Outside of mortgage and utility bills, Michelle McGaugh spends just £35 per week on living costs, while living in London — one of the most expensive cities in the world.
She does it by forfeiting all spending on entertainment, transport, eating out, new clothes, and gifts for others. McGaugh does buy groceries and toiletries, but refuses to scrounge any extras from others.
That means every day after work, the financial journalist declines drinks with friends and forgoes public transport, instead mounting her bike and peddling through the city, often in the pouring rain. When McGaugh gets home to meet her husband, there is no chance of an impromptu trip to their favourite restaurant or to see the latest release at the cinema, even if it’s her birthday.
This may sound like a miserable existence to some, but with skyrocketing rents in London and across the southeast of the UK, McGaugh’s spending challenge is normal for many people. The average total weekly spend for families in London is £579 per week including bills, according to the 2014 ONS report.
McGaugh’s “epiphany” happened when she realised that she was paying money to keep boxes of useless stuff at a private storage unit.
Later, roused by the mindless consumerism of the Black Friday sales, and inspired by the counter-movement Buy Nothing Day, McGaugh set out on a challenge to buy nothing unnecessary for 12 long months.
McGaugh is now more than halfway through the challenge. So Business Insider decided it was time to catch up with her to find out about the costs and rewards of her experiment.
The transcript that follows has been edited for clarity.
Business Insider: Was there a sudden crisis point which led to you the point where you decided to spend nothing for an entire year? Did you get yourself into a lot of debt?
Michelle McGaugh: No, no. I wasn’t in debt. I think it’s a bit far to say it was a crisis point, but you know, basically I was just sick of being a consumer. I was sick of being on a treadmill earning money to spend money on things that I don’t need.
We are consumers. Advertising is a huge part of our lives. You can’t step out of the door without people trying to sell something to you. Personally, I’m fed up with being sold to. I’m fed up with just being a consumer because I don’t think it made me happy.
BI: How hard has it been to give up all of life’s luxuries for nearly seven months?
MM: It has been hard. It’s difficult not spending any money living in London. It’s an expensive place. I’m not going to pretend it’s been really easy. It has been difficult, but I’ve just had to do a lot more leg work to find things that are free basically. So I don’t live like a hermit for a year.
BI: Yeah, I can imagine it is difficult to make arrangements with friends when you are not prepared to spend any money. How have you been able to avoid living a life of complete isolation without spending and without scrounging from those around you?
MM: My friends have been great actually, they have really got on board. My family as well. The good thing about London is — despite it obviously being really expensive — there are lots of free things to do. So museums, galleries, and different types of exhibitions are going on all the time. You just have to go out and look for it.
I follow accounts like @SkintLondon. That’s a really good Twitter feed to follow. It promotes things that are either free or under a tenner. Also @LondonersLondon finds loads of free stuff to do. It’s about knowing who to follow, what sites to check. Eventbrite is great as well for free events. I went to a wine tasting thing the other day for free, which was class.
BI: Have you really not bought anything other than groceries since November? Have you cheated at any point?
MM: No, I have not cheated, not at all. I would hold my hands up if I was going to. The only concern I have is about my bike because I’m needing that to get everywhere. If I had to spend money, it would probably be on my bike. I use no public transport, I get everywhere on my bike. If I have to spend money, I will let everyone know.
BI: But you do spend £35 a week. How do you decide exactly what to spend it on? How have your eating habits changed?
MM: Basically, it’s just going back to the old-fashioned: write your shopping list, shop once a week, stick to your shopping list, batch cook meals and don’t waste anything.
It is old-fashioned. My mum rolls her eyes: She says that’s what she has been doing for years. She says she has always done that. I’m like, “Yeah, I know, but I haven’t been doing that and now I am.” I was the type of person who would go home from work and pop into the local Tesco Metro or whatever and go, “Oh, I’ll just buy something for tonight,” and end up spending 15 quid.
BI: A lot of the leaders of the Minimalism movement say that spending less money on consumer items has given them more freedom and made them happier. Would you say that you are you happier this year?
MM: The beginning of the year was hard when it was cold and dark. No one wants to go out because it’s raining, which I totally appreciate. When the weather picked up, it was so much better. Also it improved when I changed my mindset from trying to live my old life for free, which I couldn’t really do, because I used to go out for dinner and go to the pub a lot. You can’t do that. I’ve started doing things that are free. I’ve spent a lot of time outdoors and cycling, going on long walks, open water swimming, that sort of stuff.
The only thing that has been a real struggle is that a really close friend of mine is moving to Australia and my girlfriends are going on a trip away, a sort of last hurrah. Obviously, I can’t go and I am really gutted.
BI: What about when the year is over, will you continue spending a lot less money on consumer goods?
MM: I hope so. I think it will be a real waste if I go back to just not thinking about how I spend my money. It’s given me a mindset of thinking: “What is it that you actually need to spend money on? And what are the things you actually want to spend money on?” I think, if I lose that, it will be a total waste of the year. It’s made me more thoughtful about my money, which I don’t think is a bad thing.
BI: You must be planning a huge blowout for when the year is over. What are you going to do?
MM: Yeah, I might have a party. I’m probably just going to have to owe my mates a massive round of drinks for putting up with me.