Frances Cook is a self-confessed financial mess.

In an extract from her new book, the Herald and NewstalkZB podcast production manager details what it took for her to crack down on her budget.

You can't achieve any money goals until you start spending less than you earn. You can't buy shares with your credit card.

Well, you possibly could, but you would regret it pretty fast.

To help myself stick to the new budget I decided to make meeting people for coffee my core social activity. I might have decided on my "social and vanity" priorities, but I still couldn't spend endlessly on them.

While drinks out were fine, they tended to lead to impulsive food choices, which wasn't good for my waistline or my bank account.

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Brunch with friends was very enjoyable, but I often enjoyed meeting them for a coffee just as much, and coffee was about a fifth of the cost of a meal.

While most people have sympathy with a social-life fund, the vanity fund might seem silly to you. That's fine, everyone has different priorities, and your equivalent of a vanity fund might be gardening, homewares, car accessories, or books.

Replace "vanity" with whatever silly emotional thing you don't want to give up. If you can include it in your budget in a reduced way, you're more likely to make it over the long term, and long term is what you need this to be.

Any time there's an emotional connection to something, you will try to find ways to justify still buying it. It's easier to play this mental game with yourself over little things because you can conveniently ignore how they add up.

"Advertisements will often communicate in emotions, to try and connect to us on an emotional basis," says Sandra Smith, University of Auckland marketing lecturer.

"Marketers want to bypass the rational part of us that knows we don't need a new car, we're fine with the one we've got.

"We tend to invest more energy in making the bigger purchasing decisions because there's more perceived risk."

I started at a basic level, deciding I would stretch the vanity budget further by giving thrift shopping a crack.

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Honestly, I expected the rummaging to be annoying, but I was surprised at how quickly good stuff turned up. People donate quality clothes that don't fit them anymore. Add to that the fact you're increasing your odds of finding unique clothes, like clothes from overseas that you can't get in New Zealand, and it's a win-win.

I even dragged out an old sewing machine that hadn't been used in years and started altering things to make them perfect for me.

If ethics worry you, then the ethical bonus of second-hand shopping is huge. You've just taken a step towards stamping out sweatshops and overflowing landfills. The apparel industry is widely acknowledged as the second-worst industrial polluter after oil.

Buying ethically is hard; the easiest way for most of us is to simply buy less. For the times when you can't just not buy it, second-hand comes pretty close.

This isn't to say that it was plain sailing. Oh no. Some vices had dug their claws in deep.

In the beginning, I came up with every excuse under the sun for why I needed to keep allocating a lot of money to hair, makeup and clothes.

Anything that went near my skin made it particularly easy to lie to myself, telling myself I "needed" to buy top-shelf stuff.

I have horribly sensitive skin, which can break out in both eczema and acne at a moment's notice. I'd convinced myself that the only way to get around this was to buy the good stuff – even if it sent me broke.

When I decided to open my eyes, I realised that was not the case at all. Worse, I found that just a little bit of homework could get me cheapies that worked better than the expensive stuff.

First, I switched out my expensive cleanser for one that had been a favourite in high school.

I was cautious at first, keeping watch for a couple of weeks for any sign of my skin going downhill. Instead, there was an improvement.

I switched out moisturiser, mascara and blush, finding with each one that I was able to find something that performed better for about a third of the price.

I held off on foundation for a long time, still somehow believing the lie that expensive meant better, just in this one case. When I finally made the leap, I once again found a cheaper alternative that worked better for me.

The trick behind most of this was deceptively simple. I just decided what I wanted and put it into Google.

Allowing yourself to indulge your vices now and again will make it easier for you to manage long term. Do things less often instead of cutting them entirely, or use Google to find a cheaper way to indulge.

You're never alone in our digital era, and I soon found that I'm not the only girl who wants to have my beauty cake and eat it too.

There are makeup devotees who have researched all of this for you, and you only need to read what they've written.

"Best drugstore mascara", "drugstore long-wear blush", "drugstore bronzer for sensitive skin". Yes, this is one instance where you want to embrace Americanisms and use "drugstore" when you mean "cheap". There are lots of American girls online, and they've found the difference between the good and bad budget products.

Plenty of people have spoken out about the makeup rort, if you're willing to listen.

Randy Schueller, a cosmetic chemist with decades of experience, lifts the lid on beauty myths through his website, thebeautybrains.com. He says only 15 per cent of the cost of makeup comes down to ingredients, even for those fancy brands where you think you're paying more for those "quality" ingredients.

It makes sense when you think about it. Lipstick can cost $40 or more when it's just a combination of wax, oil and pigment. You're not even getting "special" wax – Schueller says makeup price has very little relationship to quality.

What are you paying for? Packaging, marketing and brand prestige, according to Schueller.

For New Zealanders and Australians, add an extra cost for the transportation and storage of makeup, because we're on the other side of the world from where most of this is produced.

Even where your makeup is sold counts towards the cost, as it's considered part of the "marketing" or "prestige". Sephora or Mecca are considered more prestigious than your average pharmacy.

Maybe you're paying for something other than materials, like ethics or good working conditions?

Price isn't a shortcut for that either. The 2019 Ethical Fashion Report put together by Tearfund gave Trelise Cooper an F for worker empowerment and World a D-.

Meanwhile, cheap and cheerful Cotton On got an A-, as did T-shirt company AS Colour. Go figure.

The halo effect on expensive products made me overlook the most obvious drawbacks. Like, that they didn't work as well.

"You get what you pay for" doesn't hold any water with me, not anymore. "You get what you research for" is far more accurate.

Five minutes online and I can pinpoint the best quality at the most reasonable price. It might not be the cheapest option, but it will be the perfect marriage between price and quality.

This doesn't mean I scour the internet for the cheapest knock-off blush I can find. Spending $2 for a product containing lead isn't a win for me, but I will get the best quality for the lowest price – that's called value.

This isn't an opportunity to laugh at silly vain ladies wasting their money – I'm sure I can find you similar stats on cars, if you'd like.

Retraining myself to see the difference between need and want, and treating them appropriately, gave me back a sense of control that also built up my money confidence.

Gone was the guilty twinge that could follow me around for weeks, knowing I'd overspent and had nobody to blame but myself.

I was not only changing my mindset, but I was also changing my relationship with money. I was learning I didn't have to fear it. I didn't have to stay in a zone of foggy avoidance, not looking at the bills coming in or the money left in my account, because of the fear it was all going wrong.

As I got a handle on things, I started to talk to friends more openly about money. In one of those conversations, I was given one of the best money tips I've ever heard.

A friend told me to rotate what I cut back on each month, then I would never feel deprived overall.

One month, maybe you won't go out for after-work drinks. The next month, your social life is resuscitated, but you're not buying any clothes. The next month, you can buy those jeans you want, but you're going to avoid using your car and walk everywhere that you can.

It worked. Each time I cut something completely for a month, it's a reminder that I'll pay for the things I want in my life and nothing more.

I believe that, just like a diet, if you try to cut everything at once you will only make yourself miserable and give up.

It's astonishing how much money we can waste on things we neither need nor want.

If you keep a diary of everything you spend and then how much you either enjoyed or used that thing, the results will surprise you. Those are the things you cut entirely.

If you buy rubbish you don't need, it doesn't matter how good the bargain was. It's still rubbish you don't need. That's why a lot of marketing and retail tricks are built on trying to get you to make an immediate decision.

Every time you see a sale it creates a feeling of scarcity; limited time only, must buy now, all of that. It's pushing all of these triggers that make you want that immediate reward, which is impulse buying.

"Especially in New Zealand, we like to be seen as smart shoppers, so if you get a compliment, the first response tends to be, 'Thanks, I got it 30 per cent off,'" says AUT senior lecturer Sommer Kapitan.

"We're proud to get a deal. And it's true that we should hunt those out, but retailers know feeling smart and competent is something shoppers desire. If you didn't need that bag at all, then they've won. You spent money you didn't need to spend.

"They'll also try to build in the things that could surprise and delight you. Christmas is really big for nostalgia, that's a powerful emotional trigger.

"By playing Bing Crosby and putting up mistletoe, they're sending me back to all of these really happy memories. And if they can play on that, dropping in other related items nearby that you're surprised by, they'll capture your attention and get you to spend your dollars there."


Tales From a Financial Hot Mess
by Frances Cook
Published by Penguin Random House
RRP: $35
Out October 1