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I Swapped Budgets With My Friend For A Week & Here’s What I Learned

Kelsey Freeman

There are two types of people: the spenders and the savers. 

Okay, so it might not always be that simple, but we bet if you ask around your friendship group you’ll find people with money mindsets on completely opposite ends of the spectrum: those who spend freely and those who count the pennies. Having a small or large salary doesn’t necessarily determine which camp you’re in either; it can all come down to personality, upbringing and habits.

But can you permanently change your money mindset? Let’s find out! We challenged two friends with similar salaries but wildly different spending habits to switch budgets for a week. Nina is a self-confessed 'penny pincher' and knows every hack in the book for making her money go further. She holds an American Express® Platinum Cashback Credit Card*, and earns money back into her account on her purchases. Sarah, on the other hand, is the 'bougie babe' of the friendship, preferring to live spontaneously and spend generously. 

For this challenge we set Nina a generous budget of £500 for the week, and Sarah a stricter £80 budget. Can they change their habits and what would they learn from the experiment? Before we dive into their weeks, we’ll let Nina and Sarah introduce themselves...

Nina: "I work full-time in PR and after many, many years of honed frugality, I have just purchased a flat. This might be one of the nerdiest sentences ever to be uttered but I really get a kick out of saving: at any one time I’m juggling an annual, monthly and weekly budget, checking four different banking or savings apps every day. I am that person who prints their bank statement off each month and gets the highlighters out.

While my flat purchase was going through I took out an American Express Platinum Cashback Credit Card. I knew I’d be spending a lot in the months after and I figured earning some cashback on that was a no-brainer, but I now use it for almost all my purchases, big and small. The card allows me to track my spending in real time via the app and I can see my cashback amount steadily growing. Normally I’d spend £50-80 in a week, which would go on all food, drinks, at least one meal out and generally keeping myself entertained. Despite my undying love for a spreadsheet, I also admire Sarah’s carefree attitude to money so I’m looking forward to slipping into her shoes and worrying a bit less about where I spend my cash."

Sarah: "I work full-time as a womenswear designer in central London, and live in south London with my husband in a rented flat. I would definitely say I am a spender; I spend my entire wage each month and frequently have to borrow from my husband before the end of the month, which is slightly embarrassing at 31!
 
I enjoy my money, like to be spontaneous, and would say I am generous; I would never skip a round in the pub or turn up to a party empty-handed. I typically spend £300 per week with most of it going on social occasions, eating out or the pub, and holidays. I eat out at least twice a week and buy my lunch every day. We always get a curry take-out on Sunday evening – it’s a bit of a ritual. If I buy clothing I make sure it’s from a small independent brand, and I don’t mind paying more to support these.
 
Considering we are on a similar wage, you couldn’t really get any more different than Nina and me in terms of spending."
 
*Representative 28.2% APR variable. Annual fee applies. Terms, conditions and exclusions apply. 18+, subject to approval. Cashback is paid annually. Promoter American Express Services Europe Limited is authorised and regulated by the Financial Conduct Authority.



Nina, Day One

Adopting the big spender mindset this week means one thing and one thing only to me: buying breakfast every day. I am excited to sample what Britain’s high street has to offer me in terms of salty, fried things in small packets. But it’s not coming easily this morning: the queue at the local spot is too long. The sandwiches in another place look less than appetising. Eventually I buy a pain au chocolat from the café in the basement in my office for TWO POUNDS FIFTY. It’s dry and tastes like regret. Years of budgeting has made me allergic to spending money; I can feel the hives appearing as I spot a man paying almost £5 for a single coffee. 

In the afternoon I remember I was planning on buying something online – an oven thermometer – and I notice a saucepan I’ve eyed up previously is on sale. Normally I would never drop over £40 for one item on a whim but after some deep breaths and muttering about how I need to lighten up, I put the £50.24 on my American Express Platinum Cashback Credit Card. Seriously consider lying face down in a dark room, but remember that every spend earns me cashback in my account and the panic recedes. 

Have leftover butternut squash risotto for lunch (old habits die hard baby) and dinner is paid for at a work event in the evening. I forget I have my new budget and get the Tube after this event. Using my prepaid travel card. Reader, I am sorry. Day one of being a Money Bags was not a success. Will try harder tomorrow.

Total: £52.74
Design by Kelsey Freeman
Nina, Day Two

Okay. New day. New spending. Only problem is I’m working from home, waiting for plumbers and a variety of delivery people, which means I’m homebound all day, picking at snacks in my fridge. 

Almost everything that could go wrong with the plumbing does: 12 years of renting doesn’t prepare you for the reality of having to care what a stopcock is. After a few stressful hours I decide I deserve a treat and think this could be the moment I start my spendathon in earnest. 

At lunchtime I fire up my laptop to scour the web for stuff. Is this just stuff to fill the void inside me? Maybe, but it turns out the void inside me today is very big indeed because I dropped some serious cash. A £65 duvet?! I am the proud owner of four new fancy lampshades! (And spent a total of £189.40.) Knowing my cashback is totting up only sweetens the deal. 

In the evening I go to a fundraising event for a charity working in women’s reproductive health. It’s an amazing night and I’ve very generously had my ticket paid for already by the person who invited me, including a meal and drinks. In what I can only describe as a CRIME and a FIX, we do not win the quiz. Travel card it home on the Tube. Still not on the taxi vibe.

Total: £189.40
Design by Kelsey Freeman
Nina, Day Three

I realise that mayyyyyybe I went a bit overboard yesterday and I am keen to find a happy medium today. I buy a sort-of-modest breakfast (£4.24) and at lunch wander to a nice little street near work full of independent shops. 

I spot some beautiful Mexican glassware in a shop that one of my friends would love so pick her up a couple of bits and pay for it with my credit card (£16), making a mental note to buy some for myself later when my cashback comes in. I eat a banh mi sandwich in the sun (£6.75) and forget what the wheat is doing to my IBS. I feel serene, calm and completely in control. This is the sweet spot! Moderation! To give is better than to receive! 

I meet Sarah in the evening, to hear how she’s getting on with her week and although she’s not quite got scurvy, I can see the new budget has been a bit of a drag for her. We go to a Thai place and decide she’ll pay a tenner and I’ll pay £40 seeing as my budget is over five times bigger than hers. No point in having money if you can’t share it around right? Love and light, your girl Mother Teresa xoxo.

Total: £66.99
Design by Kelsey Freeman
Nina, Day Four

Bougie budget dilemma. I need to get to the airport for a holiday to Amsterdam today. The train is £2.30. A taxi is over £50. The taxi even takes longer, but isn’t shunning public transport the bedrock of being bougie? 

Common sense prevails and I get the train using my travel card. I buy my friend and I breakfast at the airport (£11.20). He eyes me suspiciously when I say I’ll get his food for him so I say something vague about the price of gold going up and me having some extra cash. (Also buy water £2.19 and an emergency portable phone charger £19.99.)

When we land we meet some friends who are already there and as I am grossly organised, I’ve prepaid for us to have a canal cruise and another experience on my Platinum Cashback Credit Card a while ago. Train tickets while there cost £10.93.

Later I buy a couple of rounds (£15.41 and £42.85) for everyone before we head to a mind-blowing sausage and wine bar (£44.26). Maybe the Dutch air has done something to me or it’s being happy around some of my best friends, but this spending is all good in my book.

Total: £148.82 Design by Kelsey Freeman
Nina, Day Five

Sarah made me promise I wouldn’t check my balance this week, but I tot up how much I’ve spent so far and realise my BNO has cost me dearly: I only have £42 left for today. 

Prior to this challenge, had I felt a budget squeeze hit me, I would’ve been furtively searching "cheap eats Amsterdam" and making my friends walk for as long as it took to find some bargain basement breakfast. But we’re all feeling tired today and yes, maybe the café opposite the hotel isn’t the cheapest, but it’s close. And there are many, many items smothered in hollandaise sauce. (£13.28)

I quite like not feeling bad about spending money while I’m on holiday. So I say "thanks but no thanks" to the budget and overspend by £45. This includes souvenirs (£14.67), lunch (£17.62), snacks (£9.52), drinks (£20.62), and the daylight robbery of £11.39 for two minuscule but delicious juices. The bright side is that it’s all earning me cashback with the American Express Platinum Cashback Credit Card.

Total: £87.10

Week Total: £545.05
Cashback earned: £6.81 *

Conclusion

Who would’ve thought it? The saver becomes the spender. While it was secretly quite fun and made life a lot more convenient, there’s definitely a middle ground where you can have fun with mates, treating yourself and those around you while not breaking the bank. Keeping track of your spending as you go, and paying the balance off in full every month is most important.

I’m looking forward to going back to my homemade breakfasts and checking my American Express app every morning, but I think I will be making the "fun" pot a little bigger when I do my next budget, and enjoy many more nights at sausage and wine bars.

*Cashback calculated at 1.25%, based on spend of over £10,000 annually. Cardmembers receive cashback annually.

Design by Kelsey Freeman
Sarah, Day One

I woke up feeling slightly stressed as I got back late from a work trip last night. I text Nina to tell her I’m going to buy breakfast this morning as it’s special circumstances. She messages back: "But this is the perfect test!" I know she’s right and begrudgingly make some granola with yoghurt and blueberries I’d bought at the weekend. It was actually super tasty but I am late for work and arrive in a fluster. Making breakfast is hard enough, am I expected to wake up earlier too?

When I arrive at work everyone is quizzing me on my budget plan for the week. "£80! That’s impossible!" "I tried to spend £100 the other week and it’s honestly impossible!" I make a promise to myself I’m not going to fail this swap. I must prove everyone wrong!
 
For lunch I went to the supermarket and bought some salad bits. Spent a grand total of £8.55, but I’m hoping this lasts me most of the week. It was pretty tasty but I think I might be hideously bored by Friday. 
 
Everyone at work heads out around 3pm to buy a coffee and have a gossip (my favourite time of the day) but I can’t afford this so make a lonely tea in the kitchen instead.
 
I was home alone and absolutely knackered this evening so I cobbled together some bits from the freezer and had a kids dinner in front of the telly with the cat, which was heaven.
 
I haven’t got a budget per day for this swap; my strategy is to spend as little as possible from Tuesday to Thursday so I am able to go out on Friday and Saturday night. I’ve got off to a pretty good start; I don’t think this is going to be that hard, just boring.
 
Total: £8.55 Design by Kelsey Freeman
Sarah, Day Two

I had to wake up super early this morning to have breakfast before a doctor's appointment at 7.30am. I just about managed it and felt pretty organised and a bit smug to be honest, which is a nice change from the usual mild guilt and indigestion from too much cold pressed juice on my way to work. Who am I? Am I going to be converted?
 
My husband and I had a date night booked in, and we were meant to be going to the cinema followed by dinner at our favourite restaurant. He looks pretty put out when I break it to him that I’m cooking.
 
I made a budget Pasta alla Norma using up three unfinished bags of pasta. It was okay but I think we are both dreaming of stuffed vine leaves and baba ghanoush. To add insult to injury, I ask him for his half of the food money (£2.94) because that is who I am now. I think I’m getting good at this!
 
Total: £2.94 Design by Kelsey Freeman
Sarah, Day Three

I had the day off work today with plans to meet a friend for a catch-up. While eating breakfast in bed I start browsing online. This is a danger zone, I know... My phone goes off and I take the opportunity to leap out of bed. Phew that was a close escape! 
 
My friend suggests lunch out but I let her know I’m only around for a tea in the afternoon so I can save my pennies. I have a bit of spare time in the morning so decide to give myself a pedicure. It’s going to be sunny this weekend and who wants to see my feet in this state? If I’m being honest they need to be professionally seen to but that would mean less going-out money for this weekend. 
 
I dig deep and find an old red nail varnish in the bathroom. I’m bending my legs at all angles to get close enough, and I just about manage it. It’s not the best I’ve ever seen but that’s 25 quid saved for the weekend!
 
Had a great catch-up with my friend, she was pretty impressed when I showed her my spending so far. I feel much more confident now and elated by how impressed she was. I decide as a treat I can look around some shops. Just look! Nothing wrong with that right? I try on a few dresses. Big mistake. I want to buy all of them. What was I thinking? I have to take a moment to remind myself how annoyed I would be if I failed this swap and how smug my friends would be. I get changed and head home empty-handed.
 
In the evening I had dinner booked in with Nina in Peckham. In the spirit of the challenge I only paid for my main course (£13) and she got the drinks and pudding. I also got the bus home, taxis aren’t getting my money this week!
 
Total: £13 Design by Kelsey Freeman
Sarah, Day Four

Started the day slightly nervous about the potential to smash my remaining budget, as there were plans to go to the pub. Everyone at work was very impressed I’d managed to make my lunch and breakfast all week.
 
I finish work early on Fridays and would usually do an exercise class but I decide to go for a local run instead.
 
I meet my friends in the pub at 7ish. I only buy one round, which comes to £13.73, and then I stick to water after the rounds have run out. I don’t want anyone to accuse me of cheating and I don’t want people buying me drinks I can’t return. They find it quite hilarious and fully expect me to break after a couple of glasses. 
 
I stay strong and leave at 9.30pm to get a halloumi wrap from the Turkish in Camberwell on the way home (£6). The halloumi is so good it almost makes me feel better about missing out on all the fun.

Total: £19.73
Design by Kelsey Freeman
Sarah, Day Five

I woke up feeling quite apprehensive about the little amount of money I have left to spend today.

I’m desperate to get my hair cut and this is usually my perfect time of the week. I know I can’t afford it, I would have no money left at all. But I really want to. I’ve cut other people’s hair before but never my own, am I going to do this? I comb it out and reach for the scissors.
 
It’s not good. I mean, the front looks okay but it’s impossible to get around the back. I book a hair appointment for tomorrow. Can’t wait to finish this challenge!
 
In the afternoon I meet my friend in the park and we lounge about reading the paper and eating ice creams. She takes pity on me after I show her the hair situation and she invites us over to hers for dinner. Thank god! I pop out and buy a bottle of wine and some olives to take to hers.
 
Dinner was amazing and my friends were super impressed at my budgeting – and I was too!

Total: £15.45

Week total: £59.67. So I actually have £20.33 left!

Conclusion

This challenge was so much harder than I thought it would be. I have a newfound respect for Nina’s budgeting. 
 
There are a few learnings I’m going to take on board. I’m definitely going to keep making my breakfasts at home, as I actually enjoyed them more and it saves so much money. I’m also going to make an effort to make lunches. But I’m not going to be setting a daily budget as I think it can be limiting and you don’t know what the day can bring. I think just being mindful and sensible is a better strategy, something I’m going to practise from now on.

Design by Kelsey Freeman

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