How little money can a person live on?

By Duncan Walker & Keith Moore
BBC News Magazine

  • Published
A woman carries several shopping bags from discount shops along Lewisham high street in December 2012

The debate over how much money benefits claimants should receive has run on for weeks. But just how little money can someone realistically get by on?

The government says no family on benefits should receive more than the £26,000 - after tax - the average family earns.

A benefits cap estimated at £350 a week for a single adult and £500 a week for a couple or single parent - regardless of how many children they have - is being piloted in four areas of London. From July it will be rolled out across England, Scotland and Wales.

The major weekly cost for most people is housing. But the massive variation in cost across the UK almost renders it pointless to talk about any sort of average. Many, but not all, people on low incomes have most or all of their rent covered by housing benefit.

So, excluding housing costs, how much money does a person - for the sake of simplicity, single and living alone - need to get by?


With careful planning, an adult could spend as little as £12 per week on a healthy, balanced diet, says Tom Sanders, a professor of nutrition at Kings College London.

Filling up on starchy foods and cheap fruit and vegetables is key. Think lots of baked potatoes, hearty soups and pasta bakes.

Many people would need to cut their meat intake down to once or twice a week, Sanders says, because it is relatively expensive.

Once those principles are accepted, the recommended daily intake of calories - 2,500 for a man and 2,000 for a woman - should be relatively easily achieved.

Sanders recommends foods (selected supermarket prices on 25 April in brackets) such as potatoes (Tesco's cheapest 69p a kg), bread (Tesco 60p a kg), pasta (Asda £1 a kg), cabbage (Tesco 69p each), frozen fruit and vegetables, broccoli (Asda £2 a kg), cauliflower (Sainsbury's 89p each), bananas (Tesco 68p a kg), tinned tomatoes (Asda 78p a kg), borlotti beans, peanut butter (Asda 98p), eggs (Sainsbury's 12p an egg), cheese (Asda mild grated cheddar £4.24 a kg) and milk.

Budgeters would also need to cook at home, partly to avoid the 20% VAT added to takeaways and eating out.

"Living on a budget requires planning," Sanders says.

And there's a catch for those who aren't confident in the kitchen, or don't already own the necessary utensils.

"Theoretically it is possible to eat on £12 a week, but in practice it will be double that, because people don't have good cooking skills and the equipment they might need."

On average, the poorest 20% of non-retired single adult households (those with less than £256 a week before tax) spent £22.30 a week on food and non-alcoholic drink, according to the 2012 Family Spending Survey from the Office for National Statistics.


Calculating the bills faced by the average single person is difficult as there is no such thing as a typical home. The size of flat or house, choice of tariff, level of insulation and the amount of time spent at home all affect energy use.

An average £31 a week is spent on fuel by households with an annual income of £9,649, according to a 2012 report from the Department of Climate and Energy Change (DECC). Millions of households are in "fuel poverty", meaning that they spend more than 10% of their income on fuel, says DECC.

A lower figure is suggested by the Family Spending Survey, which says that the average household spent £22.10 a week on fuel.

For single people living alone in a flat, the cheapest variable deal currently available might reduce this to about £706 a year, or £13.57 a week, says Archna Luthra of

"There is a lot you can do like get insulation, put a jumper on, don't walk around in your shorts. Turning the thermostat down can save quite a lot of money."

For those wanting to keep a closer eye on things, online calculators suggest (based on a unit price of 12.7p) that a single light bulb might cost £1.52 a month to run, a television £2.28 and a washing machine £3.04.

But gas and electricity are not the only utilities to pay for.

In 2012, the average water bill for a household in England and Wales was £376, which breaks down to a little more than £7 per week. A water meter could save a single person household about £2 a week, the Consumer Council for Water suggests.

It is also easy to spend significant amounts staying in touch with people.

A landline including broadband might be £25 per month, with the best deals coming to about £17 a month, says Luthra.

Because of the costs involved, many people on low incomes choose to use pay as you go deals instead of contract mobiles.

A monthly contract for a mobile phone like an iPhone or Galaxy S4 can be £35 a month or more.

Haggling and shopping around is key, says Luthra. "For a mobile phone, if you're out of contract you can cut the cost from £35 to £20. You could get a sim only deal."

For the 20% of single person households with the lowest incomes, spending on communication is £6.50 a week, the Family Spending Survey suggests.

For anybody with a television, a television licence costs £145.50.

And there are more bills for some.

From April 2013, each individual council will decide which residents are entitled to council tax benefits. Previously controlled by central government, some councils may now decide that those on low incomes may be required to make a contribution to council tax.


The obvious way to keep transport costs low is to minimise journeys and walk whenever possible - but for many people that is not an option.

A local train or bus ticket might appear to be reasonably cheap, but the costs can still add up, particularly if you need to travel more than a few miles, or your route includes changes.

In London, a single bus ride on an Oyster card is £1.40, or up to £4.40 for a day of bus travel. In the North East of England, it can cost as much as £2.20 for a single four-mile journey.

For commuters, season tickets are frequently in the hundreds of pounds and can easily go into the thousands. A season ticket between Peterborough and London is now £6,888.

Outside towns and cities, public transport can be infrequent at best, with many people in "transport poverty" because they have to own a car to get around, says transport charity Sustrans.

Areas like Fenland in Cambridgeshire, Eden in Cumbria and Hambleton in North Yorkshire are among those where low incomes mean many people struggle to pay for a car, even though they are likely to live a mile or more from the nearest public transport.

The AA estimates the cost of running a petrol car that was up to £14,000 new as £2,400 a year just for for taxes, insurance, depreciation, capital costs and breakdown cover. Putting petrol in and actually going somewhere costs more (roughly 12.9p a mile).

The reality is that many people simply have to get around - whether that's to get to the shops or the doctor's, to visit friends, or to look for a job.

It all adds up - on average, the poorest 20% of single adults spend £16.30 a week on transport, the Family Spending Survey says.

Incidental costs

Unexpected or incidental costs are perhaps the most difficult thing to manage for anyone trying to keep to a strict budget.

What do you do if the washing machine breaks, the toaster packs in, or the sofa collapses?

Most private tenants would not be expected to pay for a new roof, but the appliances and furniture might well be theirs to fix and replace - a major expense if something goes wrong.

The average household spends £9.50 a week on furniture, £1.40 on things like duvet covers and sheets, and £2.90 on household appliances, the Family Spending Survey suggests.

Then there are all of the little things that many people take for granted.

The average household spends £2 a week on tools and electrical equipment, £1.50 on glasses, crockery and kitchen utensils, and £3.30 on things like medicine, plasters and spectacles.

The figures for food shopping do not include many other essentials, including toilet paper (80p a week), toiletries and soap (£2.30 a week), hairdressing (£3.30 a week) and hair products (£3.70 a week).

The Joseph Rowntree Foundation (JRF) produces a "Minimum Income Standard" report, based on what focus group members consider a "socially acceptable" standard of living.

It suggests that a single person needs £11.65 for personal goods and services (including things like healthcare, toiletries, cosmetics and hairdressing), £11.55 for household goods, £3.61 for upkeep of the home and £1.98 for household insurance.

Avoiding these costs is not an option says Donald Hirsch, director of the Centre for Research in Social Policy at Loughborough University, who produced the JRF figures.

"Things like toothpaste do get used up. Haircuts are an obvious one," he says.


Tucked away at the back of most wardrobes are clothes that are never worn, says Wrap - a not for profit company which advises on sustainability.

It says the average home contains clothes worth £4,000 - amounting to 115 garments per adult, but of these 35 have been gathering dust for a year or more.

"There are some clothes that are essential and some clothes that you buy because you want them," says Wrap's David Moon.

Across all households, average expenditure on clothing is £17.60 a week (including £4.20 a week on men's outer garments and £7.70 on women's outer garments) and £4.10 on footwear.

For low income single people the figure is £4.80 a week for clothing and footwear, the Family Spending Survey suggests.

The Joseph Rowntree Foundation survey came to a figure of £9.31 a month, which allowed for budget clothes from supermarkets and cheaper shops like Matalan and Primark.

Among the items its panel considered necessary for the average man were 10 pairs of boxer shorts, 10 pairs of socks, five pairs of jeans, two pairs of trousers, two suits, 26 shirts of various types, two pairs of smart shoes and two pairs of trainers.

For women, the list includes 10 pairs of knickers, three bras, four pairs of tights, 10 T-shirts, two jumpers, two pairs of jeans, four pairs of trousers, four skirts, two formal dresses, two summer dresses, and two pairs of heels, one of flats and one of trainers.

Discretionary spending

For people receiving benefits, it is spending on items sometimes considered luxuries that can prove most controversial.

A packet of cigarettes, for example, costs an average of £7.98 for 20, according to the Tobacco Manufacturers' Association.

At a pub a pint of beer costs £3.50 in London and Surrey, or just under £3 in the Midlands and the North, according to the Good Pub Guide. The average Briton is thought to go to the pub 4.6 times a month, spending £14.70 on each visit.

Image caption,
Should benefits cover the cost of feeding pets?

Across all households, the average weekly spend on alcohol (consumed at home), tobacco and narcotics is £12, compared with £7.50 among the lowest income single households, according to the Family Spending Survey.

Spending on catering - including restaurant or take away meals and alcohol consumed away from home - is £32.70 a week across all households, or £11.50 for the low income group.

There is other spending which might be considered non-essential.

A typical cinema ticket costs a little over £6 but can be much more, while a subscription to cable TV starts at about £15 a month and new computer games can be £30.

Owning a pet is also expensive - a dog costing just under £1,200 a year to keep, a cat about £1,000.

This spending falls under "recreation and culture" in the Family Spending Survey, which suggests outgoings of £63.90 a week for the average household, or £17.80 for a single person on a low income.

Exactly how much people should expect to be able to afford to spend divides opinion.

Conservative MP Alec Shelbrooke has called for a welfare cash card to ensure that benefits are spent on "essential" items only - food, housing, transport, clothing and energy.

They would be prohibited from spending the money on "luxury" goods such as Sky TV, cigarettes and alcohol - items which "hard-working families" have to cut back on when money is tight.

Benefits, he says, are a "safety net to stop people falling into abject poverty". Giving people the money to go to the cinema, or buy Christmas presents, is not part of the deal, he argues.

But the Joseph Rowntree Foundation's report differs, suggesting that a single person living alone needs £5.13 a week for alcohol, which allows for the odd bottle of supermarket wine or a few cans of beer.

They should be able to spend £44.76 on social and cultural activities, which would include having a television with built-in Freeview, occasional meals out and a one-week self catering holiday in the UK.

"It does not include a big night out on the town, it's going out for a cup of coffee," says Hirsch. "People think you can't have an acceptable standard of life sitting at home and just surviving."

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