As a personal finance writer, I've had the opportunity to interview a number of financial experts and influencers about the best ways to save. Maybe the most interesting strategy I've come across is the "no-spend" challenge.
Taking on a no-spend challenge means that, aside from fixed expenses like rent or utility bills, you don't spend any money for a given day, week, month, or even a year. It requires a lot of planning and foresight. I had to account for essentials like food and transportation beforehand. Any purchases outside of my fixed expenses were off-limits.
In testing out this strategy, my goal was to practice some restraint and learn to curb impulsive spending. If I start developing healthy spending habits now, at age 22, it'll put me in a better position to save and pay off my student loan debt.
That debt was a big reason I took on this challenge: Next month marks the end of my six-month student loan grace period, so I'll be making my first payment of $972. That's roughly double my monthly rent.
If I intend to pay nearly $1,000 each month for the next 10 years in order to discharge my student loans, I'll have to make some changes, and that starts with cutting back on the extras.
I reached out to Kristin Larsen of BelieveInABudget.com to get some no-spend tips. Larsen is currently getting ready to take on a no-spend month. "No-spend challenges can definitely be really effective," says Larsen. "Even if you're only doing it for a day and cutting back on buying lunch or dinner, that's an extra $15 or $20 in your pocket that month."
She suggested starting my challenge during the work week so that I would have less time to spend. Here's how it went.
I started by taking a look at my daily spending habits. On any given day, it's not uncommon for me to drop anywhere from $10 to $30 on food, coffee, miscellaneous expenses such as getting my nails or eyebrows done, grabbing drinks or dinner with friends, or making an impulse purchase at the Forever 21 near my office.
Food & household
As a New Yorker, it's easy to shell out $10-$15 on lunch in midtown Manhattan. My culinary skills have a long way to go, and meal prepping doesn't appeal to me. But for the sake of my no-spend challenge, I knew I'd have to adjust.
I took inventory of the items in my pantry and refrigerator: a gallon of milk, one carton of eggs, some pasta, and half an onion. Then I headed to the supermarket to purchase foods that were easy to cook and would last the full week.
I spent just under $45 on groceries, including a whole chicken, salad greens, vegetables, fruit, pasta, rice, nuts, and a pint of ice cream for when the going got tough. I couldn't totally deprive myself of everything I love. I checked the linen closet I share with my roommates to make sure we were stocked up on toiletries and household products.
To kick things off, I made a simple pasta dish topped with fresh tomato sauce and basil, courtesy of my landlord, who grows fresh basil and tomatoes in her garden.
I typically pay $127 each month for an unlimited metro card for my subway commute. Luckily, my card was still good for two more weeks.
While Manhattan is a walking city, I am quick to order an Uber or Lyft when I've spent the night out with friends. With this in mind, I didn't commit to any social gatherings that were going to be a hassle to get to via subway.
Then it was go time.
I spent the evening before the start of my no-spend week preparing an elaborate lunch to take to work. Naturally, I forgot it on my kitchen counter. Still, I was determined to find a way around buying lunch. I discovered I had $8 left in my employee account, just enough to cover a Caesar salad at the employee cafeteria.
I set a reminder on my phone to remember to actually bring the packed lunch with me the following day.
Full disclosure: I am someone who finds joy in random small treats, like a getting a manicure or treating myself to my favorite latte from Starbucks. As the spending-free days went on, I became increasingly aware of the unnecessary purchases I typically make.
I realized that the joy of an almond iced-latte fades quickly when considering how much it sets me back. I buy coffee at least twice a week. At about $6 per drink, that's $12 per week, or about $50 each month, once you factor in sales tax. That's an extra $600 per year just to fuel my caffeine addiction.
This challenge definitely required a lot of creativity, and I brainstormed ways to treat myself without spending money. I researched free events in the city, and checked rewards applications on my phone to see if I qualified for any freebies at my favorite coffee shops or restaurants. Midway through the challenge, I lucked out and received a $20 Starbucks gift card, which provided a much-needed break from the free office coffee. The little things definitely boosted morale when I felt like I wanted to cave.
On the weekends, I typically enjoy going out to brunch with friends, seeing a movie, or heading to a thrift store to search for cool items. On this particular weekend, none of my usual outings were an option. I took a note from Kristin Larsen, the blogger from BelieveInABudget.com, who suggests mixing up your social plans when you want to avoid spending.
"If friends or coworkers wanted to go out for a happy hour, we would change it into just going out on a walk," says Larsen. "It sounds basic, but for us it was more about the one-on-one conversation and just hanging out and talking versus dining out and drinking."
I used my free time to catch up on some housework and exercise. I even locked my debit card away in my drawer, just so I wouldn't be tempted to spend.
I took the train to Roosevelt Island, and walked around and enjoyed the scenery. Then I returned home to prepare my own dinner and watch a movie on Netflix.
I was on a roll until day four, when I got stuck with a $20 copay for a medical appointment I forgot I'd scheduled. This was a rookie mistake but also a lesson learned.
All in all, I saved around $150 that week on dining out, shopping, and impulse purchases. That's approximately $100 on lunches and coffee, and $50 on miscellaneous purchases. If I want to keep it up and practice "no-spend" for at least two weeks every month, I'd save about $300, or enough to cover about a third of my student loan payment.
I kept myself accountable by not carrying around any money with me, whether it was cash or plastic, but there are different strategies to help you stay on track. Larsen, for example, says she relies on visual charts. "I like having a calendar that I can fill in to track my progress and keep it going," she says. "It's silly, but it helps me stay strong."
At times, this challenge did feel sort of like a crash diet. It wasn't hard to maintain, but was definitely eager for the challenge to end and ready to indulge after one week. Realistically, I think no-spend is an effective way to save, but it isn't a "one-size-fits-all" strategy.
"It's OK to spend money on the things you really enjoy if you're willing to sacrifice in other areas," Chris Browning of Popcorn Finance told Grow at FinCon, a personal finance convention, earlier this month. "Because if you deprive yourself completely in all areas, you're destined to fail."
I learned that we all need small pick-me-ups here and there. It's important to recognize that everyone has different financial priorities, and occasionally unwinding at a dinner out with friends, or at a date night at the movies, can be money well spent, as long as it isn't setting you back too much or interfering with you meeting your goals.
Completely abstaining from spending, though, opened my eyes to how frivolous my day-to-day purchases can be. I think the answer might be to find a happy medium: Be smarter about treating yourself rather than not treating yourself at all.
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