The economic crisis resulted in tough times for many people. Not least, a number of people living in Australia who lost their jobs. For others it wasn't that critical, but financial difficulties did mean having to tighten the belt a little.
By anyone's standards the year 2009 was a tough one for the Richardson-Mills family after Tony was retrenched in November 2008. But talking to his wife Robyn, I am truly inspired by this family and the way that they came together to find innovative ways to increase their income – even down to driving a taxi, in Robyn's case – and also to limit their spending.
Looking back on the difficult times, Robyn says that it is amazing what you can accomplish if you need to and the experience has left the Richardson family more close-knit and more understanding of the value of money, and they've even had a bit of fun along the way.
A South African-trained pharmacist, Robyn wasn't qualified to work in Australia until she had completed her studies here, so when the family needed her to earn an income she looked around at some options. She received no responses to numerous applications and somewhat hesitantly discussed becoming a taxi driver with a friend who drives cabs in Redcliffe, north of Brisbane.
“My biggest fear about driving a taxi was the safety aspect. I had lived through an armed robbery in South Africa and it was a huge mental hurdle for me to willingly put someone I didn't know in my car. But because we were fairly desperate, I talked to my friend and we discussed whether it really is a dangerous occupation, or if it's just regarded by South Africans as a job that's not suitable for women.”
In the end, Robyn took the plunge and went on a “quite brutal” week-long training course in Brisbane. “It was very stressful. I took a refidex, cut it up and stuck pages together to learn Brisbane roads. You need to be able to work out a route in two minutes and they demand that you keep up to speed.”
She made it through, passed the medicals, then learned the roads of Redcliffe and was finally able to drive cabs nearer to home. For about eight months last year, Robyn was on the roads, mostly in a big maxi taxi often carrying groups of people or people who were in wheelchairs.
“I struggled with the security issues, especially if I had a group of males in the car, but I was very conscious of whether this was a South African fear that I was dealing with, or whether it was a real fear,” she says.
Robyn drove mostly during the day as the security risks are higher at night, but she found that maintaining a sense of humour if people did get difficult or were drunk meant that she didn't experience many problems.
All in all, Robyn found the job to be loads of fun. She got to know some regular customers and had some interesting conversations with people, some of whom were interested in why she had immigrated and why she was driving taxis! “Of course, I was also revved endlessly about sport!”
Dealing with people who were wheelchair-bound also taught her some lessons, says Robyn. “It really exposed me to what people have to deal with in the real big world. Even though we were going through a difficult time, there were people dealing with tougher issues. I had a spectrum of passengers from youngsters who were completely disabled to the elderly who had wheelchairs or walkers. It made me really appreciate being able-bodied.”
The job also gave Robyn some confidence. “I know that no matter what happens I can find a job, even if it is outside my comfort zone. There might be hurdles along the way, but I know that I can get over the hurdles,” she says.
In addition to Robyn driving taxi cabs, the couple, together with their two teenage children, also took a close look at their finances to see where they could cut back on expenses and how they could earn an additional income.
As a family they did pamphlet drop offs on a Wednesday and Sunday evening. “We made between about $80 and $120 per week and that paid for a portion of our food each week.
Tony also got odd jobs, working as a kitchen hand, cleaner, gardener, handyman and courier driver. My son offered money from his job if we needed it for the household. He also took responsibility for things like his own university books and putting petrol in the car. It is amazing what a transformation there was in all of us through this experience.”
After Tony found employment, Robyn quit her driving job in December and is now concentrating on obtaining her pharmacy qualifications in Australia.
However, she says that she'll keep her taxi licence so that when she retires she has the option of driving cabs a couple of days a week. Robyn says it's really a pretty good job. “You have your freedom, even though you're employed by someone. Also driving in Redcliffe, I would always say that I had the most spectacular office as I would drive along with a panoramic view of Moreton Bay.”
What helped the Richardson-Mills family?
- We decided not to cut down on health or life insurance – if anything had gone wrong, we needed to know that we wouldn't be even worse off.
- We decided that each evening meal would cost less than $10 for the whole family. To do this we developed a two week revolving meal plan.
- Entertainment was not an option unless it involved taking our evening meal and having a BBQ at a Redcliffe park.
- When invited out by friends we honestly said that we could not afford it at the time.
- We made our own sandwiches and took juice if we were going into the city or out as a family.