How much can I save in a year with a zero budget for luxuries? This question is one many of us have asked ourselves at one point or the other. Personal financial journalist Michelle McGagh set out to find out the answer to that in what she terms “My ‘buy nothing year’”.

Let’s face it, we are all tied down for the ride on the consumer bandwagon, spending more than we can afford on relatively unnecessary things. Coffee, gas, cinema trips, clothes, gym memberships and nights out are a few of the things we tend to splurge on from time to time.

What do you really need?

On face value, it may seem like an impossible feat to survive without these luxuries but a closer look will reveal that they may not be as necessary as you think. A quick look at your expenses will show how much of your earnings are being spent without consideration. These expenses may include expensive clothes you don’t wear, store-bought coffees that end up half drunk, gym memberships you don’t use, etc.

The buy-nothing year challenge

This raises the question; just how much can you save if you spent on only the bare essentials in a year. This includes food, utilities, insurance, mortgage, broadband, and mobile phone bills. Michelle McGagh, a personal financial journalist set out to shake up her relationship with money by pledging not to spend anything on luxuries for a whole year.

“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.” – Michelle [1]. She also decided not to rely on her husband, family or friends to pay her way.

This was quite the challenge as you would imagine. Michelle allocated herself a zero budget for transport so she had to cycle everywhere. She and her husband limited themselves to a weekly grocery budget of £35 ($44) for all meals. The buy nothing year challenge began on November 26, 2015.

Michelle quickly found out that her previous social life would have to go. No more nights at the bar or unplanned hang-outs. “Each time I jumped on my bike for another wind-whipped journey across London, I berated myself for not including a transport budget.” [2]. Despite this, she decided to plow on and eventually found out she had been approaching the challenge all wrong.

New spending habits = new lifestyle

Instead of trying to live her old life on a tight budget, Michelle discovered that she had to embrace a different type of social life. She started changing her routine, instead of hanging out she went walking, cycling and wild swimming. She also started visiting the park more to picnic in the sunshine with a “(home-made, in-budget) picnic of falafel salad.” [1].

The highpoint of the whole experience was her summer holiday. As she could not book a flight or hotel, Michelle and her husband attached sleeping bags and a tent to their bikes and cycled along the seaside. The experience left her with a growing love of the outdoors.

Was it worth it?

Michelle finally ended the buy-nothing year challenge by buying her friends and family a round by midnight of November 26, 2016. She found out that she had spent £22,493 ($28,446.33) less than the previous year. She was also able to pay £22,439 off her mortgage.

The rewards were not just financial. The experience helped Michelle find a balance and reassess her priorities. “I buy the essentials, put aside a little for holidays, pub trips and fun, but I’ve cut back on the takeaway coffees no end.” It also had the unexpected benefit of bringing her and her husband closer.

References:

  1. My ‘buy nothing year’: How one woman saved £22,000“, The Telegraph. January, 2017.
  2. How One Woman’s “No-Spend Year” Changed Her Life“, Country Living. January 2017.
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