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Can You Have a "No Spend Year"?

Updated on January 3, 2018
No Spend Year
No Spend Year | Source

Could you do the No Spend Year Challenge?

The no spend year challenge is gaining momentum, but is it possible? How can you do it? This phenomenon is something an increasing number of people are entering into, but is it possible? Could you do it?

The bottom line is that anybody "could" do it, but you do need to "WANT" to do it to make it successful.

Whether it's achievable is also a matter of personal circumstances. For those who are young, healthy, living in large cities, working locally, with many friends/family it's clearly a lot easier to do than for somebody with different circumstances.

However, it's not necessary to complete a No Spend Year if you are interested in the concept - you can start small. Start with a No Spend Day ... then try a No Spend Week ... and finally a No Spend Month.

What is a No Spend Year? What Counts?

Well, that's where things become a little more blurred. What counts as a no spend year? If I know I'm going to do it and stock up on enough shampoo for two years, does that count? Some people are using up what they've got, then finding alternative methods of washing their hair.

Clearly bills need to be paid and food bought! But is kale and quinoa legitimate?

Others are simply setting a budget that's more than generous to cover all their food, household and cleaning products and, of course, shampoo!

It is certainly a case of "you set the rules". If you simply can't live without a particular shampoo, then of course it makes sense to include it in your plans - whether you bulk buy it up front, or allow it to be included in your shopping budget - there's no point deliberately setting yourself up to fail is there? Where's the point, where's the joy, in that?

For most of us it simply wouldn't be practical to try a No Spend Year. If you've got a dirty little habit that'd need kicking first, say, like smoking, or having a nice bottle of bubbly for your birthday. But, you could do No Spend Year Lite - and simply accept that some things you aren't prepared to give up .... but you do need to be realistic about sticking to the No Spend ideology for the rest of your lifestyle! You can't have it all AND say you're not spending!

I have a dirty little habit that costs me £15/week ..... and I need to visit my dentist which is a 400 mile round trip at present (mid-treatment, so can't change dentists and I've moved house).

Sometimes life and commitments - and habits - simply mean it's "not right now" for you.

No Spend Year Lite could be created for your individual habits and essential needs though, if you've a desire to complete a whole year without spending.

Who Is Doing a No Spend Year?

Quite a number of people have undertaken the No Spend Year Challenge, mostly in the US - or are currently mid-year on it.

So let's look at a few tips and examples from individuals and try to see what they're doing, how they are getting round the problems they face and what their circumstances are:

Michelle McGagh, Guardian Newspaper

Michelle's journey is being covered by The Guardian newspaper. I'm sure having the weight of a national paper behind you keeps you a bit more focussed :) I suspect, too, there's some income gain on her part to complete (and write) about her journey. One online profile describes her as: "Michelle McGagh is a freelance financial journalist who is currently on a no-spend year. She also runs the website London Minimalists"

"When I first started the no spend year, I spent months trying to replicate my old life for free. It was an exhausting task trying to find free tickets, free gigs, free food and free days out. Then I realised, the challenge wasn’t about trying to live my old life for nothing, it was about embracing a new lifestyle."

This is quite an important lesson learnt. For most people there aren't any free tickets, free gigs, certainly never any free food or real free days out. Michelle learnt quite quickly that, in the real world, this just sucks up your time and leaves you disappointed. She had to learn a new lifestyle.

Michelle McGagh observed:

"I’ve said yes to things that I would never have bothered with before such as helping a friend put on a theatre production and volunteering for local park clean-ups."

Now that's a good call - "I would never have bothered with before" - we've all seen them haven't we. :) The trouble with a No Spend Year is that you're unable to take part in a lot of activities, so if you do want to leave the house you do need to do those things that you've not bothered with before.... maybe you'll enjoy them, maybe not. But some free activities can be found. Of course, if you DO have friends/family you can rope in too, then it'll be easier than if you have to get yourself out there alone to take part. Similarly, after the event, if you went alone you've nobody to "share discussions/stories about the event" with. Passing strangers in the street aren't interested :)

London Minimalists

This is the blog Michelle McGagh is associated with - she is doing her No Spend Year with a huge household budget (£30/week) and in London. She's also in a shared house and has a husband who is also partly sharing her No Spend Year with her.... but dipping out when he's lost interest :)

Michelle's started her journey with the ideal of

  • "I want to see if I can go a whole 12 months without spending on anything but bills and food" -

and has also declared she's buying

  • "no clothes, no holidays, no coffee "

Well, there's my regular lifestyle already! I see she's got no dirty little habit to cover .... the younger generation are probably blessed in being less likely to have this.

Also in The Guardian Michelle's expanded her "no spend" to be:

  • no meals out, no cinema trips, no holidays, no gigs unless they’re free, no rounds down the pub, no new clothes, no coffee
  • I won’t be able to buy train tickets or bus fares so my trusty bicycle will be relied on to get from A to B.
  • won’t be able to rely on friends and family to pay for me either – it’s a year of no spending, not scrounging

This last one's quite important - so many people are "blinkered" to their No Spend and spending habits. Others would quite simply say "My lovely other half paid for all this stuff... this meal ... this holiday ... so it doesn't count" That's cheating; Michelle won't be scrounging or getting others to pay her way (except fees from the Guardian so she can treat herself to a blow out when it ends!)

So what is Michelle actually giving up that's hard?

Visiting her parents and family, who are in Ireland. That's probably a step too far for most. If your parents are elderly then they'll probably be very very sad at not seeing her for a year. On the other hand, her parents might not be as old as me (OMG!) and they might be tech-savvy and all wired up to webcams etc, so she can still have that "Facetime" thing with them, maybe!

Maybe she's managed to sneak in a crafty "Have Xmas Early" at the parents' house last year and this year it'll be timed after her No Spend Year's completed! Ditto for buying Xmas presents. Maybe this is one of the "sneaky secrets" .... get ready for Xmas and have it all a month early, before you start he No Spend Year .... she started on 27 November (in 2015), so that's a good time to start!

Book Deal! The No Spend Year: How I Spent Less and Lived More

By August Michelle McGagh had signed a book deal to publish her book. It'll be available at the end of December 2016, so not in time for Christmas.

At 320 pages long it's available on Kindle. ASIN B01LXW6CJR on Amazon UK. Currently priced at £8.99, it'll make great reading when your bills arrive on your mat in January and you think "where's the money coming from to pay that then?"

The paperback was released on Amazon UK on 12 January 2017 - How I Spent Less and Lived More, RRP £12.99.

Methods & Thinking

To say you'll not spend anything for a year is impossible - everybody has to spend something.

Beyond that there are two methods:

  • Set a weekly budget for food/household and have no other spending.
  • Set a weekly budget for "everything".

The second of these is the easiest as your budget is then flexible, the more generous your overall budget is, the easier it is to complete your version of a "No Spend Year" as you can divert funds by going without ... a little.

One lady, Kath Kelly of Bristol, England, lived on £1/day for a year. Bizarrely, to give her brother a great wedding present. But that's her choice. She too was a cycle user in a city and managed to find a lot of food freebies (lucky thing!). her £1/day included all her food.

Or maybe you're just up for the Living Below the Line Challenge, for just one month.

Tips & Tricks:

Michelle found that she often swapped her time and skills for other goods, such as food. This, again, depends on where you are and what you can offer. Also, your social circle, or circles you can reach from the new activities you're undertaking (see previous comment about volunteering for the first time).

There are many ways to skin a cat, as they say - now, what can you swap to get a free cat?

£1 per Day

One earlier incarnation of the "No Spend Year" concept was a writer in Bristol (how come they're always writers?). £1/day has been seen as more achievable by some in the past. But, again, what they included/excluded varied. Here are some of the £1/day voices:

Kath Kelly was a teacher and in 2006 started her challenge. She was renting a room in a house, with overheads of just £3k/year, which she paid her landlord in advance. So no leaky central heating for her, no smoke detector alarm batteries that needed replacing and no broken essential appliances to fix or replace!

She also lived in Bristol which, it appears, gives free public lectures with a free buffet afterwards (lucky thing!). Free food is very, very rare for most people. From her accounts it seems commonplace - maybe we should all move to Bristol! Book launches, art gallery openings and public lectures were her main hunting grounds. There are no book launches and no art galleries and no public lectures where I live, nor most of us. So we can forget the free food part!

Kathy's £1/day was supposed to cover "transport, food, clothes and socialising." - she worked locally and rode a bicycle. She also took to hitching a lift - one step too far for most of us!

There is one top tip in Kathy's adventure that some of us might be able to use - she volunteered at a local organic farm. I bet she got quite a lot of free food there - if you swap the words "organic farm" for every other type of food producer within a 5 mile radius of your house, you might get lucky!

She even met a chap and married him - admittedly he worked on the organic farm, so she didn't have to explain why their date had to be completely free.... and look like a weirdo :)

What Did Kathy Buy Her Brother?

Unbelievably ... she paid £1300 for him to have a lifetime membership of the National Trust. I do hope he's managing to max that out!

Kathy's Book

Yes, she wrote a book you can buy .... well, she was a writer :)

Included in her book are her top tips. I'll select a few for you:

  • Find as much free food as you can, mince pie hand outs at Xmas and free buffets
  • See if market researchers in the street are offering free samples of anything
  • Collect/use as many vouchers as you can find
  • Buy cheap/discounted food at the end of the day (if you can ever find it)
  • Church jumble sales are cheaper than charity shops for clothes (I've not seen a jumble sale for over 20 years!)
  • Get free haircuts at local colleges - in my experience these are now often as expensive as the salons
  • Join the local library for books, DVDs, magazines - how good these will be depends on your area (if you even have a local library!)

How I Lived a Year on Just a Pound a Day

Live Below the Line

A similar movement, raising funds for charity each year, is the Live Below the Line challenge - where people spend a limited amount of money on food per day, typically £1/day - but that's just the food budget and doesn't impact on other areas of their life.

I spend £1/day on food, on average (according to my detailed spreadsheet), so I don't see the hardship, it's no challenge! It's life.

Live Below the Line tends to run around April/May each year and was started to raise awareness of Poverty.

Best Time to Start a No Spend Year

It was while reading Michelle's date that I realised that 27 November was a good start for a No Spend Year for many. Christmas is a significant date for most and any No Spend Year includes one Xmas. So how to "get round it"? (if you wish to that is).

Well, if you start your No Spend Year about one month before your most significant annual date, then you can simply move events round that. e.g. you could have a big blowout "Early Xmas" with friends/family before you start - and once you've finished a year later you've still got a month before the real "Big Event" occurs, giving you time to shop until you drop if you wish.

When's your significant date that makes it nigh on impossible to do a No Year Spend? Think smarter .... start your NSY just before that date, having covered it all early.

Nail Your Point!

What is the point of this? Why would you do it? You need to work out what YOUR reason is - if you can't nail your point then you'll struggle to be motivated enough to keep it up.

Here are a few reasons to get you thinking:

  • Because I can, because I like to follow any trend going
  • To learn where I spend my money - only by going without will I learn where my money goes
  • I enjoy my money, I can afford what I spend, I just sometimes feel "ripped off" by life and want to get some control back
  • I want to save for a house/holiday/car/driving lessons/whatever
  • I need a nest egg/I'm struggling with money, I need to get a grip before it's too late.

Any of those reasons starting to resonate with you? The point of you doing a No Spend Year must be personal to you, for your reasons - don't do it half-heartedly and without a purpose. There's no point in denying yourself your usual spends without feeling the joy of your goal being reached.

Problems to Overcome; Challenges to Meet

The biggest problem you'll have is other people not really "getting it" - why you'd do that. Having to explain it over and over again and them still thinking you're weird/mad.

Loneliness. For those without family/friends or a job, you'll be lonely - so you need to investigate those activities that you wouldn't have bothered with before - the volunteering stuff! But be careful, a lot of one-off volunteering activities might end with cake/coffee in a cafe, or a box being waved under your nose for "a donation" - and with a No Spend Year .... you might have to make a swift exit.

The unexpected! You don't know what you'll need to spend until it happens! If a lightbulb blows, that's not important (I've got 3-4 that've blown and I just don't even notice these days that I've no lights in most of the house! I rarely turn the lights on anyway). But what if the freezer breaks? Ah .... so what now ...? Grub around for a 2nd hand one for free on freecycle? Not that you'll get it home on your bike.... but, for some, a 2nd hand free freezer might be delivered for free too. But what if your house window's broken? Can you really live with it insecure and taped up just because of a challenge? I think you have to be pragmatic and realistic about sudden disasters really.

What if your landlord gives you notice to quit? You'd need agency fees, a new deposit, credit checks, a removals van (can't move your furniture on your bike!).

The SPIRIT of a No Spend Year

There isno point beating yourself up about some of the detail - the main question should just be whether you're operating within the "Spirit of the No Spend Year" or not.

If a friend is going on a round the world trip and wants you there for goodbye drinks and a meal? That one's going to be "tough" can't make it. Going would be outside of the "Spirit of the NSY" - she'll be back in the future and you can meet up then and see her photos!

When somebody at work is leaving, getting married, having a baby - there's no dipping into your pocket for the whip round. You're just going to have to live with that really. A No Spend Year IS tough - without money, without spending, you do become socially excluded in many situations. Nobody said it was going to be easy! Maybe you could offer to "do your bit" by organising the whip round and going out to buy and wrap the gift ... it's something, if you're that bothered.

Just learn to be disliked :)

100 Things You Might Go Without:

There aren't exactly 100 things here, there might be fewer, or more .... but there's probably going to be 100 things you will be going without in your No Spend Year (NSY), so it's up to you to finish the list!

  • Food treats, ice-cream, chocolate, crisps, nibbles.
  • Nights out, takeaway food, meals out, celebrations, day trips.
  • Holidays, weekends away and trips.
  • Kitchen gadgets, new soft furnishings or bath towels, household items in general
  • Gift-giving, card-giving, confetti, weddings, birthday events, hen parties.
  • Sales, car boots/yard sales, charity shop finds, buy one get one free deals, last chance offers.
  • Books, DVDs, mp3s, cinema trips, popcorn, pre-drinks, after-drinks.
  • Wine, alcohol, any drinks that aren't water! Coffee, flavoured teas, canned drinks, prepared juices, smoothies from shops...
  • Haircuts, any beauty treatments, leg waxing...

What's in your lifestyle that you can do without for a No Spend Year like Michelle McGagh? What do you spend without even realising it's spending?

Which Would You Choose?

► A No Spend Year?

► £1/Day for a Year?

► Live Below the Line Challenge?

Could You Do a No Spend Year? And Will You?

See results

Add Your Comments and Thoughts

If you've voted or not, why not add your comments and thoughts to the mix below - could you do this? What'd concern you? What would you have to give up? What can't you give up?

Is it to be a No Spend Year for you? Or not?


    0 of 8192 characters used
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    • earner profile imageAUTHOR

      Dedicated Content Curator 

      2 years ago from United Kingdom

      Thanks for your comments teaches12345!

      I keep spends to a minimum as you only get one lot of money :)

      For those that have, say, £2k coming in every month, life's easier to "play" at reducing their spending than those with £800 coming in every month, who "live the life" every day without being able to splash out :)

    • teaches12345 profile image

      Dianna Mendez 

      2 years ago

      This challenge is very interesting. I manage to keep my spending to a minimum but don't know if I could do this for a year.


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