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Real-life money lessons

Jumping into the new year with a no-spend (no-stuff) challenge

I don’t know about you, but the past few months have been really hectic. We’ve been busy with work, school, activities and holidays.

Sometimes when you’re so frazzled, it seems like it will never end. But January is upon us — a chance to start fresh, scale back and go into the new year feeling more calm.

I’ve been circling around the idea of a no-spend month for a few weeks. A no-spend month is a month (or any amount of time) where you don’t spend any money outside of necessities. You still pay your rent or mortgage, car payments, debt payments, utilities, etc. but you cut out the discretionary spending.

When I first mentioned this to J, he was a little confused — a no-spend month where you actually DID spend money didn’t make a lot of sense. (Kids can be very literal.)

I explained that there’s almost no way to not spend ANY money for a month (aside of pre-paying everything I guess, which may be difficult to do), but that the sentiment was really to cut back on all the extra STUFF, which in my mind leads to more stress.

Stuff takes up a lot of our time and mental energy:

  • Researching the thing to buy
  • Earning, finding and spending the money
  • Balancing your accounts (if you do that)
  • Getting the thing to your house (if you pick it up)
  • Finding a place for the thing in your house
  • Using the thing (or feeling guilty for NOT using the thing)
  • Storing the thing
  • Cleaning the thing (or cleaning around it)
  • Eventually getting rid of the thing

So our no-spend month is really a “no extra stuff month” and I’m hoping it will lead to a calmer January.

Rules for our no-spend month

These are the rules I set for our no-spend month.

Allowed

  • Utilities, rent, insurance and other necessities
  • Pre-existing monthly obligations (karate, braces, subscriptions, our monthly haircut)
  • Groceries
  • Gas for the car

Not Allowed

  • Amazon purchases
  • Eating out/takeout
  • Clothes
  • Movies, rentals, books or excursions that cost money
  • Shiny objects of any kind (including business expenses — I’m talking to you AppSumo)

Special Notes

In addition, I will:

  • Prepare meals from the fridge, freezer and pantry first
  • Always shop with a list (and make sure the list contains necessities and not “nice to haves”)
  • Pay special attention to the household goods category (this is where I can see myself buying extra and saying we need it)
  • Use store pickup when possible
  • Review our subscriptions to see if they’re all still being used

If you’re doing your own no-spend challenge, set rules that work for you and your family.

What we can do instead

Even though I listed several things that we can’t do, there are tons of things we can do instead.

  • Get outside — take a walk around town or go for a hike
  • Finish outstanding projects (I often have some sort of photo or home project that’s half completed)
  • Clean, tidy or reorganize
  • Read books that we already have
  • Watch movies we already own
  • Play games
  • Listen to music
  • Bake, cook or meal prep
  • Reach out to friends and family — send cards, call or visit

I’m sure there are more ideas, too! Comment below if you have any additional ideas for us.

Results

Here’s how we did!

Allowed

Even with preparing meals from the fridge and pantry first, I spent $314.92 in groceries. This was surprising to me because I start with a budget of $250/month for groceries and hadn’t realized that the price of food has gone up since I set that budget up forever ago. I checked YNAB and see that my average grocery spend for 2021 was $344.85 per month!

The same goes for household goods and gas for the car. My household goods budget is $120 (I spent $123.75 in January) but my 2021 average was $246.26. My fuel budget is $100 (I spent $100.17 in January) but my 2021 average was $114.88. I will take a look at the budget numbers and adjust for the future.

2021 spending for groceries, household goods and fuel
2021 spending for groceries, household goods and fuel

I did use Target curbside pickup once and went into the store once. I almost always shopped with a list as well, although later in the month I did shop once or twice without one.

Not Allowed

I didn’t make any Amazon purchases in January and didn’t even browse, although I added two books to my wish list.

Not eating out was okay except after awhile I was dying to eat out! My partner bought us slices of pizza one Saturday when we were out near his favorite pizza place, and J bought us DQ blizzards (because we were worried that the candy cane chill blizzard would be leaving soon and we wanted to catch it before it did). I’ve eaten out twice since the challenge ended, and it hasn’t been as satisfying as I wanted.

I didn’t buy any clothes during the month and we didn’t buy any books, etc. — just used and watched what we already had.

I did have a few business expenses in January (no AppSumo purchases though!):

  • A new router/modem for $278.91. My partner called to get me a better deal on internet service and with a lower price came an increase in speed, so I needed a new router/modem to take advantage of the higher speed.
  • New software for the websites I manage. I had been paying around $80/month to manage about 50 websites, so I switched to a different piece of software with a one-time cost of $399. I also gave a gift to a colleague who answered a lot of questions for me about the new software.

I did have some additional spending that fell outside of the challenge:

  • Donation to two charities ($134.02)
  • Flowers for myself ($13)
  • Tickets to a show (for my partner’s birthday) ($79)
  • Fabric and elastic to make masks for Valentine’s Day gifts ($32.17)

What we did instead

Instead of spending money, we spent some time outside, made pizza at home, put together a puzzle, went to the gym, hit the Diamond league in Duolingo, did some sewing, cooked, listened to podcasts, read and watched movies.

Final Thoughts

In all, I’m really happy I did the challenge and would definitely do it again. I was surprised to not have more to show from it at the end of the month, but after checking, I realized a big initial chunk went towards J’s new braces.

It was REALLY nice to have such low credit card bills each week (I charge everything possible for the points and pay it off weekly). Also nice was not having that many transactions to categorize and sort through.

J was very interested and supportive during the month. He made sure we stayed on track and was happy to participate in the challenge.

Resources

I’m not the first to write about a no-spend challenge. If you’re looking for more inspiration, check out the following:

Have you done a no-spend challenge? How did it go? Comment below and share your experience!

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