A Year Spent Without Shopping

CC BY 2.0. Tax Credits -- Cut your spending!

Michelle McGagh, a personal finance journalist from London, has nearly finished her year-long ban on shopping and has learned some interesting lessons along the way.

It has been nearly one year since Michelle McGagh embarked on a buy nothing challenge. The 32-year-old personal finance journalist from London, England, realized that she was actually terrible with managing her own money. Despite knowing the major outgoing amounts from her bank account, she lacked knowledge and control over discretionary spending — the small bits here and there that add up so quickly. Inspired by Buy Nothing Day, a growing act of protest to the rampant spending of Black Friday, McGagh decided to take it even further. Her official start to Buy Nothing Year was November 27, 2015.

She outlined the rules in an article for The Guardian published last fall:

“This means no meals out, no cinema trips, no holidays, no gigs unless they’re free, no rounds down the pub, no new clothes, no coffee – you get the idea. It also means I won’t be able to buy train tickets or bus fares so my trusty bicycle will be relied on to get from A to B. And I won’t be able to rely on friends and family to pay for me either – it’s a year of no spending, not scrounging.”

McGagh would spend money only on bills (mortgage, utilities, taxes), phone and Internet (necessary for work), life and home insurance, and food, which she limited to £35/$43 US per week for two people, including toiletries and cleaning supplies. No booze was included in a food budget that tight.

After reading McGagh’s initial article in The Guardian, I dug around the Internet for an update, curious about how she’s faring. I found a podcast by the author of ‘The Financial Wellbeing Book,’ featuring an interview with McGagh at the end of September, just over a month ago.

McGagh told the interviewer that her challenge got tough as the first few months of 2016 arrived, post-holiday season. The novelty had worn off and the days were short and dark; nobody in London wants to do much except sit in the pub, which she couldn't do because that costs money.

Then she realized something: If she continued pining after her old life, or even trying to replicate her old life, then she would be miserable all year long. Instead, she had to find new ways of living, which involved seeking free activities, such as swimming and walking. This resulted in her becoming more physically active (who needs an expensive gym membership?) and meeting new groups of friends.

As McGagh’s interviewer points out, social wellbeing is by far the most important form of wellbeing. Often we spend money because we want to see people, which makes us feel good; and yet, it’s seeing people, and not the spending, that is satisfying, which should lead us to ask, “What can I do that’s free?”

When asked about people’s reactions, McGagh said she’s been surprised at how people want to talk to her about their own finances. Talking about money is something that Brits tend not to do, or else they wait until they’re middle aged and have money with which to consult professional money management firms. This isn’t a good approach, and McGagh thinks young people should start thinking about money earlier in life.

“Young people don’t have any money, but arguably this is exactly the time we need to be helping people to understand money. You’re going into adulthood and there’s a lot of tricky financial costs out there.”

McGagh says she has regained control over her daily finances and has a much more transparent relationship with money. No longer does she dread looking at bank statements, nor does she worry about the future, once her shopping ban is lifted. She has acquired healthy financial habits that she can carry into the future. She describes herself as happier and more positive, which is what always happens when you take control of your own life.

Her story is impressive and inspiring. While I am not yet ready to do a year-long shopping ban, I am considering a shorter three-month stint in the new year (once I'm finished playing the Minimalist Game). Could you ever go one year without buying? What do you think would be the hardest thing to give up?

Check out Michelle McGagh's new book, set to release in January 2017: "The No Spend Year: How I Spend Less and Lived More". Find her on Twitter @mmcgagh.