6 lessons from a woman who went a year without spending money

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6 lessons from a woman who went a year without spending money
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If you haven’t tried a savings challenge, it can be a great way to jumpstart your savings and also help you start to develop better habits. For example, you could try a ‘no-buy’ month, go on a money diet or commit to one of several different savings challenges.

The whole idea is to challenge yourself to make changes that will allow you to save more and spend less. Because once you start cutting out costs, you’ll realize just how much money you’ve been wasting on things you don’t really need — things you won’t even miss when the savings start rolling in. 

There’s no one-size-fits-all solution — different methods work for different people — you just have to make it a priority. 

One woman decided to take the savings challenge concept to a whole new level, and while this isn’t for everyone, there are plenty of lessons you can apply to your own life!

How to go a year without spending

OK, she had to spend some money in order to cover the essentials — which included the monthly mortgage payment, phone bill and food. But aside from those expenses, Michelle McGagh managed to go an entire year without spending money on anything else.

She challenged herself by making three big lifestyle changes: she relied only on her bike to get around, she cut her own hair and she skipped going to bars and restaurants.

By sticking to her plan, she was able to save $23,000 in just that one year.​

‘[This] taught me to be a lot more open and adventurous,’ McGagh told Time Magazine. ‘I had to learn new ways to enjoy my life and have fun, so I ended up saying yes to things I definitely wouldn’t have said yes to before. I pushed myself to my limits and I realized that I don’t need stuff to be happy.’

So if you’re thinking about trying a savings challenge, whether it’s a small one or more extreme, here’s a look at some of McGagh’s top tips that you can apply to your own life and saving strategy!

Top lessons learned from a year without spending money

Start with a purge

‘I decided to embark on a no-spend challenge as an extreme reaction to something that had been brewing for a few years,’ McGagh told Time. ‘My husband Frank and I moved out and our new house needed some work done to it. We put all our stuff in storage and just had a small plastic drawer each, our bikes and a few pots and pans. Every now and again we’d go back to the storage unit and each time we went back I would feel really anxious, but couldn’t figure out why.

One day, I went to pick something up from the unit and I noticed a box that said ‘not needed’ on the side. Then it just clicked – I thought ‘Why have I got all this stuff?’ I started donating and selling things, and gave stuff away to family and friends. We got rid of about 80% of our possessions. It was soon after this, I decided to give up spending for good.’

Here are 40 ways to sell your old stuff for the most cash.

Comparison shop

‘I had to pay my mortgage and my utilities like my phone and my broadband, so I could continue to work,’ she told Time. ‘I also had a very basic food budget. I spent a lot of time working out what that should be and I eventually settled on [$38] a week for all groceries – for example, food, basic toiletries, cleaning products, washing powder and toilet roll.’

Resources to help you cut costs:

Don’t rely on other people

If you take on a savings challenge and borrow money from people, that clearly defeats the purpose. Of course it may be tempting, but when it comes to your personal financial life, it’s something you better get used to sooner rather than later.

‘It wasn’t a year of getting other people to fund me – it was a year of not spending,’ said McGagh. 

This is something you can easily apply to your own life without going to the extreme. Try cutting out expenses one by one, or make it a goal to reduce one area of the budget every month — things like food, subscriptions, insurance etc.

Here’s a guide on how to reduce your expenses to free up more cash each month.

You have to adjust your lifestyle

McGagh explains that her nights out were typically centered around going to pubs or eating out, but those were no longer an option.

‘I was trying to live my old life but without any money and it didn’t really work and it made me feel a bit miserable.’

McGagh’s situation is obviously extreme. There are plenty of ways to adjust your lifestyle to fit your budget and savings plan, without feeling deprived and totally miserable.

The whole idea of budgeting isn’t about taking things away, it’s about adding freedom to your life. Once you learn to spend less, you’ll be able to save more — and having money in the bank is the only way you’ll ever be able to make your own decisions when you want to make them.

The first step is adjusting your mindset. Take these 5 steps to get started!

You have to be willing to make sacrifices

McGagh had to skip out on a few big vacations and events during her year of no spending. At the time, she says all she could think was,’what am I doing this for? I’m missing out.’ 

But she says she ‘stayed strong.’

So while you may not have to give up every vacation, skipping out on a few things may be necessary in order to stick to your budget. Nobody likes missing out, but when it comes to your long-term financial life, you’ll look back and be glad you focused on yourself and your own goals.

I promise.

All the small savings really do add up

You don’t realize how much small expenses are costing you until you really take a closer look. And very often, when you cut out some of those small things, you won’t even notice them gone — and you’ll be one step closer to reaching your goals.

‘I analyzed my spending for the year prior to the challenge and I’d spent about [$503] on coffee and I’m not even a big coffee person,’ McGagh said. ‘It made me realize how important it is to keep tabs on small spends.’

Check out our budgeting guide to start reducing costs and get your money back on track!

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Alex Thomas Sadler About the author: Alex Thomas Sadler
Alex Thomas Sadler is the Managing Editor of Clark.com and Clark Howard Digital Products. Alex is also the host of Common Cents, a new Clark.com series that makes money simple, so you can better understand and take control of your own financial life. Alex graduated from the University of Georgia with bachelor's degrees in ...Read more
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