In January, I took up a no-spend challenge. That's right — I refrained from making nonessential purchases for one whole month.
With my travel and entertainment expenses basically nonexistent during the pandemic, the challenge really boiled down to two categories: shopping and food delivery.
I'd never done a spending challenge before and didn't know what to expect. Would I give up immediately? If I succeeded, how much money would I actually save?
Here's what happened, what I learned from the experience and how you can try it, too.
I HAVE MORE WILLPOWER THAN I THOUGHT
Part of the reason why I never previously attempted a no-spend challenge is because I thought it would be too stressful and, ultimately, ineffective. But breaking my usual spending habits was surprisingly easy. For me, the key was creating a plan and not making it overly restrictive.
After my first few times reflexively opening the Target or Amazon apps, I realized I mostly shop online out of boredom. So I decided to reserve two apps specifically for mindless scrolling: Instagram and Twitter. Once I exhausted those, I'd have to put the phone down and find another way to pass the time. Usually, I'd opt to read a book or do laundry, both of which were much more productive and much less expensive. The urge to shop dwindled by the day.
I took a different approach to takeout food. My husband and I agreed to cut back rather than cut out so we could continue supporting local businesses. Plus, between busy work schedules and taking care of our child, we appreciated having breaks from cooking. Knowing that I didn't have to deprive myself completely took some of the pressure off.
THE LINE BETWEEN NEEDS AND WANTS IS OFTEN BLURRY
Determining whether an expense qualified as a necessity or just a nice-to-have was tricky at times.
When some stray cleaning spray left a noticeable bleach stain on my jeans, my impulse was to order a new pair. Replacing ruined clothing isn't the same as shopping for the heck of it, right? But the more I thought about it, the less I could justify the purchase. I have more jeans in my drawer. Besides, I'm working from home and wear yoga pants most days anyway. I ultimately decided against it.
I did, however, buy a new pair of shoes for my 1-year-old son in the next size up. He technically didn't need them yet, but I considered this a necessity because he could outgrow his current pair at any moment.
I ENDED UP SAVING HUNDREDS OF DOLLARS
I made only one purchase in the shopping category for the month of January: the aforementioned baby shoes for $27. Normally, I would spend closer to $150 per month on nonessential shopping. That means I was able to save over $120 on shopping in just 31 days.
As for food, my husband and I previously spent about $240 per week on lunch and dinner deliveries. By scaling back to roughly two orders per week from six, we dropped that total down to about $80.
Our grocery spending increased, but not significantly. We noticed that we wasted less food by cooking more often and using up what we had. We netted out about $100 in savings per week on food — so $400 for the month.
When I add it all up, I spent roughly $500 less in January than I would have if I hadn't set my no-spend goal. Not a bad cushion for my emergency fund.
I HAVE MORE WORK TO DO
Despite successfully completing the no-spend challenge, I still spent more than I would have liked. It turns out my essential expenses need attention, too. Rent, utilities, child care, car payments, diapers and other recurring bills get expensive. I can't eliminate all these costs, but my goal for the near future is to trim at least some of them.
For example, my utility bill was $32 more in January than in December. Perhaps I'll start there. Time to unplug my beloved space heater and put on extra layers.
IF I CAN DO IT, SO CAN YOU
It's OK if you're hesitant about starting a no-spend challenge. I was, too. I hope my experience encourages you. But your journey doesn't have to look exactly like mine.
Start by understanding your own spending habits and goals. Then, you can create guidelines you're comfortable with. Have faith in yourself and give it a shot. Remember, it's about making progress, not achieving perfection.
This article was provided to The Associated Press by the personal finance website NerdWallet. Lauren Schwahn is a writer at NerdWallet. Email: email@example.com. Twitter: @lauren_schwahn.
NerdWallet: How to nail a no-spend month http://bit.ly/nerdwallet-no-month-spend
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