In a world of consumerism, fast-fashion, and credit cards, it’s easy to get covered in a mountain of debt, surrounded by all your unnecessary purchases. Most of us start our adult lives with thousands of dollars of student loan debt. It’s all we know.
That’s where the no-spend challenge comes in. Think of it as a cleanse for your wallet and a reset for your perspective. A no-spend challenge trims your budget down to the essentials and makes you think about the value of everyday purchases you don’t even register. It’s a great way to get your savings back on track after the holidays or an expensive vacation, and it can get you on the right track toward a healthier financial lifestyle. So how do you start a no-spend challenge, and what is exempt? Ultimately, it’s up to you to set your own rules, but here are some guidelines you can build from.
What You Can Spend On
- Utilities, phone, and internet
- Prescriptions and medication
Those last two have a little wiggle room. Yes, you have to eat, and yes, you have to go to work. But consider ways you can minimize these expenses. Some people stock up on food before the challenge, while others meal plan to avoid impulse purchases. To cut down on your gas budget, look into alternative modes of transportation. Are you close enough to bike to work? Is there a public transportation system in place? Try a no-car weekend where you bike around your neighborhood.
What to Cut Out
- Eating out, drinks, and coffee runs
- Shopping (especially online)
- Activities (movies, concerts, etc.)
- Beauty Services (nails, haircuts, waxing)
- Other non-essentials – anything you want instead of need
If you’re already living with a budget, you may wonder how much of a difference a no-spend challenge will make. Of course, it depends on how long you decide to make your no-spend challenge, but paying attention to every non-essential spending impulse you have is really an eye-opener. It may be a coffee here, a pizza there, but it adds up.
A no-spend challenge is only successful if you stay disciplined, so here are my tips for how to get started and stay motivated.
How to Crush It
1) Make a Goal
The first thing to establish is why you want to do a no-spend challenge. It’s important to remember that buying things in and of itself isn’t bad. You’re choosing to limit your spending because you value something else – a house, a trip, being debt-free – more than that new dress you think you need. If you have a specific goal in mind that is more important to you than your morning latte, it will be much easier to stick to your rules.
2) Set a Time Frame
Whether you’d like to eliminate spending for a weekend, a week, a month, or even a year, determining a set time frame will help you plan that period of time. The longer your challenge is, the more you can save, but if a month seems unattainable to you, start with a week or even a weekend to try it out.
A weekend is very doable if you find free activities and cook your meals. A week challenge focuses on cutting out daily splurges that add up over time. A month requires some serious forethought and planning, but the rewards are the greatest. The rest of these tips will be most valuable to you if you want to achieve a no-spend month, but they’re applicable to anyone trying to trim excess in their budget.
3) Set and Share Your Rules
Make a physical list of ground rules to look at when future you wants to bend them a bit. Decide what your exceptions are, and post the list in a visible place you will pass frequently, like the fridge door. Make sure your family agrees to these rules, too, so they will be more invested in the challenge.
4) Get Creative with Meals
Even though you can still buy groceries, the challenge is to spend as little as possible at the grocery store. It’s a good time to clean out your pantry and freezer, and get creative with what you have on hand. If you have any restaurant gift cards or vouchers, the challenge is a great time to use them.
Bonus: During my no-spend challenge, I discovered a restaurant hack that I still use once a week. Moe’s Southwest Grill has a special on Mondays for any burrito, chips, and salsa for $5.99. My boyfriend and I can typically split their ‘Homewrecker’ burrito, so that’s $3 a person. On top of that, if you complete the survey at the bottom of your receipt, you can get $2 off your next meal. At $2/person, we were eating out once a week for cheaper than we could cook at home!
5) Find Free Things to Do
I love planning outings and itineraries, so this part of the challenge was really fun for me. If you need something to do on a weekend, approach your city through the eyes of a tourist. I bet there are at least 10 Pinterest articles on free things to do in your city. Try biking through historic sections of town, taking a picnic to the park, or visiting a museum on a free or suggested admission day.
6) Use Cash Instead of Cards
Many of us have been guilty of treating a credit card like free money. I’ve done it too. Once you determine how much you absolutely have to spend during your challenge, take out enough cash to cover it, and put the cards away. It’s a great safeguard against slipping up, since the amount you can spend is literally limited.
7) Monitor Your Impulses
Any time you want to buy something unnecessary during your no-spend challenge, write it down. If you’re shopping online, leave it in your shopping cart. Think about why you want that item and what value it would bring you. If you can wait to get it until after your challenge is over, there’s a good chance you won’t want it anymore.
8) How Else Can You Get It?
Is purchasing an item the only way you can get it? If you want a book, does your library stock it? If you need a tool, or an outfit for an event, is there someone you could borrow it from? Look into trading goods and services, or even learning a new skill, like cooking, gardening, and sewing.
Don’t leave all that money you haven’t spent during your challenge hanging out in your checking account. To see the real results of eliminating unnecessary spending, put those funds in a specific savings account to use toward your goal. Otherwise, you’re likely to lose track of it in day-to-day expenses.
Setting up your own no-spend challenge – regardless of how long you can manage it – is a great step toward reforming your spending habits. It will make you aware of any unnoticed excesses in your budget, and help you focus on and prioritize your long-term financial goals. Have you tried a no-spend challenge? Tell me about it!