Once, when I was younger, although not too much younger, and less advanced in my career, although not at the very beginning; once, back then, I found a sandwich in my handbag. And I was so happy. The sandwich had been there since Friday – a colleague had had one too many sandwiches and I remember him asking absentmindedly, “Do you want this sandwich?” – and it was now Saturday night, so that sandwich was not particularly appetising, but it was food and I was hungry. I was due to be paid on the Monday and it had been a long month and I had no money left. I could have asked my parents or a friend for a loan of £20, but I was concerned about starting a new month indebted to anyone and I was proud too, so I just stayed in that weekend and I ate whatever I had in the house. Which was some beans and some vegetables with which I made soup and then the sandwich, serendipitously discovered at the bottom of my bag when I was looking for something else.
And, of course, that is a tale of typical twentysomething-ness and the penury that any young person who wants to work in the media or the arts must endure. But it’s also a story about earning £25,000 a year, because that’s how much money I was earning at the time. £25,000 is higher than the London Living Wage of around £19,000 a year and it’s what a young nurse or teacher might earn. In my experience of living in London, where it costs around £750 a month to rent a room in a house and transport is another £100 on top of that, you’ll just about get by on £25,000. Most months, you’ll exist happily if you are a single person earning £25,000 a year, but if you have a month during which you have to attend the wedding of a friend or buy a train ticket at the last minute for a funeral, you might find yourself searching your handbag for a sandwich.
I tell this story about the sandwich because a) it is true and illustrates the reality of my financial situation at the time and because b) it seems that sandwiches have become the only way we can discuss money in 2017. Everywhere I look this week, there are men attempting to explain economics to me using sandwiches. It kicked off on Monday, when a 35-year-old Australian millionaire said that young people can’t buy houses because they’re spending all their money on avocado on toast, a particularly fancy type of open sandwich. Millionaire Tim Gurner’s exact words were: “A lot of people won’t own a house in their lifetime. That is just the reality of where we’re going… When you’re spending $40 a day on smashed avocado and coffees and not working.” A lot of people, actually, were incensed and pointed out that Gurner’s maths was a little off. Because, even if you did spend $40 a day (around £20) on avocado toast and coffee, which seems wildly excessive, and you stopped and decided to save all of that money instead, you would still have to wait around 15 years to have enough money for a deposit on a two-bedroom flat in London. If you eat avocado toast once a week – which is, Tim Gurner, a lot more likely to be fair – you would have to wait around a century. A lot of people then pointed out that Tim Gurner had bought his first property using money that he had inherited from his grandfather.
When it comes to money, we are hopelessly, depressingly solipsistic. That’s how we find ourselves in a situation where Alex* doesn’t think people who earn less than £80,000 can afford sandwiches
On Tuesday, the sandwich was being used as a symbol of economic inequality again when a 29-year-old called Alex (although that was actually not his real name; he refused to give his real name) told the Financial Times that earning £80,000 a year does not make him rich, but allows him to buy sandwiches from the popular lunch spot Pret A Manger. The paper, covering the income-tax hikes proposed by the Labour party, reported that “Alex*, a 29-year-old management consultant living in London, prefers to describe himself as 'comfortable rather than rich'. Having spent years bringing his lunch in to work, he is surprised that he does not feel rich, even though he is now earning £80,000 and can afford to buy his sandwiches at Pret A Manger.” Hmm, Alex*, I can’t help but think that you are exaggerating – surely, even before you were earning £80,000 (which puts you in the top five per cent of earners, by the way), you could afford Pret A Manger sandwiches. The ham and greve baguette, which is a hefty and filling lunch, costs just £2.99, a sum that I’d wager was possible for you to spend even when you were on £40,000 or £60,000.
The sandwich madness didn’t end with Tim and Alex*. A man called Dougal Shaw, who works as a BBC journalist, found himself involved when he made a video outlining a “lunch hack” that involved making his own sandwiches. I’ve watched the video – in which Dougal makes his own sandwiches, rather than buying them pre-packaged, and saves himself £8.50 a week – a few times now and I think that he understands that he is being facetious. But I think what’s interesting is that Dougal is framing the saving as extra money. "You could have £8.50 extra!" he’s saying – you could save that up and put it towards a new tennis racket or Nespresso machine or whatever. It doesn’t seem to occur to Dougal that there are people – people working hard, people working alongside him in the very same office, people on the London Living Wage – who have to make their own sandwiches because they simply don’t have that £8.50 to begin with.
When it comes to money, we are hopelessly, depressingly solipsistic. That’s how we find ourselves in a situation where Alex* doesn’t think people who earn less than £80,000 can afford sandwiches. That’s how we end up in a place where the prime minister can say that she thinks the best way out of poverty is work when she is governing a country in which 55 per cent of the 13 million people living in poverty are from working families. When we talk about money – and poverty and privilege – we lie and we obfuscate and we distract. It’s way easier to talk about sandwiches than it is to talk about structural inequality and a broken housing market. It’s way easier to tell a silly story about a sandwich than it is to acknowledge that the use of food banks in the UK is at a record high and one in four low-income families struggles to put food on the table. But, really, if we are going to talk about money and sandwiches, that’s probably where we need to start.