As a millionaire business owner, Paul Thistlewhite enjoyed a life of “wine and sun” while in California and Spain.
But he laments that a luxury night out for him now that he is on Universal Credit would be a trip to the fish and chip shop.
Harrogate-born Mr Thistlewhite, who is now living back in North Yorkshire after 40 years in Santa Barbara where he ran a successful sign-making company, is a stark example of how almost anyone could find themselves in need of financial help.
Through his firm, White Signs, creating custom-made products in traditional hand lettering, he built up a business which led to an enviable way of life.
Speaking with a Transatlantic accent during an interview with The Yorkshire Post in Harrogate town centre, he said: “I was going around town, the guy to go to.
“A lot of my work is still visible throughout Santa Barbara. I won a couple of awards.
“It was a great life, I had a beautiful home, I had a cabin by the lake, a membership to the yacht club – truly all the benefits and trappings of making money.
“I was a millionaire.”
After years in the industry, and with staff on his payroll, Mr Thistlewhite decided to take early retirement.
“I sold the business at 55, decided that I’ve worked my butt off since I was 14 years old. In hindsight, I should’ve stayed on and worked more,” he said.
Originally, Mr Thistlewhite moved to Costa Rica, but after a short time went to live in Europe on his way back to the UK.
“I left there thinking I could be in England with my family, and moved down to Spain thinking my money would last me,” he said.
“Soon after I started running out.”
This was due to living costs, he said, and an expensive lifestyle which included his “beautiful” apartment.
He said: “I just didn’t budget. If there was something I wanted, I bought it.
“When I got down to my last few thousand, I moved back to England.
“I looked for work just about everywhere – job sites, the Jobcentre – and signed on to Universal Credit.”
He receives £320 a month but has been sanctioned in the past, for reasons he has said he was unsure about, leading to withheld payments.
Speaking about his usual amount, he said: “By the time you take off rent, gas, electricity, water and Council Tax, there’s just a few pounds a day left – barely a cup of coffee.”
St Peter’s Church in Harrogate, which works with the charity Church Action on Poverty, has helped Mr Thistlewhite with food parcels to keep him going when needed, and he is thankful for its service.
But he added: “It’s embarrassing, I feel like a second class citizen.
“It’s humbled me in a sense, but still, it’s degrading. Having to go to the soup kitchen, having hand-outs. A luxury night out for me is going to a fish and chip shop. I haven’t been to a restaurant or pub for months.
“I’m filled with anxiety and depression. I’ve seen a therapist. I’ve been getting [medicinal] drugs – they don’t help. The only thing that would help is getting a job and having some money in my pocket.”
He added that his family has “disowned” him since the problems began and that work has been difficult to come by because of age discrimination.
The few experiences of jobs he has said since coming back to England, which have been in retail environments, have resulted in bullying from other staff, said Mr Thistlewhite, who is in his 60s.
Although he spoke of how difficult it is to get by on the basic income provided by UC, and acknowledged some of the criticisms levelled at it, Mr Thistlewhite said he has “nothing but praise” for the benefit and thinks that life would be worse without it.
He said: “As soon as you are broke, you soon find out who your friends are.
“The only people helping me now are care workers and the council, [and] Universal Credit.
“I can’t say enough about Universal Credit, helping people like me. I’m sure there are thousands of other people who are more in need of it – single mums, the aged, young people.
“Overall I think this is a great organisation.
“Without Universal Credit I would be on the streets. I would be dead - I really believe I would be dead.”