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Monday, July 11, 2011

The new north-south divide: Two families 300 miles apart earn 50k but one struggles and the other lives in luxury

By Alison Smith Squire

They live just 300 miles apart and both earn £50,000 – the income most Britons think spells affluence. But while one family enjoys enviable luxury, the other’s struggling to make ends meet. Here the Mail investigates a tale of two nations.

The Sewell family are getting used to making sacrifices. The soaring cost of fuel meant they thought twice about putting the heating on last winter.

They have had to resign their gym membership because they can no longer afford the subscription and last year, for the first time, they went without their traditional family holiday abroad so they could buy a new living room carpet instead.

Meanwhile, 300 miles north, the Salloway family are fortunate enough to be living in rather more affluent circumstances. In fact, in the words of post-war Prime Minister Harold Macmillan, they’ve never had it so good.

Geography lesson: Left the Salloways from Northumbria and right the Sewells from Surrey

Thirteen-year-old Bethany Salloway is about to take delivery of her first horse while, in contrast to the Sewells, the family enjoys membership of a private gym and skiing holidays.

Two families, two radically different lifestyles. So it will surprise many to learn the Sewells and the Salloways have exactly the same income to live on. They are £50,000-a-year families which, according to recent research, puts them in the envied bracket of Britons who feel they have made it financially.

That sum — £50,000 — is the amount people feel they need to earn in order to send a message to others that they are established and successful.

Struggling: The Sewell's don't always have the heating on because they can't afford to on £50,000 a year

The crucial difference between the Sewells and the Salloways, however, is that one family lives in the North of England, the other in the South.

And that small accident of geography means one family is struggling every week to make ends meet, while the other enjoys an enviably comfortable lifestyle.

The Sewells lives in the sought-after Surrey village of Wonersh in one of the most expensive corners of England, while the Salloways are in the picturesque Northumberland village of Ovingham.

In Surrey, 41-year-old Andrew Sewell is an area sales manager in the construction industry. His wife, Melanie, is an occupational therapist, and together they have a combined income of £50,000.

The Sewells — mum, dad and two children — live in a four-bedroom detached house worth an estimated £600,000, with two cars on the drive.

Clearly they are not on the breadline, but Melanie, 46, says the soaring cost of everything, from petrol to food and utility bills, means they are feeling the pinch.

Expensive: The Sewells live in a £600,000 house and have two cars but are feeling the pinch

‘We work hard — Andrew often puts in a 60-hour week — and we have looked after our money so, on the face of it, we have an enviable lifestyle, but our belts have been tightened to the extent we have to think twice about every penny we spend,’ she says.

‘A few years ago, £50,000 was a nice sum to live off — now we just about manage. It takes a tremendous amount of careful financial juggling every month just to keep the wolves from the door. There is nothing left to save or top up our pension pots.’

About 40 per cent of the Sewells’ income goes on their mortgage, which leaves a reduced sum for them to live on every month — and virtually nothing for any of life’s luxuries.

Melanie says she feels disappointed that the family — who once took three holidays a year — are having to micro-manage their finances just to make sure they don’t exceed their income.

The couple have surrendered their £75-a-month gym membership, old clothes are mended and even hair cuts are rationed.

Melanie says economies such as this have become part and parcel of everyday family life.

‘I rarely buy new clothes for myself — I just try to make the old ones look better by teaming them with cheap accessories from places such as H&M.

No holiday: Melanie and Andrew Sewell used to take three holidays a year, with children Josh, 17, and Incey, 15, but not anymore

The children love Jack Wills gear, but it’s too expensive. Instead, I take note of what they like and shop around for cheaper imitations.

‘The heating doesn’t go on unless it’s absolutely freezing and extra layers won’t suffice.

‘Even the family food budget has been squeezed. A couple of years ago, I would go to the supermarket and just throw things in the trolley and easily spend £250.

‘Now I examine prices, look out for special offers and wait for items to be reduced. I give myself a £150 budget and that doesn’t go far, even though I bulk buy all our household items at Tesco.’ Instead of dining out at expensive restaurants, the Sewells take it in turns with friends to entertain at home.

Josh, 17, and 15-year-old Incy — Melanie’s children from a previous relationship — are doing their bit by cutting back on hobbies.

‘Incy shared a horse with a friend, but when the horse died recently, we decided we couldn’t afford to do it again,’ says her mother.

Melanie has also cut back on using the car. ‘The increase in fuel prices has affected us, so I’m trying to walk more,’ she says.

Bills to pay: The Sewells live in this home near expensive Guildford but say 'A few years ago £50,000 was a nice sum to live off - now we just about manage.'

Another big financial worry is the children’s education. The Sewells hope to be able to send them to university, but are worried about the level of debt the children will accrue — and about how they will afford to make a contribution to their university fees and living costs.

‘We’ve worked really hard to ensure the children won’t start their lives owing money, but that’s in doubt now,’ says Melanie.

Since living on £50,000 is proving to be a struggle for the Sewells, one obvious possibility would be to move to an area where their money stretches further.

‘I love the culture of the South, especially London, but it’s just so expensive to live here,’ says Melanie.

‘Everything from parking to getting a haircut and calling out a plumber costs a small fortune.

‘I don’t think people in other parts of the country realise how much more things cost down South. I pay £45 for a trim at the hair salon, but go only every four months now as opposed to every two. I can’t even afford regular check-ups at the dentist.

Different story: Nick and Claire Salloway with their daughters Bethany, 13, and Ashley, 20, who believe they live a comfortable life on a £50,000 salary in the North of England

‘But despite everything, I don’t want to have to move. We have a big mortgage, but I see our home as an investment: a house in Surrey will always be in demand, and anyway I think house prices will rise in future.

‘We may not be able to rely on a pension when the time comes, but at least we should have the option of downsizing with some money to spare that we can then live on.’

The story is very different for the Salloway family — also members of the £50,000-a-year club, but with a far more affluent lifestyle to show for it.

Mum Claire cycles to her job as an NHS nursing assistant, while Nick is the managing director of Status, a digital advertising company.

He commutes to Newcastle — a 25-minute drive — but is home most evenings by 6pm.

The Salloways are about to buy a horse for their younger daughter, Bethany, 13 — but indulging their daughter’s expensive hobby isn’t the only privilege enjoyed by the family.

‘Nick loves windsurfing, so we are members of our local sailing club,’ says Claire, 39.

‘We are members of a private health club and go there several times a week. Nick loves to pop in on his way home from work because it’s the perfect way to relax and unwind.’

Claire believes her family are lucky enough to enjoy ‘the perfect lifestyle’. With only 10 per cent of their monthly income being spent on the mortgage on their £200,000, three-bedroom semi-detached home, they have no financial woes and plenty of scope to put away savings.

‘We’ve worked hard to get where we are and we feel we’ve made it on the income we have,’ says Claire. ‘We feel successful and, though we don’t waste money, it’s nice to be able to splash out on luxuries.

‘I don’t have to think about the cost of my weekly supermarket shop, for example, and if I want a new dress, I can go out and buy one.’

Other luxuries include a fortnight’s skiing holiday every year at an exclusive resort in the French Alps. Then there is a regular two-week summer holiday abroad — this year, they are going to Egypt.

At weekends, the family can indulge their love of the countryside and the outdoor life. They also eat out three times a month — usually at a local Italian restaurant. A regular family treat is to go tenpin bowling followed by a meal out.

Sunday lunches at a local pub are also popular. It certainly sounds like the good life.

Claire believes quality time together as a family is crucial, and says she is happy their combined earnings allow them to do things that might be out of reach of many families — including the Sewells in Surrey.

She and Nick are keen mountain-bikers, and with so many quiet country roads on their doorstep they are often able to go for long bike rides together. The family runs only one car — a sporty Seat Altea FR. ‘We don’t need two cars because the countryside is on our doorstep, the roads are perfect for cycling and I can go everywhere by bike,’ says Claire.

Treble to price: The Luxury: The Salloway family live in a £200,000 house near Newcastle but it would be worth at least £600,000 in the south
She and Nick grew up in the area and couldn’t imagine living elsewhere — especially not the South.

‘I’m shocked at the price of houses down there,’ Claire says. ‘Our house would probably cost at least £600,000 in the South-East — which is three times what it is worth up here.

‘Spending that much on a mortgage would be unthinkable — our whole lives would revolve around servicing such a huge debt.

‘I would hate to have the worry of not being able to turn up the heating when it’s cold. When the electricity or council tax bills land on our mat, we never have to worry that we can’t pay them.’

Claire is horrified by the pace of life in London and the South-East, and says she and Nick are just grateful to live in a part of the country that allows them to feel they have a healthy balance in their lives.

‘While work is important to us, it doesn’t dominate our lives,’ she says. ‘It seems that people’s days in the South are full of commuting through traffic, trying to get from one place to the other.

‘Nick is passionate about his job and he puts in the hours. His office in Newcastle is a comfortable drive away in his own car, and our lives feel in balance.

‘It’s rare for him not to be home before 7pm or for him to have to work at the weekend.’

She believes the North of England is full of opportunities, and says it’s a myth that all the best jobs are in the South.

The Salloways’ elder daughter, Ashley, 20, is studying for a marketing degree at Newcastle University. Because her parents don’t want her to graduate with a big debt, they are bearing the brunt financially of her university education.

‘It’s wonderful to be able to help Ashley through university,’ says Claire.

‘Though she is only a 25-minute journey from us, we’ve also been able to afford to pay for her to live in student digs, which is vital for establishing independence.

‘Of course, it adds to the cost, but it gives her the experience of living away from home.’

The Salloways are confident that should younger daughter Bethany decide to go to university, they will be able to provide the same financial support to her, despite the imminent increase in tuition fees.

Meanwhile, in the South of England, the Sewells continue to struggle with the day-to-day financial challenges that have changed life for them in so many ways.

Earnings of £50,000 a year may sound like the answer to many people’s financial prayers in these strapped times. But, in this particular equation, at least, it’s clear that the geography is just as important as the maths.



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