The economist who does all the ‘weird’ saving experiments so we don’t have to

I feel like I am heading to my own intervention. A lunch with economics writer Jessica Irvine is the ultimate self-reckoning.

On the way, I take stock of my financial folly: my clothes were not sourced from a council clean-up, I did not cut my own hair, there’s no Costco membership card in my wallet and the wine I drank last night cost way more than Irvine spends on alcohol in a month (in my defence, that’s only $20).

The truth is, I’m worried the Australian Taxation Office will read this article and fine me for not having lodged all my tax returns.

Yet here I am, to dine with the patron saint of saving. A woman who, if you follow her columns in this masthead and her posts on Instagram, once collected pine cones and sold them on Facebook Marketplace for a tax-free profit of $45.

The miracles she has performed over the years via her financial experiments include revealing that: dishwashing powder is cheaper than tablets per wash; cherry tomatoes are more expensive than normal tomatoes per kilogram; Aldi is the best value for a basket of groceries; you can become your own hairdresser via YouTube; and find an online buyer for what most of us throw straight into the bin including but not limited to aprons, hourglasses, doormats, magazine holders and a wine rack (I see why Irvine could spare the last one).

At least if we had CrossFit to bond over, Irvine, a major fan of the exercise program ($385.99 per month), might overlook my fiduciary frivolity as we revel in our mutual love of squats, weights and the protein contained in an egg. But here again, I fall short. I don’t know exactly what a deadlift is, but I feel sure it would live up to its name if I tried to do one.

I know this affect I’m assuming is the result of pretty much all the privileges – and many don’t have the luxury of living without major financial stress – but I like to think my money mindset is more on the side of normal than Irvine’s, who calls her highlighters “beauties” and has printed labels assigning each colour to a different household spending category.

Jessica Irvine lunches at home with Melanie Kembrey. Irvine’s motivation is, ultimately, altruistic: she wants to teach people basic financial literacy, so they have greater power over their lives and future.Credit:Edwina Pickles

So, when I go to Irvine’s inner Sydney home for lunch, I get the big question out of the way first: is your budgeting pathological?

“I think I’m pushing it right up to the edge of just being a bit weird,” Irvine smiles. “I have enjoyed being in complete control. Maybe I’ve become too much of a control freak now with the finances, but I do see a psychologist regularly, and I’ve raised that with her. Is it an unhealthy level of obsession with money?”

I guess as far as addictions go, you can have far worse ones than saving money. For Irvine, budgeting is a positive and productive obsession. And, as she wryly acknowledges, this branding also pays the bills.

“Can we take a moment to appreciate the genius of how I made it my job? To save money and organise my financial life,” she says. And now she’s channelled that genius into a new book, Money with Jess, a DIY guide to Irvine’s personal budgeting regime that includes her annual budget worksheet and her spending tracker system.

“I think I’m pushing it right up to the edge of just being a bit weird. I have enjoyed being in complete control.”

“The book is sort of about, the Instagram page is as well, just leaning into what makes me weird. One of the pieces of advice that I give in the book is to do ‘your’ weird, the thing that makes you weird. For me, it’s just that I really like tracking stuff and tracking money and I track all sorts of things. It’s actually just really useful and fun.”

And as Irvine shows me around her house I can see the fun in calling your freezer a “pork filing cabinet” because everything is so well labelled with use-by dates; in a one-kilogram tub of pretzels and a 1.2-kilogram container of Costco salad topper (admittedly I could not lift these due to my lack of CrossFit attendance); and in buying fake grass for your courtyard for $100, using half of it, and selling the remaining half for $100 (suckers).

For lunch, Irvine is mixing halloumi and watermelon through an Asian salad from Aldi, which she quips is “very on brand”. As she chops the halloumi, she gives me the scoop on a pending investigation into whether it is cheaper to buy the salad as a package, or as separate ingredients. Maybe, I wonder, I would find all the mundane aspects of life more exhilarating if I approached them, as Irvine does, through the framework of an experiment, becoming a kind of Marie Curie of the science of saving.

On the menu: Irvine prepared an Asian salad (from Aldi) with halloumi and watermelon. Credit:Edwina Pickles

“It’s about narrowing down the decisions I will have to make in my life,” Irvine explains. “We’ve all got lots of decisions to make in a day. Even though it might seem small, deciding whether to buy washing tablets or powder, is a decision you’re going to have to make every time you go to buy that item. I feel like I’m just ticking my way through going, oh, well, this is my rule. I buy powder. It makes shopping easier for me because I’ve done the little experiments and I know how to do it.”

It wasn’t too long ago that Irvine had more in common with the version of me who walked into her home. She’s been one of Australia’s most high-profile economics writers for nearly two decades – covering 18 federal budgets, interviewing prime ministers, wining and dining with Reserve Bank governors – yet she never cared much for her own personal finance. But after her divorce, Irvine says, she found herself a single mum pushing 40 with no property and no idea about whether she was on track to a comfortable retirement. So, she applied the professional to the personal.

While there were obviously practical imperatives, taking control of her finances must also have offered an anchor as she sailed through emotionally turbulent times. Money is quantifiable, controllable, and predictable.

It’s evident that Irvine has always been the high-achieving, perfectionist type – as a child, she would pack things away according to their colour (her bookshelf now is arranged via colour). She largely grew up in Canberra; attended high school in London where her father was posted with the defence intelligence organisation (not a spy, allegedly); she was accepted into Oxford but returned with her family to study economics and philosophy at the University of Sydney, from where she was handpicked by economics editor Ross Gittins to join the Herald.

There is freedom to be found in control. It’s all about finding peace and calm, Irvine says, the money is the bonus.

“If you are dogged by shame, if you are feeling anxiety, and you’re not managing it, you’re not going to make good spending decisions probably,” Irvine says. “Everyone loves a transformation. And you might backslide, but the idea is that you can make progress and experience growth, and find more peace and calm in your life. I happen to have lived that to know that that is true.

“Which is not to say I won’t have tough times ahead, but you can work on your life and make decisions that make you happier. And that’s where it comes back to the economics. People go, ‘Oh, it’s a bit weird for you to be writing about all this stuff when you’re an economist, that’s supposed to be about interest rates and inflation’. But it’s about utility maximisation, which is about happiness.”

Without knowing Irvine well personally, I can guess what happiness might look like for her. In March, I can tell you that Irvine enjoyed a sandwich and milkshake for $18.70; purchased a new microwave from Big W for $105; paid $5 for a round of putt-putt golf; $124 for Luna Park tickets and watched an Apple movie rental for $6.99. Irvine shares her spending and savings online each month, monitoring them through her purpose-made budget system. Instagram is all about oversharing, but this is a whole new level of intimacy. Irvine says writing the book was the most challenging thing she has ever done, and revealing so much of herself online makes her feel hugely vulnerable.

“Why do I do it? I just know that people are really interested in it, and I’ve watched other accounts where people share that information, and it’s been so useful because money’s so taboo, and we don’t kind of talk about it,” she says. “I think it’s sort of ultra-pervy to be able to see people’s figures. I guess as a columnist, you want to keep it interesting. If you happen to hit upon a vein of writing which people are very interested in, that is in my interests to explore.”

And Irvine’s motivation is, ultimately, altruistic: she wants to teach people basic financial literacy, so they have greater power over their lives and future.

”My greatest fear is that [the book] will come out and people will be like, that’s just a little bit excessive and also unrealistic. Perhaps that might make it seem so laborious that people wouldn’t give it a try. That’s the risk. But I really hope people do give it a try, even if it’s just tracking your spending for one week or one month.”

But even if people opt for the pork drawer rather than going full hog with the filing cabinet, Irvine’s small financial tips, tricks and hacks (use bar soaps, they last longer!) provide a good entry point to managing personal finances.

Irvine’s now on track to retire (if she wants to) at 60, but I do wonder if the saving for the future comes at the expense of the present? Irvine says this is a misnomer about budgeting; her system isn’t about restrictions or limits, it’s about being aware of your spending.

Jessica’s Irvine’s new book.

There’s room for spur-of-the-moment cocktails, treats and getaways. In fact, she’s soon heading to Bali for a CrossFit retreat (if that’s not the definition of an oxymoron…). But the sense of calm she’s found in recent years has also changed what’s important to her. She likes the simple things: bush walks, rewatching The Lord of the Rings, journaling, going to bed at 9pm and living in a clean and tidy home that she owns. As for any sense that she needs to keep up with the Joneses? “You don’t have to keep up with the Joneses. You can literally go have their stuff because they put it out on the street.”

I leave our lunch with a renewed enthusiasm for household budgets and am ready to support Irvine’s canonisation. As the new me eyes the curb for treasure, I realise I have forgotten my sunglasses and race back to Irvine’s home. I don’t know if my budget would quite extend to buying them off her on Facebook Marketplace.

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