Serein Wu, now 35, started recording videos about her favorite beauty products and posting them to YouTube in 2012.
What began as a hobby turned into a full-fledged career over the past five years. Today, Wu is a well-known beauty vlogger in Los Angeles with a podcast and four YouTube channels, including Serein Wu, where she reviews beauty products and self-care methods, and LedFit, a fitness channel that she runs with her husband.
Wu does it all: shooting, editing, and uploading videos, in addition to choosing products and services to feature. She pulls in anywhere from $100,000 to $200,000 a year before taxes and boasts nearly 200,000 followers across YouTube and Instagram.
But her success came with a drawback: The more content she created and the more products she reviewed, the more Wu wound up spending. "At the end of each month, I would look at my credit card bill and be shocked," she says. Wu estimates she spent "maybe tens of thousands of dollars in the first year on products to review alone." Makeup, beauty products, and spa treatments to feature on her channels are all considered "necessary expenses," and sometimes, the line between personal and work expenses blurred.
Wu found herself justifying random purchases: "I'd go to a store to purchase a dress and say, 'It's for the business,'" she says.
On New Year's Day, Wu posted a different kind of video. In "My No-Buy Year," she explained her decision to curb her excessive spending by going cold turkey.
Wu realized her spending had became "mindless and out of control," she said. It was getting in the way of achieving her larger financial goals, like paying off debt and saving enough to purchase a new camera and iPad for work. That would allow her to create higher quality content, in turn translating into more clicks and more income.
"I love shopping," Wu told her viewers. "It's not something I want to get rid of, but it is something I need to evaluate and figure out how have a healthier relationship with money."
Wu knew she needed to track her spending, but she had tried and failed to do that in the past. "I found it really hard to establish a budget," Wu explains. "It's really difficult for someone like me who freelances or owns their own business, and I learned shortly after that traditional budgets don't work for my lifestyle."
Instead, Wu decided to freeze discretionary spending altogether. She divided up the year using fiscal quarters as a guide. "I felt it would be more effective to set goals for three months at a time," Wu says. "I know my habits will change, so I want to tweak the journey as I learn more about my relationship with money."
For the first quarter of 2019, Wu didn't spend on anything besides mandatory bills and food, though she did make a few allowances for "experiences" like shows and special events. She put all potential purchases, including makeup products she wanted review, on a list for one week. That way, she says, she "wouldn't be buying on impulse or emotion."
Her strategy worked: "Most of the time, 90% of what was on that list never got purchased," she says.
For the second quarter of 2019, she allowed herself to spend $100 per week on additional purchases. "This limit allowed me to reprogram my mind about what was a fair cost," she says.
In April, Wu posted "3 Month No Buy/Low Buy Update" to her YouTube channel. In the video, she was candid about setbacks, like when she purchased a makeup set she didn't need that cost under $25. "I broke my rules, because I was not in need of new makeup," she told viewers. "And I still have not used the products."
Overall, though, she had made progress, and she shared the wins, too.
Because of Wu's mindful spending the first two quarters of the year, she was able to knock out some of her goals. She spent $21 on tickets to The Hollywood Bowl to celebrate. "We got to see one of my favorite actors, Sutton Foster, in 'Into the Woods.' I made us a picnic dinner and we had a wonderful evening watching the show under the stars," Wu says.
"In the past, because of my mindless spending, I wouldn't have been able to justify the cost or I would have valued a new shirt over the experience, and a lot of the times I'd actually try and do both and find myself stressed about how much I spent," she says.
It's not just what she's spending on but also how she's spending now that makes the difference.
What might seem drastic to some has proved to be essential for Wu, who says the journey is promoting not only a healthier relationship with money, but a healthier one — and with spending specifically. And the changes have been good for business.
Thanks to her strategic budgeting, she was able to afford equipment she needed. Though she had, at first, hoped to buy a new camera for $3,000, she opted for a $500 refurbished model instead. "While we could have made the more expensive one work," she says, "I felt it wasn't the smartest decision." She also was able to save up for an iPad, which costs about $330.
With about three months left in 2019, Wu's no-buy year is paying off, and she's happy to report that she hasn't gone back to her old ways. "I have noticed when I'm lonely or bored it can be harder to resist," she says, "but I am also now completely capable of walking into a mall and walking out empty handed."
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