‘Where IS My Money Going?’ How A One-Month Financial Declutter Changed My Life

Sarah Lang does a ‘financial declutter’, pruning back her spending for a month to see what she misses and will reintroduce – and what she doesn’t miss and will scrap.

We’ve all heard about decluttering our homes or doing a digital detox. But what about decluttering or detoxing something that’s invisible to anyone else, except our bank manager? Yep, our finances.

We’re not huge on New Year resolutions at Capsule (we’re fab as we are, etc) but the idea of a financial spring-clean and declutter makes sense. Because after the Christmas and January holidays, with their accompanying costs, a financial declutter can be a useful reset – or just plain necessary, especially if your credit card is maxed out.

We’re not talking about asking for a raise, or upping our KiwiSaver contribution, or upskilling our financial literacy – although those are all good things. We’re also not talking about fixed costs: mortgage or rent, groceries, phone and internet bills, electricity, etc. We’re talking about an experiment that involves your disposable income.

Not as full on as a ‘money diet’ or ‘financial fast’, which involves seriously depriving yourself; a ‘financial declutter’ or ‘financial spring-clean’ is about reducing your expenses/outgoings for a fixed period of time, working out your spending priorities, then creating a new normal.

It’s about looking at what’s lurking in your bank statements – sometimes as small amounts that all add up to more than you might think. You then decide which outgoings you can cut out for a period of time.

One month can be a good trial period for some because it’s a short enough time to stomach cutting back on things, but also long enough to show a difference to your bottom line.

Once the time is up, ask yourself what you did or didn’t miss, (or didn’t miss much) – and decide how might you spend going forward. It’s about being really intentional about what you do and don’t spend on: are they the things you most value, need or want?

The Financial Declutter Experiment

Charlotte Cowles, financial-advice columnist for thecut.com, got some tips from experts for her article “Is a ‘Money Diet’ As Terrible As It Sounds?”. Despite the use of the term ‘diet,’ it was more along the lines of a declutter.

I took the expert tips and applied them to myself:

  • “Choose a timeline and think about what happens when it ends.”  So I chose a four-week trial period.
  • “Take a hard look at what you’re spending”. So, I combed my bank statements line by line.
  • “Think about what you’re trying to accomplish.” So, I was saving for a trip to Melbourne.
  • “Enlist other people to hold you accountable”. So, I told my husband I was doing it.

Usually I only look at my cheque account and credit-card account via phone apps, but I printed them out and went through them with pink highlighter to make myself feel more committed. And, hell, I was spending more in dribs and drabbles than I realised.

Does anyone else sign up for free trials of subscription-based services or publications, forget to cancel them, start getting charged, then never getting around to deactivating them? Or sign up for a paid service intending to delete it a month later? Yeah, me too.

There’s the Linkedin premium feature (NZ$49.99 a month), which lets you contact anyone via InMail, even if they’re not yet in your network. It’s useful sometimes in journalism, but I don’t use it often, so I cancelled that feature.

There’s also the Zoom upgrade (NZ$23.67) that I got for interviews or meetings that take longer than 40 minutes. But that’s rare, and I figure I can call someone back once the 40 minutes is up. So I’ve cancelled that too.

No wonder people put such things off – it can take half an hour to find out how to cancel something, and another half hour to go through all the steps to actually achieve it. 

Then there were my subscriptions to different news outlets or publications. I have my Guardian contribution of $NZ10 a month (voluntary as there’s no paywall). I have my digital subscription to the paywalled New York Times (around $NZ2.50 a month). I have a digital subscription (NZ$1.60 per month) to thecut.com, a female-focused website published by New York magazine. I have a print subscription to the New Yorker magazine (about NZ$15 a month). So I cancelled my subscriptions. Instead I just read websites with no paywalls.

Netflix: NZ$12.99 a month. I cancelled, with trepidation. What would I do in the evenings? Well, I could read. I’ve run a classic-literature book group for 10 years. I prefer to read physical books, for the smell and feel, so I look in second-hand bookshops, or otherwise buy the book online. I spent $40 for a physical copy of Vanity Fair when I could have got it on the Kindle for free via Project Gutenburg, a nonprofit organisation that maintains an electronic library of public-domain works. My floor-to-ceiling bookshelves are already full enough, I told myself – and there’s also the library, if I request the book right after our group chooses its next pick (before someone else requests it).

I’m usually an op-shopper or clothes-swapper, but then I found a store I liked so much that I wanted everything in there. I kinda tried not to look at the receipts too closely at the time.

I’d only meant to use Ubers to get home after a night out, but I found I was getting them in other circumstances: if I was late, if it was raining, if I felt particularly lazy. That’s $17 here, $9 there. So I decided to ensure I leave enough time to catch the bus or walk, and to check the weather forecast re the need for an umbrella.

Lunch? I’d usually make my own maybe three days a week, and buy lunch (between $9 to $12) maybe twice a week. I spent $5 on coffees two or three times a week.  So, I started making my lunch every day and didn’t go near a barista.

I did without a monthly date night – dinner and a drink, or dinner and a gig, or a movie and icecream. Instead, we went to a free city-council-staged band performance and light show, taking a picnic.

I’ve been looking at getting a gym membership. But what if instead, after work, I jog to my son’s school then power walk home, enough to break a sweat?

The Results After A One-Month Financial Declutter

Here I am, reporting back after a month-long financial declutter.

I actually felt better right after I started my declutter, because I was no longer distracting myself from the vague awareness that I was paying for things I didn’t really need.

I borrowed my next book-group read from a friend who owned the book, and the following month’s read I got for free on the Kindle via Project Gutenburg. I didn’t miss reading a hard copy all that much, and the Kindle is easier to hold anyway.

I didn’t miss the New Yorker much, realising that always having a backlog of issues sitting in a pile – imploring me to read them – slightly stresses me out. But The Guardian, the New York Times and The Cut, I missed on a personal and professional level. So they stay and the New Yorker goes, at least for now.

I didn’t go near Augustine. I didn’t miss buying new clothes. I only really need a finite amount of clothes. So what if I’m wearing my purple Max dress for the 100th time?

No Netflix? Shockingly, I didn’t really miss it. Partly because I discovered that Wellington City Libraries gives me free access to movie-streaming service Kanopy. If you have a library card, you can watch six titles per month (there are 30,000 to choose from) and can also access Kanopy Kids children’s content. Kanopy is also available via other public and university libraries, so check your local.

Ubers? None. I did more walking, exercise never being a bad thing. The run-home-from-work thing? I only did it twice. But I would have probably only have gone to the gym twice.

I started making my lunch the night before – which has also meant I’m eating more healthily, too. From now on, I’ll only buying lunch when I’m time-poor or I’m meeting a friend. However, I’ve decided not to give up my morning coffee in my local café; for me, it’s a nice ritual in a community space.

Date night? I decided it’s worth spending that money, because it’s fun and I think it helps our relationship.

Bottom line: I think my financial declutter will save me about $250 a month – a useful addition to my savings for a trip to Melbourne.

My financial spring-clean has made me feel ‘cleaner’ in a way – and feel confident that I’m being intentional about what I’m spending, without depriving myself of what is most important to me. It was worth the experiment.

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