My year of no spending is over here’s how I got through it

The first six months were hard, but I found a new way of living and the challenge has left me wealthier and wiser

Just over 12 months ago I gave myself a challenge: give up spending on all but the essentials for a whole year. I started on Friday 27 November, just as many other people were hitting the shops. It hasnt always been easy, but a year on I am wealthier and wiser. Embarrassingly, I have also realised just how much money Ive squandered down the pub, in restaurants and through mindless shopping.

The challenge

As a personal finance journalist people assumed I was good with money but while I wrote a lot about the merits of saving, I wasnt practising what I preached. I figured that because I earned a good wage, didnt have any credit card debt and my bank account was in the black, I didnt need to worry about how much money was leaving my account.

I was spending without thinking, lured in by advertising and the promise that I could spend my way to happiness. I was stuck in a cycle of consumerism earning money to buy stuff I didnt really need, which wasnt making me happy.

Giving up spending for a year was an extreme approach, but the aim was to embrace extreme frugality, shake up my spending habits and overpay my mortgage instead of shopping. I could continue to pay my bills, including mortgages, utilities, broadband, phone bill, charity donations, life insurances, money to help my family and basic groceries.

Ive learned to shop for food in a better way than I did before I have planned meals, batch-cooked and improved my dire cooking skills slightly. My husband agreed to do the grocery part of the challenge with me this year and we reduced our weekly shop (which covered three meals each a day, toiletries and house cleaning products) to 31.60 a week.

Finding a new way to live

Michelle McGaghs cycle became her best friend.

There were two instances in the last year when I had to put my hand in my pocket. The first was on a cycling holiday when I spent 1.95 on a bag of chips because there was nothing to eat in the only local shop except for pork pies. The second was when my next door neighbour who didnt know I was on a no-spending challenge had given a roofer the OK to fix a missing tile between our terrace house and his. The work had already been done and the roofer paid. It cost 100 and we owed him 50 so I paid up. Im not too upset by the fact Ive paid out 51.95 all year.

Im not going to pretend it was easy, especially in the first few months when I tried to live my old life without money and found it wasnt working. There were plenty of times I wanted to abandon it and indulge in some retail therapy, buy a pint in the pub, or even just purchase a bus ticket instead of getting on my bike for another journey.

But I realised I just had to find new ways to have fun that didnt include putting my hand in my pocket and defaulting to the pub. Using sites such as Eventbrite I have been to film screenings, wine tasting evenings and theatre productions for free. Ive also used SRO Audiences to see comedy shows and TV programmes being filmed, and none of it cost me anything.

Living in London I have a wealth of free cultural activities on my doorstep and Ive been to more art exhibitions this year than ever before my favourite being First Thursdays, where 150 galleries in east London open late and hold private views and talks.

I even managed a free holiday, cycling the Suffolk and Norfolk coast and camping on beaches. Its something Id never done before and probably wouldnt have, were it not for the challenge and now I cant wait to go again next year.

There were lows, such as when I missed gigs and blockbuster films. And Ive not been able to join friends when they have gone out for a nice meal. There have also been some awkward moments when Ive turned up to a friends house for dinner empty-handed because I couldnt buy a bottle of wine as a thank you. I did a lot of washing up at my friends houses this year as a way of saying thanks for feeding me.

The savings

After my expenses were met, I started overpaying my mortgage. We also took in a lodger, and my savings and their rent have helped us pay off an extra 10% of our loan.

Paying off a large chunk of the mortgage has made me realise that I dont have to stay indebted to the bank for another 25 years like it wants me to and that I have an option to pay it off earlier. By getting rid of my mortgage faster I not only cut the amount of time I spend paying it off but also the interest I pay to the bank.

Im grateful to have disposable income to save and feel I should make the most of it I hope I have encouraged other people to reconsider their spending patterns too. I would like to say thank you to those who engaged with me on social media to say they were enforcing their own spending bans whether on clothes or a month-long ban they all helped me keep my resolve.

Thats not to say that everyone was happy about my experiment, with some accusing me of poverty tourism, but there is a big difference between poverty and frugality. This experiment was not about living in poverty because poverty isnt a choice. I could still pay my mortgage, bills and food. The last year has been an experiment in extreme frugality and choosing not to buy, rather than not having a choice.

Michelle McGaghs jeans have seen better days

Despite the awkward moments and missing out, this year has been the shove I needed to try new things. The best thing about the challenge is that Ive been willing to say yes more and that Ive become more adventurous.Having the choice to spend, or not, is a privilege and I have become far more aware of why we buy. I have come to realise that consumerism keeps us chained to our desks, working to earn money to spend on stuff we think will make our lives better. And when the stuff doesnt make us happy, we go back to work to earn more money to buy something else. The last 12 months have allowed me to step outside this cycle and I can honestly say Im happier now. Ive gained confidence and skills, done things I would never have done and met lovely people I wouldnt have otherwise met.

Many people have said to me, I bet you cant wait to get down the shops and have a splurge, but in all honesty, Im not interested in hitting the shops. There are a few practical items I need to replace, such as jeans and trainers, and my bike could do with a decent service but thats about it. I have one more day of no spending to get through and after that there are just two things I will be buying this weekend: a round of drinks for my friends and family to say thanks for their support, followed by a flight to see my grandad in Ireland.

A year of no spending has taught me what things I really need, and it really isnt that much.

Five things I really missed

There were lots of big events and nights out I expected to miss out on, but there were some small, more everyday items that I hadnt expected to miss quite so much.

  • Decent curry: Im not the best cook and my home-made curries just cant compete with my local takeaway.
  • Fresh flowers: I realised how much Id missed flowers at home when I was sent a bunch for my birthday they brightened my home and my mood.
  • Moisturiser: this didnt make it on to the essentials list, which was probably a mistake judging by my wind-whipped face.
  • Perfume: my Lidl deodorant stood up to the test of cycling everywhere but a spritz of perfume may have helped me feel a bit more human and less of a sweaty mess.
  • The bus: while I love cycling, not being able to get on the bus in the cold and rain could be trying; taking the bus, especially to meetings where I had to look smart, would have been a big plus.

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