Spending mindfully on a shoestring

When I first moved to the UK 4½ years ago, I not only had the shock of living in London, one of the most expensive cities in the world, but also the horrific (at the time) US Dollar to British Pounds exchange rate. The money I had went faster than I thought possible: on theatre tickets, tube fares, pints at the pub, even on sandwiches from the corner shop. I have learned much since then about how to live on a budget in London; but I’ll always have much more to learn because London is a multi-layered and multi-faceted place with a wide range of incomes, from the insanely wealthy to the extremely poor. Most cities in the world are like this, but the advantage is that London does cater for the poorer side of that spectrum if you know where to look.

It’s the new year and undoubtedly many of you will have made resolutions of “spend less money” or “save more”, so here are a few words about how to get into the mindset of spending less money and more mindfully. These tips can be applied to anyone, not just my fellow Londoners:


  • Budget carefully, but first you need to be fully aware of your own spending habits and patterns.
  • So step one: track your expenditure. Get a small notebook dedicated for this, that you can carry around in your pocket or handbag; or if you prefer a smartphone version you can use a money-tracking application like “Tap Money Tracker” (for Android) or YNAB or Jotnot (for iPhone). You’ll need to use the categories on these and log your spending diligently for a week.
  • After a week, sit down and look at everything you’ve spent. You may notice that you spend an excessive amount of money on going to the pub, eating out, and on transportation (especially in London). Don’t beat yourself up about it; we all do it and it’s a sign of a healthy social life.
  • Next, make a realistic budget – I cannot emphasise the “realistic” aspect of this enough. I recommend doing this on a weekly basis. Every week, take out what you will need to spend in cash on food, transportation, entertainment, etc, and put this cash into separate envelopes.
  • Once the cash is gone, it’s gone, and you will not be able to spend any more for that week. Try this for a month and see how you go. Adjust the following month’s budget according to your needs, incomings, and outgoings, and based on your experience of the past month.


  • Oyster: buy a Travelcard/bus pass to make sure your travel is covered.
  • Oyster: show an LUL office your National Railcard to get a lower daily capping rate on PAYG fares.
  • If you’re a student at a London university (including part-time OU students living in London) you can get a student Oyster card.
  • Open University will often pay for your study if you’re on Jobseekers Allowance (some exceptions) which gives you something to do during the day and a qualification at the end of it.
  • TfL Single Fare Finder, if you use PAYG Oyster, tells you how much a single fare is and helps you avoid Zone 1 if possible.
  • Utilise the buses more than the tube, if you can help it. The fares tend to be much cheaper, and you are more likely to get a seat on the bus than the tube. Use the extra time to read your book or listen to some podcasts. Check the TFL website for busroutes


London has some amazing free museums:

  • Near Holborn in Central London: the British Museum – massive and free!
  • Kensington: the Victoria & Albert Museum, Natural History Museum and the Science Museums. These are all within walking distance and most exhibits are sponsored (and therefore free!).
  • Sloane Square; visit the Saatchi Modern Art Gallery, which is also free with a good rotation of exhibits.
  • South Bank: Tate Modern is excellent and the main exhibitions are free. I also recommend investing in an annual Tate membership, which means you can free entry into all the exhibitions, as well as entrance to the members bar (plus all the food and drinks in the members bar are much cheaper). This is a pretty fantastic way to spend a first date (or even a 30th date!), if I do say so myself.

Eating in

  • Avoiding eating out (apart from special occasions) is also an essential strategy for living in a city like London. Invest in lots of Tupperware and a slow cooker. Do batch cooking on Saturday or Sunday for most of your week, or if you’re home many nights you can do a weekly mealplan.
  • As for food shopping, use your local resources: corner shops, pound shops, markets, etc.
  • Vegetables are much cheaper in corner shops or markets than in supermarkets, although do bear in mind that if bought in a corner shop or market they will tend to go “off” more quickly than other places.
  • Do a big online grocery shop once a month for non-perishables and heavy things like tins, rice, pasta, juice etc – you can make a lot of savings that way.

For regular tips on saving money and spending smartly, please check out my brand-new new tumblr shoestringlondon.tumblr.com

(Many thanks to the following people for their contributions: Andi Rutherford, Katie Sutton, Moodthy Al-Ghorairi, Sarah Whittaker, and Leah Ridgway)

This post was written by a RWL Guest Blogger – The very helpful and wise Desirée can be found at ladyuhuru.com or on twitter as @ladyuhuru.

Leave a Reply