If you have lived an awfully privileged life, you will never know the value of anything because you have never needed to. That goes without saying. But if you have lived a moderately privileged lifestyle, nowadays, you can still never understand the value of anything.
By anything, I mean materialistically. A friend said to me upon returning from a trip from Kenya, "I could live there. You get so used to not having material possessions, it's like you never had them in the first place." I replied, "I would never be able to live without material possessions... I think I'm too indulgent for that."
I really couldn't. I've never gone a day without basic material things. The roughest I have ever slept was at a music festival in Spain in constant 33 degree heat sharing a tent, with on camp showering facilities, albeit only cold water. I have never been in need of anything.
As a student the first time around, I was rich. I had a loan, my mother, and a job. I was lucky but at the time I thought I was broke. I remember how deprived I felt every time I wandered into Eldon Square shopping centre in between classes and couldn't afford to buy yet another dress. Recalling those moments is like trying to swallow salty water when you have a sore throat - you know it's good for you but yet you still grit your teeth trying to filter out the taste.
The bad taste lingers now that I know I really am on a budget. For the past month I have been (quite successfully) living off £20 a week. The idea appalled me at first but I had no choice. In the midst of a financial crisis that hangs over everyone's head, I consoled myself with the fact that I was probably not alone.
I'm not of course. Give someone without a job an extra £20 a week and they would be thrilled. I don't have a family to support, I haven't got huge bills to pay... well I do have credit cards to pay off, but I'm managing on my budget. I just had to make big changes to my lifestyle in the process.
First to go was spontaneous "nights out". I was never much of a partyer before, so I thought this would be easiest. Then I realised how many times I just "went for a quick drink" after a long day in class with some friends. It took me by surprise how much I spent doing this, and I really miss it. In the long run however, it feels like it may mean I can go for "proper" nights out with said friends. Once my debts are settled.
Second should really be joint first on my list of sacrifices; food. Admittedly, this is where most, if not all, of my money has always been spent. I was brought up never to substitute good food for a poor version. This was before I realised I could get a whole chicken and fresh veg in the market for a lot cheaper than in supermarkets. I love food shopping, maybe because I love any shopping, but cheaper does not always mean cheaper in some cases. I love that I'm helping out local farmers and I know where my food is coming from. Guilt-free and yummy food.
Third to go, (and this is a very close third) was clothes. On my budget, I have worked out that I could probably afford a cheap Primark dress at £12.50 every month. But then that clashes with another side of my material conscience - ethical clothing. I realised that if I sacrificed three horribly cheap dresses made exploiting by the working rights of human beings, I could afford a single, ethically made and beautifully fitting piece of clothing. Enter the gorgeous new discovery my housemate and I made about a month ago - Miss Matilda's Boutique.
The boutique is situated just off the high street on a road called rather sweetly, Winkley Street on Winkley Square. Here a mad, cramped, noisy and long stretch of road running right through the city centre transforms into a fashion fairytale. The moment you turn down Winkley Street, it is like you have just walked onto the set of the film Notting Hill. You almost want to rub your eyes in delight, because the architecture, the sounds and even the smells are all different from just a second ago.
So it was that Miss Matilda's Boutique saved my fashion conscience. The clothes are reasonably priced and from an assortment of small labels which usually use organic cotton (I say usually because I haven't looked at the label of every piece of clothing in there). I have a beautiful nautical jumper waiting for me there this very moment, and come pay day I will know I've earned it.
It's not just about understanding the value of things. I believe it is crucial to know what you are buying, whatever it is. Where it came from; who planted or sourced the material; how it was made or grown; when it was made or harvested; every stitch and fibre. As an undergrad student living off a lot more money than I have now, these thoughts would never have occurred to me. It is now I have less to value, that I value more.
I think that's what it takes for most people. I still have a long way to go before I'll feel like living in Africa, but I'm happy to say I've made a start to the possibility.