'My own personal Spending Review'

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Simon Francis

The government is unveiling plans to reduce its outgoings, but could our household budgets withstand cutbacks on the same scale? One man decided to find out.

Britain may be bracing itself for the deepest spending cuts in decades, with the government preparing to announce where the axe will fall.

But, on a much smaller scale, one man has spent the past four weeks finding out for himself what it's like to experience such an age of austerity.

Back in July, the Treasury ordered government departments to identify 40% of cuts in spending.

So blogger Simon Francis decided to see if he could reduce his own outgoings by the same proportion.

It would involve a severe squeeze on his habitual cashflow. Food, drink, energy bills, mortgage payments and Simon's social life would all have to be scaled back drastically if the target were to be met.

Simon, a 33-year-old from Kentish Town, north London, might not exactly have have been facing a fiscal crisis like that which ministers warn is confronting the UK state. He does not have children and his salary normally allows him to spend £2,100 a month.

But all of this, he reasoned, made it all the more relevant for him to volunteer for the role of austerity guinea pig.

"Working in PR, I'm not exactly on the breadline," he says. "So my thinking was: if I can't do this, then someone whose personal finances were in the same state as the country's couldn't either.

"Economists say we should be spending more, so perhaps I'm being irresponsible. But none of us know how the cuts ahead are going to affect us, so I think it's important that we all see how we're going to make savings."

His early cuts were easy. Visits to cafes for breakfast or coffee were banned. Lunch was to be prepared at home rather than bought pre-packaged. Spending on mineral water was abolished following a one-off £3 capital investment (the purchase of a robust plastic water canteen).

Even a mini-break to eastern Europe helped bring down revenue costs, thanks to the reduced price of beer.

But, for the most part, the fiscal squeeze proved tougher than he anticipated.

The slashing of his food budget proved more difficult than he thought. First he had to hack away at his principles and stop eating free-range chicken. Then, after exceeding his spending limits, he found himself going without dinner altogether.

By moving from a fixed rate to a tracker mortgage, he was able to reduce his monthly repayment by 20%. But this still fell short of the overall 40% target, so savings would have to be made elsewhere - and he will have to save the difference to ensure he is covered in the event of future rate rises.

His attempts to reduce energy costs by switching from gas supplier were hampered when a competitor quoted him a higher bill.

And, like the government, which has protected the National Health Service and Department for International Development budgets, Simon ring-fenced certain areas of spending.

His ability to get to work depended on public transport, so train fares were excluded from the 40% cuts target - as was the cost of beer, regarded by real ale lover Simon as being as much of a necessity as the NHS.

It might sound whimsical. But the coalition government has used the comparison with household budgets to make the case for its own cuts.

At the Liberal Democrat party conference, Nick Clegg compared the UK to a family which earned £26,000 while spending £32,000 a year on top of £40,000 debts. David Cameron has also described the deficit as "a bit like our credit cards - we all know the longer you leave it, the worse it gets".

Nonetheless, this line of reasoning has its limitations, Malcolm Sawyer, professor of economics at the University of Leeds, says.

He argues that, because about a third of the government's debt is owed to pension funds, repayments are going from one set of taxpayers to another.

"Politicians like to refer to the image of the housewife doing her weekly shopping budget - it's a powerful analogy that's easy to understand," he says.

"But the reality of why governments run up deficits is harder to explain in a soundbite - it's because tax revenues collapsed."

Simon acknowledges the comparison can only be taken so far. His focus, he says, was on the tough decisions involved in making the cuts - choices that he found harder than he anticipated.

And, in the event, they did not prove decisive enough.

Despite his best efforts, he still ended up spending £1,545 - a reduction of £555 on a typical period, but still only 26% of the original total.

In this respect, his experience resembles that of the government. In his June Budget, Chancellor George Osborne said most departments would face budget cuts averaging 25% - health and DfID being protected, and defence and education facing less harsh reductions of 10% to 20%.

Now, at least, Simon has a bit of extra cash - but this, he says, will be put aside for a rainy day in case the cuts start to bite him.

"It's not like I'm going to carry on with most of these savings," he says. "The only permanent saving is the mortgage - but even then I'll have to put aside the difference to protect against future rate rises.

"But I am going to have to get used to making savings because the government cuts will affect me, too. If Camden Council puts up my council tax, then I have to find a way to pay for it."

But he suspects governments will always have projects which they will look upon in the same way that Simon looks on real ale - not really a luxury, a habit of which he is just too fond to give up.

"It's a light-hearted exercise but it has given me some extra sympathy for politicians," he says.

"I now know that it's easy to promise you're going to make cuts but a lot harder to deliver them."

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