Last updated on November 15th, 2015 at 12:09 pm

An Average Joe on Benefits

The thing about being on benefits is that most people think that it is a situation that they will never find themselves in. The reality is that over 1 million UK workers of all ages get ill or injured each year, with 350,000 of them becoming long-term cases. The majority of us believe that the State would support us if we were unable to work due to illness or injury. But the reality is that the State benefit, the Employment and Support Allowance (ESA), which kicks in six months after sick leave begins, only pays around £5,000 a year (around £95 a week) for most people. (During the first six months of sick leave, your employer must pay you Statutory Sick Pay of around £85 a week) This is 80% less than average UK earnings of £26,500 per year, meaning a huge drop in income for the majority of UK workers, if they had to go on long-term sick leave.

As a result, I have spent this week living on the ESA allowance of £95 to see how hard it would actually be. My weeks diary of highs and lows is as follows;


DAY ONE – Monday 20th June – Balance £95

I’ll firstly make the note that although I had to go to work, I would obviously be too sick to do so if I was on ESA! I headed into work on Monday, with a belly full of cereal, (which I already had in the cupboard – is that cheating?) and hitched a lift off the missus. Upon lunch times arrival I thought I would attempt to be industrious as utilise the free half chicken I had on my Nando’s loyalty card. I called Nando’s before I left work (because I’m cool like that) and some 10 or so minutes later sauntered down to collect my chicken, grabbing a can of Lilt on the way. At the counter I pulled out my loyalty card only to discover I’d already claimed for the half chicken. So I owed the balance of £6.75. Good start. The rest of the day was financially indifferent, and I got a ride home with the missus.


My Nandos card. I Had the half chicken on the 6/5. Damn

DAY TWO – Tuesday 21st June – Balance £87.45

Today, myself and the good lady are on different shifts, so much to my disappointment I have to get up early to get the bus. This is £4 return followed by the train, which stings me for £6.10. I get to work and work through until lunch. My train ticket is a return, so I get back home after work with no further charges. I decide I fancy a walk to Tesco to see if any bargains can be had. Bearing in mind it is an hour round trip on foot to the Super market, one would have thought it would be a good idea to make a point of obtaining some supplies for the week. Alas, I return with 3 varieties of crisps and a pot of hummus- a scoop at £4.60. Much to my dismay, when I finally get back and check what I actually have for dinner, there is nothing in the cupboard besides pasta and peanut butter. The culinary delight of plain pasta it is then. Yum.




DAY THREE – Wednesday 22nd June – Balance £72.75

I ride with the wife to be again as we are on the same shift times. I have cereal for breakfast, a simple packed lunch, dinner at home, and forgive myself for thinking I’m getting the hang of this living on the super cheap thing. I even resist the temptation to spend when everyone at work gets a cake at lunch and I get asked if I want one. I. Like. Cake. They obviously taunt me with their cakes in the most mean spirited way for encouragement.

DAY FOUR – Thursday 23rd June – Balance £72.75

I have the day off today, and so in the interest of fairness and to give myself a bit of room for manoeuvre I do exactly nothing all day, spending no money. Instead I break down what it would cost me for rent, council tax, bills, TV license, car insurance, petrol, phone bill, food etc per week. Realistically, this task is absolutely impossible. I reside myself to the fact that I need to contribute to petrol, so as the good lady put £40 in to last the week, I give her half. The fab folks we live with don’t charge us much for food & board and it equates to £25 a week. Do the maths. So, as much as I didn’t do anything today, I’m £45 down, but I have paid my way.

DAY FIVE – Friday 24th June – Balance £27.75

Today, I drive to work as the little lady is off. I have come prepared with the lunchbox of all lunchboxes courtesy of the good people we are living with. It’s the little victories that make life worth living! My manager asks me what I’m up to during the day. “Nothing” I reply. “I can’t afford it – I’m living on £95 remember.” This reminds me how much this task is both teaching me restraint and sucks in equal quantities.

If Carlsberg did Lunchboxes…

DAY SIX – Saturday 25th June – Balance £27.75

Cereal AGAIN for breakfast. Got a ride to work, but the good lady is on the late shift. So following the routine as normal, I have lunch, and when I finish I have a sandwich and snack from M&S which costs me £3.99. I then have 2 hours to kill before she finishes, so I decide to go for a solo cinema trip to see Kung Fu Panda 2. The price of cinema really is extortion, especially when you’re living on a budget. £7.90, wow. I avoided the popcorn and pick & mix. I get home and get cooked an EPIC giant Yorkshire pudding filled with steak mash and vegetables.



DAY SEVEN – Sunday 26th June – Balance £15.86

Searing hot weather means I want to head away for the weekend, however a lack of funds prevents me from escaping anywhere. The garden is picturesque however! I treat everyone to a 99 flake in a wafer cone with sauce. This kills £5.50 of my balance. I have just over £10 left so I donate the remainder to a good friends cycling trip for charity.


It’s my last day living on ESA so I draw up what it would have cost me to live at my last apartment every week, just to put the severity of this task (without any help from the fiancé or the good folk’s affordable hospitality) into perspective.

Outgoings (My Share, Cost per week)
Rent – £62.50
Council Tax – £6.25
Bills – £5
Petrol – £20
Food – £25
Car Insurance – £19
TV & NET – £3.50
Phone Bill – £10
Total – £151.25

It’s just not feasible. If I did go on long term sick leave, the ESA allowance would not cover my monthly outgoings and would as a result would make for a seriously stretched income, and affect my quality of life in the most basic sense; less food, less mobility through less use of the car, and needing a smaller and cheaper apartment.

I have an increased respect for the challenge faced by individuals who have to get by on Employment and Support Allowance, and especially those who may not have a support network in place to help them out.
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This blog was produced for Average Joes Blog by Sheldon Smillie to a brief agreed with Unum. Payment made by Unum restricted to ESA allowance and a charitable donation to the Average Joes Blog charity of choice. All editorial overseen and controlled by Sheldon Smillie.



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