Meet Sarah. She's Newshub's lifestyle editor. She's charming, she's smart, she's confident - and she's got way more dollars than financial sense.
Sarah spends every cent she makes, and then some. She buys clothes that she wears just three times, considers takeaway coffee to be an essential, and has been known to order UberEats to the office twice in one shift.
So in the interests of research - and for our own sadistic entertainment - we put Sarah on a zero-spend budget for one week, to see what an extreme financial detox can do for a young thing.
Sarah is a Millennial, that curious species who came into being around the early 21st century.
- Millennials no more narcissistic than previous generations
- Generations at war: Millennials v Boomers
Millennials are an unstoppable force. Their spending is changing the shape of the economy, but, thanks to housing bubbles and global financial crises, their economic prospects are the poorest in decades.
While the Boomers and Gen Xers think they should strive strive for Kiwisavers and investment properties, the next generation want espresso martinis and buddha bowls, and they want them now.
And why shouldn't they? What's not to admire about prioritising experiences over material possessions?
In this ever-accelerating world, when time is short and transactions are as easy as a tap, why shouldn't a young adult eat out at every meal and pay a driver to drop them home afterwards?
Simply, because you can't spend it twice. Three almond milk lattes, two meals out a day and countless impulse purchases mean Sarah is left limping into payday each month, and an upcoming holiday has been paid for entirely on credit card. Sarah's rate of spending potentially puts her at the top of a debt spiral that could soon spin out of control - unless she curbs her habits now.
And so we wondered, could we convince a Millennial to tighten their belt? And would it actually achieve anything?
The rules were simple: Sarah had to spend no money for one week. Personal necessities such as food, shelter, taxes and amenities were permitted, but discretionary spending was out. The supermarket shop and gym membership stayed. The coffees, cocktails and canapes had to go.
To hold her to task, financial adviser Carissa Fairweather went through Sarah's recent bank statements, and the results were pretty devastating.
In the past week there had been $120 spend on eating out, $80 spent in bars, $50 spent on tickets to events, $50 on Uber, and $100 that can't be accounted for. Shopping. Sarah was spending double what she takes home.
So in theory, abstaining from spending for one week could net Sarah $400.
Here's how she fared.
It isn't a promising start. I wake up deathly hungover after an unexpectedly large Sunday night cocktail event that saw me stumbling out of Caretaker at 2am.
When my 7am alarm goes off, my pain is only lessened by the thought of the giant buttered scone and double shot almond flat white I will buy on my way into work.
And then I remember that I'm on a zero-spend budget from today. I eat a sad piece of toast in the car outside the office. Day one hasn’t even started and I am over it.
Luckily I had done a supermarket shop in preparation yesterday, so I had thrown some chicken and miscellaneous vegetables into a container to eat grumpily at lunch. All I wanted all day was to go buy hot chips. At one point my boss took pity on my sweaty sad face and bought me an iced coffee.
Driving home that evening, I had to resist every temptation not to pick up drive through. (Maybe this experiment was going to help my waistline as well as my wallet). My flatmate cooked me pasta for dinner. I went to bed at 9pm, exhausted from the effort not spending.
It’s funny how not sweating espresso martinis out of your pores makes it easier to get your shit together when it comes to preparation. I prepare some oats to eat after the gym, pack my lunch and head to work brimful of good, money-saving intentions. I have a little keep-cup of coffee from our home filter. I'm feeling great.
Things derailed slightly at work as I'm hit by an onslaught of targeted Facebook ads. Some winter boots I had been looking at appeared no fewer than SEVEN TIMES in one mindless Facebook scroll. It made me realise how much I use shopping as a mood boost at work. No headline inspiration? Can’t find the right word? Slow news day? I scroll shopping sites until inspiration strikes. Without it, I’m unreasonably panicky. What if the dress I admired last week is on sale and I don’t know?
The staff at my local café must have thought I had died or something. I wave to them through the window, and they stared at me stonily, the cold eyes of betrayal. Who’s going to put their children through university now I'm not buying three almond flat whites a day? Thank goodness for the ex-hospo gods in the newsroom who actually know how to work the fancy coffee machine and have kept me in caffeine this sad, Paywave-free week.
I pull out my lunchbox of leftover Thai beef salad, and realise I haven’t actually packed the beef. Just a sad collection of noodles and veges. I'm going to have to supplement this sad meal.
I go into overdrive mulling over what I could buy. There’s a whole STREET of options. Give me an inch and I want to take a mile, evidently.
Self-control wins out and I end up buying a $3 chicken drumstick for my little desk salad. I am sad, but also a little proud.
That night a friend invites me out for a drink, but I find it in myself to resist, and reschedule for next week. Then I go home, eat dinner and watch MAFS with my flatmate, and was actually pretty content.
I had a glass of wine at home, but no more. This no-spend experiment is making me reconsider the amount I spend on alcohol, and therefore drink, each week. Interesting. (Annoying.)
By Thursday I am really, really over it. Over eating out of Tuppaware, over saying no to coffee. I want to buy myself a treat for getting over halfway through zero-spend week. Irony.
To break the monotony, I am very, very excited for a work-related event that night. I took a friend with me, and I have to confess, I crack. We go to a Mexican place for dinner, and it is glorious. I revel in splitting the bill. Paying for parking was exciting. It was all a delight.
Oh the guilt. I had screwed up and ruined all my hard work. But I must brush it off and soldier on.
Normally Friday brings with it several Facebook group chats sorting evening plans, but I avoid them all.
It would have been hypothetically possible to go out to Ponsonby on a Friday night and not spend money - to not buy any rounds and not split the Uber. But that ain't me, and instead I grab a quiet dinner with my boyfriend (DON’T WORRY - HE PAID) and go to bed early.
Being thrifty is antisocial.
So, this ended up being a six-day experiment. It started off with the best of intentions: lots of pottering around home and going to the supermarket and vacuuming and cleaning out the fridge (turns out you can get a lot of administration done when you’re not shopping like it’s an Olympic sport).
Saturday was a win, you might say.
But by Sunday, I was done. My boyfriend wanted to get out of Auckland and goddammit, so did I. So we went out for brunch, drove to Matakana and had a beautiful day. It was good for the mind and soul. I got a couple of great Instagram stories out of it.
So I failed at a seven-day zero-spend budget. But I’m not too ashamed of it because honestly, sometimes spending some money on going up north for the day and drinking wine in the sun is just really great.
Shitty for the bank account though.
Spend: Between us, about $260.
Sarah was extremely brave to take on the ‘zero spend’ challenge in such a public manner. Hoping to change some unhealthy financial habits that others can draw inspiration from is admirable.
However, starting the week hungover possibly didn’t give the project the kick start that it required to make it the successful experiment that we were all gunning for.
If Sarah can continue to be organised and take her lunch to work, and master the coffee machine in the office, she'd immediately be a whopping $125 each week better off.
Paying down her credit card and saving for future trips will be the catalyst for her feeling more in control and on top of her finances in future.
Carissa's top tips for financial detox
- People behave better when they're being observed. So don't track your spending for a month - look back a month.
- Approach your detox as an opportunity to do something better, rather than a restriction on having a fun life. If you fall off the wagon, don't beat yourself up - brush yourself off and try again.
- Know what you want from the outset. It doesn't have to be a house - it could be a holiday or to get rid of credit card debt.
- Take a friend along for the ride. There is a high chance they need one too and having someone to bounce ideas off is easier than doing it alone.
- Zero spend is a big ask. Be realistic - make your coffee at work for a week so you can afford to go for drinks on a Friday, or bring your lunch in three days a week instead of never.
- As dull as it may seem, meal planning and going to the supermarket only once a week will save you a tonne.
- Set up separate bank accounts for your goals - name your account ‘Trip to the States’ or whatever is important to you. Save for it instead of just putting things on credit.
- Credit cards should never be an option to fund luxury or wants. If you do use one, you should be paying it off in full every month, no exceptions.