Here’s a confession: I often don’t check my bank account. Well, I make sure I have enough in it before I go out to dinner with friends, but the idea of opening up my banking app and looking at my actual purchases fills me with dread. It’s likely you’ve felt the same way. And it’s not that we don’t know we’re overspending (if we can afford it), it’s that we know that we spent too much money on will just make us anxious and depressed. And you know the only cure for that: A round of retail therapy. Maybe a copy of Suze Orman’s latest book, too, so you don’t feel like you’re actually spending as you drop 20 bucks on financial advice.
Don’t feel bad, though, no one is immune. Not even financial journalists like Michelle McGagh, who only recently realized she’d been spending far too much on things that were far too unimportant. And in an essay in The Telegraph, she broke down what happened when she decided to stop buying anything that wasn’t a necessity and started saving up to pay off her mortgage. (First, she just got rid of all her stuff, though.)
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 in the pub, 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.
McGagh also cut all transportation expenses, removing Uber and taxis from her allowed expenses and forcing herself to bicycle everywhere. Instead of buying drinks or clothes — she didn’t buy one item of clothing the entire year — she swam where it was free, enjoyed admission-free museums, and took advantage of free movie tickets when she could. Otherwise, she didn’t buy anything but groceries and other necessities. She went a year without one unnecessary transaction, forfeiting paid TV, ready-made gifts, or even apps.
Regardless of what the movies will tell you, the process was excruciating to begin with. McGagh writes that she felt like a killjoy and that the winter months especially, the ones that are perfect for going out with a few friends or enjoying a few cocktails around the fire were particularly painful. But then something changed. Instead of pining for her old life, McGagh began adjusting to the fact that she needed to change her mindset. Even if that meant she and her husband couldn’t take a fancy vacation or buy plane tickets:
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.
Unsurprisingly, McGagh says that the trip brought her and her husband closer together than ever before. And by the time her experiment had finished, she’s gained two things: a new perspective on life (she didn’t go into a wild spending frenzy!) and improved interpersonal relationships. She’d also gained $23,000, money she would have spent on fun, otherwise.
Of course, there are some criticisms here: First, not everyone can do what McGagh did. Being able to save that much money suggests a base amount of wealth that many aspire to rather than achieve. Second, the experiment was extreme. Not buying anything? Denying oneself the pleasure of even a movie to stave off the cold realization that we will all one day die and be forgotten? No, thank you! I’d rather see Sing again. Nothing like animated animals to make you feel good about life again!
But that doesn’t mean you can’d to some of what McGagh did. Why not open that bank statement this month, look through any unnecessary spending (I know! It hurts!) and vow to do better as of this moment. And if you mess up — you will — try again. If you can set a goal for yourself, like McGagh’s goal to pay off her mortgage, as opposed to just sticking it to capitalism (it don’t care!) you can make your cutbacks feel less painful.
Or at least don’t shop on Black Friday! You don’t need more stuff. We’ve got a guide to help you get started here!