I lived on £120 for a month - here's how to budget like a boss

Needs is must and all

Words by Maisie Bovingdon

I am the Queen of spending willy nilly; if I'm in a bad mood, or good mood, I'll buy something, and if I'm bored... oops I've tapped the contactless once again.

Don't get me wrong I'm not a big spender, and my hard earned wonga isn't going on the latest Chanel sandals (sadly) or designer bags, instead it's being swallowed up by Tesco meal deals, Pret lunches and travel.

Over the April bank holiday I was far too frivolous with my card, and after I paid my bills and rent (not including travel), I was somehow left with £120 in my bank account until my next pay cheque came along. So, I decided to teach myself a lesson.

I am not the first person, and I won't be the last, to have money matters on my mind. According to a study conducted by F&C Investment Trust, almost 70 per cent of people lay awake at night dwelling on their financial problems.

I spoke exclusively to money saving experts George Charles from Money Saving Heroes, Dilusha Hettiralalage from Consumer Savings Expert at Codes, as well as a spokesperson from Quidco.com, to find out the nifty tricks to make your pennies last longer, and how to make money.

Here's how I got on. (Don't forget to check out our Marie Claire vouchers page whilst you're here to bag yourself a bargain).

Week one

Day 1: I have no doubt living on £120 will be pretty impossible - especially as just one Topshop purchase can cut into half of this monthly budget - but expert George has insisted it is more doable than we think.

Speaking exclusively to Marie Claire Online, George Charles said: ‘In the current economic climate, it's hard to distinguish what the minimum liveable amount is. It will also vary from city to city, however we would estimate you could very well get by on around £200 (excluding rent and bills) a month.

'My favourite way to budget is to ensure you keep a spreadsheet of your monthly bills and how much of your pay check this equates to. Then, give yourself a budget for groceries, socialising and other payments you may make. Having a plan in place to stick to can make budgeting easier.

‘There are a wealth of apps that can help you budget; Monzo, Money Dashboard and Plum to name a few, which analyse the areas that are your biggest outgoings.’

Consumer savings expert, Dilusha, added: ‘At the start of the month work out what key dates you have coming up that will require a larger portion of your budget. Only keep a small amount of these funds on you at a time – in cash – so you can physically see what you have.'

A Quidco representative added: ‘Shopping through a cashback site like Quidco will allow you to earn money while you shop online. You can also make exclusive savings on groceries through ClickSnap.

I had previously done a food shop ahead of the four-day weekend, and leftovers allowed me to meal prep for the week ahead. I got this!

Outgoings: £0.

Day 2: After making overnight oats for breakfast, as well as lunch and snacks, my bag was full and I made my way into work with a spring in my step. My Oyster card was topped up last week, which stood me in good stead for day two. Maisie 1 - Bank balance 0.

TIP:  As part of TFL's refund scheme they reimburse you when your tube has been delayed, while linking your railcard to your Oyster can slash a single fare from £3.95 to £1.95 on off peak journeys.

Outgoings: £0.

Day 3: Mid week is ALWAYS a hard one because it's when all the plans start to roll in. After meal prepping the night before, I saved myself a few pounds on lunch again, which is rare for me.

Despite a calm start to the day, panic swiftly set in when I remembered I had dinner plans with friends. I love nothing more than to stuff my face, sip on a few G&Ts, and let the good times roll. But I contemplated cancelling because I was too conscious of eating my precious pounds, which is so not me, and I didn't like who I was becoming. When dinner came around my PR friend treated me and my other journo pal to part of the dinner, which meant we only had to put a little bit towards the bill. Yasss!

Outgoings: £16

Day 4: The first week of budgeting went better than expected. Although I meal planned so lunch was covered, guiltily I had to decline meeting a friend for drinks because I was all too conscious of the dollar.

In a bid to make up some extra cash I have turned to good ol' eBay to work a miracle on my finances. I managed to flog a couple of clothes for £20. Bonus. Downside - postage fees (and the extra fees eBay will whack me with later down the line).

In: £20

Outgoings: £8

Day 5: I always justify spending money on days when I have already bought something. When I started the day with an Oyster top up, I knew it was going to be one of those days.

Low and behold, I was right. Despite bringing in breakfast and lunch (leftovers from the day before) my stomach was acting like a bottomless pit and I was still hungry. I had no choice but to splash on snacks.

No Friday night is complete without a little evening girly meet up, and that's exactly what happened. Although dinner and drinks plans were on the cards, they swiftly changed to just drinks (my suggestion - obvs). After I cancelled plans earlier in the week I was adamant my finances were not going to ruin any more outings, as expert George insisted it is vital we keep our social lives going for our mental health.

George said: ‘It is easy to get accused of being stingy when in reality you are being savvy. Despite being on budget, it is still important to keep up an active social life for the sake of your mental wellbeing.'

Outgoings: £14.09

Day 6 and 7: Then came the weekend, and the inevitable, a huge dent in my account. A boozy brunch AND a birthday on the same day undid all my hard budgeting (I've got cold sweats just thinking about it). Then Sunday I was eating my body weight in food, which was another financial blow.

Over the weekend I guiltily relied a lot on my credit card, because I didn’t want to be the one unable to buy a round of drinks. But we all know credit cards can be dangerous territory.

George explained: 'Self-restraint is key. Training your brain into believing there is a limit on what you can use for each outgoing is one way of avoiding dipping into money that was put aside or using any credit cards you may have.

‘Credit cards can be dangerous, especially for those who struggle to save money. Interest rates can be crippling for many and can lead to serious money problems down the road.'

A spokesperson from Quidco added: ‘If you’re savvy then your credit card can work in your favour. Many credit cards offer points on every purchase which can then be redeemed into vouchers to spend on the high street.’

Outgoings: Too much to admit

Morale: At the start of the week 10/10, until the weekend. But memories are priceless, right?

Get 30% richer by 2014

Get 30% richer by 2014
(Image credit: REX)

Week two

Day 8: Monday came around far too quickly, and guiltily the week of successful meal prepping before did not last long. So, when lunch time came around I made sure my lunch was under £5, which is hard to do in the city.

A common fear when counting the pennies is we will miss out on days or nights out. But that's not the case. Although lunch and travel cut into my account, I still managed to enjoy an evening out without spending a penny thanks to my Cineworld Unlimited pass, which proved to be a life saver. Free night out it was.

Outgoings: £34 for travel and lunch

Day 9: It often takes a couple of days for your bank account to sync and catch up with all your spending. So, when I reluctantly checked my account my jaw dropped. Somehow I was left with VERY little to spend. Panic. Panic. Panic. I had no choice but to be rigorous and cut back where possible.

TIP: Tinned food is a lifesaver. With spare three beans, tuna and sweetcorn in the cupboards, and some veg in the fridge, I rustled up a nutritious three bean salad - proof you don't always have to live off pasta or sandwiches when on a budget.

Outgoings: £0

Day 10: With little preparation under my belt I somehow managed to pull off another zero-spend day after rustling up a very swift lunch. I attended the new launch of the Galaxy dark chocolate, which meant dinner was covered, and (another bonus) the PR company arranged our taxis to and from the event.

Outgoings: £0

Day 11: Almost half way through and I hit a slippery slope. After a late night, a couple of beverages, I’ve not meal prepped, and I’m hungry as hell. By the time I got to the office, my stomach was growling – just like a scene from The Little Shop of Horrors. - which meant lunch was excessive and it was snacks galore. Thankfully a night in meant no more splurges from me.

Outgoings: £8.10

Day 12: I hit a wall and fretted to the max; I hadn't meal prepped, and with upcoming birthdays, the pennies were dwindling.

I have always been the girl who likes to buy a new outfit for a new occasion, but I had to put my foot down and prioritise my spends.

Then came the gift. Thankfully the shopping centre near the Marie Claire HQ had a sale on and saved my bacon with a corporate discount offering 20% off. I was sold, so out came the credit card.

TIP: Although discounts are a rarity do some research, and ask staff in local stores about any sales or promos. Nothing ventured nothing gained.

Dilusha agreed: ‘Shopping around online, looking at the brochures that come through your door and even utilising loyalty schemes can all help to save money.’

Despite the big dent in my account, I had a little surprise eBay sale to cancel out the day’s spends.  I started to feel I could get through this.

Quidco spokesperson insisted having a clear out can make a major difference to your bank balance and mind set. They said: ‘Having a clear out isn’t just good for the mind – it’s good for your pocket, too. With sites and apps like eBay, Shpock and Depop making it easier than ever to sell unwanted items, you can make a small fortune and realign your Feng Shui at the same time.’

‘If you’ve got a driveway as you can rent out your drive for a daily/weekly fee via a number of websites.'

George added: ‘There are plenty of sites that offer cashback out there, including Topcashback. The sites allow you to gain some money back with each of your purchases which can be a godsend when finances are tight.’

Outgoings: Lunch £8.24, including cards (not too shabby), gift £40 instead of £50 (but that was on the credit card so doesn’t quite count), plus leaving drinks for a friend £9 (yes, that's for one drink *eye roll*).

In: £40

Out: Technically £57.24

Day 12 and 13: It’s the start of the bank holiday weekend and too many temptations.  But after last month’s spending spree I was adamant I was going to stick to my guns, take off Apple Pay, and leave my card at home.

With Christening preparation on the cards I ruled out Saturday to stay in the kitchen and do some baking, which made for a money-free zone. Sunday's Christening followed suit with food on the table I was sorted. Although I may have made a little Topshop purchase.

Outgoings: £31

Morale: 4/10

Week three

Day 14: After a very savvy weekend I used May Bank Holiday to meal prep like a mad woman for the week ahead. With just four working days this week I made a very rigid shopping list to help budget, although there were temptations when every aisle makes your mouth water. I ventured to Aldi after hearing rave reviews about how affordable everything was, and £10 later I had all the ingredients to make a few healthy lunches.

Dilusha insists being mindful when we shop is vital, because supermarkets and fashion retailers are very clever with their product placement to draw you in.

The expert explained: ‘Avoid the ends of aisles where deals and offers can usually be found. Look up and down the shelves; products typically at eye level are the most expensive.

‘Don’t be afraid to buy reduced products; the packaging may suggest the food item needs to be eaten that day, but that’s usually not the case, the sell-by and use-by dates are merely guidance. What’s more, you can freeze food to use at a later date.'

Outgoings: £10 on my food shop. Nailed it.

Day 15: A new working week meant the Oyster top up was looming. After whacking my remaining £30, I felt slightly uneasy, but I had to remind myself I've meal prepped and pay day is just a week away - I can do this. Thankfully a savvy eBay purchase left me quids in again and took a little bit of the pressure off (especially after treating myself to an outfit on the weekend).

Admittedly I cancelled some plans this week and rescheduled for pay day. Boring - I know, but the fear got the better of me.

In: £40

Outgoings: £30

Day 16: Following on from Monday's meal prepping I was ready for the day ahead. Although I have been tempted to leave my card at home to stop any temptations, I didn't - just in case of an emergency (she said). A night out with a friend in the evening I kept in the planner, although The Fear hit me in the run up, just in case I did splash the cash.

Outgoings: £0

Day 17:  Admittedly meal prepping works wonders on your bank balance, but it doesn't do any favours for satisfying your palette. After eating leftover dinner from a couple of nights ago for lunch I found myself craving all sorts of tasty treats. But Thursday treats for the office were in order.

Outgoings: £7 - small price to pay for tooth decay!

Day 18: The end is near. As much as I wanted to treat myself to a delish Leon, I refrained. With an early start on Saturday a night in for me with a Jo Loves candle, face mask and trashy TV was just what I needed. Overall, a week of budgeting well done.

Outgoings: £0

Day 19 and Day 21: Despite being in credit after this week of being super thrifty, a girly day of wedding dress fittings (not for me) inevitably led to brunch and a lot of food. With my sister and mum in tow, I was conscious of the burning hole in my purse as I wanted to do my fair share of treats for them too, without the embarrassment of hitting the 'insufficient funds' phase.

Outgoings: The remaining scraps.

Morale: 2.5/10 - who wants to go to nice events and fear they will overspend?

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Week Four

Pay day… say no more 🙌

Moral of the story

All those #quotesoftheday saying 'spend your money because you can't take it with you', or #ballingonabudget, oh and my favourite 'champagne lifestyle on a lemonade budget', are all well and good for encouraging us to live our best lives - and proceed to checkout - but it pays the price.

Planning is key when strapped for cash; you have to consider plan meals, days/nights out, and unexpected spends. Admittedly, I didn't factor in certain expenses, which left me feeling anxious and stressed, and made the process harder than it could have been.

While saving has been a struggle, it was a huge learning curve; not only have I found new things out about myself, but also London living. I’m an ‘in for a penny in for a pound’ kind of girl, and I don’t like to be limited financially. Though London is expensive, there are ways to cut corners.

The unnecessary corner shop runs for snacks stopped, my spontaneous online shops out of boredom were a difficult no no. I started to make a mental note of cheaper options. I also became more thoughtful about how I was spending my free time, and with who; when you don’t have much money you start to prioritise certain people ahead of others, but saying no didn't always leave me with major FOMO.

Guiltily I dipped into my credit card as a safety net to ensure my social life didn't take a beating. But most of those purchases could have been avoided, and living on £120 can be done, especially if I factored in travel costs at the start of the month.

Total in: £100

Total out: £61.43 after I deducted the cost of those thrifty sales.

Morale: 4/10 Budgeting is hard, and it made me an anxious wreck worrying I wouldn't make it to pay day, but it's doable.

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