Breaking point: British pensioners in Spain open up about money worries

Dipping into savings, a lack of social life, constantly worrying about money – British pensioners in Spain have opened up on the impact of the falling value of the pound on their lives.

Breaking point: British pensioners in Spain open up about money worries
People drink on a terrace at a bar on the Costa del Sol's Benalmadena. Photo: AFP

When the British pound fell to a two-year low last week, most headlines focused on tourists getting less holiday spending money, but for retirees in France the situation is far more serious than having to cut back on the ice creams on their annual break.

There is a large community of people in Spain who are reliant on some way in money from the UK. Some people work remotely for British companies, others get income from house rentals or dividends from businesses or shares, but the largest group are pensioners.

Currency fluctuations of the pound have a massive impact on the lives of British pensioners in France. Photo: AFP

Many are not on high incomes anyway, so a drop in the exchange rate can take a significant chunk out of their monthly income.

On July 31st, the pound hit a two-year low, trading at €1.09.

Currency fluctuations of the pound have a massive impact on the lives of British pensioners in France. Photo: AFP

That means that anyone who is on a fixed monthly income of £1,200 from the UK is getting €1,308 per month, compared to €1,548 at the start of June 2016 (before the Brexit referendum). Back in 1999, the same amount would have got you €1,800.

And readers of The Local have been telling us how this has affected them.

Some in Spain spoke of “becoming a recluse” since having to cut back on trips out and socializing.

“I buy less , go out less , buy cheaper,” explains Peter Roberts who is living off a combined state and private pension in Spain.He said that he has changed his spending habits and now “only goes out for a meal once every 3 or 4 weeks”.

Penelope Darby agreed, explaining that the drop in the value of the pound has meant “having to watch utility bills and food shopping,” and that “eating out curtailed a lot,” and now only have a meal out “once a month”.

But it was one account from a reader who lives in Barcelona that was particularly shocking: “It has made our relaxed lifestyle into a very stressed existence as we no longer have sufficient for fixed outgoings,” wrote Karen Kessi.

 “We have used up savings and going into debt on credit cards.”

She explained that her family could no longer “eat out or go on excursions” and that it had seriously affected  not only her son’s schooling but also her health.

“Our son (in public local school) had to give up extra curricular activities. I am disabled and receive no benefits and can no longer afford therapeutic treatments that were helping me cope with chronic pain,” she said, adding that her income came from renting out a property in the UK.


Many British pensioners in France and Spain have having to make big lifestyle changes. Photo: Susan Sermoneta/flickr

Meanwhile over the border in France, several British pensioners spoke of their struggle.

Paul Trevor Bale, who lives in Aude in South West France, says he estimates his income has gone down around €150 a month.

He said: “I can’t make all the trips I want to, haven't been able to redecorate the house or buy rugs and furniture I need, or get help in my massive garden since a knee injury.

“I'm looking at all outgoings and cutting down on expenses as far as possible. I shop more carefully.”

For some it has meant putting off dreams of retirement.

Bryan Woy, who lives in Normandy, said: “Taking into account that over half of my retirement pension comes from the UK, I would say that my overall income has gone down by about 10 percent since the referendum.

“I am lucky enough to be able to continue to earn money in France, teaching and translating (until I become too old and tired). I probably work more than I would have done if the referendum result had gone the other way.”

And Ivan Robinson, who has emigrated to Oregon in the USA, pointed out that the pound has also fallen steadily against the dollar.

He said: “This is not only a problem in Europe, I am a permanent resident in USA and the loss from the pound to dollar is causing a definite hardship, the present drop in the pound equates for me two to three weeks grocery bills, resulting in a major drop in lifestyle.”

And of course there was also some classic British humour deployed in a difficult situation. One respondent – we think jokingly – suggested taking up prostitution while Ivan Robinson added: “I have researched British war time recipes for cooking at home – amazing the different ways one can cook meals with Spam.”

READ MORE: The ultimate No-Deal Brexit checklist for Brits in Spain

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Brexit: Brits in EU feel European and don’t want to return home

The majority of Britons who live in the EU, Norway, Iceland or Switzerland and are protected under the Brexit agreement feel European and intend to remain in Europe permanently, but many have concerns about travel problems, a new survey reveals.

Brexit: Brits in EU feel European and don't want to return home

The research also shows that problems exist and “travel is where most issues relating to the new status currently occur”. For instance, border officials are still stamping passports of UK citizens with residence rights under the EU UK withdrawal agreement, even though they shouldn’t.

“There is constant confusion around passport stamping. I was ‘stamped in’ to France on a short trip… but could not find anyway to be ‘stamped out’ again. I think I can only spend 90 days in other EU countries, but have no idea how anyone can check or enforce that – until someone decides to try. It’s a mess,” was one of the answers left in an open question.

“Every time I go through a Schengen border control, I need to provide both my passport and Aufenthaltstitel card [resident permit in Germany] and watch to check that they don’t stamp my passport. As I am currently travelling a lot that’s been 20-odd times this year…” another respondent said.

The survey was carried out by Professor Tanja Bueltmann, historian of migration and diaspora at the University of Strathclyde in Glasgow, between October and November 2022. About 1,139 UK citizens replied.

Of these, 80 per cent found acquiring their new status easy or very easy, 60.7 per cent feel their rights are secure, while 39.3 per cent have concerns about their status going forward.

Staying permanently

More than three quarters (76.6 per cent) of respondents said they plan to live permanently in the EU or the other countries of the European Economic Area and Switzerland. In fact, 65.7 per cent said that Brexit has increased the likelihood of this choice.

For some, the decision is linked to the difficulty to bring non-British family members to the UK under new, stricter immigration rules.

“My German wife and I decided we no longer wanted to live in UK post Brexit referendum. In particular, we were affected by the impact of immigration law […] We cannot now return to UK on retirement as I cannot sponsor her on my pension. We knew it was a one-way journey. Fortunately, I could revive an application for German citizenship,” was a testimony.

“My husband is a US citizen and getting him a visa for the UK was near impossible due to my low income as a freelance journalist. We realized under EU law, moving to an EU country was easier. We settled on Austria as we had both lived there before… we could speak some German, and we like the mountains,” said another respondent.

Professor Bueltmann noted that the loss of free movement rights in the EU could be a factor too in the decision of many to stay where they are.

Citizenship and representation

Among those who decided to stay, 38.2 per cent are either applying or planning to apply for a citizenship and 28.6 per cent are thinking about it.

A key finding of the research, Bueltmann said, is that the vast majority of British citizens do not feel politically represented. Some 60 per cent of respondents said they feel unrepresented and another 30 per cent not well represented.

Another issue is that less than half (47.5 per cent) trust the government of their country of residence, while a larger proportion (62 per cent) trust the European Union. Almost all (95.6 per cent) said they do not trust the UK government.

Feeling European

The survey highlights the Brexit impacts on people’s identity too. 82.6 per cent of respondents said they see themselves as European, a higher proportion than those identifying as British (68.9 per cent).

“Brexit has really left me unsure of what my identity is. I don’t feel British, and I certainly don’t identify with the mindset of a lot of British people who live there. Yet, I am not Danish either. So, I don’t really know anymore!” said one of the participants in the survey.

Professor Bueltmann said the survey “demonstrates that Brexit impacts continue to evolve: this didn’t just stop because the transition period was over or a deadline for an application had been reached. Consequently, Brexit continues to shape the lives and experiences of British citizens in the EU/EEA and Switzerland in substantial, sometimes life-altering, ways.”

Considering the results of the study, Professor Bueltmann recommends policy makers in the EU and the UK to address the issue of lack of representation, for instance creating a joint UK-EU citizens’ stakeholder forum.

The report also recommends the UK government to rebuild trust with British citizens in the EU introducing voting rights for life and changing immigration rules to allow British-European families to return more easily. 

This article was prepared in cooperation with Europe Street News.