Home truths: Hannah Fry, who is renovating her home, says the bills people face now would have ruined her when she was younger
Hannah Fry, a math teacher and TV host, has always admired the frugality of her mother, who uses just one tea bag for three cups of tea.
However, Hannah, 39, who has two young daughters and recently overcame cervical cancer, tells Donna Ferguson she doesn’t always live up to her mother’s standards.
She recently bought a fabric that cost £300 to upholster a single cushion. However, she sees the pillows as a trophy of her accomplishments.
Hannah co-presents The Curious Cases of Rutherford & Fry podcast and presents the BBC Two show The Secret Genius Of Modern Life.
The Future with Hannah Fry, where Hannah examines science, technology and people on the cusp of the most transformative breakthroughs of our time, is available to watch on Bloomberg.com and the Bloomberg app.
What did your parents teach you about money?
They taught me the value of money. Money was incredibly tight when I was growing up. I know everyone thinks I’m fancy or that I went to some fancy private school, but that’s not the case. I come from a very working-class family. My father worked in a factory that made hydraulic truck lifts and my mother was a stay-at-home mom. She was 100% responsible for the money. I think my father probably received an allowance from him, from his own salary.
She managed the household budget and she takes frugality to a superpower level. It’s a hobby for her to go around the different shops and figure out which item is threepence cheaper than the others. She will use one tea bag for three cups of tea. It is absolutely extraordinary.
Have you ever run out of food?
No, we never got to the point where we couldn’t afford to eat. But, certainly, having new clothes or toys just wasn’t really an option.
Are you thrifty yourself?
My mother would say that I am not. When I first started making money, I could be very flippant in an attempt to rebel. I remember making £3.33 an hour at my first job, which was at a newsagent on a Saturday, then going to the New Look clothing store and blowing it all off.
I was definitely like that when I was younger. As I got older, I came to recognize that my mother was definitely right.
Have you ever struggled to make ends meet?
Throughout my university studies, I worked as a cleaner and in restaurants and bars. I didn’t complete my PhD until I was 28, and while I was doing it I was earning £14,000 a year. I had the essentials, but not enough for luxury.
I wouldn’t say it was a struggle because I don’t have fancy tastes. I’m very happy to eat a can of chopped tomatoes, a few cloves of garlic and some spaghetti. I can live off this.
So I didn’t have a problem with the money – although I would say I know how to sail very close to the wind without really capsizing. I’m really lucky not to be in this position anymore. The energy bills people face today would have been so ruinous for me because I didn’t have a safety net like the other people around me in college. They could call their parents if they had financial problems. My parents didn’t have that money to give away.
It wasn’t until I was 30 that I got my first real job as a university lecturer and started earning £30,000 a year which was great.
What was the best year of your financial life?
Last year. I did a lot of filming. I’ve had two TV series – my Bloomberg show, The Future With Hannah Fry, and a BBC Two series called The Secret Genius Of Modern Life. I also did my podcast, The Curious Cases of Rutherford & Fry, and a number of other projects.
I prefer not to say how much I won, but I felt like things were falling into place. For a long time, I was a math teacher and I made documentaries. Last year, I felt like a documentary filmmaker – who was also a math teacher.
What are you splashing at the moment?
For the past two years, I have been renovating my four-bedroom house, which is a converted Victorian bakery dating from 1875, in Greenwich, south-east London. When I bought it five years ago it was an absolute ruin.
Recently I really wanted this fabric cushion. I treated myself to two meters and madly it was about £300 a pad which is disgusting. It’s like Boris Johnson’s wallpaper spending levels.
But the thing is, now those pillows are in my living room and every time I see them I think they’re a trophy for what I’ve accomplished. I won’t let anyone else touch them.
What’s the most expensive thing you’ve bought for fun?
A print that I framed and hung in my office. I bought it in 2021 for around £700 when I got the green light from cancer.
I had been diagnosed with cervical cancer at the age of 36. And I was lucky. I defeated him.
The print reminds me of that. It has that kind of feminine energy, with pink smoke, and what looks like nuclear attacks in the sky.
Host: Hannah on BBC Two’s The Secret Genius Of Modern Life
What is your biggest financial mistake?
Not starting a retreat when I was younger. At the time, that seemed like such a large sum of money to put away each month and I was living on pimples.
But I think people underestimate the impact of compound interest. I hadn’t considered how putting aside even a small amount of money can grow. I’m going to need so much money to catch up, now that I’m 39.
When did you start saving for a pension?
Any day now I’m going to start. In the meantime, I’ve spent it all on cushions and fabric prints.
No, just kidding… I have a very small college pension. And saving in a private pension is a big priority for me in the future.
What’s the best financial decision you’ve made?
Buying a house in west London with my husband in 2011. When we sold it in 2016 it had almost doubled in value.
Do you invest directly in the stock market?
Yes. I have shares in ethically decent companies, wrapped in Isas, for me and my children. I think it would be ironic if I chose to actively divest from my children’s future, by funding companies that are destroying the world.
What is the little luxury you offer yourself?
I get Freddie’s Flowers delivered weekly. It’s a bit extravagant to spend around £100 a month on fresh flowers and my mum understandably hates the very idea.
But, I think it makes a real difference to your home.
If you were Chancellor, what is the first thing you would do?
I would think very seriously about introducing a universal basic income, because I think it is a policy that unites both left and right. I think there are a lot of very good arguments in favor of it.
I also think we shouldn’t live in a world where people in modern Britain are unable to feed themselves or heat their homes. I think that’s morally bankrupt on our part.
Do you donate money to charity?
Yes. I donate to the homeless charity Shelter and support my local food banks. I don’t understand how we can consider ourselves a civilized nation when we allow people to sleep on the streets. It makes no sense to me.
What is your number one financial priority?
To get through my home renovations and then focus on saving, starting with a private pension. So it fills the coffers.
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