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‘Money is a constant worry and it’s infecting everything’: one family’s experience of the soaring UK cost of living

“Money is just a constant worry and I feel like it’s infecting everything,” says Jess Daly of the impact of rising living costs on her family. “Costs are increasing from all sides and there seems to be a relentless expectation that we are going to be able to absorb them without extra help.”

With the cost of living crisis now into its second year, Jess, who lives with her husband, Jon, and two-year-old daughter, Robin, in Norwich, says that as well as food and energy bills they have fresh worries. Their childcare costs are going up and Jess could lose her job as a library administrator.

It is a lot to cope with. Official figures published on Wednesday showed the UK inflation rate as measured by the consumer prices index had made a surprise rise to 10.4% in February after three months of falls, driven by increases in the cost of meals out and fresh produce amid the salad crisis. The cost of food and non-alcoholic beverages rose by about 18% in the year to February, the highest rate in 45 years.

With their finances coming under growing pressure, the Dalys, who first spoke to the Guardian about their soaring bills at the end of 2021, think twice before putting anything in their trolley. Jess describes the “attitude shift” that kicks in at the end of the month. “Rather than thinking ‘what would we like to eat this week?’ it’s thinking ‘well, what’s left in the budget this week?’” he says.

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They go to Morrisons or Asda for their weekly shop and do not eat most meat, which is one saving. They like fish but it is not on the menu much these days because of the cost. The increases in the cost of eggs, whole milk and low-fat milk – up 32.5%, 34.4% and 42.2% respectively – are hard to miss and when Jess scans the supermarket shelves she spots fewer promotions on the brands she used to buy.

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“I don’t really see brands on offer as much as I used to so I don’t tend to buy a lot of branded stuff any more,” Jess says. “I’ve switched to own-brand on almost everything. “I used to be a bit of a snob about own-brand but I had the luxury of being able to afford to be that way. Now if the supermarket salad cream is 85p and Heinz is £3 I think ‘well how bad could the supermarket salad cream be?’ and it’s fine. I’ll probably keep shopping like this when – well, if – things improve.”

Even after making changes their spending on groceries has doubled since 2019. In that time they have had their first child, which has added expensive items such as nappies, but their eating habits have not changed much.

I don’t really see brands on offer as much as I used to so I don’t tend to buy a lot of branded stuff any more

Jess Daly

Neither have those of Polly their cat but they find the pet food aisle is no longer the bonanza of meal deals it once was. “Every week I go to the supermarket I think maybe this will be the week that I can stock up on cat food but it is never on offer,” Jess says with a sigh.

Last week’s budget offered thin gruel for the Dalys, who are both 36. The government’s promise of free childcare for under-threes will come too late for Robin, who is already two, and neither of them has a bulging £1m-plus pension pot to benefit from Hunt’s tax giveaway.

In addition, Jess’s employer, the University of East Anglia, is trying to plug a £30m deficit and has warned staff of possible compulsory redundancies. The university has blamed its financial problems on a number of things, including pressures on student numbers and a £5m increase in energy costs this year.

“I don’t know whether or not that will affect me and it will be at least another month before I find out,” Jess says.

The couple’s excitement around the promise of government help with childcare costs was short-lived because of the timescales involved in its implementation. Indeed, Jon says there was nothing in the budget to improve their lot this year: “I don’t run a business, I don’t have a spare £20,000 to contribute to my pension, and our bills are still higher than ever,” he says.

With the government’s childcare plan aimed at helping parents return to work, Jess is “back in the workplace and trying desperately to stay there”, she says. However, after a series of price increases the cost of sending their daughter to nursery two days a week (her father helps out one day a week) is akin to a second mortgage.

“Robin’s been in nursery for just over a year now and our childcare fees are about to increase for the third time,” Jess says. “When she started in April 2021 her fees were £61 a day. It is now £63.50 a day, and in April they are jumping up to £70 a day. We are not far off the point now where childcare is going to be more expensive than our mortgage.”

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The looming increase is so the nursery can give its staff a pay rise, which the couple support, although neither of them have had a salary increase for several years.

Even if Jess loses her job, taking Robin out of childcare would be a “last resort”, she says. “We have a fantastic nursery where she is very happy, and with the lack of funding and resource in the sector I wouldn’t want to risk losing her place and then struggle to get it back should I need to return to the workplace.”

We are not far off the point now where childcare is going to be more expensive than our mortgage

Jess Daly

They managed to secure a new five-year mortgage deal before the market meltdown triggered during Liz Truss’s brief stint as prime minister. “We managed to get away with our mortgage payments only going up by £50 a month … so that was a big relief and I am grateful for that,” Jess says.

Last week the government confirmed that the energy price guarantee would continue at its current rate, which limits a typical annual household bill to £2,500, until the end of June. However, the £400 universal energy bill support scheme is not being repeated this year.

At just over £200 a month, the energy bill for the Dalys three-bed terrace has doubled in the past year alone, and it now costs more than four times as much to keep the lights and heating on as it did in 2019, when their direct debit was just £45.

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The family have reduced their energy use as much as possible which has made for a tricky winter for Jon, who works remotely for an IT training company, with the couple prioritising using the heating when their daughter is at home. “Over the winter I hunkered down and put on multiple layers and then appreciated the extra warmth when Jess and Robin were at home,” he says.

After the budget the Institute for Fiscal Studies warned that the outlook for this year was one of continuing financial pain for households amid predictions they will continue to experience the biggest fall in living standards since the 1950s.

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It is “exhausting even thinking about the future”, they say, even though Jon says he knows “things will eventually get better and more affordable.

“We have always tried to be responsible with how we spend and save and are very fortunate to be able to make ends meet, but with everything constantly going up … I worry about how we can absorb unexpected costs,” he says.