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Personal experience: a woman spent 'January without spending' and came up with 11 interesting life hacks for saving money


Alina Prikhodko

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Each of us would like to be able to manage money so that it multiplies and does not scatter. It is advisable to save wisely, refrain from spontaneous and impulsive purchases, and most importantly not to look like a stingy person and not to go hungry.

Author BuzzFeed Hannah Marder told how she got involved in an adventure called “No Spending January,” how she protected her budget and what it led to. The following is a first-person story.

Hi, my name is Hannah and I live in New York, one of the most expensive cities in the world. This year, my New Year's resolutions included being more mindful of my budgeting, spending, and saving habits. I have always looked for great deals before, but this time I decided to challenge myself, try something new to save money. And it turned out to be “No Spend January”.

Basically, I decided that I wouldn't spend money on anything other than essentials for an entire month. This month has been incredibly difficult. I broke a few rules, but I managed to learn a lot, as well as acquire several habits and tricks that I will use in the future. So here's what I learned.

1. Appendix TooGoodToGo

You can buy food from grocery stores and restaurants that would otherwise be thrown away at the end of the day. This is a fantastic deal if you're not picky.

Since I could only spend money on groceries and not on restaurants, I limited myself to TooGoodToGo orders at grocery stores. The only store that offered this service near me was Morton-Williams, and I ended up buying two packages from them within a month. Both times it was very profitable.

The first time, I received three individual pasta dishes that retailed for almost $12 each, and two salads that originally retailed for $8-$10 each. And all this for $5. The second one was much smaller, but it was still a great deal since I got three salads for $5.

On the subject: The old grocery saving hacks no longer work: here's how you can actually cut your food costs

The catch is that I didn't like some of them. My first selection included a blue cheese salad, which I didn't eat, as well as iceberg lettuce. Luckily, since I live near a Community fridge and local group Buy Nothing, getting rid of them was easy. I liked the salads that I took the second time and went well with the soup.

Photo: IStock

I'm not generally a fan of packaged foods, but these were edible. As a wildly broke New Yorker who spends way too much on groceries, these meals at a few dollars apiece were too good a deal to pass up and I'll definitely keep buying them.

2. Group Buy Nothing

Groups where neighbors post on Facebook about things they are giving away or need are life-changing.

I'll be honest, I joined the local Buy Nothing group on Facebook not too long ago, but I love it more and more every month. Not only is it very useful for getting rid of clutter, but you can find almost everything there - from clothes, decor and food to massive pieces of furniture. Last month, when I was remodeling my room, I took a bunch of stuff from Buy Nothing (and gave away just as much).

I love being able to give back and build relationships with my neighbors, and the Buy Nothing group is a great way to do that without just getting free stuff.
They're definitely on the rise right now, so be sure to check out if there's a group in your area!

They're great for when you need something quickly and nearby, but don't have the time or money to go to the store. For example, I realized that I needed to wrap a gift for my sister, but I didn't have any wrapping paper. I texted asking if anyone had any paper left over for Christmas gifts (I knew my sister wouldn't care if her birthday present was wrapped in paper from Santa) and immediately received three replies.

I ended up walking less than two blocks to get the paper from a man who had himself rescued free wrapping paper from the curb without them even spending any money on it. It was such a wonderful neighborly moment and reminded me of my childhood when my mother would send me to the neighbors for a cup of flour because we had run out of it. And it was great to just grab what I needed instead of spending money on a whole roll at the store.

I was also able to grab a great yoga mat that has been on my list for a while, lamps for my room, and Nespresso pods (they are very expensive). I would definitely recommend finding some sort of buy nothing or free/trade group on Facebook if you live in a major city or even a suburb. This is a great way to get to know your neighbors, reduce waste and save money.

3. There is nothing wrong with things found on the street.

If you live in a major city, there are many Instagram accounts and Facebook groups dedicated to items found on the street. I once found a bed frame on the street, which was surprising because I was looking for a simple black bed frame that I could store extra clothes and linens under.

If you live in a large city like New York, Buy Nothing groups often post photos of things on the side of the road, and Instagram usually has an array of accounts dedicated to looking at perfectly good things on the side of the road (stooping). This is how I purchased my coffee table, although it was last month. But when I saw it on the Internet, it cost $150.

Photo: IStock

Monitor the situation at the end of each month and during peak travel times. When I studied at the University of California, people left entire rooms of furniture on the street near students' apartments, although the quality was not always the best. But in New York, things are often very nice, or at least functional, if in need of a little rearrangement.

I will never take a mattress, carpet, or sofa from the street because of bedbugs and fleas—except, of course, for the time I let my roommate bring home a recliner because she literally saw people taking it out onto the porch.

4. Facebook Marketplace

This is a great place to find free stuff - as well as to make money selling it. Although compared to the above options, I would put it in last place, since it is a big pain in the ass, and people can be quite annoying.

For example, when I was selling my old bed, I was inundated with messages, many simply asking if it was in stock, or asking questions that were already answered in the description. I didn't grab a single free item from Facebook Marketplace this month, but I did "rescue" a ton of cheap items.

5. Impulse shopping is evil! Even when it comes to functional items or so-called essentials

If I realize I need something, like plastic storage containers for under my bed, I usually immediately buy it from Amazon. This month I wasn't able to do that and ended up repurposing items I had in my apartment into a solution that I ended up liking even more.

You should order a product on Amazon as a last resort - after thinking about the decision for at least a week to understand whether it is really needed. Yes, this all sounds obvious, but it is often forgotten in a world where you can order something with a couple of clicks and get it the next day.

I would recommend keeping a list of the things you need to buy and then checking next month to see if you really need them. I'm not even talking about clothes or items that are clearly not needed, but about practical things like storage containers.

6. The library is a wonderful, magical thing, and it has helped me a lot in my book buying addiction. I have read more books this month than I did a month ago. And I didn’t buy any of them

I have a New York Public Library card that I use through the free app Libbyto download e-books directly to your phone. If you're like me and have a ton of books that you still haven't read, then a month of no shopping was perfect because I actually got an incentive to read those books. But overall, I significantly increased the number of books I read (12) thanks to the Libby app.

I still prefer to read physical books, but there's something about the convenience of an entire (free) library in the palm of your hand on the subway or before bed that is simply unparalleled. I also forced myself to start listening to audiobooks, and this was a great way to push myself without investing in any kind of subscription. (I ended up finding that I don't mind audiobooks as long as they're memoirs).

Photo: IStock

Additionally, having a New York City library card and the Libby app opened up other possibilities for me. While some of them I couldn't use (like discounts since I'm not allowed to spend money at all), others were really cool. Let's say I have free access to Mango, a language learning app that I can use to prepare for an upcoming trip to France.

In the future, I probably won't stop buying books, but I think I will introduce some kind of system where I have to read a certain percentage of the books I already own before buying new ones. This, combined with using the Libby app, should significantly reduce your book costs.

7. The hardest part of this month has been the isolation because, as I learned, having a social life is very expensive.

This test would have been much easier if it had been warmer outside. I love walking and going to parks, and New York really has a lot of free outdoor activities in the summer. But this month it was so cold that I didn't want to leave the house. And I had few reasons for this. I couldn't go to a restaurant, a bar, a board game cafe, a Broadway show, or even a movie. I've been incredibly bored this month (which is why I read 12 books).

I blame New York for a lot of this. Apartments here are small and social life is mostly limited to socializing outside the home. And there are so few free places here where you can meet friends, especially not on the street. But since I don't plan on moving anytime soon, this is one aspect of the “no-spend January” experience that I definitely don't intend to repeat.

Ultimately, I realized that it's always worth spending money on activities and experiences with friends (within reason, of course). This is not an area of ​​my life where I can give up spending (or cut back significantly), but moving forward I want to focus on finding ways to make it cheaper.

8. Another big issue this month is hobbies.

Most hobbies are very expensive, so I had little to do when I was home alone except read, write and watch TV. However, I tried to be creative.

During quarantine, I picked up a lot of interesting hobbies that I had abandoned: hand knitting (luckily I already had yarn) and drawing on the iPad. I really liked both. But when I became interested in artistic and creative projects again, I wanted to participate in them even more. I wanted to take classes and meet other people to do projects with, as well as learn more about the classes themselves. That is, I needed to find classes, and in January I did not find a single free in-person class, although I am sure that such exist.

Photo: IStock

There were also solo hobbies that I really wanted to try, but they required an initial investment (even knitting had to be quickly stopped due to a shortage of yarn). I always wanted to try working with resin or beads, but for this, again, I needed money to buy materials (it turned out that working with resin required ventilation and a gas mask).

While not being able to attend classes or invest in supplies was frustrating, it allowed me to avoid wasting money on something I'd get tired of after a week.

And more importantly, not spending time in restaurants, bars, and concerts/music/comedy shows made me realize how much I want to expand those social and creative horizons. While this realization will result in me spending more money, I still find it important and similar to the realization my friends who went through Dry January had, namely the desire to be more creative in how they spend their time than just visiting restaurants and bars.

9. My money eaters

The unexpected benefit of the month was that, stripping everything else away, it became much easier to understand exactly how much I was spending on these “core” categories. It turned out that I spend too much on groceries, I don’t even want to tell you the number. This is one of my biggest takeaways for the month: Since I can never go without groceries, I need to find a way to cut my groceries costs in half. Here are some problems that I identified:

Photo: IStock
  • I buy a lot of products at once, and inevitably something gets spoiled. I can solve this problem by going shopping more often, even if it is painful.
  • I spend a lot on high-quality snacks like almonds, natural peanut butter, dark chocolate and cheese. This is something I probably won't change.
  • The gourmet market downstairs of my house will be the cause of my death. I love their pre-made soups and often find it much quicker and easier to go there than to another grocery store. I think I'll have to limit myself to just a couple times a month.
  • I spend an exorbitant amount on oat milk, coffee and La Croix. Especially for coffee. Nespresso capsules are expensive and due to the patent there aren't even any generic ones available, although I'm going to find out if there are refillable options.
  • I prefer to buy packaged meat rather than raw because I don't like cooking raw meat or washing anything that has touched raw meat. Basically, I just have to get over it.
  • I never plan ahead what I buy, mainly because I look for what's in stock, which definitely leads to impulse buying - so I need to plan better in the future.
  • I don't use coupons or go far to another store to spend less. I'm going to go to Dollar Tree for some items, even though it's a bit far.
  • I use grocery delivery services a lot because I have a rule that I can only use them if they have a coupon code that makes the purchase as cheap as going to the store. However, I do not compare prices with other stores. But I’m still starting to suspect that it’s still more expensive than just going to the store, because the goods themselves may be more expensive.

10. Subscriptions and accounts

After stripping away all the extra stuff, I was able to look at the subscriptions I pay monthly as well as my utilities, which was very helpful.

Our utilities have gone up a lot since we first moved here, and while some of them are unavoidable (and don't get me started on the outrageous cost of heating in our apartment, even after I let my fingers turn white every day - I have Raynaud's disease), others can probably be reduced by threatening to switch.

Besides, I don’t need all the subscriptions: there are some that I even forgot about, and there are some that my neighbor and I can share. Basically, why do they constantly send me Billie razors if I already have a lot of them, and I rarely shave my legs in winter?

11. I finally found out what I don’t mind spending money on and what wasn’t a problem at all.

I realized that I'm actually more frugal than I think when it comes to things like clothes and cosmetics. Spending on them seems like a big expense because individually they are expensive, so I really rarely go shopping unless I borrow something from a second-hand store or buy something I've run out of or really need. Yes, my cosmetics are expensive, but I use them quite rarely.

I also tend to buy large quantities, especially of shampoos and conditioners, which are always a pain to spend money on, but help me save in the long run. It was a surprisingly welcome realization in a month where I had to take a hard look at my spending. Based on everything I've learned, here are the goals I've set for February (and not all of them involve saving money):

  • Focus on cutting down on grocery costs because it turns out that they are my biggest expense besides rent and restaurants/bars.
  • Finding hobbies and activities that expand my socialization and creative horizons will reduce the time and money spent at restaurants and bars.
  • I have a serious problem with instant gratification and should not make purchases on a whim, such as ordering pizza at night, buying cute decorative items, books, records, etc.
  • I constantly buy coffee, water and cat litter, and it really is a lot. You could, of course, save money if you found a cheaper alternative or invested in something that would reduce or eliminate the need to buy something as often.

Plus, since I inevitably spend money (as a New Yorker, coffee lover, cat mom, and Broadway fan), a new goal might be how to make my money work for me. Namely: receive points for purchases and use all possible discount and cashback systems.

Now you're probably wondering if she actually met all the requirements for a “no spend January”? Well, unfortunately not. I broke a lot of rules:

  • Buying birthday gifts for my sister-in-law and one of my best friends.
  • Buying wine for three different dinner parties (I'm not going to show up empty handed).
  • Plane tickets to Miami to visit family.
  • McDonald's, Dunkin and Shake Shack during your pre-planned trip.
  • I had some money left in Venmo, which I spent on a ticket to the movie “Mean Girls.” But I didn't buy popcorn.
  • And finally, I used the money from selling the bed to go to a bar quiz hosted by my roommate.

In the end, although it wasn't easy, it was definitely a valuable experience that helped me learn some smart saving habits. In the end, even with my few cheats, I managed to save $1600, which is amazing.

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