that things couldn’t go on the way that they’d been.
I’d been juggling these small amounts of money from one account to another just trying to plug these ever expanding holes in our budget. But the fact that she sort of did some things to help me felt like I could turn things around. It gave me like, just the tiniest nudge in the right direction. But sometimes that’s all you need. So after that, the first step, (because I had been, I was very much sort of like covering my eyes when I was getting cash at the cash point. And, you know, terrified of looking at my bank balance or credit card statements). So my first step was getting everything out on the table. And actually I did it over the course of a few days. Because I just knew that if I tried to rip off the band aid and do it all at once, I might frighten myself and back into a head in the sand sort of position.
So like try not to make that moment punitive because things are, it’s hard enough as it is to face the music on something that massive. I mean, that part was really hard. Looking at all the numbers, adding everything up. It was difficult, and, you know, painful and all of those things, but it will remain probably the best thing I’ve done in my life (like excludes, you know, children and my husband and all of those things). You know, in terms of sort of hard things and things to overcome. It’s probably you know, one of the biggest milestones in my adult life. And I don’t think that you can really do it without having that moment. Because I think you have to know where you are, it’s very important to start where you are, but you have to know where you are first.
And I think that is one of the hardest bits, isn’t it? I know, my sister who was on one of the very first episodes of the podcast, describes that feeling when you’re sort of moving money around as being a bit like the bit in Wallace and Gromit where he’s on the train and trying to lay down bits of track in front of him before it runs out. And never knowing if you’re going to have enough track.
And I remember speaking with Al as we kind of did like, just a budget. And it wasn’t even really that she owed any money. She just was never sure if she would have enough money to pay for all of the things and the thought of that terrified her. The thought of eyeballing her money, really, really scared her in case the answer was negative, or, in her mind, potentially catastrophic. And I think you’re absolutely right, that it’s, you have to eyeball it. And you have to be prepared, I think for it to not feel good. And then you have to try really hard to be very, very kind to yourself, and just say, well, I’ve, I’ve done this first bit, I’ve taken this first step, I’m looking at it. And now I can trust that I’m going to be able to do something about it, because now I know what there is to be done.
Yeah, absolutely. And I think one of the things that I sort of, hadn’t seen anywhere, really. And so I made a point of putting it in the book was, like, try and do that bit. When you don’t have any distractions, like make yourself a hot drink, or, you know, something stronger, whatever. But don’t try and like be on the phone to your bank or doing sums when you’re also trying to look after a toddler or, you know, if your flatmates being really annoying and banging around the place. And definitely don’t do it if you’ve got PMT. Like just don’t do it at a time when you know, you’re already feeling really fraught, make sure that you’re like looking after yourself in the way that you do that because it will probably make a big difference in what happens next.
Yeah. I think it’s a huge thing to be able to almost in advance of it, celebrate yourself for the fact that you’re going to do it. Because you’ve done amazingly well. How has it felt along the way? Has it been bumpy? Yeah, of course it has — life! I mean, take taking pandemic aside has it been bumpy, she says..!
Yeah, and I think that’s one of the kind of very common misconceptions about, like, any kind of personal journey, which I I don’t really like the word ‘journey’ but it is the only word for it. So I’ll just use it unapologetically now. I think, yes, is that the any kind of progresses is going to be linear. And it’s not. It’s very, it’s kind of like lots of bumps, but as long as the trend is upwards then you’re doing okay. And yeah, they’ve been really difficult moments. I mean, very early in the process, I had to make the really tough decision to quit my job and go freelance. I’d moved jobs to a job that wasn’t as I had thought it would be or wasn’t as it had been presented. And it was making me really ill, I’m quite an anxious person anyway, but it made me anxious to the point that I bumped my car into somebody, and it was not a big crash or anything, you know, like that. But it was enough to sort of shock me into knowing that I needed to change something. And I had that exact time I was offered like 12 months freelance contract with my previous company and I just thought, well, it’s now or never.
Like I’d been thinking about going freelance for a while my son was about to start school. And I it gave me the push that I needed, but it was really I had to accept that it was going to potentially mean that this the debt payoff was a bit slower, or that there were a couple of difficult months, and you know that I was going to have to get used to a whole new way of earning. So that was really kind of very early on. And then also, in that first year, we had to spend on a credit card in August because my husband’s car needed some work doing on his MOT. Having those setbacks early on in the process, and realising I could still have that upward trend was really great. So, yes, it’s been bumpy, but I think, you know, as long as the trend is upwards, you’re doing okay.
With each bump that you’ve got over, did you grow in confidence? Do you now feel that you are quite capable with money?
Yeah, I think so. I mean, I’m, I’m way more confident with money. And I, you know, to the point that I sort of, am able to, you know, obviously not give financial advice here, but sort of, you know, give tips and things to other people based on what has worked for me. But I think, you know, I am sort of accepting of the fact that I’m always going to have a fairly complex relationship with money, because lots of people do. And I think it’s about kind of acknowledging that and mitigating for it, rather than sort of seeing it as something that you have to get over. And that will then be in the past.
But I’m much more, I mean, I know a lot more in terms of kind of actual financial education now than I did. And, you know, I never thought — if you told me a couple of years ago that I have written like a book about money, and that I’d be putting, making some, like small investments and things like that I would have told you to jog on! But iit feels, it feels very good. And I think sometimes I have to remind myself of that as well, because it can feel like a bit of a long slog, whatever financial journey like paying off debt, saving up for house, saving for retirement. Whatever it is, it can feel like, when you’re looking at those big financial goals, it can feel quite overwhelming. And you can feel you can get quite impatient, I’m not very patient person anyway. So I have to sort of remind myself, of how much things have changed, really,
Let’s talk for a minute about your book. Because you called it Real Life Money, and what I think is so great about it, apart from the fact that it’s now bestseller, congratulations. That is very honest, and relatable. And a bit unlike actually, most other books and things about money. And one of the reasons that we set up Lifetise, Nick, and I was because we looked around, and we couldn’t see any financial services, products or advice that reflected our lives, and the lives of our friends.
Now, I think it comes it comes back around to the fact that a lot of the narratives kind of treat money as this thing that runs in parallel to your everyday life. And something that’s kind of clean cut, and very clinical, when actually for most people money has its tendrils into every area of our lives, and it affects all of the decisions that we make. And you know, sort of from where we live to how many children we have, or whether we have children at all. It’s very, it’s very messy! I think what a lot of financial literature tries to do is to make money this the one thing in life that’s not messy when actually, iit’s just as messy as everything else. And that’s what I wanted to capture in Real Life Money obviously it’s like part memoir, some of it’s about my own life, but I tried to capture other experiences and perspectives in there as well because it’s something that’s unique to everybody — their relationship with money.
And that’s what I love obviously your account and then there are some others on on Instagram and elsewhere where people are sort of putting their hands up and saying, hang on, can we talk about this, please, because I’m trying to figure this out for myself, and I don’t know what I’m doing. And I cannot be alone.
Yeah. Oh, absolutely. And I think one of the reasons why I sort of set up the financial Wellbeing Forum, which hopefully is gonna, you know, we’re gonna have loads more content on there this year — is to like, have a more emotionally intelligent approach to money with some actual context. Rather than just treating it as something completely separate. So, you know, I haven’t heard about finance in relation to so many different things. I mean, when I first started talking about the, the kind of link between my relationship with money and the loss of my dad, I never had heard anyone talk about that, like the only thing that I’d heard about money and bereavements was about people like fighting over the will. I hadn’t, you know, so that’s something that I want to explore more like, I’ve never heard anything from the trans perspective about finance and how that affects, you know, your earning potential, or how it affects, you know, the cost of treatments and things like that, you know, never heard anything nuanced about that. So I think there’s loads of different aspects of money that just have never been talked about before.
Yeah, it was the reason for doing this podcast. You know, when I thought about what content did I want to put out alongside the sort of educational and the tools and the how to do the things that you want to do. It was really, really important to me that we had this podcast, which acknowledges that it all has to be understood in the context of our lives, and how we feel and all of the experiences that we’ve had, the environment that we’re in. There’s a couple of episodes of this podcast, and one is on money and loss, death, and bereavement. And I actually had Dani St. James on the podcast specifically to talk about the trans experience. And I agree, these are just conversations that don’t get heard. So I’m absolutely thrilled, because I think the more of us that are able to have these types of conversations where we bring it into the open and allow people to recognise their own lived experience within that.
Yeah, absolutely. Absolutely. I think you’re right, it’s just the needs to be, this needs to be like a bigger, a bigger conversation.
You’ve helped a lot of people through being honest about your own experience. Through people seeing that you were, you have been able to pay down a significant amount of your debts and you have, you know, you have systematically gone after it, you’ve had the bumps in the road, you’ve shared those. I’m excited because the reason that we’re working together is because you now feel you’re at the real point where you can look forward and do some things which feel more positive about the future. We’re going to help you look at what buying a home would look like for you how long you would need to save what you can likely buy. Talk me through what that feels like.
It’s strange, I think it will. I was saying to a friend, actually, I think I don’t think we’ll be able to believe it. Like one day when we do get the keys to our first house in our hands. I think it’s gonna be a very surreal moment. But I think it’s, it feels it feels sort of good to be at a point where it’s not, it’s no longer just about kind of filling in the hole. It’s about building something new. I think that is something that’s like a feeling that we’re getting used to. And it’s, it’s really nice, it feels less heavy. It feels sort of, yeah, it just feels like there’s something to really look forward to which is definitely not something I’ve felt about anything to do with money for a very long time. It feels really positive. For me kind of scrolling through Zoopla oor Rightmove and especially when I use the Lifetise tool and sort of looked at looked at everything. The idea that actually some of these houses, they were like within reach was kind of way more exciting.
A lot of our members tell us the excitement comes at that exact moment where it starts to feel possible. And then it starts to tip from possible to “Oh god, I’m actually doing this. Oh, it’s not just possible, but alright, two years!”
Yes please. I’ll take one of those, please!
I’ve really enjoyed this conversation. Thank you, as always, for your honesty and for being inspiring.
I’ve loved this conversation as well.
Thank you so much, Clare, thank you to everybody listening. We’ll share all of those details in the show notes as always, so you can follow her on Instagram, and have a great day, everyone.
Originally published at https://lifetise.com on January 10, 2021.