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26 March 2017Last updated
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Real Women

The woman who spent nothing for a year

How did a British journalist survive twelve months without loosening her purse strings?

Aquarius
16 Mar 2017 | 04:16 pm

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In times like these when for most people money is tight and jobs are hard to come by, it can be frightening to feel that you are trapped in an endless spending spiral. Which is why we loved this story by British finance journalist Michelle McGagh about how she banned herself from spending for a year – and stuck to it:

“Buying a round of drinks isn’t usually a spectator sport but when I punched my PIN number into the card machine, a cheer went up. As the clock struck midnight on November 26, 2016, my friends and family gathered round to watch me make my first purchase in a year.

“Twelve months earlier, on Black Friday 2015, I’d committed myself to jumping off the consumer bandwagon and shaking up my relationship with money: I pledged not to spend anything for a year. Having worked as a personal financial journalist for 10 years, my friends, family and colleagues assumed I was brilliant with money – but that wasn’t strictly true.

“Although I had no debt, my bank statements (when I bothered to look at them) were littered with unnecessary spending. When I did brace myself and look at my statements I was aghast at how much of my wages I frittered away mindlessly. I totted up that I’d spent £400 [about Dh1,825] in one year on takeaway coffees alone. (A huge amount given I’m not even a coffee fan.) Not to mention the meals out, rounds of drinks, clothes and other random spending.

“Then, in September 2013, my husband Frank and I bought a big ‘doer-upper’ house in north London with a hefty mortgage, in an attempt to climb the property ladder. We couldn’t afford to keep on our old house as well as renovate so we put most of our possessions in storage.

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Surviving with less

“For six months we lived on a building site while we replaced the electrics and plumbing, stripped the walls and extended the house. Trips to the storage unit were few and far between and I was surprised just how easy it was to live without most of my stuff.

“It made me think about my outgoings (we had to tighten our belts now our mortgage repayments were higher) and reconsider which of my belongings I actually needed. Frank had been feeling overwhelmed by our sheer amount of stuff too, and over the next year we got rid of 80 per cent of our possessions. Crates of vintage dresses, 1950s and 1960s crockery, rugs, lamps, chairs and pictures were all sent to our local charity shop. I started reading about minimalism on American websites and learnt about Buy Nothing Day, an anti-consumer movement, which falls on Black Friday, and encourages people to spend nothing on the most frenzied shopping day of the year. It gave me an idea: I could easily manage a Buy Nothing Day but could I manage a Buy Nothing Year?

“Spending nothing for a whole year would do wonders for my wallet and stop me from refilling my empty shelves with more possessions. It sounds extreme, but I’d set myself budgets and spending plans in the past and they’d always fallen by the wayside on my next night out.

“A full year of no spending seemed the only way of resetting my relationship with money completely.

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Making a plan

“First, I set myself rules: I’d pay my mortgage, utilities, life insurance, charity donations, and broadband and mobile phone bills (£1,896.76 a month). I would also buy basic toiletries (toothpaste, deodorant, soap and shampoo) and cleaning products (washing powder).

“Plus I’d need to eat. But there was no budget for luxuries – that meant no cinema trips, no nights out, no takeaways or restaurant meals, no new clothes, no holidays, no gym memberships, not even a KitKat or cheeky cheesecake from the supermarket. And certainly no flat whites from Pret.

“I limited myself to a zero budget for transport, meaning I’d have to cycle everywhere. And I decided that I wouldn’t rely on my husband, friends or family to pay my way – that wasn’t the point. In a show of solidarity, Frank agreed to take part in the food challenge. We set a combined weekly grocery budget of £35 for all meals, and calculated we could make it work if we cooked in batches and took a strict list to Lidl each week.

“Nonetheless, Frank worried that the challenge was too extreme. Friends were concerned too; the more they raised their eyebrows at me, the more I wondered whether I’d made a mistake.

“Would they think I was a killjoy? Would I get uncontrollable Fomo? Would I have to spend a year indoors living like a hermit? But on November 26, my challenge began.”

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Reality sets in

“After the initial novelty had passed and I’d survived the festive season without buying or receiving presents (I’d pre-agreed this with my family), reality sunk in. It was January; it was cold, miserable and my friends didn’t want to go out unless it involved a pub with a roaring fire. There are only so many pints of water you can take, surrounded by drunk mates, before it becomes tiring.

“The winter months dragged. Each time I jumped on my bike for another wind-whipped journey across London, I berated myself for not including a transport budget. But then something wonderful happened: spring. As soon as the weather got milder, my friends wanted to wander around galleries and museums, or meet for a walk around the park.

“I got my social life back. We went on a free trip to the cinema to watch a 3D film about the national parks of America and I spent happy hours wandering around the (also free) Museum of London. That’s when I realised I had been going about the challenge all wrong. I’d been trying to live my old life for free. Instead I needed to embrace a different sort of social life

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Changing my normal

“I started changing my routine. I went wild swimming, walking and cycling in Epping Forest, and I fostered a new appreciation of sitting in the park in the sunshine with a (home-made, in-budget) picnic of falafel salad. These simple pleasures made me far happier than any expensive restaurant dinner.

“My growing love of the outdoors led to my highest point of the year: a summer holiday with Frank. I wasn’t allowed to book a flight or a hotel so we strapped our tent and sleeping bags to our bikes, packed an enormous pasta salad, and cycled to the seaside.

“We spent six days just riding around the Suffolk and Norfolk coast, wild camping on beaches and in secluded forests. We didn’t have access to a shower so we washed in the sea and when we ran out of pasta salad we bought cheap bread rolls from a supermarket to stay in budget.

“We were constantly exhausted from hundreds of miles of cycling and by the time we returned home I had ridiculous tan lines from my cycling shorts, but it was one of my favourite holidays.

“The adventure brought Frank and me closer and it proved that we didn’t need to spend money to be happy. However, the strict rules of my challenge meant I missed out on my annual girls’ holiday to Ibiza. As I waved off my friends, I felt gutted.

“I was devastated to be missing out, particularly as one of my friends was moving back home to Australia after the trip and the holiday would have been my chance to spend maximum time with her before she left.

“At that point, I realised that my friends and family were also affected by my challenge, and I hadn’t fully considered the impact on them. I also missed beauty products terribly, particularly moisturiser. I had never been a beauty junkie, but cycling left my skin cracked and dry so as soon as I’d used up my old tube of moisturiser just over a month into my challenge, I found myself craving it. One night in December I was desperate to soothe my weather-beaten skin so I experimented with making a home-made face mask from mashed banana. It wasn’t a success – but the following week I mixed oats with water, then slathered it on my face, and found it was a surprisingly good exfoliator.

“I also found myself missing clothes shopping – though this too was out of necessity than a raging desire to splash my cash. My jeans were threadbare from all of that cycling, my trainers were battered and my coat had a rip in it, plus my T-shirts all smelled of sweat (which wouldn’t shift with any amount of washing).

“As I approached the end of the challenge, I couldn’t wait to buy new clothes. My friends predicted I’d want a big blowout shopping spree but, surprisingly, I didn’t crave one – I just wanted to replace my old, worn-out things.

“And when Black Friday finally came around, I felt surprisingly nervous. I was used to my no-spend lifestyle and didn’t know how I would react when I wasn’t constrained by my rules.

Mixed emotions

“Then, finally, the day came. The first thing I bought, at the stroke of midnight, was that round of drinks for my friends and family who had supported me through the year. Then I booked a flight to Ireland to see my grandad who I hadn’t been able to visit for a year (because of my strict rules). I did go clothes shopping but before I went I made a list of items and didn’t feel any need to stray from it.

“That evening I totted up what I’d spent that year, compared to the previous one, and the result was extraordinary. I’d saved enough money over the year to pay £22,439 off my mortgage. I’m now a step closer to getting rid of our debt instead of being beholden to a bank.

“I realised that I valued financial security over material possessions: I don’t want to be forced to stay on the treadmill of work just to pay off a home loan for the next two decades or accumulate more stuff.

“I also came to understand that I don’t need things to make me happy. Spending time with the people I love makes me happier and if I do have money available, I’d rather spend it on them – like travelling to see my grandfather or visiting my friend in Australia.

“One year on, I’ve reassessed my spending priorities and found a balance. I buy the essentials, put aside a little for holidays, nights out and fun, but I’ve cut back on the takeaway coffees no end. Ultimately, those longer-term goals, security and the feeling of contentment with what I have are important to me and make me far happier than anything I can buy in the shops.”

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Michelle’s book The No Spend Year: How I Spent Less and Lived More is available on amazon.com for Dh41.

Photos by shutterstock

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