My tipping point was a notebook.
Or rather, it was the sixth notebook. The sixth notebook I’d bought in four weeks. The first notebook was a Harry Potter Moleskine – I’d seen an advert promoted on Instagram, found them online, picked my favourite of two designs and ordered it. The second notebook was also a Harry Potter Moleskine, because five minutes later I panicked that I'd bought the wrong one and ordered the other one, too. Two weeks later I saw two more Harry Potter notebooks of different designs so decided to buy them for future use. A week after that I bought a A4 recycled paper notebook from Paperchase, even though I already have two at home, and finally I bought 2017 day-to-a-pay journal, because “new year, new diary!” mentality took over.
For Michelle McGagh, whom I met recently to talk about her book The No Spend Year, her tipping point was moving house: “We had loads of things in storage, and one day I found this box that said ‘Not needed’ on it. If it was full of stuff that we didn’t need, why did we have it? Every time I saw the box I felt really anxious.”
Both McGagh and I thought we were pretty good with money until our tipping points. She is a finance journalist, which obviously gives you an advantage when it comes to money. Personally, I have no debt except student loans and always make it to the end of the month without resorting to eating the mystery cans at the back of my cupboard. We were admittedly both spending money on food – “Rather than cook I’d go to Tesco on the way home and pick up some fresh pasta in some tomato sauce or something for £10” – but wasn’t everyone doing this? Wasn’t this just being being too busy to cook?
But looking at that pile of notebooks, at the £70 I’d spent without even thinking about it, I felt a bit sick. I needed to do something drastic.
This year, I am on a spending ban. I am allowed to buy food – but only from a shop or market, not Pret – and replace things that break, as long as I don’t have another similar item I could use in its place, and that's basically it. Michelle was even stricter, giving herself a strict budget for all food and homewares, and not even having the safety net of being able to replace things. I’ve spent the first few weeks of the year enjoying cooking and spending money on good ingredients, whereas McGagh averaged out at spending £31 a week on all food and all household necessities. She is a budgeting hero.
We buy things when we’re sad, when we’re happy, when we’re angry or lonely. We’re buying things for emotional reasons rather than because we need or want them
When I tell people I’m doing a spending ban, they react with horror. A whole year without buying anything? How will I have any fun? Well, there are so many people who don’t have the disposable income to buy new things or spend money, and I’m sure their lives aren’t totally devoid of fun.
Plus, as McGagh said, there are loads of ways to enjoy yourself without money. “You can go to loads of free museums and events, especially in London. Eventbrite will become your new best friend,” she tell me. “There are loads of free events on there if you look for them. The thing about not spending money is that you have to put a bit of effort in, do things like batch cook or find free things places to go, but it’s worth it.”
It’s the mindset that we have to spend in order to be happy that McGagh thinks is a huge problem with how we shop nowadays. “I think that as a society we confuse ‘want’ and ‘need’ too often. We think that we need that pair of shoes, when actually, we just want them.” It’s OK to want and buy things, but when you’re constantly buying everything because you think you need it, you quickly stop thinking about it. “We buy things when we’re sad, when we’re happy, when we’re angry or lonely. We’re buying things for emotional reasons rather than because we need or want them,” she says. “Or we spend mindlessly, picking up a magazine at the till or a coffee as a treat. I once met a woman who said she wouldn’t give up her daily coffee as it was her main treat, but we worked out that she was spending £650 on coffee a year! If someone gave you £650 so you could treat yourself, would you spend it on coffee?”
I’ve been doing my ban for almost three weeks, now. So far, it’s been fine. I’ve been catching myself wanting to buy stuff – magazines at the supermarket, pretty things for my flat even though it’s bursting at the seams, coffees and pastries as I go past a cafe – and it’s that urge that I’m hoping this year will tackle.
When McGagh finished her year she realised that she’d totally changed about how she thought about buying things. “I needed to replace some T-shirts which had worn out, so instead of buying some cheap and, let’s face it, perhaps ethically dubious ones from Primark, I bought myself some Benetton ones that will actually last.” That’s the place I want to get to. Buying stationery should be one of life’s great pleasures and I owe it to myself to make it so once more.
Michelle McGagh's book The No Spend Year: How I spent less and lived more is published by Coronet.