July 24, 2024
'I joined the no-spend revolution!'


Stacks of unread novels; seven bottles of gin; UFOs (unidentified frozen objects) in the freezer and enough face masks and nail varnish to open my own beauty salon… No, this is not a list of what I couldn’t do without on a desert island. This was the reality that faced me at the start of my ‘No-Spend Week’ as I sought to reset my spending habits and understand what triggers me to keep buying the same things over and over again.

The concept of taking a #nospendchallenge for a day, week or even longer periods has taken off during the cost-of-living crisis as more of us look for ways to cut back and keep our household budgets in check. Of course, for millions of people, not spending any money is a necessity rather than a choice. But if you’re trying to make some big budget changes – perhaps to accommodate higher mortgage payments, for example – then a no-spend experiment could offer valuable insight into managing your finances.

The no-spend rules

Much of the discussion online about no-spend challenges concerns the rules of what is allowed. It seems sensible to disregard the payment of bills and other essentials as ‘spending’ and to concentrate on identifying and cutting back what we splurge on discretionary items. “If you’re just beginning to budget, you may not know how much you spend through the month and on what. Setting a target of some no-spend days can be an eye-opener,” says Sara Williams, the former debt adviser behind the popular Debt Camel blog and Instagram account. The same applies if you haven’t reviewed your spending in a while.

For me, the most crucial step was obtaining buy-in from my partner. There was no point in me scrimping and saving if he was just going to blow the budget, and I didn’t want to have to bear the emotional load of budgeting alone. The cost of saving money can often be measured in time – all the planning ahead that’s involved comes at a price, and I felt very strongly that this should be shared. Plus, I wanted our money-saving habits to last!

First, we established some ‘red lines’. There were many things that could save us money, like cancelling our cleaner, but they would also cost us more of our leisure time. However, we agreed our love of wine and nice restaurants needed to be kept in check and a quick look at the bank statements showed an alarmingly high amount of money being spent on takeaways and convenience foods, and frequent grocery shops.

This was the key spending habit we needed to break and as this involved my husband doing more of the cooking and meal prep, we both needed to be fully invested. “It’s no use trying to clear your overdraft if your partner is spending more on a credit card, or has just committed you to an expensive trip with friends,” says Sara. “You need to talk about your goals and check how things are going.”

How I tackled my no spend week

We started by doing a stocktake of the house. The theory being, if you know what you have, you can make a plan to use that up rather than buy more stuff. We began in the kitchen, and discovered countless packets, jars and tins in the cupboards, some of which had sadly gone off and had to be binned. The lesson? Buy less, label it better and make a list of surplus items so you can generate ideas about what to cook with them. One of my favourite low-cost leisure activities is sticking all of my favourite Good Housekeeping recipes into scrapbooks, so these came in handy!

Although there are app-based solutions, I simply listed items in our food stash using the free ‘Notes’ section on my iPhone, and shared the editing rights with my husband. Now, we can both see instantly what we have at home while standing in the supermarket, which has been a game-changer.

My best-ever purchase is my vintage cocktail cabinet (£45 from a junk shop in the 2000s) but it had become a dumping ground for half-finished bottles of exotic spirits. I also had seven (count ’em!) different bottles of gin, mostly sourced from trips to Scotland. This is more shopaholic than alcoholic – I can’t resist a pretty bottle. I also buy a lot more clothes than my husband does. However, while there was barely a single item in my (two) wardrobes that hadn’t been bought in a sale or by using a discount code, getting 15% off by signing up for an online mailing list has proved to be a gateway to future spending. Even if I don’t need a new outfit, getting a ‘special offer’ email is an instant trigger to browse on my phone late at night – and, often, buy.

“Resisting the temptation to shop, even if only for a day, done with curiosity and an open mind, might help you identify what feelings are driving your desire to shop,” says Vicky Reynal, psychotherapist and author of upcoming book Money On Your Mind.

Often, we might be feeling bored, lonely or a bit down, but rather than manage these negative emotions, we act on them instead, convinced that buying a new dress, pair of shoes or other item will solve all of our problems. The feelings that drove us to action are still lurking beneath the surface. “This is why retail therapy doesn’t work in the long term,” Vicky adds.

Economists talk about the ‘lipstick effect’: in tough times, we rely on small purchases to cheer us up. But in my case, this had extended way beyond lipstick. As the stocktake progressed to my bedroom and bathroom, it revealed a surplus of sheet face masks and deep conditioning hair treatments (I’m always buying these, but rarely use them), plus a drawerful of nail varnish.

Another thing I’m constantly purchasing is books. There’s not a room this much harder if the weather had not been on my side. Finally, we both had to work late on Friday night and had forgotten to defrost the home-made chicken stock for our risotto. Hungry and tired, we ended up spending £25 on fish and chips. But it was delicious! And we made the risotto the following night.

Andrew Brookes//Getty Images

Lessons learned

Psychotherapist Vicky is adamant that even if your no-spend experiment isn’t as successful as you’d hoped, it will throw up helpful insights. ‘Noticing patterns is an important way to make the most of the exercise,’ she says. For instance, it might be realising that it’s usually late at night when you end up scrolling for new accessories on your phone and clicking ‘buy’. Putting your phone on charge in another room at night could help to break this habit.

I did find it interesting that so many of the ‘no-spend’ and ‘low-spend’ activities listed on Instagram posts with the hashtag #nospendchallenge include acts of self-care – pampering yourself, taking exercise, having a long bath, reading a book or doing something creative. It’s ironic that in the past so much of my discretionary spending has fallen squarely into these categories. I was quite happy to buy endless face masks with the idea that they’d help me relax, yet somehow couldn’t find the time to actually use one!

Vicky’s verdict was that noticing these purchases has helped me identify feelings that were struggling to come to the surface; a longing to slow down, to give myself the luxury of relaxation. Instead of managing my feelings of restlessness or guilt about having to be productive and ‘earn’ time spent relaxing, I short-circuited this by spending money on the idea.

In Vicky’s words, ‘You take a route that is emotionally easy and makes you feel like you’re doing something about this desire.’ Other readers might have a repeat purchase that tells a different story, whether it’s sports equipment or high-heeled shoes that get left in the cupboard. Whatever is driving this in the house that doesn’t contain vast piles of them. I do love reading, but I struggle to make time for it. Embarrassingly, I can count on one hand the number of books I’ve finished this year. So, I have about 30 years’ worth of unread novels to get through.

Spending diary

Having started the ‘no-spend’ week by making a seven-day meal plan and a strict shopping list, we managed to do a much smaller weekly food shop, spending around £50 less than normal, with the goal of saving about the same again by not buying takeaways and convenience food. That’s a saving of £100 already!

Instead, we ‘shopped from the cupboards’ and planned meals around ingredients we already had, such as pasta, tinned fish and jars of sauces. I’m a big fan of The Batch Lady on Instagram, who stresses that this super-organised way of planning your meals in advance will save you a lot of time as well as money, which definitely appeals. And it means no more frantic WhatsApp messages asking, ‘What are we having for dinner tonight?’

Granted, it took a few hours to pull together, but our plan took account of breakfasts and lunches as well as dinners, so we have a template we can build on in the coming weeks and months. It was hard forcing ourselves to prep overnight oats and packed lunches before we went to bed, but I know from experience if you don’t do it the night before, it doesn’t get done.

Having looked ahead to events on our social calendar, I knew I’d have to come up with a fun no-spend solution for meeting our 27-year-old son’s new girlfriend. In the past, I might have booked a table in a restaurant. Thankfully, she’s a thrifty Yorkshire lass so having home-made pizza and a ‘use it up’ cocktail evening appealed to her (our mint bush had run wild, so variations on mojito were duly served).

We didn’t put pressure on ourselves to have a perfect evening – in fact, smashing ice cubes inside a tea towel was a literal ice-breaker and we had a good laugh at the delicious though odd-looking pond water I managed to shake up. Later that week, my mum’s birthday involved a family picnic. My brother has three children under seven, so low-cost leisure activities are second nature to him. We co-ordinated beforehand to decide who would bring what. Cue an afternoon of home-made food, ball games, guitars and teaching the children to spot different wildflowers and birdsongs – bliss!

I wasn’t tempted to buy clothes all week (and the absence of sale emails is still keeping me in check). Inspired by my stepdaughter, I downloaded the Vinted app and even managed to sell a few items using this and Facebook Marketplace.

You won’t get much money for your wares, but it does help you think twice before buying more – plus, some people’s no-spend rules might allow them to spend whatever spare cash they make.

Of course, it didn’t all go smoothly. Halfway through our experiment, I had a bad reaction to an insect bite, requiring an emergency trip to the doctors, two prescriptions and £25 on a blood pressure monitoring machine (fortunately, everything is back to normal now). But this underlines the importance of having an emergency fund to deal with the unexpected. I managed to save tens of pounds on transport costs by cycling and walking to work, but admit I would have found this much harder if the weather had not been on my side.

Finally, we both had to work late on Friday night and had forgotten to defrost the home-made chicken stock for our risotto. Hungry and tired, we ended up spending £25 on fish and chips. But it was delicious! And we made the risotto the following night.

drink, tableware, juice, classic cocktail, liquid, alcoholic beverage, cocktail, fruit, highball glass, ingredient,

getty

Lessons learned

Psychotherapist Vicky is adamant that even if your no-spend experiment isn’t as successful as you’d hoped, it will throw up helpful insights. ‘Noticing patterns is an important way to make the most of the exercise,’ she says. For instance, it might be realising that it’s usually late at night when you end up scrolling for new accessories on your phone and clicking ‘buy’. Putting your phone on charge in another room at night could help to break this habit.

I did find it interesting that so many of the ‘no-spend’ and ‘low-spend’ activities listed on Instagram posts with the hashtag #nospendchallenge include acts of self-care – pampering yourself, taking exercise, having a long bath, reading a book or doing something creative. It’s ironic that in the past so much of my discretionary spending has fallen squarely into these categories. I was quite happy to buy endless face masks with the idea that they’d help me relax, yet somehow couldn’t find the time to actually use one!

Vicky’s verdict was that noticing these purchases has helped me identify feelings that were struggling to come to the surface; a longing to slow down, to give myself the luxury of relaxation.

Instead of managing my feelings of restlessness or guilt about having to be productive and ‘earn’ time spent relaxing, I short-circuited this by spending money on the idea. In Vicky’s words, ‘You take a route that is emotionally easy and makes you feel like you’re doing something about this desire.’ Other readers might have a repeat purchase that tells a different story, whether it’s sports equipment or high-heeled shoes that get left in the cupboard. Whatever is driving this compulsion, don’t be ashamed of it – just spend some time trying to understand where it comes from.

Another pattern I noticed was how hard I found it to resist spending on items that had been reduced in price. Be it yellow-stickered items in the supermarket or ‘70% off’ signs in a shop window, I know that this is my biggest temptation. ‘It’s really important to slow things down and listen to how we justify this need to spend to ourselves,’ says Pamela Roberts, a psychotherapist working at The Priory Group with a special interest in shopping addiction. For me, a discount can act like a green light saying: ‘Go ahead and buy it.’ To help, Pamela has taught me something called the RAIN of self-compassion (an acronym coined by the US psychologist Tara Brach). ‘Recognise that you’re suddenly feeling excited,’ she says. ‘Allow these feelings; don’t fight them, as by pushing them away you could simply give them more energy. Investigate and be curious instead; what has triggered these feelings? Nurture yourself in other ways and you may discover what it is that you actually want in that moment.’

Now, I ask myself: if this item wasn’t on special offer, would I still want it? Could I find a healthier way of rewarding myself that doesn’t involve spending? When you do spend, make sure it’s on things and experiences that really count and that you will cherish and value.

As for my biggest habit changes, instead of taking my phone to bed with me, I now take a book. I have reactivated my local library membership – plus eating more healthily and avoiding takeaways has even helped me lose a few pounds. Compared with the typical week, we saved around £75 on food and takeaways alone by working through what we already had. I’m convinced that planning ahead will continue to save us time and money in future. I resisted the temptation to spend £179 on a dress (it was reduced from £299 in a sale but I didn’t actually need it) and I’m getting closer to the day when I will have worked through my stock of face masks.

The lesson is that even small habit changes, applied consistently, can add up to a big difference over time. Now that I’ve finished this article, I’m going to make a gin and tonic, put my feet up and get stuck into a good book. And I may do so while wearing a face pack and hair mask – and hopefully find the time to paint my nails afterwards!

Claer Barrett is the consumer editor at the Financial Times. Her book, What They Don’t Teach You About Money, is out now



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