The People's Panel - cost of living: research findings

Research findings from the 'People's Panel' on the cost of living from March 2022 to March 2023. This publication also details the background and motivation for developing the People’s Panel, how it was delivered and what impact it has made.

Research Findings

This report sets out the findings from the People’s Panel events on cost of living. The goal of the sessions dedicated to cost of living, was to gather information on people's experiences, behaviours, and attitudes towards rising costs. Cost of living was covered at two People’s Panel events (June 2022 and September 2022). See appendix C for the session questions and overarching research questions.

The day-to-day impact of the cost of living crisis

Panel members were asked about the reality of the cost of living crisis for them. They had made a spectrum of adjustments to their lives, and experienced loss of choice and control. Members discussed their own experiences and those of people they knew. This section sets out these findings under the following themes:

  • Severe Hardship
  • Limited Choice and Control
  • Choice and Control
  • Frustration (and gratitude)
  • Long-term implications
  • Interrelated crises

Severe Hardship - members making overwhelming adjustments

Members described life as about “surviving” and prioritising basic needs, with several members feeling they were not in control of their circumstances.

“We’re all on fixed income, pay rises does not match the increased costs.”

Food was a main issue; the cost, the quantity and the quality of it. Members were impacted by increasing prices and specifically noted that even budget range costs were escalating. Some members described being ‘very careful’ with their shopping, opting to shop daily for the exact amounts of what they needed and nothing else. Others relied on supermarket ‘bargain bins’ or having to buy poor quality food.

“I don’t buy packs of things anymore I just buy the number I need.”

Others were totally reliant on food-banks or food parcels. They now found that the food they received was reducing in both the quality and the quantity.

Members with children also had particular issues. Some spoke about not being able to provide their children with enough food and feeling worried about how they would manage during the school holidays.

Trying to keep warm was a constant concern due to high energy costs and the difficulty in balancing this with the cost of food. This led to some members having to make decisions about whether to eat or heat their homes.

Members feared problems would become ‘drastic’ over winter. This was worse for a few members living in colder parts of the country. Some members were considering alternative plans to stay warm that did not involve putting on the heating on, including spending the day travelling on buses in order to stay warm.

Some members, due to health issues, described a need to keep their home at a certain temperature but this was taking an increasing amount of their income. Strategies to keep warm while cutting costs included, layering clothing, using hot-water bottles or staying in only one room in the house.

“I have to use a hot water bottle to stop my feet from going black with the cold.”

Saving electricity had also become the norm for some, with members cutting down on the number of hot drinks they have, using the microwave instead of the hob or oven and sitting in the dark to save electricity.

Cost of living had also impacted on how people travel. However, for those in severe hardship it was an unaffordable luxury, with even local journeys cut to save money. Some members were now unable to afford to run a car despite needing it for their disability.

“Biggest hit is to top up my car every week, it was £10 now closer to £30.”

This also impacted on the members’ relationships. For example, being unable to afford the travel to see their parents, even though they only lived a few hours away. Some members whose families live abroad had not seen them for years, they missed family weddings and were even unable to visit very ill parents.

“My sick father keeps asking for me, but I can’t afford to get to him.”

Leisure activities were severely curtailed, in part due to the impact on travel by limiting members’ ability to drive to places they used to visit. Members also cancelled entertainment subscriptions, losing access to television and music, or stopped activities they enjoyed, such as socialising or health and wellbeing activities.

“It’s a bit like ‘what do we not spend our money on’. I ask myself this question daily.”

Living in rented accommodation raised particular challenges. Members experienced a loss of control, being restricted to prepayment meters or pay as you go charges. Members also worried about rent costs increasing or becoming unaffordable.

“We are on a pre-payment meter and we want to move to monthly billing but they won’t let me. These meters are a lot higher.”

One member described being forced to make a choice between paying council tax or buying food, the fear of going into arrears to the council was so strong that in this example they went without food.

Limited choice and control – members making major lifestyle adjustments

In the middle of the spectrum, members perceived that they still had some say in their circumstances, and some ability to forward plan, albeit in a limited way and with some choices forced upon them.

Food continued to be an issue. Members reported “tightening their belts”, and making different choices when food shopping, for example, buying tinned or frozen food instead of fresh. They also described making better use of left-overs rather than cooking fresh each day.

Members also described making adjustments to how they travelled. Walking to work and appointments was a common adjustment and undertaken to save on fares.

There was some limited forward planning, and the ability to make purchases to help reduce their outgoings. For example, buying a second hand bike to save money on bus fares and buying electric blankets to use rather than putting their heating on.

Some of the choices were made to provide more peace of mind during this crisis.

“I have gone ahead and got a 5-year fixed rate so I know what I’m paying mortgage wise by fixing the rate. It might work out well it might bite me but I have certainty that I know what I am paying every month.”

Members with children described making difficult choices and major sacrifices. One member typified the dilemmas this group had to make. She felt forced into making the choice to cut her maternity leave short and get back to work to make sure the family had enough money.

Choice and control – members making minor lifestyle adjustments

There was a small section of members who described the situation as being “manageable”. They had made adjustments to their lifestyle but had also retained the ability to make choices, for example, in what they consumed and when.

Their adjustments were characterised by forward planning and using their existing resources to make consumer choices in order to reduce their outgoings in the future.

When shopping for food, clothes and presents, these members reported being “careful” or “mindful”.

“I’m in control by watching my money and spending.”

Members at this end of the spectrum described working hard to move themselves into a comfortable financial situation, and to be able to feel financially secure. However, the cost of living crisis had shaken this comfort and this caused frustration.

One member described it as “irksome”. Another said:

“…this feels forced upon us, so that’s annoying.”

Members described both minor and major adjustments to their lifestyles. For example:

  • More regularly switching ‘standby’ or power off at night for appliances
  • Taking advantage of free charging for electric cars at supermarkets
  • Sharing car journeys with family or friends
  • Buying food in bulk
  • Moving to either an electric car, or to a car that was cheaper to run

Frustration (and gratitude)

Frustration was commonly experienced by members. This was related to having to change plans, or cut out enjoyable activities they used to do. Some frustration focused on the concern that nothing was being done about the issues, that the price increases would persist as people ‘higher up’ accepted them and were not fighting for them to be reduced.

These feelings were heightened for members when they perceived a lack of communication, they felt ‘kept in the dark’ about the reality of the situation. The lack of transparency caused uncertainty for members, adding to their frustration.

“My energy company went bust, and I was transferred to someone else and I discovered I was massively in credit, and the energy company had never told me! Things are not very transparent sometimes, which makes it difficult, especially for people like me who don’t pay attention to all that.”

Not all members were struggling financially. The overwhelming emotion from them was being grateful, recognising that others were considerably worse off. They liked the idea of speaking up for this group of people who may not generally get their voices heard. Some members also positively considered the things they had to help them through difficult times.

“We are lucky we have a good income but vulnerable people won’t.”

Long-term implications

Beyond day-to-day impact, cost of living issues were impacting on people’s long-term plans and future prospects. Some members were putting off or scaling back on future plans, or using money they have saved for the future to get by.

“For me, it’s about eating into my savings. I hope I don’t eat so far into them that my healthcare – when I need it, when I am older – is badly affected.”

Rising rent prices prevented people from being able to buy their own home. There was concern for tenants of private landlords and people who were “at the bottom, falling off the bottom”.

“For all my generation, the idea of getting on to the property ladder – even in the next 10 to 15 years – seems impossible. I know the Scottish Government have talked about rent controls, which would be appreciated. You feel like you are just at the whim of a landlord.”

Cost of living was also significantly impacting on some people’s ability to access education and buy equipment. This left some members, who were students, with the dilemma of how to continue or in extreme circumstances causing them to drop out.

“My friend is struggling to afford travel to college for her classes. She [panel members’ friend] can’t afford £15 per week out of her £40 to spend on transport. She sometimes walks and can’t go every day.”

Similarly, there was also an impact on decisions around employment opportunities for members. COVID-19 continued to impact some members’ ability to return to an office, who risked losing their job and income as their employer required them to be in an office environment. Other members were also concerned about employment opportunities, and not being able to find jobs that would get them through the cost of living crisis.

“In [city] there are loads of jobs available, cafes, pubs, student jobs, but the pay is not sufficient to live on. Especially when it’s zero hours, so you can’t be guaranteed how many hours you get, managers can just send you home if they aren’t making enough money that day. There are just no provisions there.”

Those with their own businesses were also experiencing difficulties, with higher bills meaning being self-employed was becoming less sustainable.

“Now thinking how to get profit…my partner brings home £800 a month, this is not sustainable if bills continue this way. We can’t pass on the prices to customers.”

Members were overwhelmed by feelings of uncertainty, with members feeling that the situation was never-ending. As one participant put it: “there is just this huge economic gloom ahead”. The general mood was pessimistic with a widespread assumption that things would not be getting better anytime soon. Indeed, they felt it was likely to get worse.

“I’m resigned to being ill over winter, I can’t see how I can keep warm and feed myself.”

Interrelated crises

Members felt that the cost of living and the pandemic were two interrelated crises.

Firstly, members saw the pandemic as a contributory factor to the cost of living crisis, it felt like it had “emerged” from COVID-19. Secondly, members felt these issues were more “entwined”; not so much a cause and effect but issues that exacerbated the impact of each other.

“We can’t think about cost of living crisis without thinking about the effects of COVID.”

This “perfect storm”, as one member described it, had significant implications for some members and how they coped. Members who described themselves as immunosuppressed or vulnerable to the health risks, found the risk of catching COVID-19 stopped them going out and earning an income. One member further described how long-COVID left them unable to work, impacting on their income and catastrophically affecting their family’s lifestyle.

Other factors which compounded the cost of living impact included having a disability, being an asylum-seeker, having physical or mental health conditions, living in rented accommodation or looking for employment opportunities.

“As an asylum seeker what I get from government schemes is not enough to cover costs, not enough to cover basics like food and toiletries, never mind extra things. I’m not ungrateful for what is provided, but it’s not enough.”

Cost of living impact on health and wellbeing

Members shared personal accounts of both their own struggles and that of friends or family. This section outlines the impact of the cost of living on health and wellbeing under the following themes:

  • Impact on Mental Health
  • Impact on Physical Health
  • Collective Trauma
  • Getting Help for Physical and Mental Health Issues

Impact on Mental Health

The impact on mental health ranged across members, from worries and anxieties to severe mental ill-health.

Some members described a visceral “sense of increased background anxiety” across their day to day lives: at work, with family and friends and when reading the media.

Members talked of layers of stress. Again, an overlap with COVID-19 was highlighted, with the cost of living crisis exacerbating the feelings of dread they were already experiencing. COVID-19 left many less resilient to the financial pressures of the cost of living crisis and their anxiety had escalated to a state of fear.

“I see people every-day that through no fault of their own are living in fear about what is coming ahead, people who are working, yet can’t feed their families.”

Measures to cope with the crisis, such as “taking handouts” or using strategies to save money also affected self-esteem and caused feelings of guilt. Members reflected that as a society, we feel shame in asking for help, and there was a concern among members that this was made worse by how those needing support are portrayed by the media.

“The link between charity and shame is so deeply entrenched in our culture… it needs to be more normalised in community (by more people using services) but not sure it is within the scope of this generation to change.”

Some felt the media caused additional stress and worry for members, with constant reminders that they needed to be careful with money. Others, however, felt the media has raised awareness of the issue and allowed people time to plan.

“Because we have had prices capped still, I wouldn’t have known if the media hadn’t raised it – but it’s a good thing. I wouldn’t want to come to October and find my bills have gone up by £150 a month and had no time to plan for that. So there has to be a balance.”

Furthermore, members experienced feelings of isolation due to the cost of living. With the increasing cost of travel previously discussed, visiting friends, family or partners was seen for some as a luxury. However, for others members, family connections were something they were not prepared to give up to reduce costs.

“I only spend money without thinking to see grandchildren in London, I’m not prepared to give that up.”

Impact on Physical Health

Physical health was also suffering, and it was anticipated that this would worsen over winter when the weather was colder. Many feared their physical health would be impacted by not being able to afford healthy food, and that the real impact on health would not be seen for years to come.

“Eating poor quality food doesn’t impact right away, but it will do.”

Again, disabled people were particularly affected, with the cost of living intensifying physical health issues. Members reported needing to heat homes more often, the expense of specific diets, and being unable to shop around. One member described needing a special diet but this had become unaffordable when also balanced with other priorities.

“My doctor has told me I need to eat more to put on weight, but I’ve got kids to feed so they have to come first.”

Collective Trauma

Members described feeling that the nation as a whole was suffering trauma from the effects of the pandemic, and this has been further exacerbated by the cost of living crisis. Members talked about people being “broken” and “traumatised”, and some feared the combination of these issues meant rioting or civil disobedience was a real possibility.

“[There is] unresolved trauma we are experiencing as a society. Intergenerational trauma, not something we should take lightly. The whole ethos of the British “Stiff Upper Lip”, “just soldier on”, “call to arms to let’s face this together” is not healthy, no wonder there is so much mental ill-health around.”

There was particular concern for those who were considered vulnerable or in need of support and people on lower incomes.

“My Aunt works with vulnerable people in local areas and the number of referrals from charities for third sector support is astronomical – I dread to think the impact on vulnerable people.”

There was a sense that children have missed out on normal childhood experiences, and fear for childhood memories being dominated by these crises. Members worried that this will have long-term implications for children and young people.

“The impact on children will define the health, social and wellbeing outcomes for them when they are older, not just mental health but physical as well.”

Getting Help for Physical and Mental Health Issues

Some members described how the cost of living was impacting on their ability to get help when they needed it.

There were costs associated with accessing healthcare, such as contacting a Doctor by phone, which caused barriers. Members were also conscious of waiting times, and some considered themselves “lucky” when they received support for their mental health.

“I got referred to the mental health clinic. It was set up and everyone in critical care with covid got an invite. I went along and got a session with a clinical psychologist. I hadn’t thought of myself as being depressed until I sat down and started to talk with them.”

Members were also taking their own steps to look after their health, in particular their mental health, by developing coping strategies.

“Since the pandemic I am doing more to keep my own mental health stable so that has helped.”

People’s Panel support or help ideas

Suggestions for support and help centred on specific and general funding, and systemic changes including political solutions. They are grouped under the following themes:

  • Keeping People Fed and Warm
  • Collective Healing - Community Funding
  • Long-term Planning
  • Scottish Government and Limitations on Action

Keeping People Fed and Warm

Members felt that ensuring people were well fed and kept warm was an emergency. They saw this as short term protection for the most vulnerable, likening it to the measures taken during the height of the pandemic.

“We saw how quickly things moved during COVID so we need a quick reaction here.”

While there was some concern for support that had been previously removed from those who needed it, such as the warm discount scheme for people on disability allowance, members were supportive of policies that have been put in place to help, such as the Child Payment and rent controls.

“Rent control announcements were such as a relief. I’ve been in my rented flat for 7 years, and having not had many increases – it did increase by 25% at the top of the year. I was worried it would happen again so the action is very relieving.”

Investment in the third sector and other community projects was emphasised as a priority action, with members recognising the value of such organisations but also the need to secure funding for them.

“Fund food banks, give them money and space as we are in an emergency now and it doesn’t have to be long term. If there are spaces not used, owned by local or central government, loan them the space. Heat it and get food cooked and out.”

It was suggested that warm clothing initiatives could mirror food initiatives. Allocating funds to communities specifically for this purpose would allow warm clothes to be distributed through existing initiatives, such as foodbanks or food parcels.

Some members favoured the idea of targeted help and support by delivering additional cash through the benefit system to working parents on lower wage, pensioners, asylum seekers and those living on savings. Some felt that a basic income should be provided for all, making help universal and to reduce the sense of shame experienced by those needing support.

“Ridiculous benefits system can’t keep up with cost of living. Not people’s fault and they are living in fear about what is coming ahead and people working can’t feed their families.”

Members also suggested that affordable public transport was necessary. Many supported the idea of targeted help for people suffering from low incomes in the form of subsidised bus fares, or vouchers to pay for journeys to work, study and medical appointments.

Accessibility of support was a concern for members, they feared for people who had to prove their needs or disability or who may slip through the net. Members highlighted circumstances where, either themselves or others, did not meet the criteria for support, but continued to struggle through the crisis.

“Because I work part time, I am not entitled to grants that are about, so I feel slightly punished for working and having young kids.”

Collective Healing – Community Funding

Although members realised that there were no easy fixes for the sense of general trauma described above, many reported observing (and taking part in) community organisations and local initiatives that were working to foster community spirit and bring local communities together as a type of healing.

Some examples of local initiatives included:

  • A warm hub set up in the community in the mosque
  • A business delivering extra fish to customers
  • A lorry from a local farm donating free fruit and veg locally
  • A community cooperative – a yearly subscription of £5 a year and £3 every time to get £15 pounds worth of shopping
  • A community larder with near sell-by date dried food, biscuits, fruit and vegetables donated by local shops

Members described the impact as being beyond tangible, they brought people together with those donating and those receiving both gaining a sense of community. However, it was recognised that these initiatives needed their own help and financial support if they were to continue.

“Some faith communities are opening their doors but they are struggling with food and energy. So they need support”.

Even small grants for specific purposes, such as administration costs or purchasing sanitising stations, were considered beneficial. Some members suggested this could be managed using umbrella organisations.

“Use organisations like Inter-faith Scotland. That’s an easy way to administer it. Give the organisation the money for across the whole of Scotland.”

When discussing the community, members also discussed local third sector services. They reported seeing that many charities were existentially damaged by the pandemic; suffering from “COVID burnout” or “COVID crash”. Further, that the sector was losing staff because they either cannot sustain the pace of the work needed in the community, or can earn more elsewhere.

Long-term Planning

Pragmatic suggestions included planting fruit trees in community spaces, increasing the availability of allotments through local authority funding, and helping people to insulate older homes. Members wanted to see a strategic approach to dealing with the cost of living crisis, now and in the future.

“I hope the Scottish Government understands they need to do more than just increase the money they give out now. We need a more long-term thought-out approach.”

Re-distribution of wealth was one long-term measure discussed.

“This crisis has showed how badly we need a better system for the distribution of wealth.”

Housing policy was also discussed and some members saw building more affordable housing as key, specifically in the big cities.

“More and more, local people in cities are being priced out, eroding local identity. More affordable housing would make a huge difference”.

Scottish Government Responsibilities and Limitations on Action

Members are looking to the Scottish Government for help and support through the cost of living crisis, viewing it as the responsibility of the government to look after people and mitigate the impact. However, the limits of the power of the Scottish Government were also recognised.

“Without all taxation coming back to Scotland, the Scottish Government's hands are tied to provide adequate mitigations.”

Members wanted to be heard by the Scottish Government, have their experiences recognised and for the government to focus on meeting people’s needs.

Although some members described the Scottish Government as more likely to enact measures to help than the UK Government, they wanted them to put more pressure on Westminster. Members felt the Scottish Government should be more vocal about issues such as tax systems, environmental infrastructure, or ending zero hour contracts.

“The role of the Scottish Government is to put pressure on the UK government, we need more of this. Maybe join with Welsh and Northern Irish to make sure this [focus on helping people] is filtering through to Westminster. It can’t just be done in Scotland it needs a UK wide solution.”

Long-term goals also included the need to move away from fossil fuels and support alternative means of producing energy. Members felt that this could come alongside investing in electric vehicle infrastructure and other measures to increase the use of electric vehicles. Other members felt that Scotland could work towards self-sufficiency in food with a particular focus on the islands including better transport infrastructure to facilitate distribution.

Members also wanted to see increased awareness of the support that is available to help people through the cost of living crisis, and more education about how people can save money.

“Might be worth letting people know that the warm Home discount is open in Scotland now. You have to apply in Scotland but not in England.”



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