It’s the darkest and saddest month of the year. Naturally then, it’s also a time for sadistic levels of self-control and penance. You have heard of Veganuary. You have definitely heard of Dry January. But what if the thing you gave up this January was spending money?
Across the UK, people are (attempting) to do just that. Sophie Bradbury, 24, from Brighton, is trying to go an entire month without spending a single penny beyond her necessary bills. On 1 January, she set aside the money for rent and other fixed outgoings. She conceded that she would also need food: budgeting £50 a week for a food shop for her family of three.
Aside from those basic essentials, Bradbury isn’t making any additional purchases. That means no takeaway coffees, no snacks or meals out, no online shopping, and no unnecessary journeys by bus or train. So far, she has stuck to her promise. By the end of the month, she predicts she will have saved £600 by adopting this ruthless approach to finances.
“We really want to go on a summer holiday this year as we couldn’t afford it last year. Thinking about the holiday is keeping me motivated,” she says. Unsurprisingly, it hasn’t been an easy few weeks.
“I have been close to breaking several times. I really struggle with impulse buying, especially if I am feeling down or need a distraction”. Instead of buying little gifts for herself, Bradbury is writing down all the things she has had an urge to buy. “Clothes or stuff for the house. If the urge is still there next month, I will buy it”.
As the cost of living bites across the UK, many families are attempting to cut back wherever possible – especially on discretionary spending – as a longer-term adjustment. But Bradbury is not alone in attempting a shorter, month-long challenge, to readjust and reset spending habits.
Type #nospendchallenge into TikTok and the hashtag has more than 75 million views. Countless videos of spreadsheets and printed calendars. Young women, and it is usually women, meticulously documenting each successful no-spend day (highlighted in green with unsuccessful in red). They share lists of banned items. “Food treats are banned and all online shopping,” says one user. “No more buying teas, Nespresso or beauty treatments,” says another.
At the end of December, Bradbury set up a Facebook support group for those aiming to complete a spend-free January. Over 200 people joined her group, on a quest to spend as close to nothing as they could.
Bradbury’s tips are extensive, from planning meals for the week, to unsubscribing from apps like Duolingo (which comes in at £89.99 a year) and deleting the Amazon app from your phone – making it harder to just quickly add things to a basket.
This does mean that for fun, Bradbury is feeling rather limited. “I’ve done things like a DIY pamper night for myself with stuff I already have in the house.” Other evening activities have included clearing out the wardrobe. “We are also walking to places when we can to avoid fuel costs,” she says. One walk to the shop took her over an hour but she says she feels more in control. “Life feels so much slower now we have a bit more control”.
Socialising has been the trickiest thing to negotiate. “I am still seeing [friends] but instead of going to Costa, now we just go for a walk, and I take a flask.” Instead, Bradbury is spending more time with her family. “It’s nice sitting down and intentionally spending time together as we are going out far less.”
Matilda Relefors, 27, is also attempting not to make any purchases and thinks it should be easier than Bradbury. “I have just moved to the countryside after six wild years in London with the intention of nesting and calming down. So staying in for a whole month and being frugal doesn’t feel like that much of a challenge,” she explains.
“I saw someone online say they were doing a no-spend month because she had so much food in her cupboards and freezer, and she lasted a month without buying anything which I found inspiring, so I decided to give it a go”.
Her rules are strict. “I’m not doing much other than working, going on a lot of dog walks and watching Netflix. I’ve not spent anything yet, except my granddad asked the family to give to a charity of his choice for his birthday so I did that, but other than that I’ve been eating food I have at home. I work from home so that makes things easier.”
Of course for lots of people even this level of spending will be out of reach if they are required to go into the office – to spend money on transport, and not be near the fridge at home, or if they cannot afford to stockpile food weeks ahead.
But for Relefors this has also been about reducing waste by using all the food in the house. On day seven, Relefors made pizza bites for lunch with old puff pastry that was about to go off. For dinner, she had soup. She has given herself permission to do a big Asda shop, coming in at £83. “That should last me the rest of the month”.
But is this sort of extreme money diet actually a healthy way to start the year? Personal finance advisers can’t decide. “It depends,” says Caspian Paget, head coach at Octopus MoneyCoach.
“For a certain type of person, it’s actually not a bad thing. If you’re someone who rises to a challenge or you enjoy seeing it as a game, it could be good. It’s so easy to spend money and all of us are guilty of spending on autopilot – this can be a good way to press pause.”
But financial coach Clare Seal says that no-spend months are perhaps too strict for most people. “They may be very difficult to stick to. My worry is always that people will give up the moment that they slip up and find that they’ve undermined their own confidence in their ability to control their spending, which can lead spending issues to become even worse in the long run.”
“When it comes to money, I always prefer to advocate for the gentler approach,” adds Seal, who overcame a debt of £27,000. “A ‘mindful spending month’ may be better, with rules around waiting a certain period of time before making a purchase or keeping a daily spending diary.
This helps people to confront their spending and be honest with themselves without risking the crash diet effect of no-spend months. I don’t want anyone setting themselves up to fail, especially against such a difficult economic backdrop at the moment.”
As with anything, balance is key: “Maybe you don’t need to even do it for a full month,” suggests Paget. “You could do it for a week or two weeks as an experiment and see how you feel, what you miss. It’s a good way of becoming more intentional with your spending.”
But there are some that swear by the power of a no-spend month. Sandy Da Silva, 31 from London, has made no-spend months a regular feature in her money management. “It’s whenever I feel like I can’t control my spending. It’s a way of detoxing and cleansing,” she says. “January is a great time to do it as we have all spent so much [over Christmas]”.
An average no-spend day for Da Silva means taking tea bags into work to avoid buying hot drinks, and preparing a packed lunch. At the weekend, she makes cocktails at home with booze she has leftover from Christmas or has a spa night where she runs a bubble bath.
“For me, it’s not about saving money, it’s about resetting spending habits. It’s very good to stop a spending spiral,” she says. “If you’re someone that doesn’t always think through your budget, it’s a good way of seeing how much money can stay in your account. It might surprise you how much money you are able to keep”.
So far, Bradbury hasn’t spent a thing in January and is considering keeping up her new habits into February. “It’s nice spending quality time with my family and slowing things down more,” she says. “We’ll be grateful for it in the summer.”