Living on your own in New Zealand's largest and arguably most expensive city amid both a pandemic and a global recession isn't ideal if you're saving up for a house deposit.
That became blindingly obvious to me as I embarked on keeping a spending diary to try to cut costs out of my day-to-day life.
For me, like countless other young people starting out in their careers with a hefty student loan and trying to make their way in the world, admitting you're struggling in the savings department can come with a sense of shame.
It's something a lot of Kiwis don't talk about, and something they can't really see a way out of.
But could keeping a spending diary help change that mindset? I had very little to lose, so I decided to give it a go.
Keeping a spending diary
I set out with the best of intentions to record my purchases for a full week. I didn't spend any money except on essentials - groceries, rent, transport and bills.
I drank a lot of average Nespresso coffees. I said no to dinner dates with friends. I resisted buying a new book I'd been waiting to read. I faced a moral dilemma about my gym membership, which takes around $16 out of my bank account each week - could I really justify keeping it?
I made note of everything I'd spent, and my bank account was looking somewhat better for it - so why did I feel like the joy had been sucked out of my week?
That's when Auckland went back into lockdown 4.0 and the familiar urge to panic buy set in. Online shopping beckoned - all my favourite stores cunningly started "lockdown sales" and my targeted ads were screaming at me to treat myself. The spending diary went out the window - fast.
It seemed like there were only two options: spend nothing and be miserable, or spend like normal and feel guilty about every purchase. There must be some sort of middle ground. So I decided to speak to personal finance writer, and host of podcast Cooking the Books, Frances Cook to see if she had any practical saving tips.
The coffee vs house deposit dilemma
People in their twenties are constantly told that if they didn't spend so much money on flat whites, they'd have enough cash for a house deposit in no time. But it turns out that tired old phrase isn't as true as we think.
What it boils down to is this - you have to be spending less money than you're making. That's the gap where you can start saving, Cook explains.
"The reality of living in Auckland or Wellington is that it is expensive. And it's those living costs that actually keep people from saving," she says.
Cutting down costs on the bigger things in life will actually make more of a difference than just giving up your $5 coffee, she tells me - music to my ears.
Basically, here's what you need to stay alive: housing, transport and food. Cook suggests taking a really hard look at those core expenses to see if you can make a dent in them.
"If you can save $50 or $100 on rent per week rather than giving up one or two bought coffees a week, it'll make much more of a difference," she says.
"Can you really afford a car or would it be cheaper to use public transport? Can you meal prep on a weekend and freeze your dinners? Those are the questions you've got to ask."
Changing your perspective on spending
And although it didn't work for me at first, Cook says keeping a spending diary isn't necessarily a bad idea.
"There's nothing wrong with recording your purchases for a week or a month, just to get a sense of your habits and what you're spending your money on. You'll start to see trends emerging."
What's important to note is how happy those purchases actually made you.
"You don't want to give up those bright spots in your day. What is actually bringing value into your day? You don't want to be spending your money on what you don't enjoy."
Turns out it really is about your mindset and what you value in life - and there are other psychological tricks you can use too.
"If you use cash, your brain works differently than if you use a credit card," Cook explains.
"You can see your cash physically leaving you. It's like when you're a kid at the dairy counting your change. You don't grow out of the pain of parting with your money. Your brain will try to justify the purchase to you. So using cash is a win-win."
Granted, in the age of Covid a lot of retailers will prefer contactless payment. But if you're unbothered by where your cash may have been before, it's a great way to keep track of how many dollars you're spending. That's what hand sanitiser is for, right?
The importance of setting achievable goals
If you're just trying to save for the sake of saving, without any real goals in mind, you're not likely to be successful. What you need are concrete goals to aim for. One of the most important reasons to save is for an emergency fund.
It may not be as exciting as saving for a house, but it could actually end up saving you - here's why it's so important to have an emergency fund stashed away.
It can be in proportion to what you earn. But it's essential for financial peace of mind and will save you a lot of stress in case, you know, a pandemic or something happens and triggers a recession.
"Having a savings account can have a positive effect on our mental health, it's that feeling of security. When that first level 4 lockdown hit, nobody was safe," Cook says. "But knowing that I had a healthy emergency fund helped me get through.
"Start by setting a small goal. Whether that's to save up $500 or $1000, even if it's only $10 a week to start with, set goals that are achievable short-term and build those up to long-term."
We've all heard it before - you should ideally have around three months of living costs to fall back on in case the worst happens. So if you can calculate your average living expenses for that period of time, why not set that amount as your initial saving goal?
I may revisit the spending diary, but that's not to guilt-trip myself every time I buy a pack of gum or a $5 cup of coffee on the way to work.
Rather, I'm going to set smaller, more concrete goals about how much I want to save, and what for. The proof will be in the pudding - or the flat white.