It’s time to admit that I’ve often had a very unhealthy relationship with money. And by ‘unhealthy relationship’ I don’t mean ‘It’s just never there for me when I need it, sigh’! Anybody who knows me knows that I’m fairly frugal, but over the years I’ve realised that my frugality sometimes goes to ridiculous extremes. Worse, my good sense occasionally gets me back by abdicating altogether and letting me rebel against my own uptightness by spending money ridiculously in the other direction, splurging when I shouldn’t.
When Mike and I got married, like all couples, we had to sort out our finances. Although I knew that my skills at saving money would be useful, we actually agreed to let him manage the budget entirely for the first few months of our marriage, because I was so tightly wound about the subject I thought I actually couldn’t cope any longer with spreadsheets and budgeted/actuals comparisons. We tried to save money generally, but were constantly going over our general guidelines for budget. A few months in, I’m now trying to develop savvy but sane approaches to spending money.
To be fair, my crazy approach to frugality began as somewhat of a necessity when I started my masters degree, and tightened up even more when I started my PhD. I was often trying to live on a weekly budget which arguably wasn’t enough to live on. I once read that doing a PhD in the humanities pays less than being unemployed!
But I also did it because I believed it to be possible. It was a combination of a ‘don’t-tell-me-what-I-can’t-do’ attitude and a genuine grasp at some kind of American Dream – that you don’t have to start with much or be somebody to build a good life.
Here are some of the crazy things I did to save:
- Washed almost all my clothes by hand in my sink to avoid paying 75p to do a load of washing
- Bought deodorant that didn’t work (but it was cheap)
- Ate porridge for breakfast even though I hate porridge; I kept trying to force myself to like it anyway! (I never did)
- Shopped late at night to get fruit and veg at enormous reductions (I knew it was bad when I found myself buying up the expiring stock at the same time as the homeless people who came in before store closing)
- Lost about 10 lbs (4.5 kg) over the course of a year
Once Mike and I began going out, he caught on to my crazy frugality and always told me to order what I wanted when we ate out, not only what was cheapest on the menu. But by that time, I’d lived by my tightwad standards for so long that I actually didn’t know how to choose what I ‘wanted’ anymore from a menu. I had been choosing the cheapest option and drinking water for so long that I became paralysed by having to fathom what I felt like eating.
Being so frugal had its dark side, too. Under stress, partly from life in general but often (I believe) partly from the constant constraints of my budget, I would crazily spend money impulsively on things I shouldn’t: new clothes at full price, expensive food, or something I wanted but didn’t need. I suspect that if I’d lived my financial life in a more balanced way generally, I wouldn’t have had these momentary breakdowns – just like it’s better to eat a little chocolate in moderation than wildly to swear off it. A crazy resolution can last awhile, but it risks backfiring, and one day you’ll find yourself devouring a whole Dairy Milk bar before lunch.
In retrospect, I can also see that my methods of budget management had some easy pitfalls. For example:
- A tendency to lose perspective, devoting equal obsession to big savings (e.g. saving £10 by not eating a meal out) and to small ones (e.g. to buying new nail polish once a year)
- Jeopardising my health (I developed low iron and lost too much weight)
- False economising, buying super-cheap things I didn’t like or need just because they were a good value (‘I don’t want to eat a whole swede by myself but it’s only 13p!’)
- Having no mercy or flexibility, even when I was too sick to go to the store or cook, was busy, etc.
Despite my break from cuthroat budgeting, I think trying to save money on routine expenses will probably always be my style. Since I don’t have much income, I consider it part of my contribution to the household to make what we do have stretch as far as possible. Most of the time, I also find it an enjoyable challenge. So now that I’ve been free of my budget for a few months, and am a bit fatter, I’m trying to set up some new habits of saving money.
My new goal is to cut some of our living costs, but with reasonable expectations, and (hopefully) to keep it somewhat fun. I’m also trying to do it intelligently, tackling the bigger sources of savings and not sweating over the small ones. Here are some things I’m trying out:
- Checking the store offers before planning my weekly menu, and planning meals around what’s on sale
- Shopping at our local market for fruit and vegetables
- Avoiding accidental food waste when things expire or go bad before we can eat them
- Strategically stocking up on favourite toiletry and makeup brands when they’re cheap, instead of buying them as we need them
- Making my own cleaning products (which is healthier and more eco-friendly as well)
- Cultivating contentment and satisfaction with what I have
These are all things I’ve already done to varying degrees before, but lately I’ve done them only ad hoc; if I happen to see something on sale, I’ll buy two, or if I’m walking by the market I’ll buy a few vegetables. Now, I’m mostly trying to get good systems in place so that all these practices are regular and automatic.
In addition, I’m trying to keep a few boundaries to prevent going off the deep end:
- Eating healthily, including lots of vegetables, some meat, and plenty of food to go around
- Buying ethically and healthily as much as reasonably possible, e.g. fruit and veg from the market, buying free range and organic meat, etc.
- Allowing space for others (namely my husband!) to contribute to the saving effort without being sucked in to the vortex and forced to submit to extreme cost-cutting practices – Mike had a look of terror on his face the other day when I asked him how much his haircuts cost, and I had to admit that I couldn’t force him to let me cut his hair!
- Allowing grace for the times when we are too busy or sick to strategise and need to buy what we need, easily
Today, I engaged in a fun experiment during my lunch break. (I promise, for me, this is fun!) I decided to take 45 minutes, go into town, and shop at the local market and anywhere else that might be a good value. My goal was to pick up what I thought were good items and ones which I would normally buy in a weekly shop and for which I had an immediate use. Then I would compare the prices of those items to buying the equivalents at the place we normally do our shopping.
After a trip to the market and the 99p store, here’s what I came back with:
It may not look like much in quantity, but it actually includes what is (for us) nearly a week’s worth of vegetables, months’ worth of garlic, name brand deodorant which is the kind I actually use, and 10 citrus fruits. Afterwards, I put together an online cart on our supermarket’s website containing all these items. It came to £16.04.
And now the huge unveil…
I paid £7.32. If anything I think I got an even better deal because my ‘5 lemons’ are actually huge lemons, and my one bunch of coriander is bigger than the biggest bunch I’ve seen at the supermarket.
That’s more than a 50% savings, so, to me, well worth it for 45 minutes of walking around town.
But, I have to remind myself, it is not worth it when I’m feverish, not when I have a huge deadline that evening, and not when I have to alter my whole day to fit it in!