'By the skin of our teeth'

How a foster carer in the UK keeps a family of eight afloat.

What's your money worth illustration
[Jawahir Al-Naimi and Muaz Kory/Al Jazeera]
[Jawahir Al-Naimi and Muaz Kory/Al Jazeera]

What's your money worth? A series from the front line of the cost-of-living crisis, where people who have been hit hard share their monthly expenses.

Name: Lisa Hughs*

Age: 45

Occupation: Freelance copywriter and foster parent

Lives with: Husband Tom (aged 49); children Jamie (17), Sam (15) and Robin (12); foster children Charlie (9) and Alex (6); mother-in-law Simone (80); and a Greyhound-Labrador cross, named Sally (10)*.

Lives in: A five-bedroom Victorian house in a small, rural town in Devon, United Kingdom. The town has a population of around 13,000 people, a substantial farming industry, two mid-sized supermarkets, poor public transport links both locally and to the rest of the UK, three primary schools and one secondary school.

Monthly income: £5,808 ($7,057): £2,516 ($3,057) income and £1,646 ($2,000) allowance per foster child.

Total family expenses for the month: £5,728 pounds ($6,960)

*All family members' names are pseudonyms, to maintain their privacy.

Christmas gifts
With Christmas around the corner, Lisa and Tom are finding creative ways to stretch their budget [Lisa Hughs/Al Jazeera]
With Christmas around the corner, Lisa and Tom are finding creative ways to stretch their budget [Lisa Hughs/Al Jazeera]

Inspired by Tom's sister-in-law who grew up in foster care, Lisa and Tom felt compelled to help others in a similar way and began fostering 15 years ago. Since then, the couple has taken care of 33 foster children who have been placed with them at different times.

While they have had "respite" placements on occasion, providing emergency care for a single night, they usually foster children on a more permanent basis. This averages at around three months but they have also housed children for multiple years.

They have cared for children from very “difficult” backgrounds, Lisa says, including young girls who had been sexually abused and a child who was orphaned when he watched his mother die before his eyes. “People just don’t realise how bad it is, life’s not Disney,” she says.

The motivation to do “something good and kind” is part of the couple's nature. When a guest arrives at their home, Lisa instinctively rushes to make them feel welcomed and comfortable: Would you like a cup of tea? Are you warm enough?

If Lisa has any notice about a foster child arriving, she’ll find out as much as she can about them to put together a personalised welcome bag. Using their favourite colour, she’ll buy a towel, pyjamas, drawing book, teddy, fluffy socks, toiletries and “some fun bits and pieces”.

“I think I’m like this because of my mother, she was always hostess with the mostest,” Lisa says.

When it comes to the worsening cost-of-living crisis and its impact on her family, Lisa can only say: “I don’t know whether to laugh or cry.”

Despite her stress, she frequently finds humour and joy in small moments, like when she recounts her latest prudent food shop or when the children sneak into the room to play with cuddly toys. Yet, it is also hard to push her worries aside: a recurring pain in the back of her neck has become a daily discomfort. Determined not to become dependent on medication, she does yoga exercises to ease the pain.

Inflation graphic November 2021 and November 2022, UK
[Muaz Kory/Al Jazeera]

Lisa and Tom are both qualified copywriters with years of experience in marketing. During the busy festive season, she says she could typically make as much as £460 ($559) a week as a freelance copywriter. But she barely gets a chance to open an email these days due to her family responsibilities. Tom is now the sole earner.

Lisa currently has her work cut out, home-schooling their youngest foster child, Alex, whose behavioural difficulties prevent him from attending school. “We are working hard to understand his needs. It’s likely he suffered foetal damage due to his birth mother’s drug addiction,” she says, obviously concerned.

Their older foster child Charlie’s mother is also a drug addict, as is his grandmother; while his father is in prison. “Cases can be very complicated, they both suffered awful abuse and neglect. I feel the pressure to make sure they don’t fall down the same rabbit-holes of addiction,” Lisa says.

Over the years, she and Tom have done everything they can to treat their foster children like their own. This includes taking them on family holidays as far as France, Spain and Greece. “They’ve been through a lifetime’s worth of trauma so we really try to give them some enriching experiences,” Lisa says.

However, this year, their savings have been depleted. This summer holiday, they managed to take a long weekend trip in the neighbouring county of Cornwall. Lisa says it is “totally unthinkable” that they will have any type of family holiday next summer, and most likely the one after.

Lisa is a careful saver. But when her dishwasher broke in September she found herself with little money. “Running a household as big as ours without a dishwasher is impossible. I save and save but then something breaks and that’s all gone,” she says. And since Alex was placed with them six months ago, he has broken several household items, including their microwave, coffee machine and multiple toys - items they cannot afford to replace.

The inside of a fridge
The family's fridge is mostly bare [Lisa Hughs/Al Jazeera]

This month, the household of seven expanded to eight as Simone, Tom’s mother who usually lives a couple of hours away in Bath, has come to stay with them. A few years ago, Tom used his pension to support his mum move house after she was widowed. While she uses her own pension to cover the mortgage and bills, she was becoming distressed by rising energy rates and her declining health. Lisa says her mother-in-law will stay with them indefinitely, until the “weather is warmer and she feels stronger”.

With temperatures dropping and Christmas around the corner, “we are holding on by the skin of our teeth,” Lisa says. As the financial uncertainty becomes crippling, Lisa and Tom are being forced to question how feasible being foster carers is for their future, although that thought only brings them guilt and anguish.

“It’s horrendous, you worry what will happen if you stop, where will the children go and how they will cope. But I don’t think we can realistically go on like this, we have to make practical financial decisions for our biological children too,” Lisa says. “We feel emotionally trapped.”

Over the course of a month, from November 15 until December 12, 2022, as part of a collaborative project, Lisa tracked her family's monthly expenses with reporter Evie Townend. 

Here are the expenses that tested the family's finances the most.

The family's expenses over one month

A person in a coat eating pasta
To cut costs, the family has tried not to turn on their heating, instead wearing coats indoors [Lisa Hughs/Al Jazeera]
To cut costs, the family has tried not to turn on their heating, instead wearing coats indoors [Lisa Hughs/Al Jazeera]

Mortgage and council tax

Paying for their home comprises a huge proportion of Tom and Lisa’s monthly income. Their mortgage is £1,600 ($1,944) and council tax is £343 ($416), bringing their total expenses to £1,946 ($2,364) each month.

The family have 11 years left to pay off their mortgage, which Lisa says is a “constant worry” each month. “You never know what is around the corner, and it’s terrifying knowing your home could be on the line.”

However, she also says she is “beyond thankful” that their mortgage is on a fixed interest rate and so, despite the recent hikes in UK mortgage rates (forecast to increase by 0.3 percent by the end of this year), theirs has remained the same.

Last year: £1,752** ($2,128)
This year: £1,946 ($2,364)

CPI graphic 2022, UK
[Muaz Kory and Jawahir Al-Naimi/Al Jazeera]


Feeding a family of eight is no mean feat. Cutting out certain foods and buying only basic brands, the family sticks to a strict weekly budget of £300 ($364). This month it came to a total of £1,083 ($1,316).

The foster children qualify for free school meals but Lisa says the children are still coming home “ravenous”. She says she suspects portions are shrinking and food quality is declining. With Alex at home during the day, that’s another five lunches to account for.

“After their early life experiences, I want to make sure they have enough food and never go hungry,” Lisa says.

This time last year, Lisa would treat the children to a monthly meal at a Chinese buffet. Now, she cannot dream of being able to afford such a regular indulgence. “I feel like my life has become a weird dystopian movie where we can’t afford to eat.”

For herself and Tom, the prospect of chocolate, cheese or a glass of wine at the end of a long day is a distant luxury. “We’re eating low-budget nursery food. Lots of potatoes, cheap chicken and single vegetable meals, like carrots. We make a big vat of soup over the weekend, which we eat during the week.

“At this stage of my life, I didn’t think I’d be eating like a student again.”

Last year: £975** ($1,184) for a month’s worth of groceries 
This year: £1,083 ($1,315)

An item of clothes next to a fireplace
A onesie sits on a chair near the fireplace [Lisa Hughs/Al Jazeera]

Household and fuel bills

As the price of energy soars, the family is doing everything they can to avoid turning the heating on. In November, their electricity and gas bill came to £747 ($907), water was £55 ($67) and fuel was £217 ($263). Because they live in a rural area Lisa and Tom drive separate cars - one petrol, one diesel - and fuel is a necessary expense.

“We’re in survival mode,” Lisa says. As the weather turns colder she has embarked on what she calls ‘operation onesie’: as soon as the children are home from school, they can be found layered in multiple onesies, which Lisa bought from charity shops, cutting the feet off to make them one-size-fits-all.

Despite having five bedrooms, Simone’s arrival has led to a bedroom reshuffle. Two foster children of the opposite sex are not legally allowed to be in the same room and so Lisa has set up a bed for herself in the conservatory, while the others “buddy-up”. However, with December’s temperatures dropping, she fears what is to come. “It’s not warm but I have lots of covers. I just hope it doesn’t snow.”

A “saving grace” is their small log fire, which they spend their evenings huddled round, reminding Lisa of scenes from a Dickensian novel. Whenever she walks their dog Sally, she brings a bag to collect small twigs and branches for the fire.

“No one wants to leave the room, even for the toilet.”

Last year: £917** ($1,114)
This year: £1,019 ($1,238)

Five pairs of shoes
The children all needed new shoes for school and sports [Lisa Hughs/Al Jazeera]


“Prices go up but children don’t stop growing,” Lisa says. While hand-me-down clothes and shoes cut costs, it is not always that simple. Shoe sizes, for example, often don’t align and everyday footwear cannot always be handed down from the previous owner because of substantial wear and tear.

A big expense this month has been buying long-overdue, new school shoes for three children and football boots for one, amounting to £180 ($218). Lisa avoids buying from retail stores wherever possible.

“I’ve used charity shops and eBay for as long as I can remember, and now community clothes banks have been popping up where people are donating supplies and uniforms. They’re useful.”

But at the same time, Lisa worries that the children wearing “shabby clothes” will make them easy targets for those recruiting for local gangs, something she is “terrified” of.

Last June, the local police arrested 40 people in a two-day crackdown on county lines drug supplies in Devon, seizing multiple kilograms of suspected Class A and B drugs. County lines operations - the transport of illegal drugs from one area of the country to another - are predominantly carried out by children or vulnerable people who have been coerced into gangs. Lisa says children who look poorer or are dressed shabbily are “seen as easier to lure in by the promise of designer trainers or new mobile phones.”

This threat hit close to home after they witnessed several neighbourhood friends join gangs, one of whom simply wanted to make money to support his single-mum, Lisa says. “I watch my children like a hawk.”

Last year: £162** ($197)
This year: £180 ($218)

Advent calendars
This Christmas, Lisa is finding ways to make less appear more [Lisa Hughs/Al Jazeera]


Christmas is always a time when budgets are stretched. In previous years, Lisa’s children enjoyed a reasonable stack of presents - though nothing excessive. Now, she is doing everything she can to preserve the sense of magic, a pressure that has felt “sickening” since summer.

“It’s hard to say exactly how much I’ve spent because I’ve been scouting for presents and bargains for months now, but we also have to be fair across all the children so we’ve set a budget of around £300 ($364) per child.”

This year, Lisa’s plan is to make less appear more, reframing everyday essentials as gifts. For the younger ones, the bigger the packaging, the better.

“It was Black Friday recently. I checked and double checked but there weren’t actually many good bargains. As a rule, I’ll never buy post and packaging but I recently bought a shirt for a Christmas gift and I didn’t realise that the postage was £16 ($19), it was too late to cancel.

“Before, that wouldn’t have bothered me, but now I know it's a week's worth of vegetables. I couldn't believe it.”

The family are using the same Christmas tree and decorations they’ve had for years and Lisa has been stocking the cupboards with food from low-cost supermarket Lidl for months. Other than a few everyday items, Lisa says that she and Tom have decided against buying gifts for one another.

“There’s nothing we need, and what we want just isn’t a priority. I’m just very grateful that we managed to save enough to give the children some presents.”

Last year: £1,350** ($1,640)
This year: £1,500 ($1,822)

A person eating a bowl of pasta
The family has been getting by on just the basics, as the cost of food increases [Lisa Hughs/Al Jazeera]

Six quick questions for Lisa:

1. What’s one thing you’ve had to forgo this month? We used to be able to afford outings at the weekend, trips to the cinema or bowling. But that would just feel out of the question now, most weekends are spent in front of screens by the fire, where it’s warm.

2. What’s the hardest financial decision you had to make this month? One of my birth children has wanted a North Face jacket for years but we’ve never been able to justify the cost. He refuses to wear my husband’s coat to school because he says it’s an old man’s coat. He’s getting wet, cold and fed up. We’re hoping that there will be a good discount in the Boxing Day sales.

3. Which is the most worthwhile expense from this month? Fish ‘n’ Chips! When my husband brought his mum here, she was tired and sad after the long journey. The children hadn’t had a treat for several months so we thought “to hell with it” and got fish and chips for everyone. It cost £50 ($61) but cheered us all up no end.

4. When finances get tough, what advice do you have? Turn off all electrics when you go out and at night. I have seen a noticeable difference since we started to turn off big energy-sucking devices, like our microwave, TV and cooker. On another note, so many people feel shame around being in poverty - I know I have and sometimes do - and that concerns me because then they won’t ask for help until it’s too late. There’s no shame in struggling.

5. What’s your biggest money worry? Food and fuel - especially now my mother-in-law is here. She likes her food!

6. What’s the saving hack you are proudest of? Don’t laugh, but a man in a car park told me that if I accelerate slowly and gradually, I’ll save money on fuel. It works.

**Last year’s prices have been calculated according to the UK’s Consumer Price Index (CPI).

Read more stories from the series: What's your money worth?

Source: Al Jazeera