Sophia Chisty with her daughter contemplating the cost of living crisis.

Working all hours to cope with the cost of living

With concern about the cost of living soaring for the winter, it bit just as hard in the summer as local resident Sophia Chisty knows too well.

The incessant itch of a bug’s bite is one of summer’s unpleasantries.

While for some the stinging irritation may occur a couple of times over the course of the season, imagine being subjected to it on an almost nightly basis.

That is what Sophia Chisty and her neighbours have been coping during these past few months of the unrivalled hot summer

Chisty is sitting cross-legged on a faded dark leather sofa on a metal balcony at the back of Glow, her beauty salon on Roman Road market. With two hands, she cradles her cup of Poundland milky coffee (‘I used to drink Nescafé,’ she confesses), and reels off the worries that she and her neighbours hold when they were dealing with this summer’s perpertual heat.

‘It’s been so hot but they’re really struggling with bills, so we’ve not putting on the fan but instead we have all the windows open but then that’s dangerous for burglary and you get all these insects flying in and getting bites, kids getting bites…’ she pauses to catch her breath. Her brain is in overdrive, a computer with countless different tabs open, whirring away, getting to the point of stalling due to exhaustion.

And Chisty is getting to that point; the 38-year-old full-time working single mum lives just off Grove Road with her two children, two-year-old Eva and Dean, who is aged 15.

Providing for her two children while working eight-hour, sometimes ten-hour, days six days a week, and with the spiralling increase in the cost of living, Chisty says, ‘as a working parent, it’s a struggle.’

A day doesn’t go by where she doesn’t worry about this sudden sharp rise. But she’s not the only one; in June, the ONS reported that 25% of adults said they are very worried about the increase, and half of those adults say they felt those worries nearly every day.

But if there’s one thing Chisty has in her armour to combat this worry, it is her interminable resourcefulness.

She hunts for bargains, scours the aisles in supermarkets, and sources the best deals, all to ensure she and her children continue to eat well. She finds that Asian supermarkets are great for bulk-buying items, such as the hefty 1kg tub of margarine she uses for toast and sandwiches, ‘and that costs about £3, and lasts me quite a while.’ She’s also started using food apps. Her current go-to food app is Getir which frequently has deals and discounts. And, of course, the more competitively priced supermarket own brands are now stacked up in her cupboard, ousting the luxe branded items.

The effort of sourcing food is just half the battle. Sundays, the one-day Chisty has off, are not for rest; they are dedicated to meal planning, prepping, and cooking.

Sundays are when potatoes are added to oven stews to bulk them up, pasta is cooked in advance so it can be re-heated within seconds, and beans replace beef and chicken. Sundays are also the only day when the cooker is used. For the other six days in the week, the energy-efficient microwave pings into action. Chisty likens this sourcing, budgeting, and prepping to rationing. ‘It feels like World War Two,’ she laughs wryly.

But despite her best efforts to buy economical and healthy food, she worries she is unable to provide her children with the right nutritional balance and that their physical health will suffer.

She is particularly concerned for her son: as anyone with teenagers will know, they are the family’s hoover. Shaking her head, she says, ‘I can’t afford to buy the food that he needs in his system regularly.’ Citing government guidelines, such as the recommendation to eat three portions of fish a week, she cries with exasperation, ‘but fish is so expensive.’

Clinging to her lukewarm half-drunk mug of coffee, she says she finds it ‘really upsetting’ that she feels she cannot provide enough to see her child prosper.

And over the long-six week stretch of holidays, what does a teenage boy do when faced with the break? They game. Reaching for PlayStation, Xbox, and the computer is often their way of interacting with friends. But with electricity prices having doubled since April, Chisty had to set certain times for when he could play. Now with the new school term beginning, the worry to regulate gaming hours is not as acute but the ever-present concern about her children’s physical health and social happiness is taking its toll on Chisty’s wellbeing.

She said prior to this crisis, her coping strategy whenever she was feeling down was to ‘go out for a nice little meal or, you know, take my kids to Café Fiesta.’  But that is no longer an option. ‘It’s affecting my mental well-being as a woman. It just feels like as a parent, I’m losing, I’m not doing well. I’m trying to make my kids happy but what about myself.’

With little left in her account at the end of each month, it makes socialising tricky. She felt acute pressure over wedding season, which is the busiest it’s been in 40 years. ‘I’ve ignored some of these social activities because I just can’t afford it.’

Rather than wallow in her woes, Chisty puts on a brave face and plugs all her energies into her business: ‘I want to keep the business running but it’s hard. I’m really struggling… but I want to be a good role model for my kids.’

With the intense sticky heat of the summer waning, and autumn’s cooling breeze begins to touch faces, the golden shoulder season will present different challenges. Cooler weather will call for more heating and warming food but, with bills expected to go up another 50%, Chisty has been putting away what little she can every month: ‘I’m trying to have a savings pot. So, if you can save, please do save. This is my message to people.’

The difficulties Chisty and many others like her face could make some people crumble but she embodies that dogged resilient and determined East End attitude that will see her through this crisis.

Read more articles in our cost of living series, such as our article on where and how to get help in Tower Hamlets.

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