‘I want my old life back’: Families forced to make big changes due to coronavirus

Photo by Jessica Rockowitz on Unsplash

Pansy Leung and her husband Adrian Eastman both worked as cabin crew for Virgin until they were stood down in March.

Key points:

  • The OECD says one of the biggest risks for the Australian economy is household debt derailing our coronavirus recovery
  • The company Stagekings pivoted from building stages for events to manufacturing work-from-home furniture
  • Consumer confidence has started to bounce back, data shows

Ms Leung has since been working two casual jobs: on a checkout at Woolworths and packing boxes for meal-delivery company Marley Spoon. Mr Eastman has been interviewing for jobs.

They have two children and are having to be incredibly careful with their money.

“I don’t think I’ve been this frugal … since my teenage years,” Ms Leung told 7.30.

“[We’re] buying less groceries. I’d say we’re buying the bare essentials.

“We cut a lot of extracurricular activities that the kids used to do. They were expensive.

“I hope it teaches my kids resilience and that we don’t need that much.

“I just miss my old life,” she said, wiping tears from her eyes.

“I just want my life back.”

Like many Australians, high levels of household debt is something the couple thinks is concerning.

The OECD recently reported one of the biggest risks for the Australian economy is that household indebtedness derails our recovery.

“I can’t speak for most of Australia, but I can say for most of my friends, a lot of them have personal loans, home loans, credit cards, more than one credit card,” Ms Leung said.

“I managed to pay off all my credit cards before this whole coronavirus happened so that was that was lucky. However, Afterpay … I must admit, I have used it once or twice.”

Marnie Baker, managing director of Bendigo and Adelaide Bank, said high household debt going into the crisis was a concern.

“It certainly was high,” she said. “If I think back to the end of last year, we saw an economy that was slowing, we’ve got low wage growth. It probably wasn’t a good time to be into a period of time like this.”

Greg Combet, chair of Industry Super Australia and IFM Investors, is also worried.

“I think household debt-to-income now in Australia is about 200 per cent. Debt to GDP ratio looks like it might rise as high as 50 per cent as a consequence of these circumstances,” Mr Combet said.

“This is unprecedented for Australia. We’ve seen it in wartime but we’re in peacetime at the moment.”

Business turns fortune around

Some businesses that would have gone bust have found ways to pivot, innovate and thrive.

Tabitha and Jeremy Fleming own Stagekings, a company that builds stages and structures for events like concerts and festivals.

When a ban on public gatherings was enforced they thought their business was over. They even thought they might lose their house.

“It was really quite devastating to think that we could lose everything that we’d worked hard for,” Ms Fleming said.

They had the idea to start building work-from-home furniture and it took off.

“Everything we’re hearing is people want Australian-made and Australian-manufactured, and we’ve even had calls from a lot of other furniture designers asking for us to manufacture product for them,” Mr Fleming said.

“We’re getting calls all over the world to deliver this stuff.

“We’ve had a couple of dozen calls from New York to Europe. Singapore wants a lot.

“We see it as a massive opportunity to push that manufacturing arm forward.”

‘We’re feeling like rock stars at the moment’

Third generation farmer Emma Germano manages her family’s vegetable and livestock farm in South Gippsland, Victoria, and said her farm gate sales had spiked during coronavirus.

“I get to speak to many different farmers who grow many different things. The overwhelming sentiment at the moment is one of confidence,” said Ms Germano, vice-president of the Victorian Farmers Federation.

“We’re feeling like rock stars at the moment. People started to care where their food comes from.”

She said agriculture had an important role to play in growing the economy, “particularly off the back of coronavirus”.

“Everyone is aware change has happened rapidly and don’t know what to expect or what’s going to come next,” she said.

“There is a sense of confidence that we are a resilient industry and a resilient bunch.”

Consumer confidence bouncing back

Consumer confidence, a key indicator of the overall health of the economy, has started to bounce back.

According to data from the ANZ-Roy Morgan Consumer Confidence Index, confidence plummeted in March but began to climb when JobKeeper was announced on March 30. Levels have stabilised in June.

Exclusive data from Finder, a personal finance app, shows retail spending jumped by 28 per cent in May compared to April, with the biggest increases in spending being on entertainment, clothing and restaurants, from a low base.

Online retailer Kogan is now valued on the share market at more than six times the 120-year-old Myer.

Ruslan Kogan believes the increase in online shopping is permanent.

“I think we’re seeing a transformation in the industry,” he said. “Because people are realising that when you go to a bricks and mortar store you’ve got to drive there, look for a parking spot, have somebody in your ear trying to sell you a certain product.”

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