It began, like so many things do, as a drunken promise on a night out. My friend was bewailing her parlous financial situation and I, as friends do, gently offered my support.
“It’s only because you’re a f***ing idiot with money!” I cried. “I can SORT you!”
I am good with money, you see. Not at investing or doing anything clever with it, but good at knowing what I’m spending it on and even better at not spending it at all. Some people know how to dress or dance or cook, or are kind, charming and good with people. I’m good at saving.
My friend, a shopping addict, is not. New figures show that consumer debt is back up to levels last seen in 2008, just before the financial crash (£192billion in total, £67billion of that on credit cards with each household owing almost £13,000 not including mortgages) and she’s responsible for about 80% of it. So we agreed a plan to try and put her back in the black. I had her sign a napkin to make it binding. She would give me all her credit and cash cards and set up a new current account. I would deposit a lump sum in the new account at the start of every month for all her non-essentials (her rent etc would still come out of the original account) and once that was gone... “Well,” I said, “it’ll be gone.”
“But I won’t have a credit card either,” she said.
“Yes,” I said. “That’s right. The money. It will be gone. And there will be no more.”
We’re nearly three months into it now. The first month was chaos. She was forever emailing links and WhatsApping me pictures of stuff and begging me to transfer extra money so she could buy it, buy it all. And I kept saying no, and she kept getting cross.
“What do you do when YOU want something?” she texted.
“I lie down until the urge passes. If the urge doesn’t pass, I think about how long I would have to work to pay for the thing. If the urge is still there, I then buy the thing.”
“YOU JOYLESS FREAK. SEND ME MY MONEY *NOW*”
That’s the difference between spenders and savers, you see. Savers believe – no, we KNOW – there can be no joy, no true happiness without money in the bank for a rainy day. Ideally, several rainy days. Sure, some of us live envisaging a future of entirely monsoon-like weather and are indeed joyless freaks. But living so joylessly is the only way we know to be happy.
More seriously, debt is a misery. Even spenders admit that. It is, after all, why my friend agreed to hand over her cards to me in the first place. Anything you can do to change the behaviour that gets you into the red rather than keeping you in the black will literally repay you with interest. Of course, a lot of people are in debt because they cannot earn enough to cover the absolute essentials of life and that’s a whole other (political) problem. But those who earn enough to cover needs and wants yet wonder at the end of every month where it all – and often more than all of it – went? Well, you need to take yourselves in hand. If you don’t have control over your spending, you don’t really have control over anything. Money is power and by frittering away one you are also giving away the other.
My friend has gradually learned to live with my unbending will and within her budget. So last week I gave her back one paid-off credit card. She said it felt almost as good as a night on Net-a-Porter. I took it away again. My work here is not yet done.