Kirsten O’Brien: It’s been a tough year but my approach is still ‘buy the dress!’

BBC TV presenter Kirsten O’Brien says the past year has been the most financially challenging of her life. 

O’Brien, 49, who hosted the popular CBBC art programme SMart for a decade, says her top priority is balancing the books after a ‘precarious year’ for freelancers such as herself in the TV and arts industry. 

She spoke to Donna Ferguson.  

‘Precarious’: Kirsten and her husband are both freelancers 

What did your parents teach you about money?

To seize the moment. My mother was one of those people who would go shopping, see a dress she really liked, and not buy it. Then she’d get home and wish she had. Eventually, she would go back to buy it, only to find it had sold out in her size. She died when I was 26. So I very much have a ‘get the blooming dress’ approach to life. 

You can save frugally but pop your clogs early. I’m not saying that I go absolutely wild and spend a fortune, but I think life’s too short and it could all end next week, so let’s have a lovely time while we can.

Was money tight when you were growing up?

No. We weren’t rolling in money, but I believe I was lucky. My dad worked as a civil engineer in the oil industry which meant we went all around the world – to Algeria when I was two, then Kuwait, Nigeria and Singapore. 

Sometimes we lived in quite primitive conditions. For example, in Nigeria we rarely had electricity and the water came from the river and had tiny red worms in it. But in Singapore I went to a brilliant international school and got to experience the high life.

I was 12 when we came home to Middlesbrough. At that point, my mother got a job as a doctor’s receptionist and I started at the local state school and had a classic middle-class upbringing.

Have you ever struggled to make ends meet?

Yes. Now is actually the most difficult financial time in my life. My husband Mark and I both work in the arts – he is a TV director. There is always a level of uncertainty around our incomes being both freelancers, but even when there have been gaps, work has always come in after a month or so.

In the last year, that hasn’t happened. We haven’t particularly worked through the pandemic and now is the biggest struggle we’ve ever had to cope with.

Before, we’d just muddle along, go out for a meal and everything would still get paid. But recently, we’ve had to look at how we can make our money stretch.

We’re managing to pay our bills but it takes a lot more thought now – and budgeting. We’re moving money from here to there to cover different payments.

Luxury: Kirsten has been a member of the Soho House in London (pictured) since 2000

Luxury: Kirsten has been a member of the Soho House in London (pictured) since 2000

How have you coped?

For the first time ever, as a married couple, we’ve had to scrutinise our incomings and outgoings to understand how our finances work, and how much we need to make between us every month.

Although it’s been hard, the positive side is that we’ve got rid of some frivolous costs. For example, we’ve switched electricity supplier and reduced the amount we pay for our internet. 

When you’ve got costs that potentially you can’t meet, you question why you have them. Luckily, my husband got work recently as the series director of Channel Four programme The Great Pottery Throw Down.

Have you ever been paid silly money?

Yes, during a summer season at Butlin’s in the mid-1990s. I was starting out as a presenter on CBBC and I was in a show in Bognor, Minehead or Skegness every Saturday from May to October. I got paid £750 a time which was exceptionally good money back then – the equivalent of around £1,500 today.

Sometimes I went on stage with puppet Otis The Aardvark, other times all I had to do was present. Often we’d get to stay over in Butlin’s accommodation, so we could have a night out in the bar, too. 

I couldn’t believe how much fun I could have and get paid for it, while still doing my CBBC job in the week which covered all my bills. It was just brilliant and my wages went straight into my savings account. I saved enough from that one season to put down a £20,000 deposit on my first property, an ex-council flat in Camden, North London.

Biggest money mistake: Buying a Jeep on hire purchase four years ago

Biggest money mistake: Buying a Jeep on hire purchase four years ago

What is the most expensive thing you have ever bought for fun?

My Soho House membership in London. I’ve been a member since 2000 and it costs me £600 a year. It’s a fun place to meet people and it brings me joy every time I go. It feels like a real luxury.

What is your biggest money mistake?

Buying a Jeep on hire purchase four years ago, shortly before I became pregnant with twins. We had to extract ourselves from the loan agreement and given we’d only had it five months we got stung. I will never buy another car on hire purchase again.

The best money decision you have made?

Buying that one-bedroom flat in Camden for £125,000 in 1997. I was so lucky to be able to save up for a deposit while renting in London in my early-20s. By fluke I bought at absolutely the right time – the bottom of the market. I renovated it and turned it into a two-bedroom flat. I’ve still got it and rent it out. It’s probably worth about £500,000.

Do you save into a pension?

Yes, I do. I had a panicky feeling when I turned 30 and decided to start a pension. I don’t throw a fortune at it but I do contribute every month. I don’t invest in the stock market outside of my pension. Right now, I haven’t got the head space for that.

Do you own any property?

Yes, my flat in Camden and my home – a four-bedroom semi-detached house in a village in Berkshire. We bought it in 2014 but I’d rather not say how much we paid for it. I don’t think it’s gone up massively in value.

What is the one luxury you treat yourself to?

Fancy coffee because I have to get up really early in the morning to work. At the moment, I wake at 5.50am so as to present the news on BBC Berkshire. So, proper posh coffee beans are my one luxury. I’ll typically spend £6 to £8 on a bag of beans about once a fortnight.

What is your number one financial priority?

Balancing the books because it has felt like such a precarious year. We’re not suffering compared to many other families and I wouldn’t want to suggest that we are. But with three kids – Fox, nine, and three-year-old twins, Indigo and Kit – to look after, I’ve become more focused on the financial aspect of my life and understanding better what we’re spending our money on as a family. 

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