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Can you really manage on £53 a week?

LONDON, ENGLAND - SEPTEMBER 05: Work & Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith arrives in Downing Street on September 5, 2012 in London, England. Prime Minister David Cameron is holding his first Cabinet meeting after yesterday's re-shuffle of Ministers. (Photo by Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images)

There’s been a bit of a PR nightmare for the work and pensions secretary this week, after he claimed that he could manage on £53 a week if he had to.

Iain Duncan Smith was defending cuts to benefits on Radio 4 when a caller claimed that the bedroom tax would leave him just £53 a week after housing costs. When challenged over whether he could survive on that amount, Duncan Smith replied: “If I had to, I would.”

Of course, it’s never pretty when a man earning £134,565 a year makes that kind of claim and so the public backlash has been enormous, with more than 350,000 people signing a petition asking the work and pensions secretary to put his money, or rather lack of it, where his mouth is.

But what does £53 a week really mean and how hard would it be to live on? To help me understand the challenge being faced by Brits living on this amount, I tried to draw up a weekly budget that would pay for all my necessities.

Bills I’d need to pay out of £53 a week

I didn’t include living costs for my husband or toddler, as the caller said he didn’t receive child benefit as his children live with their mother. I’ve also not included mortgage or rent payments as the £53 was the amount he claimed he had left after housing costs.

First I sifted through my bills and looked at what I consider to be the basic necessities; food, water, heating and electricity. With council tax benefit ending this month, many low income households are also being asked to contribute as much as £200 or more, where they previously paid nothing. I needed to factor that in or risk facing eviction.

But I also wanted to include bills for services that most of us take for granted: Transport, a TV licence, phone and internet. Those last two may sound like luxuries, but they would be essential if I was hunting for work.

My £53 a week budget

Assuming I’d use much less energy if I lived alone, I ran a search for dual fuel tariffs on a price comparison website. A low-energy use home in my area was offered a best price of £817.46 a year. That works out at £15.72 a week.

The average water bill for a single person household with a meter fitted is £226 a year, according to Yorkshire Water. So that’s £4.35 a week.

Add on a £200 annual council tax bill and that’s another £3.85 a week gone from my budget, so I’ve spent £23.92 already. This leaves just £29.08.

So how would my other bills break down?

I currently pay £10 a month for a pay-as-you-go phone and don’t think I could get a better deal, so that’s £2.50. I could pay weekly for my TV licence, which would be a further £5.60.

A weekly bus pass costs £14.50 and would be too much for a £53 budget, as it would leave me just £6.48 a week for food and other costs. I’d clearly not manage to afford an internet connection either – meaning quite a few long walks to the library to get online.

So, without those two extra costs I’d have £20.98 left for food and any unexpected expenses; that’s just £3 a day. While I am pretty sure I could keep myself fed, I doubt I’d have any spare cash for healthier options like fresh fruit and veg.

Could I live on £53 a week?

I think what this has shown is it’s incredibly difficult to live on £53 a week, but that it may be possible to survive.

However, when I was trying to draw up a budget for this amount I didn’t include toiletries and household cleaning products, or less regular purchases such as new clothes or toys for my son – even if he didn’t live with me I’d want to buy him an occasional treat!

I’ve not included any insurance policies and I’ve certainly not managed to set aside an amount to save each week, even as little as £1.

I also didn’t budget for Christmas, include a plan to travel down south to visit my family or deal with an unexpected emergency like the boiler breaking down. It’s easy to see how people on such low incomes fall into the jaws of doorstep lenders.

Teaching IDS a lesson

But even if he agreed to the petition and tried to get by on £53 a week for a year, that still wouldn’t show Duncan Smith how hard life must be on such an extreme budget.

He already has furniture, a freezer of food and good-quality clothes. Most importantly, he’d know it was only for a limited time. Most people living on such very low incomes have no end in sight.

Could you manage on £53 a week? Do you? Was Iain Duncan Smith making a sensible point? Have your say in the comments below.