Four years ago, Natalie McNeal was living it up. She was young, single and had a promising career as a reporter for the Miami Herald. But there were skeletons in McNeal’s wallet.
McNeal carried a $9,785.24 credit card balance, $8,600 on her car note and $2,636 in college loans.
“I was totally freaking out,” McNeal told Your Money. “Every two weeks I’d get my hair professionally washed and blown dry, colour it every six weeks and get it relaxed, and nibble from my $1,000 savings to pay for it. I’d wait until the next paycheck to fill the account back up, but I just knew it was a dangerous cycle.”
McNeal couldn’t cook, much less “shop in her closet” or do her nails, so she paid for that with plastic, thank-you-very-much. But by the time January 2008 rolled around, the statement on McNeal’s credit bill—$21,021— inspired her to do something drastic.
For the entire month of February, McNeal decided to not spend a thing except on “taking care of business,” i.e. her bills.
McNeal pitched the idea to her editor, then started blogging about her progress for the Herald. TheFrugalista.com became an Internet sensation—and recessionary catchphrase—and McNeal’s decision to make February “No Buy Month” won her a legion of fans who were inspired by her mission to “live life fabulously, but on a budget.”
“It was a little bit tough and a challenge trying to develop a new habit, day after day,” McNeal says. “But I really felt I had no other way, given my income and the media industry and given the economy. By staying really focused, a light bulb just went off and I kept the blog going.”
By the end of February, McNeal had saved $400, and completely changed her mindset towards spending.
“For the first time, my bank account wasn’t stressed out at the end of the month,” she says.
Today, McNeal is happily debt free and celebrates her tradition of making February No Buy Month. She takes the 28 days to assess her financial health, whether by negotiating down bills or cancelling unneeded subscriptions. And most of all, she reminds herself that she doesn’t need to buy something every day—she has just enough.
McNeal eventually wrote a book about her experience, The Frugalista Files, which was published in December 2010. Since Wednesday marked the start of No Buy month, we asked McNeal to share her tips here:
Start slowly. “I just knew I had to quit spending cold turkey, but even saving for one day is still big feat,” says McNeal. Take it day by day and don’t beat yourself up if you cave in. “Look at it as learning.”
Embrace it. “A lot of people say they’re scared to do it, but you should be more scared not to do it,” says McNeal. “If you’re scared that means you should definitely do it. You can’t have the mentality that you have to spend every day, it’s just not healthy.”
Have fun. No Buy Month isn’t meant to be a punishment. Use the month to explore fun, free activities in your neighbourhood, whether it’s sledding with friends, packing a colourful Bento box lunch or checking out a museum. (For more ideas on how to enjoy winter on the cheap, click here.)
Give your finances a checkup. “Take this time to do an assessment, and ask yourself, is this what I need or am I overspending?” says McNeal. “Trust me, you’ll be glad you did.” (See 6 ways to lower your energy costs here.)