Personal finance journalist Michelle McGagh's 'no-spend' year involved waving goodbye to 95% of her beauty spend... and an unfortunate incident with a banana
"Are you sure you want me to do this?’" he asked for what felt like the hundredth time.
"Yes. Just do it. It’s only hair – it’ll grow back," I replied, more confidently than I felt.
The whirr of the clippers began and I felt the juddering of the metal on my skull. I heard Frank take a deep breath and he started to run the clippers over the back of my head, the hair falling to the bathroom floor. I don’t think any man really wants to cut his wife’s hair – there’s too much at stake – but without the option of visiting a hairdresser, I was willing to put my marriage on the line in an effort to tame my unruly mop.
Pamper days, beauty treatments and spending hours at the hairdresser have never been my idea of fun. I’m rubbish with eyeliner and my chipped toenail polish leaves a lot to be desired. Giving up the lax health and beauty regime I had in place for a year wouldn’t be a hardship, I thought; I probably wouldn’t even notice. I was pretty sure that I didn’t really spend any money on beauty whatnots and health.
Except when I added it up, I’d spent nearly £450 the year before my challenge on exercise classes, special shampoos, new perfume, make-up, miracle creams and bikini waxes. Not to mention the constant battle with the hair on my head.
A few quid on an impulsively bought mascara, a tube of a cream that I’d used once, and exercise classes at the gym which I had only attended a handful of times had all pushed the bill up.
Maybe I had placed more emphasis on looking and smelling nice than I’d thought. I’d definitely spent a lot of money on my health, beauty products and clothes. And in that case, how would I feel when I neither looked nor smelt very nice?
I can give you that answer now: I felt terrible.
My appearance went downhill pretty soon after I started the challenge. Being out on my bike every day in the cold and wind and lashing rain took its toll quickly. By Christmas I was a wind-whipped mess with ruddy, dry skin and a deep-red nose that wouldn’t have looked out of place on Rudolph.
Just to kick a woman when she’s down, it was around December [Michelle began her challenge in November] that any nice lotions and potions I did already own started to run out. I cut open the tubes of moisturiser and eye creams, scraping every last drop out in a bid to revitalise my sad complexion.
As part of my grocery budget I could buy basic toiletries, but I’d put little thought into what toiletries would count as basics and what the essentials exactly were. Of course, everything I was going to buy would be from Lidl, the cheapest supermarket near me, but even they have their own range of fancy creams and hair treatments. Just because it was in Lidl and didn’t cost a lot didn’t make something an essential (if that was the case I would have spent my whole food budget buying wine).
After a lot of scouring of the toiletries aisle in Lidl, I decided that there were few toiletries I actually needed. Yes, I would have liked to buy an exfoliating face scrub or a hair masque but I could live without them.
This is the list of toiletries I decided were essential:
Toothbrush 79p for two
Soap 79p for four bars
Razors 79p for 10
Even if I had to buy all these toiletries at the same time, the total cost would be just £4.81. The only other personal care items that I purchased were cotton buds, loo rolls and tampons. Some people questioned whether conditioner or razors were essential but I was happy with the amount by which I’d stripped back my spending on smellies.
MORE GLOSS: best budget conditioners
Over the year I purchased:
5 x bottles of shampoo = £3.25
5 x bottles of conditioner = £3.25
6 x tubes of toothpaste = £3.30
3 x packs of toothbrushes = £2.37
6 x packs of soap = £3.95
6 x deodorants = £2.95
4 x packs of razors = £3.16
The total cost of all my toiletries for the year was £22.23, which is 5% of my total spend on toiletries in the year before. OK, I could have swapped the shampoo and soap for a bottle of washing-up liquid and spent even less, but I’ll settle for a saving of 95% on my previous spending!
The one thing I did wrestle with when it came to essentials was moisturiser; believe me, I never thought a cheap moisturiser would cause me so much angst. I toed and froed over whether it was an essential and finally decided it wasn’t.
I quickly regretted the decision to exclude it as an essential. I have dry skin as it is, but add poor weather and cycling into the mix and my face was as dry as the Sahara – I swear the number of wrinkles I had doubled in the six weeks between the beginning of the challenge and Christmas.
My face, lips and hands were cracked and dry. I looked a right mess by the end of the year. Although no one said anything, I’m sure they noticed but were just too polite to ask what the bloody hell had happened to my face.
With a few days indoors over the Christmas holidays, I decided to try out some home-made beauty treatments using what I had in the cupboards and fridge. I figured if I had a terrible reaction or tinted my face a weird colour in the name of experimentation, then at least I wouldn’t have to see anyone or leave the house for a bit.
After some furious Googling of home-made moisturisers, I realised that all the ‘simple and natural’ recipes relied on the purchase of some expensive ingredients like tubs of coconut oil or shea butter, with different combinations of natural oils such as lavender or vanilla added to them. I hadn’t been able to bring myself to spend £1 on a tub of moisturiser; why would I buy all that stuff?
Annoyed with my failed Internet search, I went into the kitchen instead in search of stuff to slap on my face. After a few minutes standing in front of the fridge with a tub of butter in my hand trying to decide if it was a good idea to put it on my face, a bunch of bananas caught my eye.
Bananas are a bit slimy; that could be moisturising? They’re also natural so nothing could go wrong, right? Don’t you get potassium poisoning if you eat too many bananas? Can you get potassium poisoning by rubbing bananas on your face?
"Sod it," I thought and started to peel a ripe banana. I chopped it up, put it in a bowl and mushed it up with a fork. It didn’t really look like a face mask but I took it to the bathroom anyway and started slathering the cold goo on my face.
I can’t tell you if rubbing banana over your face is a wonder moisturiser because after a couple of minutes the smell of banana was so overpowering I thought I was going to puke and had to furiously wash the stuff off; clumps of banana clogged up the plughole which made me heave again.
Conclusion: bananas are for eating.
It was a failed first attempt but I wasn’t deterred. I went back to the fridge to look at the butter again. No, I definitely wasn’t going to use that. Then I had a brainwave: olive oil. Surely that’s just as good as using coconut oil or almond oil or any of the other expensive oils out there? To be honest I don’t know why I didn’t think of it first. Armed with some olive oil (£2.79 for a big bottle at Lidl, if you’re interested) and some kitchen roll, I decanted a bit of the oil and started to dab my face. After I’d done that I just sat there. I didn’t really have a plan; should I leave it to soak in or wash it off? How long should I leave it on for?
I guessed about five minutes and then I used some warm water to wash the excess off my face and dabbed my face dry, ruining a towel in the process (maybe I should have washed my face more thoroughly). Ignoring the stained towel, I peered at my skin closely in the mirror, my nose almost touching it. Did I look moisturised? I felt a bit greasy but actually, yes it was sort of moisturised.
Of course, I don’t slather myself in olive oil every morning and then trot off to work, but I do oil my face a couple of nights a week to try to keep the dry skin at bay. I wouldn’t recommend using the oil on your face when it’s hot outside though; I was worried I’d fry my skin and go from cracked and dry to crisp and dry.
Encouraged by the success of the olive oil moisturiser, I decided to add some to a couple of tablespoons of brown sugar and use it as an exfoliator. It worked really well (although it was a bit too harsh for my face), leaving my skin nice and smooth; but the downside was the scummy ring it left round the bath. And the oil clogged the plug a bit. Grim.
The sugar scrub may have been a bit harsh for my skin but later I found an exfoliator that wasn’t: the humble oat. A cheap packet of oats plus water equals a brilliant face scrub. The oats are tough enough to get rid of dry skin and when you rub the paste into your face it has an almost milky feel that is extremely moisturising. My friend Cat wasn’t so convinced of its merits when we mucked around with it on a girly sleepover, mostly because it smelt and felt horrible, but the outcome was good. Definitely try it!
Eight months into my challenge I was given some respite from my home-made potions thanks to a chance conversation with a colleague about Botox. She’s a self-confessed beauty junkie (and Botox aficionado) and couldn’t believe I’d been washing my face with soap and putting olive oil on my skin.
Very kindly she offered to give me a couple of face masks that she had going spare, telling me she’d send them to me. A couple of days later a shoebox turned up at my house packed with a selection of beauty products. It turned out another of her colleagues was moving house and was clearing out her rather large stash of goodies. There were trial pots of serums and moisturisers (hoorah!) as well as toners and some hair products. Oh, and of course, the face masks.
I don’t think I’ve ever put so many products on my face in one evening. Although I’d never been bothered about beauty – or so I’d thought – I was like a kid in a sweet shop. I was so exuberant that the products ran out after a few months, but they got me to October, which I was extremely grateful for – and for which my skin was even more grateful.
Talking to my friends about the generosity of the two ladies who sent me the toiletries, I was amazed when they started to admit that they too hoarded beauty products and had bottles knocking about in the back of their bathroom cupboards that they’d only used once.
Toiletries are pretty cheap in relation to new shoes or a jacket, and you can pick them up with your coffee and baked beans when you do a supermarket shop, so it’s no surprise really that people build up a cosmetics collection to rival Superdrug. If the product you bought isn’t for you or doesn’t do what it says it will (which happens often in my experience!) then you’ve only spent a few quid so it doesn’t feel like a huge loss.
Except it does add up and we end up losing money and gaining tubes of lotions we’ve only used half of. Those pesky advertisers know exactly how to squeeze money out of us and even though I know there isn’t a lipstick in the world that can make me look like Scarlett Johansson, for the sake of a fiver buying the lipstick might bring me a step closer.
It’s safe to say that, after a year without a proper moisturiser and with a make-up bag that looks very sorry for itself, I’m even further away from looking like Scarlett Johansson. I’ve never worn make-up every day because, in all honesty, I’m too lazy. I’d love to be one of those groomed women who make the effort with their hair and nails and always sport beautifully made-up faces, but it’s just not in my DNA to get up early and slap a face on.
That doesn’t mean I don’t like to make the effort now and again, rocking out the foundation, concealer, highlighter, mascara and lippie for the right occasion. The only problem with doing that when the occasion did present itself, in the form of weddings, christenings, birthday parties and black tie work dinners, was that my foundation and concealer had bitten the dust by the end of January.
I hadn’t quite appreciated that make-up goes off. My foundation and concealer I had had for a while, admittedly, but you’d have thought I’d bought them a decade ago looking at the weird watery gloop they both turned into. Trying to get them to stay on my face and not run down to my chin was a challenge in itself, and even when I did get them to stick they made my face look as if it was peeling away.
MORE GLOSS: Budget beauty buys makeup artists swear by
You’ll agree that ‘zombie’ isn’t a great look for a christening, so they both went in the bin and I had to rely on my mascara and lipstick for the rest of the year. I could take some comfort (I think) in my husband's rather backhanded compliment: "Don’t worry, you look better without makeup now than you did before".
I can’t work out if I still looked bad but not as bad as before, or whether I looked OK bare-faced but I should put some makeup on anyway . . . Still, probably best not to dig around that ‘compliment’ too much!
What did I learn? Looking and feeling good doesn’t have to cost a fortune provided you have the motivation to make some changes. Here are my top budget beauty tips.
1. Sugar baby
Sugar and olive oil are my go-to ingredients when it comes to home-made beauty treatments. Forget forking out on expensive body scrubs; you can’t go wrong with sugar and oil mixed together. It will give you amazingly smooth skin. Be careful about using this on your face though, if your skin is sensitive.
2. Swap shop
Whether it’s clothes or beauty products, I bet you have a load of stuff in your cupboards that you no longer use or you don’t like. Why not have a swap night with your mates where you can pick and choose from each other’s clothing and beauty cast-offs? An eyeshadow that looks terrible on you may look fab on a friend.
3. Scent Sense
A top tip for using Vaseline. If you rub a small amount behind your elbows, ears and wrists before you add your perfume, it makes your fragrance last much longer.
4. Make-up magic
Two tricks I learned this year to get the most out of your makeup: when your mascara dries up, put it into a glass of warm water. This magically unclogs the mascara at the bottom of the tube. And if your lipstick breaks (in my case my only lipstick), warm the broken ends over a flame and stick them back together.
5. Neat feet
Pedicures can be expensive but if you want smooth tootsies, just rub some cheap-as-chips Vaseline over your feet, pop some socks on and leave for a few hours. Don’t try to walk around without the socks, you’ll end up in A&E.
Extracted from The No Spend Year © MICHELLE MCGAGH (Coronet, £12.99). Follow Michelle on Twitter @mmcgagh and Get The Gloss @ getthegloss