For the last couple of weeks, my husband Matt and I have managed to not spend any money. Yeah, our wallets are full. Full of $1 bills but still full. We've been doing the No Spend Challenge: a commitment to spend only on necessities -- i.e. mortgage or rent, utilities, groceries etc. -- and on nothing else for a set period of time.
We decided to give it a go for a month but before embarking on this spending diet, I spoke to a couple of personal finance experts and bloggers and scoured the internet in search of the best tips and tricks to make it through the month without losing our sanity or giving in to a spur-of-the-moment impulse buy at the check out line.
1. Figure out why you're doing it
Knowing what you're looking to take from a No Spend Challenge is important and can help you stay the course. Whether it's saving for a dream vacation, a home or to pay down debt, knowing and focusing on why you're doing the challenge will help you get through the tough days, said Cary Carbonaro, a Huntington-based certified financial planner and author of "The Money Queen's Guide: For Women Who Want to Build Wealth and Banish Fear.".
2. Decide how long you want to do the challenge for and set your rules
While the exact origin of the No Spend Challenge is unclear, it's been around since at least 2010 when Canadian blogger Taya Knight outlined a version on her blog Simply Frugal. Since then some people have been taking the challenge, which became popular on social media, for as little as a week, while others who are more ambitious extend it for months or even a full year. There's no right or wrong answer here, just decide what amount of time makes sense to you.
Next, set your rules. Though there are many versions of the challenge, personal finance experts advise it’s best to start by creating a list of essentials. Deciding what’s on that list is up to you, so if you consider spin class or the gym essential that’s fine, but plan on saying adiós to your dear friend Amazon Prime cuz clicking "add to cart" while on the challenge is a no-no. Listen, the point is to develop a realistic no-spending plan that you're comfortable with and committing to it.
3. Use this time to eat the stock of items in your pantry, fridge and freezer
We're all guilty of this. We buy cans of tuna, or corn, or some other type of green canned veggie like peas and then never eat them. These goods seem to just linger so long sometimes you forget you even bought them ("Wait, did this come with the house?") The good thing is the shelf life on certain canned foods is ridiculously long, so pick up that can and put it out of its misery. Check the expiration date first though; I don't want to be liable if you get sick. But you most likely...probably...seriously, won't. Anyway, yes, groceries have the green light while on this challenge, but what better time to eat foods you already bought.
4. Research free entertainment for yourself/kids/family
Now, this...this is an important one. I mean what are you going to do while on the No Spend Challenge? You can't go to Starbucks to have a coffee. You can't go to your favorite place on earth...Target...and treat yourself to a new anything. You can't go on a date (unless you're 100 percent sure the other person is paying) and if you're married and your spouse is doing No Spend, well then, you're completely...like me...out of luck.
You basically can't do anything, right? So, what can you do? What's really worked for me is looking for free community events I can go to with the fam. One great place to start your search is...ahem...shameless plug: Newsday.com. Seriously, though, I never realized how many genuinely fun and totally free fun community events there are. Many museums have free admission days, too. And of course, there's always the park. Gazing up at the stars. Reading a book. Jump roping. Running. Running to the library to read my No Spend column while using the facility's internet, all free, baby. While you're there, also check out Facebook and Eventbrite; you're sure to find tons of free events there. And if all else fails, host a game night at your place. Just remember the only money you're allowed to spend is monopoly money. See, it all works out!
5. Keep a "wish" list
Whenever you get the urge to buy something, write it down, advises Denver-based blogger Anna Newell Jones, of And Then We Saved, who in 2010 did a spending fast for a full year. Keeping a wish list of sorts is helpful because once your challenge is over you can refer back to the list and see if you still want to buy the items on the list or if most of them were simply impulse buys.
While on her spending fast, Newell Jones often daydreamed about a pair of boots she wanted to buy once it was over. "In my mind, I had made them up to be these perfect pair of boots that in reality didn't live up to my expectations," she said. "The truth is I enjoyed them way more before I bought them than when I actually had them so in the end, I returned them." The same can be true with many purchases so it's important to try to gauge just how badly we really want an item and if that item is really all that we're cracking it up to be.
6. Move $$$ you "would've" spent into a savings account and use reward points & freebies
One way to measure how much money you're truly saving while on the No Spend Challenge is to deposit money you "would've" spent into a separate savings account. So, let's just say if your morning routine included dolling out $6 for a latte but now, you're brewing a cup of joe for yourself at home, deposit those six bucks into a separate savings account and do the same with other "would be" purchases. By the end of your No Spend Challenge, you're sure to see just how much green you were able to retain.
Also, if you have any type of freebies, a gift card, in-store credit, or some type of rewards points, this is the time to use them. Believe me, I won a free quesadilla from Moe's Southwest Grill at a community event that had a spin-and-win, and it was the most delicious free quesadilla ever.