About once a year or so Rob and I will do a no-spend month where we basically eliminate all variable spending from our budget for a month. It’s a great exercise if you feel that your spending is out of control (which ours tends to be after the holidays), or if you need to save a serious chunk of change for something like debt or a down payment. We originally learned of the whole idea of doing something like this after reading about it on And Then We Saved back in 2012.
Every time we do this I get a ton of questions about the process and how (and why) we do a spending freeze at all. I am happy to share what I’ve learned over the years in the hopes that it can be of use to some people.
How do you pick when to start?
Honestly, there is no convenient time to cut spending for a month. We generally do it in the early part of the year because there is usually less going on in the winter. We also usually need a bit of a reset after the holidays, because I just get into a bad routine of buying everything that doesn’t seem to end after Christmas is over. If we pick a month where we have something special that we can’t not spend for (like a kid’s birthday) then we just build that in. It’s not a cheat if you know about it going in so don’t let those things derail you. Better to understand ahead of time that you’re going to have one exception instead of adopt the “well today is already a bust may as well buy x, y, or z” mentality.
What if something special comes up during the month? Do you break your spending freeze?
It depends. The point of the freeze is to re-prioritize our spending habits so that we can afford to do more of the stuff we love in life. If something really exceptional came up during a no-spend month, and it wasn’t a recurring event or something that we could buy or do again at a later time then we would indulge. If it didn’t meet those strict criteria though, we would skip it. Don’t get into the habit of justifying everything as “special”, or you will rob yourself of all the benefits from doing a freeze in the first place and you won’t change any of your spending behaviors.
Do you really save that much money?
Totally. In fact, we did two spending freezes last year to save up a bit for our trip to Italy with the kids. We went for 3 weeks and saved enough to pretty much cover the whole trip. I think that for most people, coming to grips with what you really spend on coffees, eating out, clothes, gifts, etc etc can be SHOCKING. Equally so, the amount you can save in a relatively short period of time can be shocking.
How do you keep motivated to do it for a whole month?
We are extremely competitive people, so there’s that. Also, there is truth to the idea that if you surround yourself with people who are doing something similar than you have a better chance of succeeding. To this end, I follow a lot of people on Instagram who are on a budget journey, and I join a bunch of like-minded Facebook groups to stay motivated.
It seems like a lot of work just to save money, wouldn’t it be easier to just budget better?
We budget pretty well in our normal life, but we have definitely benefited from doing the freezes on occasion. Every year we do one just as an exercise of restraint, but more than once we have found ourselves suddenly needing a large amount of money unexpectedly (like the year we had to replace the garage door at $2500).
There are other benefits too that don’t seem all that related, but we usually both wind up losing weight. In a month with no eating out we wind up eating much healthier much more often. This year that’s a benefit I’m certainly counting on.
Is it hard?
Yeah, of course it can be. I find M-F to be pretty easy once you get into the rhythm of it (although I have found myself driving to get a coffee more than once only to have to turn around). The weekends can be trickier, but not impossible. I remind myself during weak moments that it’s only for a month and I can do almost anything for a month.
How do the kids feel about it?
They’re still so young that they don’t really know what is going on, but I hope as they get older they see us being responsible with money and understand the value in cutting back from time to time. We continue to pay for things we consider necessities and this includes their programs (like swim lessons and preschool). The only thing they really notice is that there’s no Happy Meals for awhile.
Change what you see on social media - surround yourself with accounts that will inspire and motivate you not ones that will make you jealous and cranky.
Find alternatives to activities you normally do that cost money. Skip brunch with your girlfriends or suggest a potluck at someone’s house. Go for a hike instead of to the movies.
Figure out a way to treat yourself. For me, it’s sending the kids to another floor of the house and making myself a HOT coffee.
Fill your time. Make plans if you can that don’t involve shopping. If you find yourself with a bunch of free time take advantage and tend to some neglected home/organizing/craft projects.
Don’t get bogged down in a specific start date. Preparation is really helpful, but if that means you can’t start tomorrow or on a Monday or on the 1st of a month specifically DON’T WORRY and don’t let it stop you from doing your own 30 day challenge.
Be clear about what’s in and what’s out. If giving up your daily coffee isn’t feasible, then don’t make yourself do it. It will be worse, and more than likely make you give up completely, if you start out everyday already feeling like you’ve broken the rules.
Don’t let a slip up derail you. So you screwed up. Don’t make that an excuse to give up altogether. Take it in stride and finish out the month :)