Coronavirus Universal Credit & Benefits
14 May 2021
Sometimes waving a magic MoneySaving wand and changing all your providers isn’t enough to really improve your finances. Two further simple words are needed... STOP SPENDING. Whether you need scaring into it, or tips on cutting back, this guide and the frightening Demotivator tool will help tackle those spending demons.
Martin met a good middle-class family for a media money makeover. First, they admitted shame at £60,000 credit-card debt, a sum that mathematically would take them two years of after-tax income to repay even if they’d no bills to pay or food to buy.
Yet what they initially hid from Martin, and themselves, was that a further jaw-dropping £120,000 of their mortgage had originally been splurged on plastic then shifted onto the home loan.
That’s £180,000 overspending in less than a decade, yet these weren’t obviously profligate folk. Like many, they’d simply stumbled into the trap of wrongly believing they were wealthy and tried to give their family the best. Inevitably, solving such gargantuan financial indiscipline just takes two simple words....
That’s easy to say and a nightmare to do. Yet in their case an abrupt spending defibrillation was the only way. To get them back on track, they needed to simply vow not to lay out for anything barring food, heat and essential bills. For most people, that's unnecessary, but get it wrong and things can get that bad.
Putting a little debt on cards may not seem too bad, yet if it's unplanned and not budgeted for, it's simply willy-nilly overspending, and you’re setting yourself up for a disaster, and not just financially. Too many times I’ve seen the impact debt crisis has on homes, family, mental health and relationships.
You may feel this is over-dramatising. Yet when there’s no money left, you can’t borrow more, and the creditors are asking for money back which you’ve no ability to repay, it touches every element of your life.
The danger is what’s called a ‘debt spiral’. It works like this:
There’s no need to stop spending for the sake of it. If you enjoy a cappuccino, can afford it, aren’t in debt and aren’t overpaying, sup away. Yet as Dickens' Micawber principle states:
Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure nineteen ninety six, result happiness. Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure twenty pounds ought and six, result misery.
The BIG danger signal. Are you in debt?
If you are, and can’t answer the question 'what are your debts from?' there’s a problem. If you didn’t buy, for example, a car or a conservatory, but you've used cards or loans to fill gaps, an ear-piercing alarm should ring.
Debt is fine if it is planned, rational, budgeted for and as cheap as possible. But if you consistently need to use the credit cards to supplement your monthly spend, you have a problem. Do that, and as I’ll explain in a moment, it can have life-destroying consequences.
Do a budget to work out where you're WASTING cash
If you are spending more than you earn, there’s a simple way to accurately check. The specially designed Budget Planner calculates your genuine annual income and then tells you exactly how much more you spend than you earn.
Most people are shocked by the result, as many of those who think they’re within budget month-by-month aren’t when it’s done over a year. This is the start point of sorting out your cash. If possible, sit down and spend the time to do the budget. The planner also then helps you prioritise your spending.
Of course, even if you’re not spending more than you earn, if your aim is to save up for something specific, the techniques below will help too.
Simply enter items like cigarettes, daily sandwiches, newspapers and it’ll tell you how much you spend a year, and how long you worked to buy them. Then print out the results and stick it to your wall or fridge as a constant demotivating reminder.
One of the big problems is people ask the wrong questions. In Martin's job as Money Saving Expert people come up to him all the time and ask something like:
How do I get the shiny new car / glamorous holiday / amazing Christmas / designer clothes I want on my paltry salary?
It's thinking this way that leads people to constant overspend, because you're totally ignoring the financial reality. Instead the real question's:
On my paltry salary, what’s the best lifestyle I can possibly have?
To do this, as noted earlier, the task is to sit down for a brutally frank financial self-assessment. We don’t mean a prissy budget looking at a month’s expenditure. That omits the cost of Christmas, summer holidays, MOT tests and more.
We mean scrutinise everything, big and small, over a year, to prioritise what’s important and cutting anything that pushes your spending beyond your income. Use the free Budget Planner tool to do it for you. Yet be warned, it’s the real deal, so set aside two hours and prepare for a sinking feeling when pressing the “Do I spend more than I earn?” button.
Once you know what you've got and what you can spend it on, then you need to find a way to stick to it. An easy way to do this is to use the Piggybanking technique which uses different bank accounts to control your cash flow (if you're in severe debt, also see the the Problem Debts article).
If you haven't got enough income to pay for everything you want to, then you've got to work out what's most important to you.
First should come all necessary bills, rent, mortgage, food and clothing, but after that there's wriggle-room for making your own spending decisions.
Anything that checks our impulses can be a kick-butt powerhouse. Early in Martin's career for a telly programme, he was asked to devise a ‘Martin’s Money Mantra’ to do this. Different scenarios require different approaches, so he ended up with two - each has questions to ask before you buy.
Many people swear by them (some at them), and requested credit card-sized versions, so we designed a free wallet-sized Money Mantra Card, designed for you to print, pop in your purse and whip out before you buy.
Perhaps the most difficult to self-assess is the “will I use it?” which examines what economists call 'opportunity cost' - in other words, could you get better use or pleasure out of the same cash buying something else? So is a stunning £300 dress that’ll be used once worth it, if the same money could buy other items used more often?
A story from Martin...
My favourite example of this is shopping with a female friend, who hates me telling this story. She’d spotted two pairs of leather boots and was deliberating between them. I checked prices - one £40, the other £110 - yet she was only concerned with preferred style.
So I whipped £70 cash out and held it up with the £40 pair to show the real decision was one pair of boots plus the cash, or just the rival boots alone. She paused and with genuine interest said 'wow, I’ve never thought of it like that before'.
Five minutes later she bought the more expensive boots anyway though – you can’t win ‘em all!
For the real top tricks to cut back, you need to ask those who live it. The Debt-Free Wannabe section of our web forum is a community that works together to clear often-heavy debts at speed.
We asked regulars on there - many are the kings & queens of personal budgeting - for their top tips in the Great Stop Spending Hunt. Here are some of the best...
If you really want something, sleep on it for a night. You may find it doesn’t seem as attractive the next day!
If you’re tempted by an impulse buy, work out how long it would take you to earn that money in hours worked. So if you get paid £5/hour and it costs £150, that’s an extra 36 hours you’ll need to work to fund it, taking into account tax (our Demotivator will do this for you).
Work out how much longer it will take you to pay off your debt or increase your savings if you give in. To put it into perspective, if you’re saving for a holiday think "that costs one day in Miami"...
Many have costly subscriptions for gyms, mags, packaged bank accounts and more, yet rarely or never use them - or with time and home moves, forget about 'em altogether.
First, check for regular payments going out of your bank account for services you no longer use - then CANCEL them. You may even be able to get a refund. See how to do it in Cancel Direct Debits.
Then take it up a notch and ask yourself if you REALLY need it. Even if you DO occasionally use that pricey gym/Spotify/Netflix subscription, if you're overspending right now it may be a luxury you can't afford. Look for cheap alternatives - see Free Gym Passes, Free Music Streaming and Free Online Movies & Box Sets.
Set a budget, write a food plan and take a calculator with you when you go food shopping. And never go when hungry - it's too tempting to overbuy. By going just once a month you’ll be less likely to buy on impulse and for convenience. Top up with milk and bread in between (also see the Supermarket Saving Secrets guide).
Only take the cash you absolutely need with you and don't have a cash card with you to take extra out of the hole in the wall. That way, however tempted you are, you have to walk away in the end.
If you don’t go to the shops, you can’t be lured by nice things. Stay at home – simple as that! If you like to while away your leisure time by going shopping, do something else instead! Keep busy and you won’t be tempted to get out your wallet.
If you really want to buy something new, see if you can sell something you don’t use any more to cover the cost.
Always make a shopping list before you go to the stores and see tempting goodies. Then once you’re out – don’t stray from it.
If you can’t stick to a shopping list, try ordering your shopping online. It’s easier to stick to a budget as you get a running total, plus you won’t be tempted by the sights and sounds in the shop (see the Cheap Online Shopping guide).
Every time you open your wallet for a potential purchase you’ll be reminded of why you shouldn’t be spending money.
Remember until you pay it off, you're spending the bank’s money not yours. Think of it as a debt card and you might not be so hasty reaching for your wallet (also ensure the debt is as cheap as possible, see the Cards and Loans section)
Make it a challenge to come up with creative nights out or in on a budget. It could be a picnic in the park or a movie night at home. Or if there’s something particular you want to buy, see how quickly you can raise the funds through extra means.
Spend time on a new (free) activity like running or do some volunteer work. This leaves less time for spending.
Set up another account for bills and use this to make sure all your bills are paid. With the money left over you can pay yourself a set amount which is yours to spend as you like.
It’s an old one but a good one, making a packed lunch doesn’t just stop you being tempted by expensive sandwich shops, it also keeps you from the pub or easy trips out with friends where money flows out.
Write a note of when you’re likely to over spend. If you can identify trends that lead to overspending you might be able to prevent them or vent in some other way.
Whatever your vice is, whether it’s pizza, beer or frothy cappuccinos, try making it at home for a fraction of the cost.
Once or twice a week have a day where you spend nothing other than budgeted-for things. Quite often just spending once can break the cycle for the rest of the day.
There are two ways to cut your expenditure:
This means being a better consumer and getting better deals on everything you do. It’s what this site’s all about. Use the Money Makeover article to see all the areas where you can save.
If you’re asking why it’s called ‘pain-free’ – the answer's simple – these changes shouldn’t impact your lifestyle. So maximise the pain free savings and then re-budget to see if you still need the next step.
After all the pain-free saving, the next step is to curtail your lifestyle, and stop spending on the things you commonly spend on. It’s all about self-discipline. And again, to help, we asked forum users to suggest their ideas in the Great Ways to Cut Back Hunt - below are some of their suggestions.
From house swapping to organising a night in with your friends and family - here are just a few tips to help curb spending on entertainment and lifestyle expenses.
Cancel unused digital/satellite television channels
Invest in a cheap freeview box instead. See the Digital TV guide.
If you buy a magazine every month, take out a subscription
It is cheaper and many magazines offer a free gift.
Organise nights in with your friends and family
Avoid expensive taxi journeys home from town, just get them to bring a bottle.
Try camping or house swapping with friends
take a break from the norm for a different type of holiday.
All those trips to the salon add up - here are just a few tips to cut back on health and beauty expenses.
Try for student night haircuts at top salons
The students are supervised by a fully trained hairdresser.
Visit your local beauty college for cut price treatments
Most of the students will be coming to the end of their training and need to be examined.
Use a sponge or buff puff in the shower
To reduce the amount of shower gel required.
Below we have just a few ideas for cutting down the cost of spending in the home. For more, get Martin's book, Thrifty Ways For Modern Days - it's full of cost-cutting tips in the home and all author proceeds go to charity.
Get a calendar to record when bills need to be paid
Or when library books need to be returned.
Grow your own veg
You don’t need a garden, you can grow lettuce in a window box or potatoes in a old dustbin.
Bake your own bread
You don’t need a bread maker, you can do it by hand.
Start a compost heap
Any food scraps can be added to fertilize flowers or your home grown veg.
If you hire any equipment then do it over a bank holiday
You usually get an extra day's hire for free.
Car boot or eBay unwanted possessions
Makes you money and declutters your house. Read the eBay selling guide.
Use white vinegar instead of numerous cleaning products
It works and it’s cheap.
Only use half a dishwasher tablet per wash
If you are just cleaning glasses and lightly soiled dinner plates, you don’t need a whole tablet.
Keep old perfume bottles in your underwear drawer
The drawer will always smell fresh without using liners.
Buy cheap cola to flush down the toilet
It’ll keep it sparkling clean, and works just as well as the expensive toilet cleaners.
Retain your mobile phone box and instruction manual
You can often get money back or sell as second hand.
Don’t leave electrical goods on standby
It's estimated that a typical UK household could save £50 - £90 per year on electricity bills if they always fully switched home appliances off rather than leaving them on standby.
Turn it all off when you go on holiday
There is no reason to have them on, and if you are away for two weeks or more that’s a lot of money being spent.
Turn off lights when you are not in the room
Simple but will save you money on your electricity bill.
Go to bed 30 minutes earlier than usual
Get more rest AND save on electricity.
Don’t have the heating on and a window open
Just turn the heating down if it gets too warm in the house.
Turn your central heating thermostat down by one degree
You’re unlikely to notice the difference in the heat, but you will notice the difference in the bill.
Use a water saving device if you have a water meter
You can use a water filled coke bottle instead of an expensive purpose made device.
Use a shelf in your airing cupboard to dry clothes
Rather than putting the heating on.
Use rechargeable batteries
A one-off cost.
If the oven is on, use it well
Cook multiple meals/cakes and freeze them.
Invest in a slowcooker
It’s MoneySaving and timesaving all rolled into one.
When making tea or coffee, don't overfill the kettle
Or you can buy kettles that only heat the required amount of water.
Keep your fridge/freezer free of ice
It works more economically and holds more.
Visit the supermarket late at night
This is when they have more reduced items on offer.
Never go shopping when you are hungry
You only end up buying overpriced junk food. Read the Supermarket Shopping guide.
Never take your children to the supermarket with you
"I want" doesn’t save you money.
Use free/open source software on your PC
It’s usually just as good as the costly equivalents. See what's available in the Free PC Software guide
Buy remanufactured ink cartridges rather than new
They work out sometimes at nearly half the price of new branded cartridges.
Don’t buy gifts
Give vouchers for your time or be arty and make something. Read the Festive Fivers guide for ideas.
Organise a clothes-swapping party with your friends
One person’s trash is another treasure.
Use money-off coupons, online and offline
Save the money in a piggybank, don’t spend it. See the latest updated Shopping Coupons
Ensure your current tax code is correct
You could be paying more than necessary.
Use a council MOT test centre
They’ve no vested interest in prescribing repairs for your car so it’s more likely to pass. Read the Cheap MOTs guide.
Walk/cycle instead of taking the car on shorter journeys
Saves you money on petrol and keeps you fit.
Start a car share scheme at work
It’s MoneySaving and environmentally friendly.
Clever ways to calculate your finances