My Accidental No-Spend Year

It's mid-March 2020.

Lockdown was just announced in Switzerland. I remember sitting in my neighbor's living room on that fateful day, watching the Swiss government declare an "extraordinary situation" due to the spreading corona virus, whereby all non-essential shops, gyms, restaurants and events and so on would be closed. Shutting down public life seemed like a reasonable thing and if it's only for a month or so, didn't seem like such a big deal. The whole world was going into a collective lockdown.

However, I was mostly concerned about how I'd cope with getting groceries as I keep very little food in my apartment on a day-to-day basis (in an effort to stave of constant food binging). I knew I needed to build a bit of a food stash as to avoid going to the grocery stores every day. Otherwise, however, I felt fairly optimistic about the situation, thinking it would resolve fairly well and soon (tbf, I knew I was much better off in these terms than a lot of people around the world, so I am truly grateful).

Being in limbo transformed my money mindset for good

I was always the saver in my marriage (whereas my ex was the exact opposite), but after my divorce, I splurged monthly by living in a big and expensive apartment, bought a wardrobe full of new work clothes and a few other bits and pieces right before the pandemic was in full swing.

Once it was clear, however, that the lockdown would be extended in some shape or form beyond that first month, I noticed that my credit card bills were getting smaller and smaller and my savings accounts bigger and bigger.

With the world being in a sort of limbo, my spending reduced dramatically: rather than going to restaurants with friends, I started to cook in bulk at home. Instead of going for a quick window-shopping stroll where I might be enticed to buy something for the wardrobe, I instead went for long walks around the nearby forest.

I had stopped browsing on Zalando for clothes and mindlessly buying health and fitness related gear that I'd only use once and instead resumed researching and reading websites, blogs and books might help me become financially secure again after divorce.

A few years before, I had started reading "Your Money or Your Life" by Vicki Robin, but somehow felt that I couldn't apply anything to my own life, partly because my then-husband wasn't on board with any of these ideas, and partly because I thought that it was so completely out of reach for me. Nevermind that at previous jobs, I made pretty good coin for my employers, but also failed, yet again, to see how I could apply these skills and knowledge to my own life. The classic mindset of "oh, investing is only for the rich, and not for me" was stuck pretty deep in me.

It took several years, and a few other books, as well as this pandemic, before my mindset slowly but surely started to change for good. What made the click for me, eventually, was realizing that nobody else was going to care for my own (financial) well-being other than myself.

As the pandemic continued and lockdowns were off and then on again, I started to take these accrued savings more seriously. I had already started to invest into my Yova account a few months prior, but hardly ever transferred more money into it nor gave it much attention. That changed dramatically as it got closer to summer and autumn.

Switzerland allowed for non-grocery shops to be opened again around summer under certain conditions, restrictions and social distancing, and I was amazed at how people were so eager to spend money. On Zurich's most expensive shopping road, you'd see people wait in line 20+ people deep at the Louis Vuitton store, with their wallets practically out and ready to spend some cash (or credit). Consumerism (and conspicuous consumption) at its finest. Such scenes really helped me solidify my earlier epiphany about my own financial well-being.

Becoming more structured around my financial goals

Once autumn neared, I was becoming even more mindful about my spending habits and began to formally define my financial goals. I've always had these wishful thoughts (Oh, I'd love to be a millionaire!), but never put pen to paper and actively worked on defining nor fulfilling any such financial goals. I had other goals (getting married, having a career etc.) and for some reason, these were easier to define and accomplish (perhaps due to societal brainwashing), but defining and executing financial goals that would lead me to financial independence was not an easy task for me (cue imposter syndrome).

Nonetheless, using my trusty Moleskine notebook, some highlighters and my favorite pens, I started sketching out where I wanted to be financially in 5 years. From there, I broke down the plan into one-year and quarterly intervals, making it easier to accomplish smaller goals and hopefully giving me some much needed validation that I was on the right path (because I love ticking off checklists that signal goal accomplishments). It sounds cliche, but this method really worked for me.

Defining the Accidental No-Spend Year

In hindsight, I would define my No-Spend year as meaning to cut out all "unnecessary spending". That can mean different things to different people.

Necessary expenses like rent, utilities, groceries, Netflix, phone bills etc were exempted for me. However, I noticed that expenditures that were made impossible due to the lockdown were also those that were basically made "unnecessary spendings". For example, going to the nail salon and hairdresser every month was out for pretty much for an entire year (did my own manis and pedis instead). Similar to going out to dinners or drinks with friends.

The gym was also nixed, although I would count that as a necessary expense in ordinary times. Nonetheless, I haven't renewed my membership since the restrictions have been lifted. I am still feeling quite enthusiastic about doing free home workouts that seem to have a similar effect as working out at the gym. Plus, working out at home saved me nearly one thousand francs in 2020 which went right into my Yova account.

Other items that I accidentally stopped buying:

  • Clothing - the last piece of clothing I bought in January 2020 while on holidays (it was a scarf).

  • Beauty products - shortly before the first lockdown, I went on a beauty products spree (due to boredom, mainly), buying loads of creams, serums and beauty masks. I haven't bought any of these things since and I'm just using up what I already have (and that could last for a couple of years, I bought that much).

  • Art supplies - I love buying random pens and lovely notebooks and other art supplies whenever I would spot them at a bookstore or other shops. But, I would never use them because they were "just too pretty" to use or I would wait for a "special occasion" to use or gift them to someone. Of course, those occasions were a rarity.

Exempted"unnecessary"things I continued to buy throughout the last year:

  • Books: I love books. I love the smell of them. I love to physically turn the page. I love having bookcases filled with books. I continued buying lots of books during the pandemic, although my spending for 2021 has tapered off quite a bit due to moving and trying to read the books I already have.

  • Online courses: I love learning and last year with being stuck at home was the perfect opportunity acquire new skills. I spent more on online education last year than on any other previous years.

Benefits of the Accidental No-Spend Year

According to Credit Suisse, the Swiss saved nearly 30% of their income during the first lockdown, and I, right along side with them. However, unlike most of them, I continued my savings up until now (more than one year on since the first lockdown started) at a significant rate (savings rate in Switzerland plummeted back to 15% after the second lockdown).

Besides kickstarting in earnest my journey to financial independence, my accidental no-spend year bestowed me additional benefits.

  • Gratitude: I realized how lucky I am. I am immensely lucky that all my basic needs are more than adequately covered and this no-spend year just happened to cut out the excess for me. As the months passed in this weird pandemic limbo, I became more aware of all the marketing that bombarded me (online mainly) with buying useless stuff. I started noticing how much stuff I already had: clothes, a ton of beauty products, silly knick knacks I moved with me when I divorced, various kitchen gadgets hardly used etc. Rather than wanting to buy more stuff, I felt gratitude for the stuff I already had and got rid of the things I didn't need or want anymore.

  • Mindfulness: Another, albeit cliche, thing I learned through the past year, is the practice of mindfulness. I've become much more aware of my shopping habits. I've resumed the habit of writing grocery lists and lists for other wants and needs. I did what other finance gurus preach which is to cancel most of my online shopping newsletters. Was there a bit of FOMO at first? Yes, there was, but you get over it quickly. Although I am not an addicted shopper like some of my friends, it was a huge bonus for me that clothing shops etc. were closed last year. I didn't experience the pent up need for shopping after some of the restrictions were lifted for shops and that has carried over until now.

  • Streamlining: In the same vein as gratitude, noticing all the stuff I didn't need anymore, I started to sell some of my unworn clothing and furniture on a couple of local selling platforms. Not only did this give me additional money, but it also freed up my apartment even more. What was a once-in-while spring cleaning task, turned into an all-year pursuit to minimize and streamline my belongings (to be fair, it's still a work in progress). In addition, I traded in my big-ass apartment for a much smaller one a bit outside of the city, saving me not only a big chunk of money but also "forcing" me to further streamline my belongings.

One year+ on....

Going through a worldwide pandemic collectively and yet, also, solitarily, has definitely given me a new financial perspective. The lockdowns gave me an opportunity to re-evaluate my spending habits and align them with my financial goals. I learned that I don't need to constantly buy stuff just to buy stuff, instead I've become obsessed with investing (hence this blog!) and striving towards financial independence. I've learned to be grateful for the things I have and not waiting for special occasions to use them up; instead, I use them when I need and want to and find pleasure in those things now. Additionally, I've learned that I don't need much stuff to be content; actually, having too much stuff can give me a sort of low-grade anxiety.

It's now been over a year since this accidental no-spend year started. I can count on one hand the things I did buy. And all of these things I feel are necessary and useful, so I don't feel any guilt whatsoever about having spent good coin on them; instead, they've added value to my day-to-day life. Indeed, living a bit more frugally and a bit more minimally does not mean living in a state of deprivation.

I plan to continue this no-spend year until at least March 2022 -- I have a feeling it won't actually be so difficult to maintain this lifestyle now. Having it done now for over a year with my financial goals so clearly in front of me, that's incentive enough.

How about you? Did you have an accidental no spend year, too? Did you notice a difference for yourself? Will you continue or slowly start buying things again? How has the pandemic changed your spending habits? Let me know in the comments!

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