‘I am debt-free and that feels euphoric’: The budget influencers who can help you save money

They’re building communities on Instagram by sharing honest personal finance stories

Social media is not always sound. Interesting and friendly conversations can and do happen on Twitter and connections are still sometimes made on Facebook, but — at the risk of an understatement up there with “electricity prices have gone up a bit, haven’t they?” — both platforms can be found wanting when it comes to community spirit and offering support to the vulnerable.

Instagram is, perhaps, an exception and, while it is not without its flaws — the creation of ludicrous and damaging fantasy worlds devoid of imperfection and the attention-sapping nature of the medium being chief among them — it has managed to sidestep much of the abuse, conspiracy theories and general madness that have made other platforms so unpleasant so often.

Many of the communities that have prospered on Instagram still manage to inform and entertain; where else would you learn how to make your stove top and your tiles sparkle (the secret is baking soda, apparently) while being endlessly entertained by the Foil Arm and Hogg lads.

The nature of discourse on Instagram is still pretty civil and positive, and it is for many people their happy place. It might also offer increasingly important support and advice as the winter storm clouds gather.


One community which has been slowly gaining traction in Ireland in recent years, and accelerating more rapidly in recent months, is the growing number of debt-free divas (there aren’t many divos) who have been winning friends and influencing people with their honest personal finance stories and savvy budgeting advice for others.

It is not hard to see why. The cost-of-living crisis has impacted almost every aspect of almost all of our lives, with its miserable tentacles reaching into our homes, cars, social lives and supermarkets — and a whole lot more besides that.

Not only has the crisis taken a harsh financial toll, it is also having a pretty severe emotional toll: no one has a clue when it will end or how bad it will get.

Santis O’Garro: ‘Once I started to budget, it was like opening Pandora’s box’

Santis O’Garro radiates positivity, hope and can-do spirit in both the virtual and real world. Since 2019 she has been sharing her journey to a debt-free life on Instagram as @thecaribbeandub, and freely admits she started doing it more for selfish reasons than anything else. “I knew that when I said I was going to be debt-free people were listening, so I felt like I had to live up to that promise,” she says.

She is not a natural saver. “I was very bad with money. I love spending and buying things, and for years I thought that spending money gave me freedom and status. I thought budgeting was for boring people; mean, frugal, penny-pinching people. I thought these people just needed to live a little.”

Her mother was “very strict” with money growing up and “as soon as I started earning I loved being able to buy. When I bought a nice car, people looked at me differently and I liked it.”

Her spending was, she knows now, unsustainable. “It hit me hard when I had my second child and was on maternity leave and wasn’t earning so much.”

Her relationship had broken down and the bills started mounting up. “I hated seeing the bills coming in and didn’t want to look at them. All I thought about was money.”

She decided she would have to do something. She sat down and totted up all that she owed and was pleasantly surprised — if pleasantly can be used in such a context — to see that it came to €15,000. “I thought I was €25,000 in debt, so that felt like a win. Then I started to budget, and once I started it was like opening Pandora’s box.”

When she announced her plan to be debt-free on Instagram, she “felt I had to do it. It was like being an alcoholic and admitting I had a problem. I did have a problem with spending and debt, so I said, this is how much I owe and this is how I am going to fix it. I knew people were watching because I watched people like me, too.”

She worked out that more than €600 a month was going on servicing her debts. Then there was childcare, a mortgage, heating, food. “It was really stressful and I was overwhelmed. So I started by focusing on one debt at a time, while trying to keep the minimum payments for the other debts. I sold stuff that I didn’t need and made €800, so that was another win. I saved on childcare by working fewer hours, and instead of spending that saving of around €450 a month, I used it to pay down the money I owed on my couch. Then that was cleared, and I had a bit of momentum and confidence.”

She says her growing number of Instagram followers were congratulating her on the little wins and the baby steps. “The positive affirmations were addictive. There were days I would think, maybe I should go for dinner and relax, and then I was like no, because people were behind me.”

Over the past two years she has developed a real relationship with her 25,000 Instagram followers, and even though her circumstances have changed and she has grown her profile by presenting a television series on RTÉ — with this writer as it happens — she remains true to where she started.

“I am still on my journey, and my relationship with the debt-free community hasn’t changed. Sometimes they look at me like I am Yoda, but I am a normal person. I am debt-free and that feels euphoric. I used to get my thrills from new purchases, but there was no feeling better than knowing I owe no one nothing.”

And what are her top tips?

“The first thing I would say is get it down on paper and out of your head and work out where you might be able to make savings. A budget isn’t a one-trick pony, and what works for me might not work for you. Cut back rather than cut out, and get yourself informed.”

Caroline Mooney: ‘We are living what I am talking about, we are still struggling’

Caroline Mooney posts on Instagram as @Irishbudgeting. Unlike O’Garro, she has always been frugal — a word she doesn’t shy away from. “We were quite young when we had our first child — I was 20 — so that made us frugal because we had to be, and we had a very frugal wedding.”

At the start of the last recession she lost her job while pregnant. “I was struggling to get another job and times were difficult. We never did a lot of things in the boom that others did, we didn’t buy a house or get finance on cars. I don’t know if we were lucky or not, but we didn’t make those choices.”

When her second child started school she retrained as a personal trainer. “The first year I went back to work and we were on two incomes, we enjoyed it. We took two holidays: one to America, that is where we blew a lot of money and put a lot of money on the credit card.”

For the first time in life she was in debt and came home from the US holiday owing €3,500 to a credit card provider. “We were finally on two incomes and wanted to save for a house and we just had a moment where we thought, it is now or never, we either sort ourselves out or get stuck in a cycle.”

She decided in 2019 to do a no-spend year. “We sat down with the kids just before the year started and explained what we wanted to do, and it was going to be one year. We did loads of ‘fake-aways’, met friends for Come Dine With Me nights, and we played board games and went hiking. We basically spent that year living off one income, and saved €15,000 and cleared our debt.”

One of the most important things to know is what your income is versus your expenses

Mooney had been following the American Debt Free Community on Instagram for years and didn’t realise it was coming to Ireland. “I decided to share my journey. It happened quite slowly and took about three months to get a thousand followers, but then it just exploded. A good few of my videos have gone viral, I do a mixture of content and I break up the budgeting talk with everyday practical ways to save money. The How I Feed My Family For €5 posts have gone down really well.”

She says more and more people are making contact with her now as the cost-of-living crisis deepens. “One of the most important things to know is what your income is versus your expenses, put everything down on paper, work out how much are you spending on groceries and fuel, and is there any way you can reduce the costs.”

One reason she believes her account resonates is that she is “living what I am talking about, we are still struggling. In many ways, people are going on a journey with us. We are everyday people who are trying to navigate a difficult situation and that appeals to people.”

Like many other influencers, including some in the budgeting space, Mooney receives sponsorship from brands and retailers. These “paid partnerships” can form a substantial part of an influencer’s income.

She accepts that earning money as an influencer can alter the perspective some people have, but “you can’t just take all the money that is on the table, and you have to stay true to yourself”.

Ann-Marie Gaynor: ‘It was more about survival because I had no choice’

@Irishbudgetingmammy — or Ann-Marie Gaynor to use her actual name — has been living the budgeting life since the crash of 2008, although she admits to being a real Celtic Tiger cub. “I came out of school during the boom and the spending went on for years. Then as the recession got worse and I lost my job. I had a five-week-old baby. Then I got divorced, so had to fight to keep my house.”

She retrained as a psychiatric nurse and became very careful with her money. “It was more about survival because I had no choice, I had credit card debt, I went to Mabs [the Money Advice and Budgeting Service]. I lost my credit rating.”

Her hard-core budgeting worked, although it took years. She wrote a book about her experience and self-published it. Then she realised that to promote it she would have to use Instagram. “I would have been very shy before that,” she says.

I have a very big Irish female following. I don’t know why there aren’t more men in the space

“It has been hugely important and grown very fast” — she has 43,000 followers — “and I get so much feedback from people about [how] they have changed their spending.”

She uses “cash envelopes” with money earmarked for food, fuel, fun, miscellaneous and beauty.

And she only spends what is in the envelopes. “This year the envelopes have got smaller,” she says.

Her tips “come from lived experience, things I have done in the past. It doesn’t always work for everyone. Instagram is a huge support and I have a very big Irish female following. I don’t know why there aren’t more men in the space.”

She is fairly relaxed about how she uses the medium. “I post when I feel like it. I have never played the game. I just simply do it when I feel like it. I am showing a real family budget. All my figures are there. It has become my business but I don’t think it has changed my relationship with my audience. Everyone is panicking and afraid.”

Kel Galavan: ‘No matter how bad it gets, we are not alone’

Kel Galavan is a scientist turned accidental moneysaving queen who posts as @mrssmartmoneyhq.

“I worked for 16 years in the pharmaceutical sector. I was married and had kids, but I was travelling all the time and not seeing my family. I thought, this is not what I signed up for, so I talked to my husband about taking some time out. It was the scariest thing I ever did. Our household income was cut in half, so I resolved to make it work and that is where a no-spend year came from.”

For 12 months she and her family just stopped spending money they did not have. “I gave up alcohol and didn’t buy clothes or dye my hair. We were never so healthy and we cut our outgoings by over €27,000 in one year.”

She studied to become a qualified financial adviser too.

Even if you can set aside €20 a month then it has psychological value

“The most important thing is to pay yourself first. It is very simple and I think it is kind of genius. Traditionally you work hard and your money comes in and goes out straight away. Pay yourself first means that when your pay comes in, you put aside a set amount for you. If you don’t do that and end up with zero at the end of the month, you have essentially worked that month for free. Even if you can set aside €20 a month then it has psychological value.

“So put money into your pension, or emergency savings, or even into a credit union account that is hard to access — or at least requires you to drive to the credit union. Then you budget after that.”

She says she uses her Instagram account as a platform because “there is a huge part of me that wants to help people because I have been there and I know how hard it is. I think the budgeting accounts make it okay not to be perfect with money. The people who follow me are going to follow other people too, and they will get more advice and become more aware of the crisis that we are all facing into, and realise that no matter how bad it gets, we are not alone.”

Other money-saving Insta accounts worth a follow

@onefootinthesave Hats off to Emer Farrell for the name of the account which she describes as “a journey to save money and reduce waste”. You will learn ways to save in the supermarket and make the most of the food you have, as well as all manner of other tips.

@byBorrow_ Searching for sustainable fashion for lower prices or happy to borrow something for a spell? This Insta account is a “platform for lending and selling second-hand and sustainable fashion”.

@basically_budgeting An account that does exactly what it says on the virtual tin. It is, basically, budgeting.

@Irishbudgetingqueen “Saving mad on a low-spend 2022 ... debt free ... mortgage free by 2025 ... cash spender and sinking fund.” It’s pretty clear what this account is all about.

@askpaul.ie More of a business than a personal account, you will nonetheless find all manner of moneysaving tips and questions answered by a range of people — some of whom we suspect are not, in fact, called Paul at all.

Conor Pope

Conor Pope

Conor Pope is Consumer Affairs Correspondent, Pricewatch Editor and cohost of the In the News podcast