This isn’t a story about how money can’t buy you happiness, although I might touch on that a little. It’s about how halving my salary meant I could finally afford designer shoes. It’s about learning to spend well. It’s about a very smug term that keeps coming into my head recently – 'mindful spending'. God, I hate myself already.
When I quit a full-time job to go freelance, I had expectations; to be happier, have more time to myself and actually see my son when he’s awake. What I didn’t expect was to feel richer. I thought I was swapping money for time – finally, at 33, realising the latter was the more precious commodity. I expected to be poorer and I made my peace with it.
But something happened that I never expected – now that I earn less, I have nicer clothes and better holidays. I’ve swapped debt for a savings account and I enjoy spending more than ever.
I first started earning proper money when I was 21 and got a job in an advertising agency. They offered me 16k; I took the job immediately (funny how we feel ok admitting what we first earned but become sheepish as we get older). Even 12 years ago, a 16k salary in London was tough. An older colleague told me, "In advertising you’re underpaid for the first half of your career and overpaid for the second half". He was right. After a few years, a job move meant doubling your salary. Jump agencies a few times and you’re on very good money. Not that I knew it – I thought everyone was earning the same kind of money. I had no idea the advertising industry paid well until I left it.
That was the crux. I was earning a hefty amount of money each month but didn’t know it. If you had asked how I felt about my salary, despite being in the top 1% of UK earners I would have said it wasn’t enough. I rocketed through thousands a month, with little to show for it at the end other than a pile of once-worn H&M jersey. I earned enough to never really have to think about money. Enough to buy cocktails and not drink them. Enough to book holidays I never went on. Enough to never send back anything I bought on the internet. It was mindless spending.
I never budgeted or planned how to spend. Money just plugged holes I created. I’d quickly buy a new pair of trainers I didn’t particularly like because I’d left mine at home and there was a lunchtime run at work. It was almost like I gave money no value. It was just something to churn through until it was replaced at the end of the month.
"But you must have bought loads of nice clothes?!" friends now exclaim. I didn’t. ‘Nice’ things require time, attention and a thought process. When you give yourself 20 minutes to buy a pair of jeans because you find yourself in front of Liberty between meetings, you are not going to come out with something nice. They’ll be made with lovely denim, the selvedge hard stuff. But they won’t fit. You’ll still buy them because you need new jeans and you feel like you deserve a treat, and dropping £220 on a whim is doable. Then they’ll sit in your wardrobe, you’ll try them on every morning and always take them off just before you leave the house because they give you mild camel toe. Another £220 bites the dust.
"It sounds like you had zero respect for money," diagnoses Dr. Joan Harvey, a psychologist who specialises in occupational psychology. It’s true. You would think because I worked really hard for the money I’d respect it, but the only consequence to spending stupidly was having to go to work every day, which I’d already resigned myself to. Dr. Harvey continues: "Which means you probably didn’t respect your time, either. People often don’t realise that budgeting doesn’t just mean they could have spare money. It could mean more spare time." Nail on the head, Joan. It sounds ridiculous but it took me a long time to realise my spending habits were keeping me trapped in a stressful full-time job. There’s a lesson here – if you don’t respect how you spend your time, you’re not going to respect your money, because they are completely interlinked.
Before I left full-time work, I heard my 22-year-old nephew talk about time the way my peers talked about money. He negotiated time off in his new job the way I had negotiated my salary. He works four days a week and has long holidays when he can tour with his band. There's nothing like seeing your little nephew rock life to make you realise you’re not quite living the dream. That and the realisation I hadn’t seen my young son awake for four days in a row were the wake-up calls I needed to quit.
Once I knew money wouldn’t be hitting my account with any regularity, I put myself on a strict budget. I started challenging myself to get through a day and only spend a fiver. The thrill of succeeding was greater than any buzz I’d got from whacking down my credit card. It also taught me what I could survive without – Bounce protein balls, M&S prawns, black cabs, ASOS deliveries and flat whites among them. And the things I’m happy to work for – Kiehl's moisturiser, beer and childcare.
Right now I’d rather time to spend with my son or on passion projects that don’t pay well than buy another pair of jeans. I see that plonking my card down for a round of Aperol Spritzes no one really wanted actually cost me an hour sat in a boardroom. Freelancing allows me to dial up or down how much I work, so now when it comes to spending I always think, 'Am I willing to work an hour or a day for this?' My conversion rate is time.
It’s presumed that we’re all on a trajectory of earning more and more. I’d rather us all be on a path that the more accomplished we become, the more choices we have – about the work we do and how we spend our time. The end goal shouldn’t always be money. Now when I see an article that promises to help you 'get a pay rise' I want to counter it with 'ask for a day off'. To take any pleasure in spending, you need time to think.
I finally feel like I have a healthy respect for money. I was an idiot around it for so long and this is what I’ve learnt: Try clothes on – if they don’t make you feel 21 years old, leave them in the shop. Plan meals. Savour that morning coffee. Choose a pair of shoes you adore over 12 distinctly average T-shirts from H&M (which I’d buy because I didn’t have time to wash my clothes). Slice your own veg. Never shop Amazon – if you really need it, you’ll get off your arse for it. Buy plants not flowers. Black cabs are rarely quicker than the bus (if I promise you anything, this I know). Don’t apologise for being late with expensive alcohol (was that just me?). However much you earn, find time to think about how you will spend it and, when you do, rejoice in how good it feels to buy something you really want.