When every cent counts: a mum's story of spending her last $7

Australian Treasurer, Joe Hockey.
Australian Treasurer, Joe Hockey. 

Kaye Stirland will never forget the years she spent as a single mother struggling to keep a roof over her family's head while juggling work and study, trying to finish an uncompleted house and caring for her three young children.

However, there is one day in particular that's etched in the Melbourne mum's mind: the day she had $7 left in her bank account and had to choose between buying nappies for her two-year-old son or putting petrol in her car.

So after Treasurer Joe Hockey last week announced a $7 charge for those wishing to see a doctor would be part of Federal Budget measures, Ms Stirland felt compelled to write him a letter explaining what a difference that $7 could make to a family facing financial difficulties.

"My dilemma was whether to spend that last $7 on nappies for my son, or petrol in my car which was running on empty" ... ...
"My dilemma was whether to spend that last $7 on nappies for my son, or petrol in my car which was running on empty" ... Kaye Stirland 

Mr Hockey has been accused of trivialising the $7 co-payment by comparing it to the price of cigarettes and beer.

"One packet of cigarettes cost $22. That gives you three visits to the doctor," Mr Hockey told ABC Radio. "You can spend just over $3 on a middy of beer, so that's two middies of beer to go to the doctor."

Ms Stirland says she penned her letter before Mr Hockey's "beer and cigarettes" comparison, after reading the online comments of others downplaying the $7 co-payment.

"It was more about other people's comments," she says. "People thinking 'well, it's only $7' and one comment I saw said 'if you can't afford $7 you shouldn't have kids'."

Ms Stirland believes "the emotional, physical and mental health of our country is under threat".

"I really felt the need to put a face and a story to the pain that this causes," she explains. 

The powerful and heart-breaking letter, describing Ms Stirland's battle to keep her home from being repossessed, has received an overwhelming response since she posted it on her personal Facebook page last week. It has been shared more than 5000 times and Kaye has appeared on national television to talk about the financial struggles she faced bringing up her children alone following the breakdown of her marriage.

Ms Stirland's friends and family have been very supportive of her decision to make her voice heard. Even her soon-to-be new husband has put his political leanings aside to show his support.

"I am about to marry a man who votes Liberal," she laughs. "But he was there right at the end when we sold the house, so he knows how tough it was."

Despite the national attention Mr Stirland has received, it's the reaction of her children, now aged 7, 11 and 13, which was most touching for her.

"All my kids have read the letter. They didn't really appreciate [the struggle] while it was happening, but they do now," Ms Stirland says. "Even my seven-year-old son, who is not normally very cuddly, has been giving me lots of hugs."

But one person who has not given any feedback about the letter is the intended recipient. Mr Hockey, or any member of the Government, are yet to contact Kaye or respond to her concerns.

THE LETTER

Dear Mr Hockey,

I am going to do my best to write to you in an apolitical manner. I am going to write to you as a mother of three children, and as a parent yourself you will understand that being a parent is more than love and physical protection. It is a giving of the soul, a deep empathy that knows no equal, that gives you courage to try to fly and the tears to fill a river when you fail and fall.

I am also going to talk to you about seven dollars.

When my children were 2, 6 and 4 my marriage broke down. My then-husband left us in a half-renovated home where there was no plaster on the walls. We had a mortgage to the Commonwealth Bank, I was working ten hours a week and as my husband was not working I was not in receipt of child support. His business had failed, there were creditors banging on the door and I was left to deal with it.

As the weeks went on it became clear that I was not going to get a job with more hours, the house wasn’t going to sell in its current state, the Bank was not going to refinance the loan before I went into arrears and my husband was not going to support in any way for various reasons. Thank goodness for Parenting Payment or we would have starved.

So, I picked myself up, enrolled in a degree off campus so I could make myself more attractive to future employers, joined a community group that shared hints and stories on how to save money (did you know that powdered milk is really, really cheap?) and set about teaching myself how to sand floors and plaster walls so I could finish the house.

As the months went by, I slowly fixed up the house. I would get up at 5am to paint a bedroom because I had to work later in the day, and an assignment was due for my degree (and its hard to paint with a toddler awake and wanting to help).

One day, I received a Notice to Quit from the Bank. Unless I could either pay a huge amount or sell the house, we were going to lose the house. My one asset, my one source of security for me and my kids was going to go and it seemed there was nothing I could do about it. The stress levels were intense. Despite all my efforts to find more work, to improve myself, to fight tooth and nail to keep that roof over my kids’ heads, I was going to lose it all. I was going to be bankrupt and live in public housing.

Later that day I realized I had $7 in the bank. My dilemma was whether to spend that $7 on nappies for my son, or petrol in my car which was running on empty. I decided on nappies, and for a few days we cycled everywhere.

That night, sleep evaded me yet again as I went over numbers again and again and again. Trying to get blood out of a stone, and realizing that soon I would have to face the humiliation of selling a house for a loss and file for bankruptcy. Hating that every week I counted and recounted my dollars, looked under the couch for spare change and made humiliating calls to my son’s day care to hold off paying for child care for a week until I got paid.

But Joe, do you know what upset me the most? I had dreams for my kids. I dreamed of them going to dance classes, playing footy, joining Little Athletics, taking them to the beach in summer and the snow in winter. I wanted to buy my children new school uniforms from time to time instead of going to the secondhand shop every term. I wanted to stop stressing when my son grew out of his shoes because I couldn't afford a new pair. I wanted to stop hoping beyond hope that the funny noise the washing machine made did not mean it was about to blow up. I wanted to stop worrying about birthdays and Christmas and just enjoy them with my children. I wanted my children to stop holding their tongues about asking for things because they knew the answer would be "no, we can’t afford it".

I wanted something as simple as take them to the local pool on a hot day, but when you have to make a choice between that and a new box of washing powder, then you have to make do with playing with the hose in the back yard. I wanted to stop running numbers through my head when my three kids asked for an ice cream from the ice cream man, because that would cost the equivalent of a carton of milk and a loaf of bread.

I wanted to stop standing in a supermarket queue, feeling hot and cold and red in the face as I tried to work out which essential we had to go without that week with $7 in my bank account.

I did sell my house. I finished it. I fought the Commonwealth Bank with the Ombusdman and I won. I moved to Melbourne and found work that gave me a larger salary. I am continuing my degree. Financially I am much better off. But it was a very hard fight, fought over years. My children are compassionate and thoughtful children who know the value of money and have empathy to those in need.

But does it have to be this way? My kids hurt and I hurt. As a woman, as a mother I hurt.

I see the humanity in your eyes. Please stop hurting those that need help.

Yours sincerely,

Kaye Stirland.

*This letter was first published on Kaye Stirland's personal Facebook page. Republished here with permission.

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