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Money: How I made Forty Grand

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Vanessa Engle Vanessa Engle | 10:43 UK time, Tuesday, 13 December 2011

I had the idea for Forty Grand when money was very much in the news, at the time when various MPs were in the headlines for fiddling their expenses.

I wondered if in some bonkers self-justifying way, the MPs felt they were underpaid, so I worked out how much their net income was.

Then I started comparing this with the take-home pay of other professions.

Monica and Bryan Adams and daughters: one of the families featured in Forty Grand.

Monica and Bryan Adams and their daughters are one of the families featured

I realised we all make big (often class-based) assumptions about how much other people - friends, relatives, colleagues - earn, but that actually, because money is such a taboo subject, we rarely know the truth.

As a film-maker, I felt that a TV audience would probably be as curious as I was to know how much money people actually take home, as well as to find out what people choose to spend their money on.

I had also noticed that many people (myself included!) often say they can't "afford" something (cinema tickets, childcare, smartphones etc) when what they actually mean is that it's not a priority for them and they choose to spend their money on something else (holidays, pension plans, eating out etc).

I chose the figure of £40,000 to base the programme on because it turned out to be the average net household income in homes where two adults are working - but also because it's a large enough income that I would be able to talk to people who were in the fortunate position of being able to make choices about how to spend their money.

The search for contributors with a net household income of £40,000 took a long time and involved many imaginative strategies.

I had a couple of assistant producers working with me - and between us, we must have approached literally hundreds of groups, organisations and associations.

We also leafleted all sorts of different locations around the country (shopping centres, cafes, factories, parks etc) and even stopped quite a lot of people in the street!

We were looking for people from all over the UK, so from a research point of view, it was a huge and sometimes daunting task.

The people who volunteered to take part were only ever going to be people who were willing to discuss their finances.

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Nev, who lives with wife Deana, has a meticulous accounting system.

But actually, in the course of making all three programmes in the Money series, by and large what I found was that many people are actually willing to talk about money honestly, especially if they don't have ridiculous amounts of it.

If you're spending all your earnings on paying your bills and supporting your family, you're unlikely to have huge embarrassing secrets.

Debt seemed to be the most shame-inducing or difficult subject to speak openly about.

What I hadn't anticipated was the powerful emotional moments in the film. I hadn't expected so many people to burst into tears!

But the privilege of making films like these is that you get to talk to people about things they feel passionately about in their lives, and the joy of documentary-making is that people are always full of surprises.

Vanessa Engle developed, produced and directed Forty Grand.

Forty Grand is on BBC Two on Tuesday, 13 December at 9pm. It's the third of a series of three documentaries Vanessa made called Money.

For further programme times, please visit the upcoming episodes page.

Comments made by writers on the BBC TV blog are their own opinions and not necessarily those of the BBC.


  • Comment number 1.

    I felt a lot for the 'poorer' people concerned, especially the Philippine family with the triplets. I would like to help set up a fund or something for them, so the father can do his studies and work in his own field again, and for daycare so they won't be so exhausted - but being in the Netherlands maybe is a handicap. I can send some money myself, but as I am not rich, other people would have to contribute too. Besides, evidently I do not have their address and probably a thing like this would have to go through other parties? It would be nice to know if other people feel the same way, and if you have any suggestions on how to go about this.
    I am Dutch, but we like the BBC better than our Dutch tv, so we watch it a lot. I loved this program as it gives a very good insight in how people work with money, as well as a good insight in daily life in the UK. (Our son lives in Bristol, so we are definitely interested).

  • Comment number 2.

    All this user's posts have been removed.Why?

  • Comment number 3.

    How can we contribute to the fund raising for the young boy that needs to go to America for an operation?

  • Comment number 4.

    I watdhed this programme with interest it was truly fascinating to see how different people run their lives. What I would like to do like the Dutch lady who commented is to join her in supporting the family with the triplets and also contribute to the £60k needed to take that little boy to America for treatment. I know it is beyond the remit of the BBC to collect monies for individuals in need but someone out there could surely set something up like a web site to help. Charity is OK but being able to give to specific people is so much more special.

    Glennis Fryd

  • Comment number 5.

    I thought this was a really honest, interesting and sensitively made programme. Like other posters, I really felt for the couples who are struggling with debt, disabled children and large families - Britain isn't very well set up to help these situations and I wish that could change. £40,000 seems like such a lot of money but as we can see it only just allows a limited choice when house/childcare/car/groceries/bills are paid for.

  • Comment number 6.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 7.

    Congratulations to Vanessa, a really excellent programme. I found content fascinating but most of all really liked her subtle presentation and interview style. A refreshing change from the "look at me!" gimmicks and irrelevant padding so common in TV documentaries these days.

  • Comment number 8.


    Thank you! This was a quality programme. I found it fascinating. One question I have, though, is £40,000 seems too high a figure for average net income. I searched online, and, according to the Institute of Fiscal Studies, a £40k net income puts you in the top 15% of households with 2 adults.


    Where did you get your figure for £40,000 being the average household income?


  • Comment number 9.

    Thanks so much for your comments. I'm delighted the response to the programme has been so positive.
    As LondonMan points out, £40,000 is absolutely not the average household income in this country. What the programme actually says is that £40,000 is "a typical income in a household where two adults are working".
    The statistics we used were as follows;
    The results of the 2009 ASHE show that median weekly pay for full-time employees in the UK was £489 per week (before tax). This equates to a net annual income of just under £20,000. So if two adults in a household are both earning the average income, that household would have an income of £40,000.
    Thanks also to those of you who generously want to donate to the contributors.
    I'm afraid the BBC can't facilitate donations of this kind - but thank you so much for your kind thoughts.

  • Comment number 10.

    A useful comparison of money related things is here: http://xkcd.com/980/

  • Comment number 11.

    A really good interesting programme. The one thing that shocked me were the wives who did not have a joint account with their husbands, but had an allowance doled out to them. How shocking in the 21st century, to find women so compliant, and having to rely for money, on their husbands. Also, the narrator at one point said, that one the wives didn't work!!! I think she meant that the woman was not in paid employment, she did work, In the house and for her family.
    I was appalled at the wife who expected her husband to leave a job that he loved, to re-train so he could earn more money, just so their two sons could go to private schools. How selfish of her.

  • Comment number 12.

    Dear Vanessa, Your direct line of questionning approach created a honest and intriguing series. I was touched by everyone who participated in this programme for their willingness to be so open about their finances. My husband and I have made many mistakes about our finances and have lost money along the way. I believe there are many lessons in life for us all and the same pattern of behaviour and events will continue until we learn the lesson. We have since set up a business helping couples with their finances. Allot of the time we have to dig a little deeper to see where their attitude towards money came from and work from there. It has been transformational for many couples. Perhaps this could be another programme to consider and we would love to participate.

  • Comment number 13.

    It was good experience to do this documentary with Vanessa, I think specially for my son and the Triplets, we have learned and realised a lot of things that we have been missing. We appreciate more what we have although it is still very difficult. As my husband always tell me, "there must be a way" to cope. And yes, we are still waiting the find the reason why we are the lucky one to be in this situation.
    I would like to take this chance to thank Mary Fahrenfort and Glennis Fryd for your thoughtfulness.


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