We need to better understand the challenges of navigating unpredictable income to innovate more effectively

Welcome to the first blog from the Real Accounts project’s On balance series – the place to come for project highlights and where Real Accounts meets the real world.

Managing on a tight income against a backdrop of extraordinary living cost rises is tough, and even tougher when money varies significantly month-to-month.

Brenda* is the person you want by your side when things are unpredictable. As a nurse, she’s prepared for pretty much anything and everything to happen, and she has trained and planned for most eventualities. No two days, or even patients, are exactly alike, but her good nature and practical outlook help her tackle whatever a shift may hold. Despite her aptness in managing the unexpected at work, when it comes to her family’s financial life, Brenda longs for more certainty.

Her husband is self-employed, and it’s not always clear what the month ahead will look like. “I wish there was a way to know ahead of time which months were going to be difficult, with less coming in, and which months were going to be easier. If I knew that, I’d cut down on the things that aren’t essential, or spend less on things like food where I can.”

We’ve all seen the headlines about the unmet and under-served needs and challenges created by financial uncertainty and the rising cost of living. And, with Brenda and the 48 other households participating in Real Accounts, we’re looking to solutions.

We’re looking at how much income and household expenses vary month to month, and what impact this has. So far, we’re learning that uncertainty shapes every aspect of people’s financial and personal lives, and that they’re managing how they can.

For some, that’s contributing to their emergency savings. For example, David has been working on zero-hours contracts for nearly five years. He saves any leftover money into a rainy day fund. But topping up that fund can feel like a relentless task: “I feel like I can never miss a day of work.”

We’re also hearing from many people that support from friends and family helps during moments of uncertainty. When Fred found himself in rent arrears while he was between jobs, he managed to bridge a rough period through informal loans and gifts. And Alexa, despite having her own challenges, provides support to others. She’s a firm believer in reciprocity—if you give what you can today, you’ll benefit when you need help tomorrow.

There are many more insights to come. We’re building an in-depth picture of each household’s income and spending over time, and hearing their first-hand stories about the life events and day-to-day experiences that bring that data to life.

*All names are pseudonyms

If you’d like to find out more about the Real Accounts project, please visit realaccounts.org.uk or sign up to receive the latest research, news and events from the programme in your inbox.