4 Lessons Learned From a Year of Extreme Frugality

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Personal finance writer Michelle McGagh weighs in on how to save money effectively.

A few months ago, Michelle McGagh wrapped up her “year of no spending.” The London-based personal finance journalist made a radical decision on Black Friday 2015 not to spend any money on superfluities for 12 months. She would only pay bills and mortgage, and buy groceries for homemade vegetarian meals. No money for bus fares meant she rode her bike everywhere, and no budget for going out forced her to come up with alternative ways to socialize with friends.

McGagh looks back on the year as a great success. She managed to put £22,000 toward her mortgage, reducing the interest and number of years she’ll be indebted to the bank. In an article for Moneywise, she shared 10 practical tips learned during this experiment in extreme frugality. Four of these stood out for me while reading, and I will share them below.

1. Needs versus wants

When faced with a purchase, ask yourself whether it’s a need or a want. It’s far too easy to come up with a reason for why you think you need (or deserve) something – a new pair of shoes, a shirt, a vacation, even a new car – but it’s important to analyze the urge critically, especially if you’re already in debt.

McGagh writes:

“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.”

2. Set a goal

Saving money is a lot easier if you’re working toward something specific. You’ll cope with short-term sacrifices better, knowing what the long-term benefits will be. While McGagh chose to target her mortgage, your goal could be anything: “building up an emergency fund, paying to re-train for a new career, or treating the kids to a holiday of a lifetime.”

3. Look to the past

Some of the best lessons in frugality can be found by looking back in time, to the way our grandparents lived. They were experts in stretching a dollar and reusing food in creative ways (not to mention engaging in self-denial and delayed gratification). McGagh managed to slash her grocery bill to just over £30 per week, including food, toiletries, and cleaning supplies, by “returning to the discipline of old-fashioned housekeeping.”

4. Get out of your comfort zone

When I wrote about McGagh’s challenge last year, I was struck by her statement that she had to stop trying to replicate her old life in order to succeed. It was only after figuring out new ways of socializing, traveling, and keeping herself occupied that she was able to feel happy.

“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.”

It’s not necessary to live as extremely as McGagh did, but there are valuable lessons to be learned from the experience. It boils down to a basic concept – having a plan and sticking to it – that can make all the difference between financial incompetence and financial success.

Read the full article "10 practical tips from my year of spending nothing" here.