I’ve never really been big on saving money. But on a cold morning in February 2017, I got stupidly excited about being given a newspaper for free.
As this will clearly seem utterly ridiculous to most, I shall now explain why.
The day before, I’d taken a potentially life-changing step to reboot my freelance career. I was about to jump off a financial cliff, unsure whether I was heading for inviting warm blue water or jagged rocks. I’d told my main client I didn’t want to work for him anymore. I basically quit.
I’d been earning consistently good money as a freelancer for a couple of years, but I fell into a trap. I ended up selling so much of my time to one client that I felt like I had a full-time traditional job. I had staff, company politics, and projects to work on that I didn’t believe in. What I didn’t have was the benefits, sick pay and paid holiday that go some way to making these things worth putting up with.
But what I did have was the money, and I was being stupid with it. The creeping unhappiness that had led me to the point of no return with this client had brought with it an unhealthy attitude to spending. It was almost as if I’d concluded that if I was going to be miserable and unhealthy to provide for my family, I was jolly well going to buy whatever the hell I wanted to make up for it. Saving money was very much off the table.
I’m not talking about buying particularly extravagant items. I like brand name clothes but tend to buy them at outlet malls. Watches, jewellery and other such status symbols have never attracted me. (Full disclosure: I am a big Apple fanboy, so Apple products are an exception here!) However, when I have money, I’m a bit of a nightmare for frittering it away on meaningless crap.
Anyway, I will come to the free newspaper, but I’ll first rewind to the evening before.
After having a meeting in London where I revealed the intention to effectively quit my job, I headed to the city’s Gatwick airport, where I was spending the night before an early flight.
After checking in, I needed to head out to the terminal to buy a soft drink. When I entered the newsagents, I headed straight to the book section. I immediately stopped in my tracks.
“Erm…you’re not wealthy anymore!” said my internal dialogue.
This was a wakeup call and a half. I had to have a serious word with myself and remember I’d walked in for a bottle of drink. That was all I was going to buy – and I was going to look at the price before buying it too.
I left a couple of minutes later with a bottle of ice tea and a packet of mints, but not before I’d pulled myself away from some “gourmet” gummy sweets and a magazine that caught my eye – even though I had a Readly magazine subscription, a bunch of Kindle books I’d yet to read and three traditional books already in my suitcase.
As one tends to during times of major change, I did some major thinking. Being honest with myself, I realised that almost every time I’d been in a similar shop at an airport, I’d not just bought a bottle of drink. I’d bought the drink, and a couple of books (“ooh, buy one, get one half price…”) AND the sweets, and probably the magazine too.
I spent £3 in that shop. But in the preceding year I’d taken somewhere between 20 and 30 flights, and spent more like £25 each time I’d visited the airport newsagent. It was simply what I did.
Now, I’ve no doubt I thoroughly enjoyed some of the rubbish I bought, but I know for a fact that some of those books are still in my house unread even now, and even some of the snacks remain in my kitchen approaching their “use by” date. On reflection, facing uncertain times, I’d rather have £750 extra in my bank account.
A new focus on saving money
One thought leads to another, so from that moment forward I vowed to be considerably more attentive to what I was spending. Instead of having an (inevitably underwhelming) restaurant dinner that night at the airport hotel, I grabbed a snack at a coffee shop. The next morning, I drank the free bottle of water in my hotel room instead of grabbing something else in the newsagents. (I even threw the three quarters full mini shower gel in my case instead of leaving it in the hotel.)
Once through departures and awaiting my flight, I bought a sandwich-based “meal deal” for £3.50. It’s sad to admit, but I rather enjoyed selecting from my choices of sandwich, drink and snack, rather than mindlessly chucking everything I thought I might want in a basket without looking at the price.
I realised I’d been living life “al la carte,” just because I could, when there were plenty of things I liked on the set menu.
I then limited my duty-free shop exposure to a free dollop of moisturiser and a squirt of something that smelled nice. My toughest test was when I played with the new MacBook Pro laptop I’d been coveting for several months – a “bargain” at tax-free airport prices. It may seem far-fetched to say I would have bought this under different circumstances, but a laptop’s a legitimate business expense and – well – it is the kind of thing I would do.
Anyway, I appreciate you’re probably keen to know what on earth a free newspaper has to do with this? This came at the point I wandered through towards the gate to catch my flight. There in front of me, as pictured, was a large rack of completely free newspapers and magazines.
Time after time I’d seen these after spending anything up to £25 on reading materials in the departure lounge, briefly kicked myself for being mugged off, and immediately forgotten all about it.
This time it felt like a strange karmic sign, as I helped myself to two national newspapers and three magazines – plenty of entertainment for my flight and my time away.
While I sat at the gate waiting for boarding, I realised it had been about 12 hours since I had my initial realisation in the newsagent. With a little time to kill, I thought I’d tot up what I’d realistically saved. The list looked like this:
What did I save?
Newsagent: Spent £3 on water and mints instead of usual £20 by adding my usual books, magazines and junk food. SAVING: £17.
Evening meal: Spend £7 on coffee shop food and drink instead of £25 in a restaurant. SAVING: £18.
Morning: £3.50 meal deal instead of £10 on the usual random crap. SAVING: £6.50.
Duty Free Shop: Didn’t buy anything. SAVING: £50.
Electronics Store: Didn’t buy latest MacBook Pro. SAVING: £1500.
Now let’s take that MacBook out of the equation for now. It’s a quite extreme example (although I stand by the fact that if I hadn’t just done the equivalent of quitting my job, I would quite possibly have felt I “deserved” it and purchased one).
Regardless of that, I still saved £91.50 in 12 hours of passing through an airport. I didn’t feel like my quality of life had slipped, and my hand luggage was significantly more manageable.
Now I know, for some, that being sensible and frugal comes naturally. These people will inevitably view my previous spending pattern as incredibly foolish. However, I never saw any point in reining in this kind of spending while it was affordable to “indulge” in it. I’m clearly not the only person who spends in this way either. I have seen friends do far worse – and in a world where airports have vending machines selling Bose headphones (see photo), people clearly have a problem with curtailing their impulse spending!
I also stand by the fact that such spending was a (not particularly effective) antidote to how miserable my working lifestyle had become. Before I made my decision to move on to new work, I’d frequently complained to family and friends about the path I was on. I’d say the following:
“I’m wasting loads of money on crap takeaways because I don’t have time to cook, and buying extravagant presents for my son because I feel guilty about not focussing on him enough.”
This was no way to live, and that realisation was key to my work decision. However, I didn’t realise, until I started being truly mindful of my spending, just how entrenched my cash-draining habits had become.
I’d read before that saving money is better than earning it. After all, money you save is money you don’t need to earn. In actual fact, avoiding spending it really is better than earning it.
Why? The main reason is tax. If I had spent that extra £91.50, I would have had to bill clients more like £130 to clear that money after taking care of various taxes. That’s more than four hours work at £30 per hour. I saved it with five minutes of more mindful spending.
And what did I lose out on? Nothing at all. I still ate, I still had something to read (yay for that newspaper, once again), and I still had a MacBook Pro to work on on the plane (after all, my old one was only a year or so old at that point).
I gained far more. I gained a bunch of time I would have had to work to pay for these insignificant items. I gained a less cluttered home and a lighter bag too. Most importantly, I gained a shift in focus away from the consumerist trap I’d been caught in for those unhappy years. The years where I could have anything I wanted but experienced rationing on the things I needed.
Earning money is of course very important, but when you’re a solopreneur, not spending it achieves exactly the same objective.