Every now and then, I get the urge to challenge myself financially. Even though I’m at the point where my financial life is (mostly) under control, a good no-spending challenge reminds me to keep it that way. Lately, I’ve been getting a little spendy, more than is probably healthy for me. Some of this is due to lifestyle creep, and some is due to a series of crises that led me to “just throw money at the problem” and avoid a mental crackup. In any case, it’s time to rein things back in, thus the no-spending challenge.
I decided to aim for a month of not spending on anything that isn’t strictly necessary. It wasn’t a success: I made it three days before the wheels came off. I spent the rest of the month frantically reminding myself that I shouldn’t be spending, making it a day or two, and then spending. Rinse and repeat. I ended the month exhausted and feeling like a failure. However, I learned a few valuable lessons when I autopsied the situation.
Never, ever (and I mean ever) try a challenge unless your life is crisis-free.
My biggest failure was attempting this challenge while my life was still in turmoil. It’s nearly impossible to make objective choices and decisions when dealing with cascading crises. Things that don’t normally qualify as “necessary” spending suddenly seem very necessary when your world is falling apart. Spending may make the problem easier to solve, or it may simply soothe a tortured soul. (I spent for both of those reasons during my no-spend month. Often, and it was impossible to stop.) Whatever the reason, spending shouldn’t be overly restricted when your life is in chaos because it only makes you feel even worse. You need room to deal with the problems without adding failure to your burden.
Have the plan to deal with the urge to spend.
As part of the crisis, I had no plan to cope when the urge to spend hit. I should have made a list ahead of time and had the resources to provide spending alternatives. I didn’t. Instead of doing productive or free things when the spending urge hit, I resorted to easy mode and rented or bought a movie, ordered takeout, and bought too much at Target. It was too much trouble to think of something else to do. I should have had a list in front of my face to remind me of all the other cheaper things I could and should have been doing.
Have support from friends who won’t tempt you or whine when you don’t do things.
My friend group was not the most supportive during this event. Whenever they suggested a spendy outing and I declined or offered alternatives, some of them whined and complained about how cheap I was being. Even though I explained the situation, they kept telling me that I deserved to go out and have fun because of the above-mentioned crises. Maybe I should have explained things better, or been firmer in my approach, or found better friends. In any case, if you don’t have friends who support your goals, you’re doomed.
Focus on one day at a time, not the whole month.
One of my mistakes was that I was constantly thinking about tomorrow, the next week, and so on. “I’ve spent too much today, how am I going to deal with the next three weeks?” “What if so and so happens next week, and I can’t deal with it?” What I should have done was to pull back and focus on each day as it came. Thinking far into the future just stressed me out even more. Actually, on most days, just dealing hour by hour would have been helpful, as even one day was too much to deal with. Note that this is good advice generally, not just for a no-spending challenge. Some forward planning is necessary for life, but worrying about the future is usually just anxiety-provoking.
Lay out ahead of time what is allowed, what isn’t, how much, and how often.
As part of the plan I didn’t have, I should have made a clear list of what types of spending would be allowed and what would not. I should have further quantified how much spending and how often would be allowed. Was one takeout dinner acceptable in an emergency? Two? Was soda a necessity on the grocery list or not? Could I allow myself one trip to the movies with friends or not? Had I clarified this type of stuff ahead of time, I could have saved myself a lot of stress and avoided feeling like such a big failure.
Know why you’re doing this and the stakes.
I went into this thinking, “I just need to stop being so spendy for a while.” But that wasn’t a clear reason with stakes that would make me stick to the challenge all month. A better reason would have been, “I’m not too far off from retirement and need to rein in spending now, so I have a good idea of what living on a fixed income will look like.” Yours might read, “I need to save for a house because I want to move in a year,” or, “I need to cut my spending so I can pay off my credit card before interest rates increase further.” Whatever the reason, clarify it and the stakes ahead of time.
Remind yourself of this reason when the urge hits.
If I’d had a well-defined reason for doing the challenge and had invested in the stakes of sticking to the challenge, this would have served as a good way to motivate myself when the going got tough. I could have said, “Hey, you really need to adjust to living on less so you can enjoy your retirement. Keep going!” As it was, I didn’t have a concrete reason I could trot out when I needed a boost. I just flapped my hands and said, “But…. reasons!”
Have the plan to deal with FOMO.
During a no-spend month or year, there will be times when you will want to buy or do something that’s available for a limited time. A concert, a collectible, a vacation that your friends are taking, etc. FOMO will hit you hard when these things arise. “I’ll never be able to do this thing again!” you’ll wail. My FOMO moment was an appearance by my favorite comedian. Tickets were expensive, and I went because I couldn’t deny my FOMO. I was afraid he’d never come back to town again. I regret it now because he’s not as good in person as he is on his taped performances and he likely will be back in a few years. My challenge didn’t include a plan to talk myself down from this, and it should have.
Make sure the rest of the family has bought in (or you’ve exempted them).
My final mistake was not making sure that others in my family were on board with the challenge. I didn’t get their buy-in, but neither did I exempt them. Somehow I just expected them to go along with my nuttiness. I should have made certain that they understood my reasoning and either invited them to participate or exempted them. As it was, I resented the heck out of them going on about their lives while I was trying not to spend. And that wasn’t fair to any of us.
You can still learn from failure.
Even though my no-spend month was an utter failure, I still learned some valuable lessons. I could have just thrown my hands up at the end of the month and said, “That sucked,” but I took the time to examine the situation and figure out what to do better next time. Failure isn’t always the end of the world. If you learn from it, then the experience is still valuable.
- 10 No Spend Challenges Everyone Should Try
- Why I Don’t Do No-Spend Challenges
- How Should I Approach A No-Spend Month Challenge?
- 10 Funny And Creative Money Challenges For Millennials
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