Monday, May 09, 2005

Frugal Fun...from The Times, 3 May 2005

In praise of thrift: enjoy money, don't spend it

Repossessions are on the rise again and we are in debt as never before. Reformed spendthrift Sarah Johnson explains how she learnt the art of "elegant economy"

"Borrow as much as you can," everyone said when I bought my first flat. "Your income can only go up and the value of your home will rise."
That was in 1985, and it is quaint to think how we all believed it. In real life, people get sacked, sick or pregnant and debt doesn’t get smaller just by switching to a different card. Of late, average incomes haven’t been rising, but falling.
Yet so desperate are the middle classes to keep up appearances and "play the part" of the big spender, that a typical working woman blithely dribbles away £100 a month on gloopy coffees - just for the sake of the twice-daily walk to Starbucks. All the while paying the same amount in interest on one of her clutch of credit cards.
It is a bling mentality. Money that isn’t really yours feels so much more personal if dangling round your neck or off your wrist, or slipping down your throat…so we spend money we don’t have very readily.
Luckily for me, I married a man who lived for six months in a deserted mill in the Lake District with nothing but lentils and a bicycle, and for a year in Berlin on little more than a Mars Bar a day. A man whose idea of shopping therapy is to emerge from an hour’s browsing in a second hand bookshop, clutching one very small volume of German philosophy in a brown paper bag. A man who utters a sharp intake of breath if his single monthly credit card statement is in three figures. A man who can go into Waitrose - yes, Waitrose! - and come out with nothing but Special Offers and BOGOFs.
Daniel is untouched by life envy. He struggles to understand how months of thrift can be blown in five minutes incautious browsing and clicking on the Boden Sale website. He does not recognise car makes, or own any sports equipment. He just can’t see what is wrong with inheriting carpets from the house’s previous owners; they seemed nice clean people, after all, and the carpet doesn’t actually have holes in it.
Where he pores over a bill check, I plonk my credit card on top without looking. He says, "I might like one," I say, "I need three". I read the words "you may spend up to £4,500" and take them seriously, whereas Daniel knows they are a joke. Daniel says the bath is fine because it doesn’t leak; I say it has to go because it is 30 years old and avocado.
As a result Daniel always has money, and I was until not long ago usually overdrawn. It finally hit me that the art of living within one’s means is just that - an art. It is all about enjoying not spending money.
Like the ladies in Elizabeth Gaskell’s marvellous 1853 comic novel, Cranford, I have learned "elegant economy". Those ladies would walk home because, they claimed, the night air was refreshing, rather than because they could not afford a carriage. Cotton was nicer than silk, they assured each other, because it washed better, not because they could no longer afford silk. Ever the observer of social economics, Gaskell saw sharply how daughters of good family living on dividends were at the mercy of Victorian City wide boys who played fast and loose with the old dears’ savings. Plus ca change…We, however, are even more at the mercy of the 0% interest credit card and its empty promises. Here’s my twelve step Frugal Fun plan for plastic surgery - for mutating from bling-bling to elegant economy.
1. Write down everything you spend. I use a tiny, day-per-page pocket diary. It works straight away: just as writing down what you eat makes you eat a bit less, writing down what you spend makes you spend a bit less.
2. Get angry and start minding very much about small, pointless expenditure. The parking ticket you got because you were lingering in a shop…or because you didn’t have the right change for the machine. Cigarettes. The online subscription to a website you don’t use. The latte which you bought only because you needed to use the loo in the cafĂ©. Get annoyed when you see needless items cluttering your little blue book.
3. Use your anger to change your attitude to consumer goods. Stop reading fashion and style magazines which whip you into a frenzy of discontent, and press "mute" for the TV ads - suddenly they look wonderfully absurd. This car, that cooker can make you feel happier - when you know that the purchase is just driving you deeper into debt? Do you really believe that the rest of us can tell whether you are wearing Grand Duchess Ripoff’s lip-liner or not? Do you seriously believe anyone notices what shampoo you use, so long as your hair is clean? Consider the lilies of the field: they reap not, neither do they spin, but neither do they call spending cash they don’t have "therapy". Shopping, therapy? For the shop, yes.
On the other hand, don’t flaunt your thrift rashly. "Lulu Guinness?" asked someone at a very grand party once, pointing to my handbag. "Shepherd’s Bush market, two quid," I answered without thinking and all of a sudden, it looked it.
4. Become Jamie Oliver trying to feed 800 kids on 37p a day. Many middle class people have no idea what they spend on food. You think you despise convenience foods: but a long hard look at your trolley may tell another story. Buy loose, buy big and buy late in the day. Keep the larder well stocked with ingredients for things you know you can cook from scratch when you come home late, hungry and a bit pissed. Build up a repertoire of cheap recipes that everyone loves.
5. Now, and only now, you are ready to set your budget. (I’ve gone off the rails countless times by setting budgets that were hopelessly unrealistic). Earmark a lump of monthly income for real debt reduction (not just paying off interest). Work out your monthly fixed expenses and include set-asides for annual or predictable expenses - car services, holidays. Divide what’s left by 31 to see how much you have to spend each day.
6. Forget about juggling credit cards. It’s not big and it’s not clever to give yourself a false sense of financial prudence, when in fact you are sliding deeper into debt. Instead, play the sniper: pick your cards off, one by one. Your target: one bank account and one credit card for emergencies that does not live in your wallet, but in the freezer.
7. Steer clear of temptation and danger zones. Motorway services, garages, cinema foyers. Only £800 million of Britain’s £2 billion cinema industry’s takings are in box-office sales - the rest is spent on £5 tubs of air, wrapped in popcorn. Thames Water charge me £400 a year for water; I’m darned if I’m paying for extra bottles of it at the supermarket. Mail order catalogues go straight into the recycling bag, unopened. If you must walk past Jigsaw and Karen Millen, walk fast.
8. Be prepared. Take snacks and bottles of tap water everywhere for the children. Have change ready for parking meters, spare tights in your bag. Never again buy something because you left your other one at home. And, speaking of children, what’s wrong with "no" for an answer?
9: Rather than yearn for stuff you don’t have, look at what you have already. If you don’t like it, take it to Oxfam or put it on Ebay if it might sell.
10. Don’t become enamoured of "moneysaving" wheezes that take up more time and trouble than they are worth. I’ve tried all the duds: the home sewing, the bargain hunters‘ newsletters, the Sodastream. And be cautious of sale items: a bargain saves even more money if you don’t buy it at all.
11: Aim to have a few no-spend days a month. After a while, it becomes a game: how can I run my life today without writing anything down in my little blue book? How ingenious can I be? Put off replacing broken things for a little bit longer.
12: You cannot afford to be Lady Bountiful - for the time being - but where you can be generous, be generous - with time, with support, with friendship; with a spare bed for children’s friends, with a lift for an elderly neighbour, with tomatoes from your garden. Thrift can so easily morph unpleasantly into meanness.
As you claw your way out of debt, you may notice a strange thing. Money which you actually possess feels completely different from money you owe. When contemplating spending money that is sitting solidly in your account, as opposed to spending putative money whose miraculous elasticity is there only to encourage you to pay interest, the prospect of splashing it on a pair of shoes almost identical to two pairs you already possess strangely seems to pall.
So you drive a harder bargain. You become a tougher customer. In short, you begin to behave like someone who is genuinely rich - not like someone just playing the part.

Sarah Johnson 2005


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