'I’m barely existing': Families and businesses struggling ahead of winter amid cost of living crisis

For the past six months ITV News has been following a group of people who've been telling us how they're making ends meet. All are struggling, and with Christmas around the corner - it's not getting any easier, as Chloe Keedy reports

As six year-old-Oliver skips home, holding his mum’s hand, he proudly shows me the paper aeroplane he made in school earlier that day.

The soaring cost of living isn’t something he yet has to worry about. His mum Kate does, though, and especially as winter draws in. 

Inside the house in Bideford, North Devon, that she and her partner rent for them and their three children, Kate keeps her coat on as she cooks their tea.

"We certainly didn’t ever see ourselves sitting in coats and hats inside", she tells me. "We would never have thought that would be our lives, but that’s the reality."

Kate says that over the past six months, things "haven’t got worse … but that is down to a lot of making changes to our lifestyles - taking on more work when we can."

"We’ve started buying more savers and basics ranges … and also buying in bulk."

Kate’s partner is a full time student. Despite her juggling two jobs and claiming universal credit, she is struggling to absorb a £110 monthly increase in the family’s food bill since last spring. 

Kate tells me that her and her partner discussed giving up the family dog, Dodi, to save "a few pounds a month", but couldn’t bring themselves to do it.

"We got her from the rescue and she’s grown up with our kids. She’s part of the family - so she stays."

The family gas bill has decreased by £60 a month since March, but Kate says she’s dreading what’ll happen when the heating goes back on. 

She prioritises getting her children’s food onto the table above all else. 

10-year-old Alice understands that eating meat has become a luxury.

The evening I spend with them, all three are cheerfully tearing into steaming hot plates of bangers and mash. 

But the eldest, 10-year-old Alice understands that eating meat has become a luxury. 

"We don’t have as many meals with meat any more because meat is expensive, so it’s all vegetables."

I ask her if she’s noticed anything else different around the house over the past few months. 

"Yes," she replies. "We have a small heater in the living room and we have to keep the door shut because it’s so expensive so we don’t want to heat the whole house."

More than 200 miles away in Stoke on Trent, another family in a different house is facing the same set of worries. 

Jo Toon has chronic arthritis and saves money by sitting in front of her oven to warm up.

Jo Toon has chronic arthritis. And when winter sets in, it gets worse. 

"When I get really, really cold I’ll go and sit on a chair in the kitchen and put the oven on. The cold hurts and sitting in front of the oven hurts. But it’s the lesser of two evils."

Jo can’t work and relies on disability payments, or Personal Independence Payments known as PIP. These days, she tells me, it’s barely enough to cover the basics.

"It’s going to get to a point where I can’t afford milk. And eggs are becoming a luxury."

"Since March my food bill has gone up at least £50. My gas and electric has come down by £60 per month. But I haven’t had the gas on since March."

The chancellor is expected to announce a benefits shake-up that would see those with mental health or mobility problems told to search for work which is possible to do from home, in Wednesday's Autumn Statement.

In the house in Stoke that Jo shares with her husband, who is also her full time carer, she tells me that is how it will stay - for now.

"I will last as long as I possibly can, because when I put the heating on I will go into debt straight away. 

"I don’t think (the government) gives people in my position a second thought - if it doesn’t affect them directly it’s not happening. Some people say people on benefits get all this money … I wish we did. What we get is not enough to live on."

Jo says she worries that her benefits will be taken away, a move she says would put her "on the street."

"I’m barely existing now. If you take money from me it will kill me."

An hour’s drive away in Chester, restaurant owner Kingdom Thanga and his head chef Karl are doing what they now do every week. They are trying to come up with new menu ideas to try and reduce their costs. 

"The price of products is all over the place. Fish and beef are high … the octopus went up as well. It basically doubled in price."

Kingdom was planning to put that on next week’s menu, but now he will have to rethink. 

The amount he’s spending on food and drink has increased by a whopping £4,000 since March.

Kingdom Thanga and his head chef spend every week trying to come up with new menu ideas to try and reduce their costs. 

His rent has also gone up by £300 a month and, as a result, Kingdom is unable to make any profit. 

"At the moment it’s only about surviving and keeping the wolves from the door. The stress levels are very very high, the anxiety, the uncertainty. There are a lot of sleepless nights."

He says customer numbers still haven’t returned to pre pandemic levels, and in an effort to try and attract more, he feels he has no choice but to absorb the costs himself. 

He tells me he would like to see the government doing more to help businesses like his stay afloat. "When it comes to the rates - if it’s halving the VAT or getting rid of the VAT - there’s a lot more they could do.

"We have been forgotten."

If things don’t improve, he tells me, his restaurant has less than six months to survive.

ITV News has had it confirmed that business tax cuts are being considered. The chancellor, Jeremy Hunt, said his “priority is backing British business” after promising an “Autumn Statement for growth”.

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