Last year, I realised with a start that my finances were a mess. Ordinarily, I always have a cushion in my current account for emergencies. An emergency flight home, an emergency pair of glasses, an emergency new phone. Somehow, I’d burnt through it. I’d burnt through it, but I hadn’t anything to show for it. I own one Chanel lipstick and the expensive handbags I have were gifts. I have no Louboutins, all my shoes come from M&S or Clarks. I had no holiday photos of Bali or New York to explain away my penury.
Where the hell had all my money gone?
The huge crate in my room, packed full with on-offer shampoo and new-line moisturizer, indicated that I really liked spending the money, rather than actually liking the objects I bought with the money. To be very honest, I still don’t really know where that tendency comes from. Is it because we didn’t have much spare cash when I was tiny? Is it because I enjoy the thrill of the chase? I did find that when I had a bad day at work, or was annoyed about something, my first response was to go and purchase a treat for myself – usually something food-based, because then it didn’t seem like such a terrible waste of money. I’ve never been someone to buy clothes to cheer myself up- clothes are too expensive for that. But a scratch card, a magazine with a free gift (those are like CATNIP to me, even if I don’t really want the magazine OR the free thing), an on-off bar of chocolate or a microwaveable chocolate pudding? Fair game. It got to the point where I had a stack of magazines I hadn’t read and too many chocolate bars for me to actually eat. Often the buying of the thing was the thrill and I wasn’t interested when I got it back to the office. If it was a shirt from Zara, I could take it back, but you can’t really take back a £3 bar of chocolate from Hotel Chocolat. They’d look at you funny. I had an internal budget for things like this. Anything up to a fiver was okay. So I would buy a nail polish, but not a lipstick, in Boots. I could buy some body lotion, but not a fancy serum unless it was on offer. I bought a lot of patterned tights from M&S. I’d buy a magazine in WhSmiths, but not a book. I’d buy a tiny bottle of wine, but not a full one (which is actually less economical and worse for the environment)!
This was how I frittered away my emergency money. Tights and snack pots of mango and postage to World Zones.
I spent money when I was tired, or bored or frustrated or sad. All the things that HALT from Alcoholic Anonymous tells you to avoid. (Hungry, angry, lonely, tired → reasons not to drink or your drug of choice) Instead of dealing with My Emotions, I was spending money, which made me more frustrated and angrier with myself and also poorer.
Around this time my friend Fee started an accountability project. She had various aims and she would email me once a week to tell me whether she had stuck to her aims or not and why. The idea was to see if there were patterns for making less-than-stellar choices. Being held to account by an external source meant that Fee took the aims more seriously, than if she had just set them for herself. I didn’t actually need to do anything, and my opinion or judgement certainly wasn’t required.
I decided that I would straight-up copy Fee and have an accountability project for my finances. Every week, I kept a diary in my phone of what I spent, money I shouldn’t have spent (and what I spent it on) and near misses.
Fee very wisely pointed out that I would have to be careful not to feel like all the fun had been removed from my life because I was trying not to BUY things, so I factored in another column – fun treats that didn’t cost any more money. This meant I would actually use some of the things that I had bought (dvds, skin care treatments, snacks), rather than just accumulating them. It also meant that I could learn how to treat myself without spending money on things.
For well over twenty weeks in 2016, I emailed Fee tables of what I spent in Sainsbury’s, the Post Office and the newsagent near work. I wrote down money I didn’t need to spend and what I spent it on.
Hilariously early on in the project, my brain reasoned that if I couldn’t spend money on myself, it was entirely acceptable to spend it on other people and so I would buy little gifts and mail them to people. I bought a lot of terrible brightly coloured magazines with stories of crazy bridesmaids who ran off with grooms, women who taste-tested dog food for a living and the caravan that was haunted by a Victorian family – all less than £2 an issue – and then I would mail them to my sister in Canada because I knew she loved this nonsense. Or I’d buy a cake at lunch to share with the team and foster a fun environment. Or a box of two egg custards to treat my work friend and I at lunch.
Having Fee look at my spending every week wasn’t exactly as I’d expected. I thought that knowing she would be reading my spending habits would be enough pressure that I would want to impress her and behave properly. The Good Girl approach of my younger years. According to Gretchen Rubin’s Four Tendencies, it turns out that I’m Upholder (with a slight leaning towards Obliger) when it comes to my nature. I actually want to meet outer and inner expectations, and if I rebel, it’s going to be that I resist my inner expectation more than the outer expectation. I knew Fee would give me some slack in some areas (she would give me a pass for spending £2 on a doughnut), but I wouldn’t give myself that slack. If I was going to break my own rules, I’d break them (buying an 80p chocolate bar), but not go beyond her levels of what the rules were.
Staying with Gretchen Rubin, I’m also an abstainer. Possibly her most quoted line is from Samuel Johnson “Abstinence is as easy to me as temperance would be difficult.” I’d rather just never eat crisps, than have to mentally justify how many crisps is enough. As long as I had a clear line of what was “allowed” (buying groceries I actually needed, or cosmetics that actually needed replaced), I didn’t need to think about what I might allow myself as a treat.
Eventually, I managed to top up my emergency fund. I didn’t buy take-away coffee, I rarely bought cakes, I stopped buying nail polishes, I wouldn’t let myself wander around Tiger or Hema for entertainment. I read books, I emailed with friends, I ate the snacks I had stashed away. I didn’t stop having dinner out with friends, because spending time with them was important to me and the eating out expense was worth it. But I did decide that I could either have a glass of wine, or I could have pudding. I could have a coffee out with friends, but I could either have a cup of tea and a cake, OR I could have a fancy mocha. They worked out about the same, but I wasn’t spending seven pounds to have the same amount of fun that I could have by spending four. The cake wasn’t the objective – seeing my friend was.
After a while, Fee and I noticed that we were reporting the same things week after week, so it seemed like a good time to call it a day with the accountability side of things. Not having kept a record over Christmas and New Year was good, because I would probably have been a little distressed to see how much more I spent over the festive period, even though I wanted to. I spent money on flights and gifts and restaurants and regret none of it. Even when I was spending money like water I never regretted anything I bought. I regretted the larger number on my credit card statement, but I took back to the store anything I truly regretted.
Now that we’re in February, and I’m working my way through the pile of books I have been so generously gifted by friends and family, I’ve read Help by Oliver Burkeman. It’s a great book. He writes for the Guardian about various self-help strategies. This book is the distillation of what’s available, and what works. I’ve taken note of quite a few of them and applied them in my life. He makes the point that humans do not infinite reserves of willpower. Burke writes about a study by Roy Baumeister, “a pioneer in research on self-control, asked people to complete tasks that required ‘effortful persistence’ and focus – the equivalent of such real-life challenges as remaining at your desk to work instead of wandering off to make a cup of coffee, or walking past a shop window without making an impulse purchase. The tasks, it turned out, depleted their glucose levels; moreover, subject who had a glucose drink beforehand showed more persistence. Exerting self-control, in other words, uses up real energy, much as lifting a heavy object….Baumeister calls this effect ‘ego-depletion’, because we’re imposing our sense of self on the world, and on our behaviour, and the effort involved is a limited resource. We use it up…. It’s [also] why, if you want to change some behaviour, willpower can be only a temporary or partial solution. It’s exhaustible, and if you rely on it too much in one area you may find that you don’t have enough left over for the rest of your life. Instead of relying on willpower, we need to develop routines, so that things become automatic.”
What I’ve done with this information is to make a bunch of decisions once, so I don’t have to keep making them.
– I can buy a magazine, but it can only be Red or Vogue. The font size in Marie Claire is too small, the content in Elle irritates me and I don’t like any of the weeklies, so they don’t bring me as much joy. I don’t need them.
– I can buy a snack, but I must want to eat it then and it must be something I will actually enjoy. I can’t just buy something because it’s new or has fun packaging.
– I can’t buy anything in Boots that I already have a version of. I can pick it up, admire the packaging and marketing, but I can’t buy it.
– I’ve subscribed from so many marketing emails advertising sales because I would trawl through the sale to find something I wanted.
– Online shopping can only be books or CDs or things I have touched. If I want to buy clothes or shoes, I have to touch them in a real shop so I know exactly how they look.
– I can only buy clothes that fill a hole. I can’t buy any more grey long sleeved v-necked jumpers. Whatever I buy has to be EXACTLY what I’m looking for, it can’t be a near approximation if I squint a bit and hope for the best.
– Before I buy something for someone, I ask myself if they would actually WANT this item. Or do I just want to send them something to make myself seem like a good friend. Because they aren’t always the same.
I’ve found spending money to be quite a bit easier in 2017 and it’s because I have rules. I can follow rules with a little flexibility (ahem: camel coloured trench coat from Mango reduced to £20!) and it means I actually have what I want at the end of the day. Granted, I can’t buy a house yet, but I can save up to buy a coffee table book about houses…