As much as I stand by my raves about flexible working, and my belief that anybody for whom it is an option should look into ways of obtaining a better work-life balance, I’m well aware that I speak from a position of incredible privilege.
Because I have a supportive employer, yes; but more importantly: because I was able to afford it.
And cutting my employment income by one fifth has brought home something that I have long suspected: I am absolutely shit with money.
One of my favourite podcasts, Death, Sex & Money, has the magnificent tagline: a show about the things we think about a lot and need to talk about more. And, honestly, of those “big three” topics we’re trained to keep out of polite conversation? I’d talk about the other two long before I spoke about money – and I say that as a prudish Catholic girl who cringes to her toes when it turns to sex talk.
See, I’m skirting around the edges even now, making jokes and changing the subject. It’s because my relationship with money is a really, really embarrassing one – one that even, at the age of 35 and having experienced out-of-the-blue redundancy in my life, I still can’t be an adult about. Money questions are, for me, tied up in shame, in low self esteem and in my poor mental health. If I’m having a bad day, I’ll buy a treat to cheer myself up. If I’m feeling tired and low, I’ll stick a takeaway on a credit card. If a friend wants to make plans, I’ll go out for dinner. If a band I love is coming to town, I’m not really that concerned if it’s the wrong side of payday.
When it comes to the big picture things, I’m not the worst off. I have a house (on a mortgage, obviously, but all being well my friends should at least have a place to squat by the time we’re in our late 60s and nobody gets a state pension anymore). I’m paying something that’s slightly better than nothing into an occupational pension scheme. I actually met with a financial adviser not long after cutting my hours, for a full, frank conversation about what I should be doing with the money I make from freelancing. His advice? Pay off your credit cards and save up an emergency fund of at least £2,000 before you even think about investing. But even that made me giggle nervously.
What I’m saying is, the timing couldn’t have been better for Plusnet to ask me to start thinking about saving.
A couple of weeks ago, I decided to sit down with my current account and credit card statements and figure out what I was actually spending compared to what I had coming in. I broke my spending into quite broad categories: the bills and debt that I couldn’t avoid, and discretionary spending on the likes of clothes, beauty, eating out and music. The results were eye-opening, and gave me the impetus I needed to start behaving like more of a grown-up when it comes to money.
Last month, for the first time in my life, I have set myself a budget. At Rhianna‘s urging I signed up for Cleo, a Facebook Messenger-based service that links up with your bank account and provides you with regular updates about how much you are spending and on what. The AI’s relentlessly cheery demeanour and heavy reliance on .gifs can grate a little, but it’s also giving me oversight of my spending habits that even daily appointments with mobile banking never quite accomplished.
(*If you sign up for Cleo using my referral link I’ll get a wee kickback, which will go some way towards helping with my saving goals… #justsayin.)
In the spirit of do-as-I-say, not-as-I-do, I’ve put together some tips that I am using to help me become better with money. Let me know yours in the comments!
1. Break down your spending. I mean, REALLY break it down.
In most of the budgeting advice I’ve ever read, you’re encouraged to allocate yourself a certain amount of monthly spend across quite broad categories, such as “food” or “entertainment”. That… wasn’t going to work for me. And so, when I sat down to figure out how much I was spending on what, I went a little more granular, with categories such as “coffee” and “takeaways” and “music”. While I’ve incorporated the first two under a broader “eating out” budget going forward, I’ve made sure to set aside a certain amount of money that I’m allowing myself to spend on records, iTunes and gig tickets each month. You’ll have things too that are important enough to you to deserve a little more flexibility when it comes to spending.
2. Learn to outsmart yourself.
I’m a firm believer that the most important thing for you to do when you’re trying to change a habit is to figure out where your own loopholes and weak spots are right at the start – and then shut that shit down. The thing that mortified me the most when I was looking into my spending was seeing just how much I was spending on breakfasts and lunches at the office. Now, most of the conventional advice you read would tell you to just bring your own, whether last night’s leftovers or something you batch cook at the start of the week – but that would rely on me not making exceptions on nights when I’m working late, or getting up a little earlier to prepare something in the house.
What I’ve started doing instead is allowing myself a takeaway breakfast when I’m tired and groggy on a Tuesday morning, and then buying up supplies to do me for breakfasts and lunches at the start of the week when it comes to lunchtime. What I buy is not the cheapest, but I’ve learned that I won’t let that fluffy, inviting M&S bread go to waste quite as easily come Thursday as that scraggly 55p Tesco own brand one.
3. Make your own coffee at work.
People who actually know coffee can tell me as often as they like that foamy High Street lattes are overpriced, understrength nonsense, but nothing comforts me and sets me up for the day quite like wrapping my hands around a paper takeaway cup. We have a proper coffee machine in the office, as well as all the Nescafe we can drink, but nothing hit the spot – even while missing my bank balance – quite like a Starbucks.
Turns out there is a third way. One cheap cafetiere later, I discovered that I actually do enjoy filter coffee – as long as it’s the right one (I’m currently drinking Cognito Smart Coffee*, by Glasgow-based Cognito Smartblends, which I need to review fully at a later date because it’s packed with all sorts of cognitive enhancers that I really feel have been making a difference to my work). I give the cafetiere a decent rinse out after use, then take it home at the weekend to run through the dishwasher. It’s easy to use, and easily saving me about £10 a week.
4. Investigate a SIM-only mobile contract.
Hey, I was working with Plusnet on this post – you knew it was coming eventually.
I think the fact that mobile phone contracts are one of the biggest wastes of money going is pretty much an open secret by now, but until now I’ve been too big a fan of having the latest iPhone in my pocket to go SIM only. My mobile provider is one of those that breaks down exactly how much you are spending on the phone and the airtime plan each month, allowing you to pay off the former at your convenience – but with another couple of hundred quid to go, I doubt that’s going to happen before contract renewal rolls around next September. Still, the lack of headphone socket and home button in the latest iPhones might cure me of that particular obsession – and Plusnet have plenty of SIM-only options to tempt me when the time comes.
5. Make a game out of micro-saving.
At the start of the year, I spotted a fun saving idea on Instagram (I wish I remembered where, so I could give proper credit!). The idea is that you save 1p on 1st January, 2p on 2nd January, 3p on 3rd January and so on, adding on another penny each day – so by the time year-end rolls around, you’ll have saved over £650!
I’ve kept this one up religiously each day – the trouble is that, come the end of the month, I’ve been pouring the proceeds into the bottomless hole of my credit card. It’s a nice idea though. Another micro-saving habit I have is rounding up the loose change that people empty out of their pockets to pop in a piggy bank. Once it’s suitably hefty, you can empty it into one of those Coinstar change machines at your local supermarket and spend the resulting voucher on your shopping
(or, if you have more free time than I do and really resent the fee those machines charge you, pay for your shopping at one of the self-scan checkouts).
6. Check your bank balance daily.
My final tip for keeping track of your spending is simply that: keep track of your spending. I log into my mobile banking app every morning, so I can transfer across that day’s pennies from tip #5 to a separate savings account and keep track of the comings and goings (mostly goings, let’s be fair, but as a sometime freelancer with a few outstanding invoices on the go at any given time the other side of it is important too).
Go easy with contactless payments, Paypal and Apple Pay too. As convenient as these options are, the fact that they take two or three days to hit your bank account (although I’ve noticed my bank has gotten better at taking contactless spending off your “available” funds on the same day) can mean a nasty shock down the line if you haven’t been accounting for payments properly.
This post contains PR samples, but all views are my own and unbiased.