10 practical tips from my year of spending nothing

Published by Michelle McGagh on 07 February 2017.
Last updated on 07 February 2017

A year without spending money revitalised my finances and changed my relationship with money for the better. However, you don’t have to give up splashing the cash completely in order to spend less and save more.

On Black Friday 2015, which fell on 27 November, I started a ‘no spend year’ as a challenge to myself to jump out of the consumer rat race and overpay my mortgage. I could still pay my bills, such as my mortgage, utilities and council tax, and I had a basic grocery budget, but everything else was off limits.

This meant no pints in the pub, new clothes, taxis, cinema trips or takeaways. I didn’t even have a budget for my bus fares so I travelled everywhere on my bicycle for a year, meaning I definitely didn’t miss my gym membership.

Over the year, my earnings – coupled with income from a lodger (a great way to boost your income if you have a spare room to rent) – meant I overpaid my mortgage by just over £22,000, cutting both the interest I will pay to the bank and the number of years I will pay my mortgage for.

I also changed my relationship with money and spending; I now focus on the longer-term gains of saving rather than the short-term thrill of spending.

Of course, most people won’t want to give up spending for an entire year, but there are smaller changes that can be made in order to make your money stretch further.

1. Check your spending

You can’t cut your spending unless you know where your money is going. Before I started my challenge I reviewed a year’s worth of spending and was shocked to discover I had shelled out £400 on coffee alone.

As someone who isn’t even that bothered about the roast of beans or frothiness of a cappuccino, that was a huge amount. How had I spent that much? The short answer is all those small amounts add up without us realising.

A chocolate bar here and a sandwich there can become significant sums over the course of a year. Review your spending and tally up the amounts you fritter away: if you were given that total amount in cash, would you spend it on coffees and sandwiches?

I know if someone gave me £400 in cash, I definitely wouldn’t spend it on coffee, and my flask means I never have to spend money on takeaway coffee again!

2. Needs versus wants

We’re all guilty of telling ourselves we really ‘need’ that new pair of shoes/gadget/whatever it is that we like to spend money on. But do we really need it or do we just want it?

The line between needs and wants has become blurred in our consumer-focused world of seemingly endless credit. It is very easy to talk yourself into buying an item that you don’t really need.

Before you open up your wallet or hand over your card, think about whether what you are buying is something you really need, if it’s not then ask yourself why you’re buying it. This is particularly important if you’re getting into debt to make a purchase.

There are lots of reasons people buy: because they’re bored, happy, sad or because they want to treat themselves. If you can identify why you’re buying things or patterns in your behaviour, then you can stop yourself before handing over your credit card.

3. Set a goal

Don’t try and rein in your spending with the vague aim of ‘saving’ or you’ll soon lose focus. What you need is a longer-term goal to work towards.

My goal was, and still is, overpaying my mortgage because I don’t want to be beholden to the bank for 25 years, but yours could be building up an emergency fund, paying to re-train for a new career, or treating the kids to a holiday of a lifetime.

Having a longer-term goal that will improve your life will make it much easier to make the short-term sacrifices that will be needed to reach that goal.

To help keep me on track, in true Blue Peter style I like to colour in a target chart to track my savings progress. It’s a bit old-fashioned, but I like to see the totaliser tick up.

4. Pay yourself first

Once you’ve set your goal, make it a priority. Work out how much you can save and set up a direct debit into a savings account that isn’t easily accessible.

This payment should go out with your direct debits for rent, utilities and all those things you have to pay for each month. By including a payment into savings as part of your essential bills, you are acknowledging that your goal is important.

Paying your future-self first means you can then see how much money you have to spend guilt-free each month and can budget accordingly. I like to use a basic, and free, spending app on my phone from the Citizens Advice Bureau called ‘Budget Tracker – CAB’ to ensure I stay within my budget.

5. Get organised

If there is one thing that the no spend year taught me it’s the value of being organised. If I forgot to bring my lunch into work there was no opportunity to pop into the supermarket for something to eat, so I had to stay on top of my schedule at all times.

Similarly, if I wanted to socialise I had to spend time searching for free events and organising my friends to attend, and making sure I had enough time to cycle there.

The website Eventbrite became my best friend throughout the year as it details loads of free events across the country.

I managed to find film screenings, wine-tasting, exercise classes and even a beer tour. There are lots of free events to attend if you search for them. I also made better use of the free museums, galleries and concerts available to me living in London – if you’re in, or near, a major city then there are lots of places that will cost you nothing to visit.

The trade-off for saving cash is often spending time, whether that’s planning and making your meals, remembering to take a flask instead of buying takeout coffee or searching for free events. I think it’s a trade-off worth making.

6. Pay cash

It’s a simple tip, but it works wonders for making you think about what you’re spending. The use of cards, and in particular contactless spending, detaches us from the idea that we’re handing over our hard-earned cash.

Similarly, storing credit card details on shopping websites makes it all too easy to spend, so delete them.

Food shopping is one area where lots of people overspend and I was guilty of this too, but I now take out a set amount in cash for food shopping each week and hit the shops with a calculator to track what I’m spending. By leaving the cards at home, I only buy what I need because I don’t have the money for anything more.

Taking out your cash for the week can also help you stem your general spending, as it provides you with a daily reminder of just how much your budget is. It is much more difficult to break into a £20 note just for the sake of buying a magazine (though if you’re reading Moneywise, you’re likely to be making that money back) and will make you think twice before handing your money over.

7. Get others on board

I couldn’t have got through my no spend year without my husband, family and friends getting on board. Although it was tough at first as I and they tried to come to terms with socialising without spending, by the end they were coming to me with free events to attend.

You don’t have to aim to spend nothing every time you go out but a few times a month set yourself and your friends and family the challenge of having a free day out, even if it’s just hitting the local park with a picnic or organising a film night at home. One of my favourite nights was spent at my house with a friend making homemade face scrubs from items in the cupboards – oats plus water makes a surprisingly good exfoliator!

Other people help to keep you accountable too. I know people don’t like to talk about money, but it helps to have a friend to confide your savings goals to. Maybe you have a friend who wants to save too; work together to reach your goals and ensure you stay on track.

8. Don’t get sucked into ‘deals’ 

Strangely, not having any budget to spend made me aware of the number of so-called deals that we are presented with. Whether that is emails telling us about sales, TV advertising telling us to grab a bargain, or two-for-one offers in supermarkets, everywhere you look you are being offered a discount.

Except are we? It is only really a deal if you actually need the item in the first place and would have bought it full price. If not, you are spending money on an item that you probably don’t need and wouldn’t have bought at full price.

Yes, that top is 50% off but if you don’t need it and don’t buy it, that’s a saving of 100%.

9. Look to the past

I took inspiration from my grandparents during the challenge and returned to the discipline of old-fashioned housekeeping and in doing so reduced my grocery bill to just £31.60 on average a week to cover three meals a day for both me and my husband, basic toiletries, such as soap and toothpaste, and essential household goods like washing powder.

For someone who would pop into a mini supermarket on the way home from work to pick something up for dinner and end up spending £15, this was a major achievement.

I didn’t do anything revolutionary – I was just very organised. I did weekly stock takes of the cupboards and freezer to see what I already had, planned meals for the week ahead, wrote precise shopping lists (and stuck to them), shopped in multiple shops for the best prices and batch-cooked vegetarian meals weekly.

This ensured we never went hungry, never ran out of loo roll, and kept the food spending to a minimum. Yes, it took time to do but once you get into a routine it becomes less of a chore (and I now have an encyclopaedic knowledge of prices in my local Lidl).

Although the meal plans could get a bit boring as we ate the same lunch for a week solid (usually a veggie chilli, spaghetti Bolognese or curry), I actually ate far better than I had previously. Processed foods and chocolate treats were replaced with plenty of vegetables and lentils, and I actually lost a stone unintentionally over the year.

10. Get out of your comfort zone

When it came to spending, I was stuck in a rut of trips to the pub, meeting my friends in restaurants and buying stuff because I was bored. With no budget for socialising or anything else, I had to find a new way to live and live happily.

At first it was difficult – especially because I started the challenge in winter when it was cold and dark and my friends, understandably, didn’t really want to go and wander around a gallery after work – but as the spring sprung and days got longer my perspective changed.
I spent more time outdoors riding my bike, walking and wild swimming, and even managed to go on holiday with my husband. We strapped our tent and sleeping bags to our bikes and cycled from London to Suffolk and up the coast to Norfolk.

I would never have even considered doing those things before, but you have to embrace the new and sometimes unusual, and be willing to be more adventurous if you want to live a frugal life and have some fun.

So many of us get stuck in a pattern of spending but by challenging yourself to find new ways to have fun, you can shake up your finances – it’s all about mindset.

‘No spend’ tips from the Moneywise team

Deputy editor Helen Knapman says: “My money-saving tip is to make a packed lunch for work. Yes, it’s a little bit obvious, but the savings are huge. I calculated that I spend between 85p to £1 a day on my packed lunch – depending on if I have a sandwich, salad or homemade soup – which is a daily saving of about £4 compared to the £5ish you’d likely pay in most shops for the equivalent readymade. Over a year, (assuming you have 28 days’ holiday, including bank holidays) this is an expenditure of £233 and a saving of £932 compared to £1,165 if you spent an average of £5 a day on eating out.”

Special projects editor Rachel Lacey says: “I feel rather middle-aged admitting this, but last Black Friday I treated myself to a big chest freezer for our garage and it has been the best money-saving investment. We’ve long been guilty of spending too much on last-minute trips to the supermarket or phoning for takeaways because we don’t fancy cooking and it costs us a fortune. However, now I know that if we feel too tired to cook or are in a hurry there is always something in the freezer – whether it is pizza or fish and chips or a batch-cooked casserole or lasagne. Another big plus is that if we are strapped for cash I know I only need to buy fresh food on my weekly shop as there will plenty in the freezer to keep us going.”

Editor Moira O’Neill says: “Try to work out what you actually earn in pounds and pence for every hour that you work and think about your spending in terms of hours worked. I use Thesalarycalculator.co.uk to help me do this because it calculates your daily take-home pay after tax and pension contributions, which you can then divide by the number of hours worked per day. Every time I want to buy a luxury item (usually clothes or shoes), I remind myself how many hours I’ve had to work in order to buy it. That usually takes the edge off any buzz that I’d get from making the purchase.”

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