On Nov. 27 2015, Michelle McGagh, a freelance personal finance journalist from north London, began a challenge her friends and family thought she’d never be able to achieve: Survive a year without spending.
Aside from the bare essentials (paying the mortgage, phone bills and an extremely tight food budget), McGagh managed to last 365 days without spending. By relying on her trusty bicycle to get around, cutting her own hair, bypassing pubs and restaurants and making the most of London’s free offerings, she managed to save $23,000 in one year.
McGagh celebrated the challenge’s end this past November, exactly a year to the date from beginning – she bought a huge round of drinks for her friends and family as a thanks for their support.
“[This] taught me to be a lot more open and adventurous,” she told MONEY. “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.”
If you’ve ever wondered about taking an extreme financial challenge such as this – a month, half-a-year or even a year, here’s McGagh’s tips for success.
She Started With a Massive Purge
“I decided to embark on a no-spend challenge as an extreme reaction to something that had been brewing for a few years. 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.”
Store-Scouting Was Essential
“I had to pay my mortgage and my utilities like my phone and my broadband, so I could continue to work. 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 £30 ($38) a week for all groceries – for example, food, basic toiletries, cleaning products, washing powder and toilet roll.
Frank decided to do the groceries challenge with me and we got our bill for both of us down to £31.60 ($39.8) a week on average – for three meals a day. We shopped in budget and local supermarkets – my local Chinese and Turkish supermarkets were good. It was time consuming as I always had to go into every shop to see where the best deal was.”
She Didn’t Mooch
“Another rule was that other people couldn’t buy me things. It wasn’t a year of getting other people to fund me – it was a year of not spending. I think I’d have lost some mates if I’d done that! If I wanted to go out with my friends, I had to find something free to do.”
Seasons Made it Hard
“I found it all really hard at first, especially as I started the challenge in November and it was really dark and cold. My nights out usually center around going to the pub or for dinner or buying tickets for something, but now I couldn’t. 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.
The huge difference came in Spring – it was lighter and warmer and people were more up for exploring London and going to free exhibitions and museums. Going for walks and bike rides and swimming in lakes; all those things were free. The time of year really helped.”
Skipping Vacations Was Hard, Too
“My friends and I go on an annual girls’ long weekend. I knew I wouldn’t be going this year – that was a given. The girls decided to go to Ibiza and I was a bit disappointed. But the real kicker came when my friend Trina announced a month or so beforehand that she was moving back to Australia. It would have been my last trip with her and I was gutted. I sat there thinking ‘What am I doing this for? I’m missing out.’ But I stayed strong.”
But It All Added Up
“All those small spends that we don’t even think about, they really add up. I analyzed my spending for the year prior to the challenge and I’d spent about £400 ($503) on coffee and I’m not even a big coffee person. It made me realize how important it is to keep tabs on small spends.”
Michelle McGagh’s book, The No Spend Year: How I Spent Less and Lived More is available on Amazon