It’s official: I’m a financial ostrich. Every month, I run out of money and can’t work out where it’s all gone. When an unexpected bill lands on my door mat (hello, tax return!) I’m hit with a cold panic and, even though I have one, my savings account is empty.
I don’t think I’m alone in feeling anxious about this. In 2016, the government’s Money Advice Service found there are 16 million people in the UK with less than £100 in savings. What's more, one piece of research has found that people in their early thirties are one of the UK’s least financially resilient groups, with one-quarter not feeling prepared for the financial impact of life milestones, like buying a property or having children.
Having got married a few months ago, my thoughts are drawn to those two things, and I’m more aware of my financial future than ever. I’m not someone who’s always booking holidays, and I’ve never been fussed about the newest phone, cars, or tech. Yet here I am in my thirties, officially a grown up, and struggling to manage my money.
Determined to get my head out of the sand and take back some control, I started googling and read about #nospendchallenges, where people task themselves with slashing their spending.
The idea got me thinking because, as well as wanting to save more money, I’m aware we’re living in the age of mass-consumerism, particularly when it comes to plastics and clothes. So I’m looking for ways to reduce my impact on the planet and waste less, too.
I reached out to financial coach Simonne Gnessen to see whether she thought a more mindful approach could help me with my spending traps. “Challenging yourself to spend significantly less for a month, or a week even, makes you more aware of the mindless spending decisions we make each day,” she told me. “For instance, when you meet friends for drinks and choose tap water instead of wine, you realise how much a spontaneous night out costs.
"You also become aware of the emotions that drive you to want to spend money, like a hard week at work, and find other ways to manage those triggers. Rehearsing different responses then builds up new neural pathways in your brain, which make it easier to sustain different habits after your no-spend challenge is over.”
It’s liberating to not even consider walking into shops or browsing online to purchase stuff
Feeling intrigued but unsure as to how I’d integrate this approach into my busy working life, I sought some advice. A friend put me in touch with events director Kat Fahey, who set herself a year-long no spend 'anti-consumerism' challenge to help her raise funds to set up her business. For a year, she didn’t buy any clothes, shoes, jewellery, make-up, gifts, music, or furniture. She did, however, allow herself health items, work necessities, and the option to spend on travel and socialising.
Kat shared her top tips with me, which included telling her family and friends about her mission from the start. “It makes you accountable and helps them understand why, say, you’re not buying them a Christmas gift,” she said. “It’s also important to give yourself ‘permission’ to not buy anything – when you do, your thinking changes. It’s liberating to not even consider walking into shops or browsing online to purchase stuff."
Inspired by Kat, and in need of a financial reset, I decided to try a #nospendchallenge for a month. As advised, I set myself a few personalised and 'realistic' rules to stop myself cheating: no spending except essentials such as rent and bills; a £5-a-day food budget (about 50% of my normal weekly spend) after my current food supplies run out; and three 'spending strikes' to cover any unexpected situations or prior commitments.
Here’s how I got on.
I assess my major money suckers: food, travel, impulse clothes shopping, and nights out. For travel, I often spend £6.90 a day going from my flat to central London on the Underground. I don't own a bike, so cycling is out, although I can walk to Oxford Circus in an hour. I send a message to an online scooter shop asking if there’s a chance they’ll lend me a kick-scooter in exchange for some copywriting. Amazingly, they say yes.
Next, I turn to food. A pre-challenge shop tops up some basics for around £40. I’m not an overly imaginative cook, but I feel confident that the shop, plus my cupboard full of old beans and half-used packets of couscous, will see me through.
Locating free coffee is top of my list. When I add it all up, my daily fix totals £50 a month. I download some café and coffee shop apps that offer incentives like a free coffee for registering, or on your birthday. I also get a supermarket card, which allows shoppers a free hot beverage, for when my food budget kicks in.
I'd promised my sister I'd babysit on day two, so she comes and picks me up and drives me to her house which is just outside London. While there, I remember I forgot to buy eggs, so she suggests I collect some from her chickens.
When it comes to work, as a freelance writer I usually base myself in-house at magazines or write from home or coffee shops. This week, I head to the British Library, where access is free and the quiet is blissfully conducive to meeting deadlines. It’s an hour’s walk from my home, so I stroll there listening to a podcast on mindful spending. I bring a packed lunch and use the water drinking fountain.
The organisation required for the challenge – and the immediacy of the results (i.e. my slightly healthier bank balance) - leaves me feeling focused and optimistic.
The first hurdle arrives with a dinner arrangement on day four, but I suggest to friends we swap our restaurant for a picnic in a London park. That evening the weather is against me – and it pours. We decamp to a bar, and I drink water while they sip wine. They offer to buy me a drink but I'd prefer not to fall into the habit of accepting freebies from friends that I can't repay. I make an excuse about having to make tomorrow’s lunch and slip away early. As I scoot home, I think about all the times I’ve wasted money on that one glass of wine too many and feel surprisingly liberated.
Spending strike 1: £20 topping up my Oyster card after being late for a meeting.
I resolve to spend this week focusing on the anti-waste part of my challenge. I start by downloading an app that tries to prevent food waste by connecting you with people in your area with surplus food. People give away, for free, everything from spices to tinned veg, although the really desirable items (pastries, breads, and ready meals) go fast. I bid on some snacks and pick them up from a family who happened to live two streets away.
On Saturday night, my husband and I stay in. “Shall I order a pizza?” He asks. “No! That’s cheating,” I say, then suggest we make one. Out comes the flour, but I don’t have yeast, so we hope for the best and it turns into a tasty and fun activity. We also use up a lot of ingredients that have been clogging up our cupboards since we moved in several years ago.
By day 12, I’m noticing that time is one of the biggest obstacles when looking for ways to save. The convenience of spending is partly what makes it such a hard habit to kick, so I ask Simonne for her advice on how to keep going.
She asks me to unpick experiences from my past, and we talk about my parents’ spending habits. I then recall a sense that my parents couldn’t always afford to get me what my peers had, and remember being taunted at primary school by some of the better-off kids for not having trendy clothes. I note that, as I’ve gotten older, accumulating "stuff" has now become some kind of comfort blanket. It’s a bit of a revelation, and I feel like my mindset is shifting in terms of understanding my motivations to spend.
“Becoming mindful about your spending decisions reinforces a more powerful message, such as ‘I don't need stuff to make me feel good about myself’,” says Simone. And she’s right. Looking around my flat, I realise I really don’t need any more things.
Spending strike 2: It was my husband’s birthday and I’d booked a table at a restaurant a month in advance. For once I’d looked at the menu online, checked the prices, and worked out that it should be possible to have a nice meal for two with a glass, not a bottle, of wine for £40. We just managed it, with the bill totalling £38.75 - and add a tip.
Monday kicks off brilliantly – literally – with a free kickboxing trial I found on a voucher website. The endorphins flood and it inspires me to search out more ways to get fit for free. I register with a group that encourages people to combine exercise with volunteering, and sign up to another scheme, which offers free fitness classes in London boroughs. It’s so much cheaper than my usual gym membership.
On Tuesday, I convince two friends to meet me at a free karaoke night in a local bar. But only four other people turn up, and after witnessing an awkward rendition of a Bob Marley classic, one of my friends suggests we scarper for food. I explain my challenge, and tell them I’m happy to eat last night’s dinner out of a lunchbox under the table. But this makes them uncomfortable and they insist on paying for me. I realise it’s probably the first time I’ve been so honest with these friends about the cost of dining out. Normally, I go along with boozy meals being split equally (even if I didn’t drink) because I don’t want to make a fuss or miss out. But this night makes me realise it’s OK to have a conversation.
Discussing this with Simonne, she suggests it might be helpful if I rethink the language I use to describe my challenge. She advises that, "instead of, ‘I can’t spend,’" I should reframe it to, "'I have more important things I want to put my money towards.'” It’s simple logic, but it works.
My £5-a-day food budget kicks in this week – now that my pre-challenge supply has run out. I hit the supermarket just before it closes and buy a reduced loaf of bread, some carrots, peppers, parsnips and a sachet of couscous. It’s a joy to have fresh vegetables again, some of which I’ll use to make a soup for my lunches.
Before the challenge, I’d just throw some stuff into a basket, then baulk at the checkout when I realise how much I was spending. Planning around a budget helps me think through each purchase and avoid things I could easily make myself (farewell shop-bought hummus).
But then… disaster hits. I head to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, which was booked weeks before starting my challenge, and after a four-and-a-half hour train journey and a (free) show, I find myself in town at 10pm. I’m really hungry and can’t see anywhere open that might be able to give me some hot water to add to the couscous sachet I’ve brought with me. I buy dinner and a beer, and for the next 24 hours, I don’t stop spending. I end up feeling terribly guilty having wasted money I’d worked so hard to save. I don’t allow myself a third spending strike as penalty for breaking the challenge.
Falling off the wagon makes me more conscious of the high I clearly get from spending, but the low – that feeling I’d failed – wasn’t worth it. I ask Simonne why the thrill of spending is so alluring. “Psychological research shows that the instant gratification of spending can activate the brain's ‘pleasure circuits,’” she says. “This releases the neurotransmitter dopamine, which many people describe as the buzz they get from shopping. But that euphoria is rarely long-lasting.”
This week reaps the rewards of all my research, and my phone pings with free food notifications, as well as emails about local household items up for grabs. I still live in hope that a home-testing club will send me a free deodorant sample soon.
I arrange to meet a fellow freelancer for a catch-up, and while we’d usually just hit a cafe and dose up on caffeine for a couple of hours, I tell her straight that I’m trying to save money, so could we go for a walk instead? She’s up for it, and not only do we both save some money, we get a little fitness kick too.
Over the month, I saved almost £300 by cutting out travel, food, socialising, and fitness expenses. It would have been more if not for my Edinburgh blowout. Still, I was shocked to see how much I saved – and have already transferred the amount into my savings account.
So will I stick to mindful spending? Packed lunches are here to stay, as is walking more, and using up surplus food, but I might relax some of my more strict rules and allow myself the odd drink with friends. However, I feel far more aware of when I’m spending unnecessarily - particularly clothes shopping for an emotional boost, rather than because I *need* something. This experiment has helped me discover ways to save, while teaching me to be creative with less money. It’s also forced me to be more frank with friends about my cash flow situation.
Now, rather than feeling awkward about money, I feel more prepared to face my financial future head-on.
This article was originally published on 25 October 2018.