Why money diaries need to go bankrupt

The ways in which we millennials spend our money is a hot topic these days. Past-it pundits love to spout off about our reckless spendthrift ways. It’s easy PR for businesses: all it needs to do is drop a press release claiming that we’re spending too much on frivolities such as eating food or breathing and BANG! Instant Twitter outrage.

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The different ways in which we drain our bank accounts has such traffic-driving power that the ‘money diary’ has become a staple on sites such as the Guardian, ipaper and Refinery29.

We love to read them. We love to judge the people who write them. Have you ever read the comments on Facebook when the Guardian posts one? Some of them are so abrasive they could give you a blister on your brain.

If you’ve read this blog before, you’ll know I have prior experience in airing my financial dirty laundry in public. I was at a point in my life where my money situation was far from ideal. I realised that I had to do something differently. So I decided to challenge all the received wisdom I had around money. I did a lot of research. I tried and tested all sorts of tips and techniques.

In the process, I came to see that there are two dominant views about money that seem to exist in the world.

Both of these views have an element of truth to them. But they’re so simplistic it’s like comparing a stick drawing to a documentary.

The first dominant view is: ‘It’s easy, just spend less than you earn, stupid!’. This is the view that leads people to post judgey comments on the money diaries of people who are poor. Commenters pick at the person’s tiny ‘indulgences’, such as the odd bottle of wine or even turning on the heating. ‘Why are you saying you’re struggling when you can just walk everywhere and entertain yourself by looking out of the window?’

The second dominant view: ‘The more you earn, the easier it is to manage your money.’ This is the one that leads people to post judgey comments on the money diaries of people who are well-off. Commenters bristle at any suggestion that cutting back or saving is an effort. ‘I too could save £1500 a month for a house deposit if it was as easy as cutting out caviar and pedicures!’

I have come to see managing money as a bit like sport or athletics. Part of it is skill and hard work. Most of us could run a 5k if we learn how to do it by training. But how easy we’ll find it, and how fast we’ll go depends largely on your circumstances. Mo Farah wins medals because of the skills he’s developed through training and hard work, but also because of his circumstances, such as his genes and having access to world-class coaching.

I think it’s a similar story with money: It’s a balance of skills and circumstances. Sometimes an imbalance, if circumstances are particularly tough. Someone on benefits needs to develop serious skills to manage on a small amount of money. They need to work far, far, harder than most to make it last, in far tougher circumstances. Someone on £100k will find it so much easier. But if they don’t have the skill to manage their money, or if they can’t be bothered to think about it, it doesn’t mean they’ll still effortlessly glide through in a life of luxury. Think about celebrities: they go bankrupt all the time! Lady Gaga, Meatloaf. Boris Becker. At least one member of every pop band you loved in the 90s. Even Marilyn Monroe was in debt when she died.

Why does this matter? I’m not trying to apologise for privileged people or make you feel sorry for them. What I’m saying is that our response to other people’s money diaries tells us a lot about our own perceptions of money. It also says a lot about who we are as people. And I’m worried that the attention we spend on money diaries is bad for our financial and emotional health. Here’s why:

They bring out the worst in us

Money is an emotive topic. Some moan about how poorer people spend their money because of fear. Prejudiced people invent stories about how poor people would be fine if only they cut out their feckless spending, because they can’t face up to the idea that they could have bad luck and find themselves vulnerable because of it.

We bitch about the rich because we’re jealous and their wealth makes us feel insecure about our own worth. We think their money gives us a free pass to be mean, ignoring the fact they’re just as human as we are. The woman on a £69k salary whose money diary was published yesterday didn’t moan or complain about her circumstances, yet she was dragged across Twitter, mocked in the Daily Mail and has apparently had to delete her social media profiles. Does she deserve that?

 

They solidify simplistic money myths

 

If you truly believe that having a higher income will instantly make your life easier in and of itself, this could lead to behaviour that doesn’t help you. I know I secretly harboured a belief that once my income reached a certain level, then I’d be able to pay off my debt and live the life I wanted without having to worry or think about it very much. This serene state never arrived. It’s easy for your expectations to grow with your salary. If you want healthy finances, you need to think clearly and put in the work to manage your money, no matter what your take-home pay is.

 

They lack context

Money diaries are popular because we get a glimpse of something that we never usually see. Talking about money is still a bit taboo. The thing is: they are only ever a glimpse. They might look like warts-and-all accounts, but they still lack a lot of context and detail. Your financial health is intimately linked to everything from your family and your education to your physical health and personality. This means that the figures on your paycheck will mean something different to you than they might to your neighbour, or your mum.

 

They encourage comparison

 

Comparing yourself to others will only make you feel one of two things: shitty or smugly superior. Neither is good. And because of the lack of context, you’ll only be comparing based on your perception, not out of any objective reality.

The comments encourage a social norm whereby we are only ‘allowed’ to talk about how we manage our money if we are at the very bottom of the barrel – i.e. needy because of circumstances that are perceived to be 100% out of our own control. Otherwise, we are fair game to be shamed.

This is, quite frankly, bollocks. Yes, people who whinge when they seem to have a lot of good things in their lives can be tedious. But being honest and open about the struggles you face in life, about anything, is an important way to overcome those struggles and heal. You’re allowed to be sad or stressed or worried, even if your troubles are never going to reach Number 1 in the Billboard Chart of Woes. You’d never say ‘at least you don’t have cancer’ to someone who expresses the view that it’s annoying and a bit painful to have a broken leg. Suppressing and repressing your own and other people’s experiences through shame is a fast track to a breakdown. Take it from someone who used to relentlessly judge themselves for every non-positive, non-productive thought or feeling.

 

They close our minds to what we can learn

 

The £69k saving-for-a-deposit article got lots of flack because people got hung up on the fact she was cutting back on luxuries. The behaviours she described were sensible and were some of the things that helped me sort out my own finances, despite the fact I was on a much smaller salary. Things like asking yourself ‘do I actually need this?’, looking at your regular monthly expenses and cutting out the excess, taking action to monitor how much you spend in certain areas. It’s not rocket science but it works.

 

They make us miss the wood for the trees

Why are we so pissed off about somebody on a high salary saving for a house deposit when the real problem is that home ownership is a distant dream for those of us on average wages? We’ve had eight different housing ministers in eight years; it’s obvious this is not seen as an important position. And most of our elected politicians don’t give a shit about the issues that affect our finances. They’re too busy staring at themselves in the mirror (Boris Johnson), scratching their balls (David Davis), filibustering (Philip Davies), looking at porn on their work computers (Damian Green) or ignoring their Opposition duties in favour of throwing pop concerts (Jeremy Corbyn).

 

 

Let’s resist the lure of clickbaity money diaries. Let’s ignore the the latest Daily Mail columnist who blames our struggles on how we buy too many luxurious feather dusters. Let’s live and let live; and lobby those who have the cache to make a genuine difference to our fortunes in life.

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Calling bullshit on ‘extreme frugality’

Imagine this scenario: You are on your way to work, minding your own business, when you suddenly spot a strange item on the ground in front of you. It’s an ornate gold lamp. You pick it up. POOF. A genie emerges. ‘You’ve saved me! To say thank you, I will grant you three wishes, here and now. What would you like?’

Obviously, you’re a nice person so you’d use one or two of your wishes to help others. Put an end to war; impeach Trump; make the Kardashians go away forever; that kind of thing. But what would you like for yourself? I’m willing to bet that on your list of options, you’d probably ask for something along the likes of ‘I wish I never had to worry about money again’. Right? I know I would.

Well, I have good news: there’s a growing movement of people who have found the secret to financial security, early retirement and eternal control over your cash. No genies required. No fairy godmothers or magic spells. Freedom can (and should) be yours. THIS IS NOT A JOKE! Everything you need to know has been covered in the Guardian:

There’s only one thing you need to do to get to this state of financial freedom and control: give up spending money. Any money. You can buy basic groceries, you can pay your bills, but that’s about it. Do this for a few years and you’ll be able to retire. Take back control of your money and your life. Yay!

What’s more, living without money is actually not that bad. It’s quite fun, really. The best things in life are free, amirite? We should all be rescuing our furniture from skips! It’s eco-friendly and guarantees your interiors will be unique. Doing absolutely everything for yourself is character-forming. Plus, it’s like totally enlightening. I know this is true because the Guardian’s ‘I chose a life of extreme frugality and it’s awesome’ articles told me so!

Genies and sarcasm aside: I am here to call BULLSHIT on self-imposed austerity as a lifestyle choice. Not just because I theoretically disagree with it, but because I have tried it myself.

Nearly two years ago, I had started to notice this no-spend trend. Something about it appealed to me. Yes, it was extreme, but my credit card debt had become a beast I couldn’t tame. I was desperate to get it under control. So I decided to try quitting all non-necessary spending, for a month.

This experience taught me that hardcore money-saving is neither enjoyable or enlightening. The ‘frugality is fun’ myth must die, right now, and here’s why:

‘Frugality is fun’ is just not true. Yes, some of the best things in life are free. But some of the other best things cost money, and they’re worth every penny. A takeaway ordered from Just Eat can provide a positive end to a shitty, exhausting day. A round of beers in a pub helps bring people you love together, in a location that’s cosy and convenient. A beautiful pair of boots can help you walk tall when you’re feeling small. These things may not be bare essentials, and you can ‘live’ without them. But you are deluding yourself if you think that denying yourself everything results in an enjoyable life.

‘Frugality is fun’ is just not helpful. Let me be clear: my month of not spending did serve a purpose for me. I ended the month a bit richer, plus it helped me develop some good habits and taught me a few things. But there was no way in hell that I could live that way forever. I couldn’t even make it through the entire month – I had to bend the rules mid-way through as socialising without money was near-impossible and it had isolated me.

If something is unsustainable, it’s NOT a good strategy for long-term behaviour change. It’s a bit like recommending a weight-loss programme that involves chopping off bits of your body. Yes, it’ll work if you can make yourself do it, but would you really want to?

Plus, not spending is only going to be helpful for you if you have a job that pays well enough to give you a surplus. And the truly life-changing stuff – like retiring early – will only be possible if that surplus is fairly big. Which leads me to…

Promoting ‘extreme frugality’ as a lifestyle is just not right. It is tasteless to promote extreme frugality as a way to gain ‘financial freedom’ when poverty is an inescapable trap for millions of people. At best, this approach is useless advice. At worst, it wrongly implies that everyone’s financial problems can be solved with a little bit of willpower, discipline and self-deprivation.

I don’t regret having tried it for a short time, but with perspective I wouldn’t recommend it as a solution for anything. The money I saved in the 30 days equaled 6.1% of my credit card debt. Had I kept it up, I’d have been debt-free around four months faster. I would also have lost the will to live. And I’d have learned absolutely nothing about how to live a good life on the budget I have.

Extreme approaches are popular because they promise extreme results. They are like catnip for people who are scared that their lives – and their finances – have spun out of control. If you feel this way, as I too felt for a long time, please know that it is entirely possible to get on top of your cash flow and learn to become good with money, without resorting to a permanent financial starvation diet (or even a temporary one). It takes time, experimentation, practice and a bit of work, but you will get there. No dumpster diving necessary.  

 


 

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How not to become debt-free, in five easy steps

Sorry for not blogging
Long time, no blog. Eight months, to be precise. It’s amazing how it can be so hard to find the time to do the things that you really want to do. To be fair, I’ve had a lot on my plate: turns out job-hunting, studying and wedding planning keeps you pretty busy.

In the midst of all this, something important happened: I finally paid off my credit card debt. All thousands and thousands of pounds of it: gone. (For those of you who are new to this blog, or have forgotten given that I haven’t posted in a million years, this was basically my Number One Life Problem, i.e. my Kryptonite/Kilgrave/Night King/insert other enemy beginning with K here).

So: YAY. Let me take a moment to celebrate in gif form:

YAY

Now. Back to business.

When I was halfway towards this goal, I wrote a blog post about five of the things that had been working for me. And now that I’m proudly debt-free, I wanted to write about five things that DIDN’T work. Because, as I’ve said before, there is a lot of unhelpful crap out there… and in my journey to becoming debt-free, I think I tried ALL of it.

#1: Focus on your goals (to the exclusion of everything else)

We are taught that if we want to achieve anything in life, we must turn our aspirations and hopes into specific, measurable goals.

The only problem is: setting goals doesn’t necessarily get you results. I know this because I have made approximately seven billion of them over the years. In fact, I have an entire Google Drive of Shame, filled with dozens of spreadsheets containing lists of monthly and yearly goals, few of which I’ve ever met.

Setting goals is fun. It feels like progress. It’s a fresh start: the first step towards becoming a better Future You, someone who won’t fuck it up this time, like Past You did. The only problem is that if we focus on WHAT we want to achieve, we forget two other important factors: why and how.

‘Why’ is important because changing your behaviour is hard. It’s much less fun than goal-setting. Getting yourself out of debt doesn’t need to be a miserable process (more on this later), but it does, sometimes, mean you have to say ‘no’ to things you’d rather say ‘yes’ to. It involves changing your routines and habits so that you don’t fall into the same traps that got you spending more money than you actually have. You need to be crystal clear on why you want to get out of debt to get you through those moments. So that saying ‘no’ to things feels like a positive thing to do, and not like an act of miserable and pointless self-deprivation.

In addition to being clear, your reasons for getting out of debt must feel important and inspiring. Yes, getting to cut up your credit cards feels triumphant, at least temporarily, but you need to think bigger than that to avoid pushing it off to an ever-distant future. What does it actually mean to get out of debt? For me, it’s two things: 1) Not having to make monthly repayments makes you that little bit more free. You don’t, for example, have to stick in a job you hate because of them. 2) Not paying off debt means I can finally put money towards some of the big stuff: getting married, and saving for a deposit on a flat that’s not mouldy and ridden with mice. (See: admitting that kind of stuff means I’m unlikely to ever make it as an ~aspirational~ lifestyle influencer. Alas).

 

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‘How’ is just as important to think about. In retrospect, one of my biggest mistakes when I was trying to get out of debt was failing to work out how I could make significant monthly payments whilst still having enough left over to, you know, live my life. The conventional wisdom for when you are in debt is to cut down your spending, which I did. And as a result, I let myself lose touch with a lot of people because I thought I couldn’t afford to socialise with them. I didn’t go on holiday abroad for five years. I endured proper bouts of FOMO when my friends post pictures of festivals and restaurant meals. But despite all this pain, I made no progress. In fact, I ended up in such a miserable state I sometimes ended up cracking out my card and racking up even more debt.

It was like this, but not cute
It was like this, but not cute

The reason for this is now clear to me: trying to tackle my debts by exclusively focusing on cutting back made me feel like I was being constantly deprived of fun things. This was made worse when I could see that everyone around me was enjoying what I couldn’t have. Which then led to two further Tangents of Shame: 1) How come I didn’t have my financial shit together when everyone else I know seems to? and 2) How dare I feel so miserable when I was, in the grand scheme of things, really fortunate?

So, trust me as someone who has been there: if the experience of becoming debt-free starts to make you unhappy, your #goals will go in the fuck-it bucket before you can even *think* the words ‘you only live once’ You need to work out a way to live within your budget that will allow you to enjoy your life AND meet your goals. It’s harder than just setting the goals, I know, but it’s the only way to actually achieve them in the long run without losing your mind.

 


 

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Becoming post-debt (by someone who’s halfway there)

Back in July, I wrote a blog post about how I got into a crapload of credit card debt and had generally failed to reach the level of financial competence expected of a proper adult. To my pleasant surprise, the post went quite far. It got covered in the Daily Mirror and I received lots of lovely comments on Twitter. Several people were nice about how honest I was to confess something so openly that people don’t really talk about. To tell you the truth, I felt compelled to do it. This because when it comes to money, there just wasn’t much out there for me to read that I could identify with.

You see: there are two extremes when it comes to reading about how to spend and manage money. There’s your typical ‘lifestyle’ media, which is ALL about buying stuff. If a Martian anthropologist tried to learn about humans by reading magazines, it would conclude that our lives are all about purchasing. Clothes, holidays, beauty treatments, restaurant meals, bootcamp classes.. Seriously; find a magazine targeted at women and count the pages that don’t have either an ad or a PR-placed plug for something to buy on them.

The other extreme can be found in media that’s specifically about money-saving and personal finance. The content of this falls into three broad categories:

  1. MORE stuff to buy, but for discounted prices.
  2. Interest rates on credit cards, savings accounts and loans
  3. Tips on how to squeeze your outgoings until they scream for mercy

Honestly: most of this stuff is about as useful as Joey Essex in a theoretical physics exam. Firstly: buying more things is never going to save you money, even if it is at 75% off. Secondly, when you’re in THOUSANDS of pounds of debt, tips on how to save a few quid here and there just won’t do the job alone. You need revolution; not evolution. Using your tea bags twice and only flushing the toilet when you poo is not going to pay off your credit card. (Yes, these are real ‘tips’ I’ve read).

What’s more, lots of the advice out there may save you a little bit of money, but cost you something priceless: your time. Yes, maybe you can get a free £20 M&S voucher by doing 56 marketing surveys, opening a new credit card and buying a banana whilst standing on your head, but is it really worth the hassle?

Other ‘money saving’ tactics are dubious at best, harmful at worst. Some have the attitude that being ‘frugal’, ‘stingy’ and ‘tight’ should be seen as positive qualities. I read one book that told readers how to get free nights out – by constantly dodging your round in the pub and making your mates pay for your drink. Is this going to really help anyone to manage their money wisely or get them out of debt? And if it does – would a debt-free life be worth living if your tight-wad ways have lost you all of your friends?

I also found precious little about how to cope with emotional side of money: the fear that I’d never be able to afford to live in a flat that wasn’t mouldy, the shame of letting my debt get out of hand, the bewilderment that came from getting nowhere fast despite trying my best. All of these emotions led me on several occasions to make even more stupid mistakes. I would bury my head in the sand and put brunch on my credit card, because I hadn’t seen my friends for weeks and I was bored of staying in all the time. And what’s £15 more on a balance of thousands anyway?

I wanted to learn how to get as much life as I could out of the money that I had; rather than how to buy happiness with products or how to save money by sacrificing my will to live. But no matter how hard I looked for help with that, for examples of people who had done it, I could not find them. Instead, I found Jamie Oliver advising me in ‘Save with Jamie’ that I needed a crinkle-cut knife in my life, or posts from bloggers who were ‘saving money’ by posting ~hauls~ that cost a few quid less than RRP.

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As Sebastian the crab says in The Little Mermaid: You want something done, you got to do it yourself. So working out how to manage my money and lower my expenses whilst raising my quality of life has been pretty much my life’s mission for the last nine months. And – for the first time in years of trying and failing – I’m actually getting somewhere. I HAVE NOW PAID OFF HALF OF MY CREDIT CARD DEBT. Which, to give you an ideal of scale, equals a sum that could buy you a luxury holiday to somewhere far away. On business class flights. After all of those years of getting nowhere, after all those times I messed up, knowing that this time it’s WORKING… OH IT’S SO GOOD. I’M SO SMUG. I’M SO SMUG I CAN ONLY WRITE IN BOLD CAPS NOW. SORRY.

So: Here are five of the things I’ve learned along the way that have actually helped me. I want to note up front: it should be clear by now that I am not a financial expert, just a normal person who is learning from experience. If you’re in debt and concerned that it’s become a problem for you, seek proper advice from a professional.

1. A good budget is a plan to use what you have to get what you want

I used to think having a budget was about going on a financial starvation diet, with the goal of spending as little as possible. I was wrong. A good budget is more like a business plan – with the company mission being to have an enjoyable life both today and tomorrow. It’s about effectively allocating the resources you have. My budget now reflects what I want out of my life – perhaps not always in the quantities I would like, or at the speed I’d like, but it means I can now pay off my debt as fast as I can, whilst still having enough to socialise, go on holiday and occasionally buy stuff for the fun of it.

2. You need to build a buffer (especially if your debt is interest-free)

I was baffled by the fact that I was paying credit card bills of £100s a month, but somehow the balance never seemed to shift in the right direction. I’ve learned now: it’s because I was so desperate to kill off my credit card ASAP that I was paying more than I realistically could afford, so I’d end up using the card again next time I ran out of cash. So to deal with this, I did three things: Firstly, I cut back as much as humanly possible for a while, including the No Spend Month. Secondly, I cut back on my credit card payments and only paid the minimum for a few months. I have an 0% interest deal on my card, which enabled this to be an option. Finally, I took what I’d saved from those two steps and put the cash in an easy-access savings account that I’d just opened. Now I have a buffer of cash I can spend if I need it. Not only has having that cash been helpful on the odd occasion, it’s provided a psychological boost to know it’s there. It feels like a tangible achievement in a way that paying off the credit card doesn’t.

3. Learn to live with your debt, as it’s not going anywhere fast

Big goals take ages to achieve. AGES. If you are in debt to the tune of thousands, as I was (and still am), you need to learn to live with the fact it’s going to take you months, if not years. I used to be so anxious about paying off my credit card ASAP that I would fixate on the fastest possible ways in which to do it, drawing up endless unrealistic plans that would be about as successful as that time when Brian Harvey ate six baked potatoes and crashed his car.

It’s taken me eight months to get this far. Unless I get an unexpected inheritance from Aunt Birgid’s Luxembourg estate, it’s going to take me that long again to pay it all off. To tackle this, I’ve learned to notice the signs of when I am spiralling into debt-based obsessive thinking. I then either work to do something productive about it (such as writing this blog), or move my attentions onto something better, like eating cheese or watching Brooklyn Nine Nine (Gina is basically my hero.)

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4. Keep experimenting to find out what works for you

Trying new things both keeps you motivated and helps you work out what’s right for you. And it has to be right for you – life is too short to put yourself through experiences that make you feel deprived, miserable or bored. One thing I tried to see if I could get cool stuff for free was ‘Comping’, which is entering competitions as a hobby. It seemed like a harmless thing to try, and has apparently been both profitable and fun for members of MoneySavingExpert’s forums. So: I entered over 100 competitions, for everything from holidays to games consoles, and won nothing but an inbox stuffed with junk mail. Oh, and it was only marginally more fun than watching Trump win the vote to become President.

But on the flip side, there are things that I have enjoyed as part of changing my lifestyles, such as working out ways to cook better food at a lower cost. Which, you know, *could* be because my standards of fun have lowered whilst I can’t afford much *actual* entertainment. But I’ll take my kicks where I can get them…

5. Stop comparing yourself to other people & question EVERYTHING you ever thought about money

As human beings, we believe that we are in complete control of our actions and decisions. The more I learn about psychology, the more I find out that this belief is a delusion. We all know that we should spend less than we earn, and that most debt should be avoided. But despite this, there is £190 billion of outstanding consumer credit in the UK. What is wrong with this picture?

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What happened to me, as I’m sure has happened to many other people, is I stopped making financial decisions based on what was actually in my bank account and started spending my money in a way that I believed someone ‘like me’ was entitled to. Without realising, I formed a picture in my head based on what my colleagues were doing, my friends were doing, what advertising targeted at ‘people like me’ suggested. I thought I deserved to have daily burritos for lunch, a yearly holiday, a flat deposit, because that’s what professional people in London GET.

The good news is: by questioning your entitlement and learning to stop comparing yourself to other people, you can start to build your life based on what YOU actually want and what YOUR means are to do it. When your decisions are purposeful and based on what you know is right for you, cutting back stops feeling like deprivation. When you stop comparing yourself to other people, you stop placing your own happiness in their hands. And I can tell you from experience: learning to do these things is far more effective for your happiness and well-being than drooling over the latest ‘lust-have item’ in a magazine (vom) or attempting to become a ‘super-scrimper’.

Here’s to cutting up the credit cards for good in 2017 (and beyond)!


 

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My week as a semi-professional Pokémon trainer

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In July, I became a Pokémaniac, along with the rest of the world. Going out to catch Pokémon in ‘real life’ felt like a childhood dream come true. Every journey became twenty minutes longer so that I could hit up Pokéstops and add to my Pidgey and Drowsee collection (why are there so many Drowsees? The eternal Pokémon Go mystery).

I’d been playing purely for the fun of it, like a schmuck, until I spotted an article about Britain’s first full time Pokémon player. Sophia, from High Barnet, spotted a money-making opportunity to play the game and sell levelled-up accounts on eBay. Apparently, accounts above level 20 were going for £1000+.

I wanted a piece of that action. After all, Pokemon Trainer is in many ways a dream job description:

  1. You’re self-employed, with no bosses to answer to (just Pokémon)
  2. It gets you out of the house
  3. You get more exercise than you do whilst sat at a desk
  4. The real world has been horrible lately. Who wouldn’t prefer to work in Pokéland?

There was one flaw in the plan: quitting work to catch Pokémon was not an option for me given that I have bills and stuff. So I decided to take it on as a side-gig, and Pokémon-train as a second job instead. Could this be lucrative enough to put a dent in my dreaded credit card bill?

I knew that time was of the essence: Pokémon Go accounts weren’t going to be a saleable commodity for long. So I immediately registered two new accounts and set out to catch them all.

For the following week, I spent every spare second playing. Here is what it is like being a semi-professional Pokémon trainer.

 

Yes, that IS a Nintendo t-shirt. I was committed to the role, what can I say?.
Yes, that IS a Nintendo t-shirt. I was committed to the role, what can I say?

 

The good:

If you pay attention, you can use Pokémon Go to notice a lot of things you’d never have seen otherwise. It turns out that there IS a park in Tufnell Park. I spotted a woman pushing a tiny dog in a full-sized pushchair. Every piece of street art, every landmark, every plaque, seems to be a Pokéstop. Who says video games aren’t educational?

 

There were no Pokémon in this bush.
There were no Pokémon in this bush.

 

You walk an absolute fuck-ton. I got 180,000 steps in a week (and some enormous blisters).

My first day of steps
My first day of steps as a Pokémon trainer

 

The bad:

A cornerstone of my strategy was to find rare Pokémon to make my accounts more sell-able. I failed. You’d think consistently playing for hours and hours and hours would turn up some good stuff. Despite every gym on the block having a high-level Vaporeon or Snorlax, I found nothing of the sort. Zilch.

 

Like any normal job, Pokémon training has copious amounts of boring admin. I spent hours evolving Pidgeys for points and sending crap Pokémon back to the Professor. HOURS.

 

The Pokémon theme tune got stuck on repeat in my head. It would not budge. No matter what I did. I WANNA BE, THE VERY BESSST! THAT NO-ONE EVER WAS!

PokemonTheme

 

 

Apparently, if you find a job you love, you’ll never work a day in your life. I can tell you for a fact that this is BULLSHIT. It turns out that forcing yourself to do something that you once enjoyed for hours at a time is an ideal way to destroy your soul. By the end of the week, I thought I would vomit if I had to spend another second staring at my phone.

 

The result…  

Having reached Peak Pokémon, I listed my accounts on eBay in a 24-hour auction and waited for the cash to roll in. By the time I went to bed, I had £25 worth of bids. That night, I dreamt about becoming a Pokémillionaire.

 

The next morning, my dream had been shot down in flames. eBay had sent me the following email:

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My listings had been removed. All the steps; all the blisters; all the fucking Pidgeys and Drowsees: all for fucking nothing. £0. NOTHING. I suppose some things are just meant to remain as dreams.

(and if anyone is interested in buying a top-quality Level 17 Pokémon Go account with a bonus Pikachu, please do let me know…)

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The No Spend Month

I’m going to come straight out and admit it: my personal finances are not where I’d like them to be. I had hoped that by the age of 30, I’d own my own flat and have savings of more than £1.99. Instead, I have a credit card balance that never seems to shrink, no matter how much I pay into it. On the bright side, I’m on track to pay off my student loan… by the age of 110.

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The Student Loans Company in 80 years from now

 

There are both explanations and excuses for why my finances are f*cked. There were the factors that I couldn’t change. I graduated into a recession. My local branch of the Bank of Mum & Dad had collapsed. The field I wanted to get into was competitive, and doing unpaid internships was the only way in. I couldn’t live at home, so I interned in the daytime whilst waitressing at night. For a while, I struggled to pay rent. I paid for food with old-school cheques to cover up the fact there was £0 in my account.

There were also the factors that were pretty much my own fault. I ended up specialising in digital engagement for not-for-profits, which wasn’t exactly a path to endless riches. Once I’d managed to get to a stage in my career where I could afford rent and food, I began to feel entitled. I worked hard and told myself I deserved to have things. This is where I really started to dig myself into a shitpit. I wish I could tell you that I pissed all my money away on frivolous things: luxury travel, designer clothes, £20 notes to wipe my bum with. The truth is far more petty and boring: I compared myself to people with similar jobs and lives, and felt like I should have the things they had. Everyone else I knew seemed to be able to afford to go on holiday every year, to go out to restaurants every week, to buy lunch every day. Saying ‘no’ when you want to say ‘yes’ is never fun. My head became buried firmly in the sand. My ‘just-for-emergencies’ credit card became fixed in my wallet.

My family didn’t have much money when I was growing up. I was raised with a ton of cultural capital instead. I was taught to aspire. To embrace learning. To believe that I could achieve anything I wanted to, as long as I worked hard. I took this to heart, believing that an Oxford education and a professional career would mean I’d never have to worry about money like my parents did.

Every day, I’m grateful that I have enough money now to pay for rent and food. But I’m also angry with myself. I was deceived by an illusion: I thought that getting a good job would be my ticket to happiness, with a cushy lifestyle and financial security. My expectations were set too high. I chased the wrong things. And now I am 30. Many of my friends are getting married, having children, buying property. I would like to have the same things one day, but the £1.99 in my savings account just won’t cover the costs. I need to do something drastic if I am going to kill off my credit card and start saving for my future.

The solution?

In my attempts to discover the secret of money, I’d noticed a trend: the money-saving challenge. Bloggers and forum members have embraced periods of frugality, banning themselves from non-essential spending for a fixed period of time. Some of these periods are short: Members of MoneySavingExpert.com’s forums challenge themselves to have as many ‘No Spend Days’ as possible. Penny Golightly leads Tenner Week.

Other people have taken a longer-term approach. Anna Newell-Jones is an American blogger who put herself on a ‘Spending Fast’, severely restricting her spending for fifteen months to pay off her debts. Journalist Michelle McGath has quit spending for a whole year to get ahead on her mortgage. Her commitment is the strongest I’ve seen: as I write, she’s been over six months without spending anything at all. 

Perhaps the most inspiring story I’ve seen is from a blogger called Mr Money Mustache. He and his wife retired at 30 as a result of saving and investing the majority of their salaries. Not investment-banker or corporate-lawyer salaries, but the income from ‘standard tech-industry cubicle jobs’. They now live a happy life doing whatever they please.

Frugality had never looked so appealing. The issue was: I had lived on a low income before. It was no picnic. In fact, it was awful. Why would I choose to go back there? Was I romanticising the concept just because of a few success stories I’d read on the internet? Rather than embrace full-on frugality, I decided to dip my toe into the water by doing a No Spend Month.

 

The rules:

Things that were allowed:

  • Spending on food, bills and rent
  • Spending on things I’d committed to before June (a holiday payment and a hen party payment)

 

Things that were not allowed:

  • Spending on transport, eating out, booze, clothes or beauty products
  • Taking the piss by squeezing luxuries into the grocery shop
  • Accruing psychic debt by scrounging from my friends and boyfriend  
  • Becoming a hermit and being miserable

 

What I learned:

Alcohol and frugality don’t mix

I was determined to spend the month doing fun things with other people. So on the first day, I went to a free quiz night being held at work. The winning prize was a £100 bar tab for the team. I hadn’t told anyone at work about what I was doing, so only I knew what it really meant: not just free drinks, but probably the only drinks I would get to have out for a while.

When the quiz masters announced a tie break, which my team then won, it seemed like validation: the universe had my back. There WOULD be beer for me in June! Then, my hopes were dashed. It turned out that the tie break was for second and third place. Alas. Screw you, universe.

At a leaving do a week later, loosened up by free booze, I fell off the wagon and bought a couple of rounds. I ended up enjoying myself a bit too much that night. Woe was me. On the plus side, at least being too hungover to move stops you from spending.

 

Free culture comes at a cost

As London is full of free things to do, I resolved to take advantage of it. So my boyfriend and I went to see the new Yayoi Kusama exhibition at Victoria Miro, which had just opened. When we arrived, there was a queue of over 100 people. If we wanted to get into the exhibition, we faced an hour’s wait outside. It was grey and cold, so we turned back. The only thing we saw that day was the grim sights of the Holloway Road.

 

The ups and downs of frugal lunchtimes

Bringing my lunch to work felt hugely gratifying. There’s nothing to make you feel smug like knowing you’ve saved at least £5 a day on your lunch. Having your leftovers explode in the office microwave feels less gratifying. And your smug glow disappears once you’ve realised you’ve brought in something so inedible you have to choke through it. Who knew that twice-microwaved salmon could be so disgusting?

I saw this dude whilst running to the library. Added bonus of not spending money: you get additional joy from the small things.
I saw this dude whilst running to the library. Added bonus of travelling by foot: you see cool things

The ups and ups of ditching public transport

Getting around on your own steam is a total game-changer. If you are lucky enough to be able to cycle, run or walk to work, DO IT. Leave behind the annoying people playing shitty music on their leaky headphones. Avoid the social awkwardness that comes with being squished into a small space with 55 people you’ve never met. Save a fortune and get fitter at the same time. It’s a win all round.

 

Toughening up

The No Spend Month made me realise what a slave I was to cravings. Hunger was my default mode. It used to be that every time my stomach growled, a battle would begin in my head. I always knew that buying a second breakfast in the canteen at work was a bad idea. But at the same time I was hangry, and the thought of having to restrict myself PISSED ME OFF. The No Spend Month made it made it a non-issue. I just dealt with being hungry. It didn’t kill me.

 

Changing the plan

On day 17 of No Spend Month, I decided to ‘pivot’. (That’s tech company speak for ‘changing your mind’, by the way.) Some Really Bad Shit had been going down in the world at the time. The referendum campaign had become poisonous, stirring up fear and hate. Jo Cox MP had been tragically killed. I’d had a tough week at work. I needed to spend time with the people that I cared about.

Me, about to walk to work in torrential rain.
Me, about to walk to work in torrential rain.

I’d previously thought that because it was summer, I could see my friends for free whilst doing outdoorsy things: a picnic in the park, a walk down the South Bank. My daydreams did not account for the fact that it would be the wettest June on record. I couldn’t face becoming the person who sits in the pub drinking water whilst her friends pay for drinks. So I changed the rules to account for one socialising session every week.

 

What I learned…

My month of frugality was a surprisingly educational experience. I expected it to be uncomfortable. I expected to save money. What I didn’t anticipate was the sense of clarity it gave me. My emotions about money were a tangled mess. If I spent, I felt guilty. If I didn’t spend, I felt resentful.

Technically, I failed the challenge because I slipped up on socialising. But once I had allowed myself to spend on seeing my friends, something clicked in my head. In the past, saving money had felt like self-deprivation. It made me miserable. But by working out what made me happy and allowing myself to have it, I changed the rules of the mind-game I used to play with myself. Having enough money to spend on the things that make you happy is a privilege. I feel grateful for what I have, now that I know what to do with it.


In total, I saved £420.12 on top of my usual credit card repayment. I’m still a long way from where I need to be, but that’s OK. I’m on a mission now. I’m on a search for the secret of money, and I will try everything. I’ll leave no stone unturned until my debt is dead and my savings are sorted. Wish me luck.
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I’m not great at keeping secrets. If I find a way to rescue my finances I will almost certainly blog about it. Make sure you don’t miss a post by signing up to my mailing list:


 

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In search of miracles with Gabrielle Bernstein

It’s a fact of life that things aren’t brilliant all the time. Sometimes things are great, and sometimes things are a bit shit. As someone who puts a lot of effort into trying to be happy, it’s doubly disappointing when life isn’t coming up with sunshine, rainbows and glittery unicorns. At Easter, I hit one of these bad patches. Ground down by coursework and job-work, I felt like I was dragging a weight around on my back. I needed a miracle.

Therefore, I turned to Gabrielle Bernstein. She’s described on her website as a modern day spiritual leader. Bernstein’s best-selling books include May Cause Miracles and Miracles Now. Her photographs gleam with happiness, health and serenity. Just look at her! LOOK!

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She was the kind of woman I instinctively felt happy to follow. I signed up to her mailing list and eagerly started on May Cause Miracles. The introduction tells Bernstein’s story. By becoming dedicated to miracles, she became a best-selling author, improved her relationship with food, made a ton of money and found true happiness. I wanted a piece of that action.

Embracing miracles is about releasing fear and choosing love instead. I didn’t really know what that meant, but decided to roll with it anyway. Apparently, your ~ing (inner guide) will emerge to show you the way. The 40-day program takes you through a new theme each week, with a daily affirmation and a meditation or journalling activity. Here’s what happened to me, spiritually speaking:

The good:

Starting the day with a reflection and a minute of meditation was quite nice. It was like a little warm hug for your psyche.

Saying ‘I love you’ to the mirror was good for a laugh, once I’d got over feeling like a buffoon.

The bad:

I tried programming the day’s affirmations into my phone to go off every hour as Bernstein suggests. The problem came when I left my phone sat on the table at work. Without context, the affirmations could suggest to the uninitiated that you have joined some kind of weird cult.

As the days went on, I found myself forgetting what the affirmation of the day was. I realised that it was because I just wasn’t finding anything meaningful in them. So I abandoned May Cause Miracles after three weeks.

 

Miracles Now

Despite the fact that May Cause Miracles didn’t do much for me, I wasn’t done with Gabby. I was grimly determined to find a miracle, somewhere, somehow. Thankfully, she had another book! Perhaps Miracles Now would be the book to give me the hit I needed. Rather than giving you a structured programme, it provides 108 bite-sized ways to live a more miraculous life.

So I attempted to bust out a miracle on a Wednesday morning. It was humpday, I was a bit hungover, and I had been put into a bad mood by the tedious pundits arguing about Brexit on BBC Breakfast. I flicked to Miracle #46: Measure your success by how much fun you’re having. I thought about it. Truth be told, I had not been having much fun. When you work four days a week on your day job and three days a week on your MSc, there’s not that much time for it. Over the following few days, I let my hair down. It felt good. One of my bad habits is getting grimly wrapped up in my to-do list, to the exclusion of actually relaxing and enjoying my life. The idea of measuring my life by how much I actually enjoy it was something I needed to hear.

On a Sunday night, I needed a new and different miracle. It was 1am, my alarm was due to go off in five hours, and I had been trying to sleep since 10pm. Thankfully, Gabby has few miracles for that. Firstly, a Kundalini yoga breathing technique. Sleep still eluded me. Secondly, a Yoga Nidra meditation. I was too wound up to focus on it, and still could not sleep. Thirdly, another Kundalini practice which involved pointing your toes back and forth. My bed squeaked as I did this and I still didn’t sleep. Miracle fail.

At its worst, the book is ineffective (see sleep ideas above) and verging on silly (jumping on a trampoline without wearing a bra helps your lymphatic system). But at its best, the book is like a self-help Rorschach test: you see bits of advice in it that you want to see, that you may well be better off following. And a lot of the things in here make sense: true that happiness does not lie in how much you weigh, that if you want something; you should ask for it, and that doing a headstand can help bust you out of a bad mood (I tried it. It worked).

If you take ‘miracle’ in the literal sense, Miracles Now and May Cause Miracles both fail to deliver. However, this doesn’t make me angry in the same way that I was about I Heart Me. Bernstein does make it clear from the outset that when she talks about miracles, she means it in a slightly different way to you or I. My life hasn’t cosmically shifted, but I have picked up a few new helpful tips. I still don’t know what it means to choose love over fear though.

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I’m on summer break from my course; which means more posts. I may actually discover something revolutionary, and you wouldn’t want to miss that, right?! The good news is that I have a mailing list, so please make my day and get on it:


Also: this post contains Amazon Affiliate links, as I have a credit card bill to pay and I’ll pretty much try anything. I’ll never actively endorse anything I don’t genuinely like because I’m not a Kardashian. Thank you!

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Did following Rich Habits actually change my life?

I have spent the last 30 days following the instruction of a self-help book called Rich Habits. This book promised to change my life by instructing me in the ways of the rich: because if you act like a rich person, you will become a rich person.

How did I get on? Did I become rich? Can it make you rich too?

The life-changing:

  • There is one thing from this book that has changed my life: setting daily, monthly and long-term goals, and reviewing these goals often. For your daily and monthly goals, focus on a few key things that are realistically do-able in the time-frame. Ensure that they build upon each other (i.e. do things daily that get you to your monthly goal, and monthly things should be chunks towards the long-term goals). Make them realistic enough to be achievable, and exciting enough that you want to do them.
  • I was doubtful about affirmations, but one thing has come true: my flat has been free of mice since I started saying ‘I do not have mice’. Whether they come back after I stop my affirmations, it remains to be seen.

The waffle:

  • I don’t care what the book says- you cannot reverse all of your bad habits and adopt 10 good new habits in 30 days. Even if you’re already nearly perfect as you are. *ahem*
  • Cheesy allegories make me want to vomit. However they are necessary to pad out a book if you really only have 20 pages of actual content.
  • One of the key messages of Rich Habits is that if you are poor or unsuccessful, it’s because you’re weak and lack discipline. I don’t think Thomas Corley has ever heard of structural inequality.
  • The only fun rich people ever seem to have, according to the book, is the pleasure that comes from life-long relationships. Whilst these are very important, I’d argue there is a place in life for entertainment, excess, frivolity and the odd takeaway.
  • I did not actually become rich. I can see how good habits can make you more successful in general. However they can only make you financially richer in 30 days if you are in a position to make money where you are. I made £72 on eBay and broke even on scratchcards and lottery tickets. If I owned my own business or got commission, perhaps it’d be a different story.
  • .. anyway, even if I did become rich, would it make me happy? After all, the billionaire creator of Minecraft has been made miserable by his riches…

Should you do this?

  • Save your money and just do the goal-setting, as described.

What next?

I’m going to investigate whether an extreme diet can change your life. Will I become healthier and happier? Can I actually live without Diet Coke and chocolate biscuits??

If you haven’t already, subscribe to my blog through the form here to get the latest updates on the day they are posted.

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Becoming rich: Weeks 3 and 4

When I decided to follow the ‘Rich Habits’, I had to maintain a balance between scepticism and open-mindedness. I mean, get-rich-quick-scams are the most popular type of scam. Plus, how could affirmations, moderation and banning negative feelings actually make me rich?

Well, my doubts were put to bed on Week 3: On the Friday, I moved in to a seven bed, four bathroomed house in the Cotswolds. Isn’t it gorgeous?

Yew Tree Farmhouse

 

 

Admittedly, it was a holiday let, sharing with 15 of my friends. But STILL. If that isn’t the Rich Life than what is?

It wasn’t all about lifestyle – after putting some of my stuff on eBay, I became £72 richer. I know that it won’t get me very far in terms of buying a helicopter, but still – I’ve more than made a profit back from buying the book. Also, to be honest, if I hadn’t been following Rich Habits I’d left the stuff sitting in my wardrobe forever.

Holidays aren’t really a time for self-improvement, but I gave it a good go anyway: I brought my laptop with me and worked on career and blog stuff every day, and I brought some ‘improving’ reading with me and did some of that too. I was with friends, so ‘building lifelong relationships’ was covered. And I got paid and saved 10%. However, ‘moderation’ did not happen. A holiday without ice cream is no holiday at all.

Getting back from holiday at the end of Week 4 was depressing. Grimy Holloway is just not the same as the glorious Cotswolds. Whenever I leave my house, all I can see is endless newsagents. Despite my £72 windfall, I wasn’t exactly rich yet. When I left the house, I saw a sign: ‘Life changing games’. It’s the National Lottery. Could this be my last-ditch chance?

As soon as I got back to my laptop, I went to the Lottery website and loaded up with a ‘moderate’ £10 in credit. I spend £2 on a Euromillions ticket, £2 on a Lotto ticket, and £6 on scratchcard type games. I win £10 on the scratchcards, breaking even.

Friday night: No Euromillions win.

Saturday night… let’s see!

Next time: The summary: Can adopting Rich Habits ‘change your life’? What can you actually learn from a book full of cheesy allegorical stories? Did affirmations work in ridding my flat of mice? And.. will I win the lottery?

 

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Becoming rich: Week 2

This week marked halfway through my attempt to adopt Rich Habits and make my millions.  While I had made great leaps in some areas, I was under the strain of trying to do the reverse of 17 new habits, hit daily do-to lists, reach monthly goals, think about the long term, self-improve every day, and so on and so forth. It simply did not feel possible. Lots of things had slipped. I had been turning to comfort food and I felt too tired to do much exercise. As a result, I felt like this:

make-love-not-warcraft

 

Days 14 and 15 were on a weekend where I didn’t have much planned, so I went back to review what I had written down on Day 1. Whilst the career and blog stuff were coming along, I hadn’t made much progress on running, mostly because there wasn’t enough room in my life to fit that much in. Two runs per week was better than nothing, but that amount of training won’t exactly make Jo Pavey watch her back.

So despite feeling like Eric Cartman after a World of Warcraft binge, I dragged myself out for a 30 minute run. When I say ‘dragged’ – I mean it. I had to bribe myself with thoughts of roast chicken afterwards. To start off with, it wasn’t great – I was watching every minute. At about 18 minutes I had to stop because something was in my way, and I let myself entertain the thought that it was probably good enough for me to stop there. Thankfully, my inner ‘JK Simmons in Whiplash’ came out and did this:

Whiplash

So I made myself run up an extra hill and came back home after 31:25. One of the truisms about running is that you never regret going out for a run, only not going for a run. I felt much better afterwards and excited to go out running again, where only a few hours before I’d been left wondering whether I had fallen out of love with running.

Although I am loathe to say I have learned anything from a book so heavy on cheesy allegory, I have to admit that at the half-way point, I did feel glad to be doing this. Reversing all of my bad habits in one go was probably never going to work, but there is one habit worth keeping: regularly reviewing your goals and the progress you’ve made towards them. I hadn’t realised before that I was making the error of setting goals and then letting them fade from view.

 

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