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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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: