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.