What TikTok’s no-spend challenges get wrong about the cost-of-living crisis
“BudgetingTok” has exploded on the platform, as creators scramble to give Martin Lewis a run for his money with saving tips and challenges. Advice from wealthy influencers on financial responsibility? What could go wrong…
Terri, 29, from Oxford was £8,000 in debt when she decided to take part in a “no spend” challenge. A student at the time, her goal was to save money by hitting 15 “no spend” days a month. She’d seen others do it on social media and it seemed like an easy-to-follow solution to what had become an incredibly stressful situation.
But looking back on the challenge, Terri says it didn’t help her get out of debt – if anything, it made things worse. “For me, restricting the days in which I could spend money didn’t make me any more conscious of what I was actually spending on,” she says. “I also ended up splurging and spending more than usual at points.” Although Terri was able to be disciplined and frugal for half of the month, this was essentially negated by overspending on takeaways, clothes and skincare on the days when she allowed herself to spend. As she puts it, “When I can’t have something, I just want it more, so I end up spending more.”
As inflation climbs to a 40-year-high, it’s unsurprising that people are desperately searching for ways to scrimp and save. From rising supermarket prices, to energy bills, to transport costs and soaring rents, life is becoming more and more unaffordable. It’s within this context that budgeting content is flooding TikTok. There’s everything from “cash stuffing”, to “financial cleanses” and “payday routines” – seemingly mundane advice packaged to go viral.
But “no spend” challenges are slightly different. Usually filmed as vlogs, these creators don’t claim to be financial experts. Instead, they earnestly chart their progress as they attempt to only spend on essentials such as household bills or groceries for a set period of time. They’re more relatable, which makes the trend particularly compelling. Currently, the #nospendchallenge hashtag has around 99.5 million views.
These challenges are nothing new. For years, they’ve been promoted by personal finance figures such as Jen Smith – she published The No-Spend Challenge Guide in 2017, in which she claims to have overcome $78,000 worth of student debt in two years. But the sudden explosion of TikToks turning financial challenges into viral fodder has seen them become more extreme, as people try to live off even less for longer stretches of time.
Not everyone is on board with the concept. Clare Seal, author of Five Steps to Financial Wellbeing, says that Terri’s experience is hardly unusual. She likens “no spend challenges” to crash diets which can often lead to people “bingeing” by spending more. “Whether it’s food or money, this very restrictive approach can lead to some quite disordered behaviour,” she says. “If you’re trying to regulate your relationship with money and understand it, then you definitely don’t want to get locked in a sort of binge-purge cycle.”
On top of this, attempts to gamify the cost of living crisis for content often leave a bad taste in viewers’ mouths. In one viral video, for example, TikTok user Becky (@beckysbazaa) tries to live off of a pound a day as part of the “live below the line challenge”. In the comment section, she claimed the purpose of her video was to “raise awareness”, but that didn’t curb the backlash.
“You should try living like this with kids,” one user commented. Another wrote: “Why are you turning poverty into a TikTok challenge?” It echoes the reaction to a similar video that YouTuber Alfie Deyes (who’s also a millionaire and landlord) uploaded in 2018, in which he lived off a pound a day while moaning about having to drink water instead of coffee. Needless to say, the video was branded as “tone deaf”.
As financial therapist Lindsay Bryan Podvin explains, these challenges essentially see creators cosplay poverty. “They’re not really being cognisant of the people who really do have to live off of meagre means,” she says. “It’s almost taking somebody who might be struggling financially and turning their lifestyle into a game, which is really gross.”
Presenting no-spend challenges as a game – or as one TikTok user described it, a “financial adventure” – can also bolster a harmful narrative. Often, the suggestion is that taking part in a “no-spend challenge” is a step towards being “fiscally responsible”, and that by cutting out things like takeaway coffees or online shopping, anyone can become “good at budgeting”.
This absolves the government of its responsibility and shifts the blame onto individuals for not coping with the current crisis, distorting the reality facing huge swathes of the population, none of whom can “no spend” their way out of financial calamity. It’s a familiar narrative, one that recalls the persistent idea that benefits claimants are just “too lazy” to get a job.
“It becomes a competition of who can spend the least,” says Seal. The implication is that “if only you can cut your spending enough, if you can be frugal enough, then you should be able to live off this unlivable wage, or you should be able to cope with these unserviceable energy or food bills.” Instead, Seal recommends less-extreme approaches to saving, such as keeping a spending diary or practising a mindful approach to money.
Bryan Podvin agrees. “It can create this narrative of ‘If I spend money, I’m bad’, rather than, spending money is a part of life, it’s something we all have to do,” she says. That doesn’t mean that cutting down on spending is an inherently terrible idea. It’s just that the extreme lengths creators are going to for virality are setting unattainable and unsustainable standards.
For people looking to gain control of their lives, “no spend” challenges can be appealing. But being bombarded with this kind of content can often have the opposite effect, making people feel anxious or out of control. “I do fall into the comparison trap. It never makes me feel better about myself,” says Terri of budgeting content on social media. “I think I’m spending too much, not saving enough, then not making enough money. It’s a spiral which is unhelpful and unhealthy.”
Our attention would be better focused on the systemic factors wreaking havoc on people’s finances, such as the gender wage gap and a housing market that enables landlords to charge exorbitant rents, argues Bryan Podvin. “A lot of personal finance content creators get away with making people feel badly about themselves, rather than taking into account the larger systems at play,” she says.
Time and time again, the government has claimed that people’s financial hardship is their own fault – that, as Tory MP Lee Anderson put it, that there is no real need for food banks, people just need to “be shown how to cook nutritious meals that cost less”. It’s a narrative that urgently needs to be challenged, rather than perpetuated online.
“You can’t save your way, or do a ‘no spend’ challenge’, into wealth,” concludes Bryan Podvin. “It’s about higher wages – and that’s something we need to advocate for on a government level.”