I’m one of the 4 million people pledging to banish the booze this month. But does Dry January really aid our health and wealth? Here’s why I’m #sobercurious and how I’ll avoid setting myself up for failure
Are you attempting Dry January? Join the club. There isn’t an up-to-date figure for the number going teetotal this month. But last year, YouGov estimated that up to 4.2 million people would be trying to stay off the booze for at least 31 days.
It’s easy to see why Dry January has taken off. Christmas has become, for so many of us, a month-long drinks festival. We use booze to bond with others and let our hair down. But we also use it to cope with family tensions and nights out with difficult colleagues. It becomes the go-to medication for cabin fever, winter gloom, unreal boredom. Even the most abstemious millennial, with their Chilly’s bottle and Keto diet, would be forgiven for tumbling off the wagon after the first big family bust-up over Brexit. As the cold, dark evening draws in, we feel urges that would seem bonkers on a light April day.
“Advocaat? Don’t mind if I do!”
The Christmas sober struggle
A third of millennials intended to have an alcohol-free Christmas, according to Tesco’s annual festive report. And we have seen a “sober revolution” sparked by millennials in recent times, according to the Washington Post, with sales of non-alcoholic drinks soaring. But how many followed through on their sober intentions over Christmas?
A BBC article in 2018 highlighted why so many adult children still “go home” to their families for Christmas. We love the creature comforts and familial bonding this offers – and the fact our parents/in-laws are bankrolling the festivities!
But we have little control over the situation. If most wish to drink around the table on Christmas Day (and well into the evening), well, it seems churlish not to join in. It’s also easy to lose track of the units when we haven’t directly paid for them. If our hosts are offering drinks for free, why not take them?
That’s one reason why so many of us have to reassess our relationship with alcohol come the New Year. Money – and clothes – are frustratingly tight post-Christmas. Going teetotal seems to kill multiple birds with one stone. We save money, our health recovers AND we magically find time for all that self-improvement we promised ourselves in the dying embers of 2019.
Dry January – doomed to fail?
Ah, if only it were that simple! Take our finances. In a pre-digital world, you could see those savings from giving up alcohol physically stack up. You could literally deposit the cash you otherwise spent on alcohol in a savings pot, either at home or in the bank.
Now, we have to make a conscious effort to divert money from our spending account into a digital savings account or ‘jar’. And it can be hard to really visualise those virtual savings when they’re just a number on a screen.
You can also cancel out the extra booze bung with just one or two mindless swipes of your debit/credit card. Before you know it, Beer funds have seamlessly morphed into Takeaway funds, Fast Fashion funds, Pointless Crap funds…you get the picture.
Plus, if you don’t have a REALLY compelling motivation to do Dry January – financial or otherwise – you are doomed to fail. Saving money for its own sake is not enough. You need a specific goal that’s meaningful to YOU to make the resolution truly stick. Only then are we sufficiently pumped up to change our habits for the better.
For my first book, Spare Change, I wanted to think carefully about what it takes to create behavioural change. Most of us actually know fine well how to be better with money, at least in theory. We generally understand that it’s about less spending and borrowing, more saving and investing.
But why do we find it so hard to put the theory into practice? For the same reason that, according to one survey, as many as 90% of people give up on Dry January. We resolve to change our habits without working out why it’s important – or how we’re going to achieve it. Combined with the all-or-nothing mentality posed by Dry January, it seems a cycle of austere virtue followed by overindulgence is inevitable.
Cutting back, not cutting out
Or is it? I was interested to read a piece in The Atlantic from last year which asked whether millennials are simply drinking less rather than giving up altogether. Amanda Mull spoke to more than a hundred young professionals and mused on whether a generation – struggling to save for big milestones like buying a first home and starting a family – simply can’t afford to be boozy:
For a generation that’s behind its forebears in terms of wealth accumulation, whether or not it’s a good idea to buy a bunch of beers or several $13 cocktails three nights a week can come down to practical concerns. Alex Belfiori, a 30-year-old IT professional in Pittsburgh, decided recently to stop keeping beer in the house. “I’ve already calculated how much I’m saving by not drinking, and I’m thinking about where I can put that money now.”
Alex is one of the lucky ones who discovered the financial upside of drinking less after the fact. But for most of us who routinely drink, we have to start with our financial (and other) goals in order to make those significant environmental changes – e.g. Alex’s decision not to keep beer automatically in the house.
The question is: have we now reached peak abstinence? Whether its silly fad diets or unrealistic digital detoxes, more and more of us seem to be finally understanding the old, bland adage of “everything in moderation”. Unless you genuinely struggle with addiction or substance abuse, it’s usually better to just say yes to less.
One friend of mine, who we will call Matthias, was previously a heavy social drinker and threw himself into teetotal periods to recover. Now, he is wary of times like Dry January, He told me:
“It’s a cold, dark month. There is no reason for you not to have a drink here and there: by telling yourself you can’t, you pile on shame and guilt which makes it all the more likely that you’ll just blow out.”
He’s far from alone in my peer group. The prevailing motto, if I had to sum it up, seems to be “steady as she goes”. Maybe it’s better to think about Dry(ish) January – and February, and March, and April…
Here are my ten tips to make cutting back on alcohol that little bit easier!
1. Siphon off your savings effectively
FT Money this week demonstrated the various holidays you could buy if you gave up alcohol, ranging from a weekend in Amsterdam if you did Dry January to a week-long inclusive break in Jamaica’s Montego Bay if you stayed teetotal for the whole year. There are definitely worse ways to use the money!
But I have tweaked the data provided by Andrew Hagger of Moneycomms and Caxton to give it a more Young Money spin. I have adopted the assumption that the average couple could save between £36 and £44 a week (at least) if they give up alcohol, based on the consumption of eight pints of beer and two bottles of wine (with the costs being higher if you go to pubs and bars rather than drink at home – the more typical millennial experience.)
So a young couple looking to buy their first home could put that money – between £156 and £191 – into a Lifetime Isa every month and earn a 25% bonus. That would give them an extra £39 – £48 per month.
Over the year, that amounts to £468 – £576 of government money towards your first home, on top of your original savings of £1,872 – £2,288.
This doesn’t even count interest earned on the savings version of the LISA or potential returns from the investment version. BUT the important thing to remember is that you can still get a decent chunk of these savings by cutting back your alcohol expenditure, especially in tandem with moderate spending elsewhere.
2. OWN your savings by naming them
Take charge of your savings: don’t let them pass you by. Estimate how much you’re spending on alcohol per day/week (check your accounts if need be). When assessing how much to cut back, ask yourself what’s realistic, not idealistic. You might start by resolving to stay in two more nights a week. You may decide to keep only non-alcoholic beer or wine in the house. Figure out how much this would save you per week/month and start putting that amount, as soon as you get paid, into a digital savings jar or easy access account (or Lifetime Isa, if you’re saving for your first home). Lots of digital savings accounts allow you to name them so you can personalise your goals. The choice is yours!
3. Switch up your routine to make life easier
The key to making any meaningful change – whether it’s Dry(ish) January or becoming a more mindful spender – is to adapt your environment and schedule to suit your goals. Identify why you drink (or do anything you wish to moderate). Is it boredom? To unwind after a stressful day? To oil the wheels in social situations? Because it’s a convenient, easy way to pass the time?
The main reason why I’m cutting back right now is because I have a huge project on my hands: writing my second book. It’s not just because I want to keep a clear head and be more productive; I’m acutely aware that writing involves sitting at a computer for long stretches, so I need to make sure I stay active and physically healthy in my spare time. But throwing myself into writing will also be the thing that limits my time and ability to drink.
If you have a drinking routine, something needs to take its place. In my book Spare Change, I suggest holistic goals that supercharge your motivation to save money by combining it with other self-improvement targets:
I also am a fan of decoy freebies. Write down as many alluring activities as you can think of that involve little or no money. Be as imaginative as possible. One immediately springs to mind … sorry, I’ll behave myself. Now pick five that appeal to you most. Choose a combination of:
- Tried-and-tested treats (satisfying alternatives to spending that make you feel great – perhaps a movie night, a yoga session or playing your guitar).
- Easy activities that can be picked up instantly (so you can turn to these the second you have the urge to splurge – e.g. reading a book, going for a walk or listening to your favourite songs).
- New challenges that take you out of your comfort zone (look for productive pursuits that you can get your teeth into – e.g. starting a blog, re-organising your bedroom or researching opportunities to develop your career).