Could you live without spending for a year?

Nima Abu Wardeh documents those who have limited their outgoings to the bare minimum and says it can be hugely rewarding

Illustration by Gary Celems for Nima column
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Up for a challenge? One that’ll make you happier and wealthier. Without having to spend a fils.

OK, here we go: Please don’t laugh me off the page as I put to you: how about starting your very own no-spend year?

OK. I’ll wait while you rant about the insanity of it – and don’t I understand that it’s holiday season – and more.

First off. This is about changing your mindset and way of life. No, not good enough. It's about embracing a new way of life. It is not about you living the same way you do now, but with no money.

It is not about living in poverty either.

Poverty is not a choice. Frugality is. Oops, I just said it. It’s about being frugal. Do the words thrifty or economical make you flinch less? Because they all mean the same thing. It means being deliberate with any consumption and spending – and not wasteful. If this was a memo about stopping waste in the office, you’d be OK with it. So why not do it in your daily life?

Frugal: sparing and economical. Simple and plain and costing little. Done right, you come out with a load of life skills too.

People who embrace it have common experiences.

They do more, explore more, meet like-minded people who learn how to make and fix things.

A no-spend year. Sounds impossible, especially if you live in a huge (expensive) city, and go to work every day. But people have really done this. Remember, it’s a choice, so the ones who don’t make it simply go back to their spending ways. The ones who do, and they live in places like Abu Dhabi and huge towns across the world – in other words, they’re not in a forest foraging as a daily way of existing – they have survived, and thrived. They’ve paid off chunks of their mortgages, saved and had fun.

Like the London-based personal finance journalist, Michelle McGagh, who, aside from her non-negotiables; mortgage and bills, spent £31.60 (Dh153) a week on her essentials: food and being clean. That's it. Yes, she had the luxury of being able to bike everywhere – so no spending on transport, which helps.

Michelle overspent by £51.95 for the whole year, over and above the non-negotiables and her essentials. And that was £50 on a roof tile that had to be fixed, and £1.95 on a bag of crisps – just once – because she hadn't planned her food and had none when she needed it.

Her savings: £22,000;  she overpaid the mortgage by 10 per cent.

It’s not about how much money she had at the end, the more important thing is the proportion of her savings versus her income, and it’s huge.

Her method would test most. But there are other ways of doing this: meet roommates Geoffrey and Julie. He went from living pay cheque to pay cheque, to saving 65 per cent of his take-home pay.

Between them  they saved US$55,000. But the way they did it is more humane.

Geoff’s background in psychology helped. They used a model called acceptance and commitment therapy, where you commit to something but accept that you’re human and you’ll make mistakes. So Geoff and Julie allowed for conscious cheats. Days when the temperature outside was below freezing, so they would order a pizza.

Methods differ, but the results are the same, including finding allies in unexpected places, like people in the arts and downshifting community and those involved with food security and urban farming.

I suppose the key is that this way of living is not viewed as a punishment but as a chance to slow down, figure out your priorities and find out more about yourself and where you’re headed in life.

To help you on your way, how about having a no-spend week to start with, once a month but plan it. Planning is essential if you want to see yourself through successfully. Part of this is social connections – put it to your friends and family as a fun thing to do.

Have a theme for each week. Like work through my food week: look through your cupboards, plan meals around what you have for the week and allow yourself to buy only fresh produce if needed – just enough for that week.

Then invite your friends over for a pot-luck linner (that’s lunch and dinner combined because  there’ll be loads of food) over that weekend.

The next no-spend week, a month later, can have a fancy dress theme to it – Star Wars or '60s bands. Whatever your thing is, the only rule is that everything has to be made and not bought. You could even host a few "making costumes" sessions at home with the leftover food from the first pot luck.

The point is this: figure out what's exciting for you and do it. It makes for deeper connections with others and with yourself. The theme is an overarching idea to pull it all together in a fun way. What is essential is that you sit and do the boring stuff of figuring out what your non-negotiable spending is, and what you're allowing for essential spending – after defining what it is.

Every person who has seen a no-spend challenge through – and the only way to do this is to change your mindset and way of living – has come out the other end happier – and wealthier. Try it. You might discover a whole new you.

Nima Abu Wardeh describes herself using three words: Person. Parent. Pupil. Each day she works out which one gets priority, sharing her journey on