Editor’s Note: This story originally appeared in Living on the Cheap.
If your spending is getting out of control or you want to cut down on unnecessary expenses, it may be time to start a no-spending challenge.
Going an entire month without spending more than necessary can be an eye-opening experience. We think every budget-minded individual should try a no-spend month at least once.
What does it mean to go 30 days without spending money and how should you get started?
There’s some room for interpretation and a bit of flexibility depending on your financial goals, but the no-spending challenge is actually easy to set up.
Here, we’ll break down some no-spend month rules, so you can skip the intimidation of starting the no-spend month challenge and start working on trimming the fat from your budget.
What is a no spending challenge?
A no-spend challenge is simply a set period of time during which you commit not to spend money on anything outside of necessity.
Except in an emergency, the only variable in your budget is the cost of your food — though you should set a weekly budget for that and be sure to stick to it.
Most people commit to a no-spend month, but you can choose any amount of time that makes sense. A month is generally long enough to give you a solid view of unnecessary spending.
What do I spend money on during the no-spent month?
During your no-spending challenge, it’s fine to spend on housing payments, car payments, and other monthly bills for cell phones, gas, healthcare, child care, etc. In other words, only what matters.
You can buy your food in advance and not spend money on groceries or restaurant food, or you can set a strict budget to only pay for the essentials.
What is the no spend month rule?
The cardinal rule of the no-spend challenge is to eliminate all non-essential purchases.
You should avoid eating out or ordering takeout, visiting salons or spas, paying for Uber or taxis if you have safer and cheaper transportation options, or spending money on entertainment (movies, concerts, attraction tickets).
You shouldn’t buy new clothes, Starbucks, alcohol, gifts, decorations, furniture, or anything else you don’t really need right now.
Outside of the no spend month rule, the only other rule is that you commit to do the No Spend Challenge for a certain amount of time.
How to get ready for a challenge without spending
There are a few things to do before a no-spending month to get you ready to stop spending money for 30 days (or more).
1. Make a list of your expenses
The first thing you’ll want to do is decide on your important expenses, including recurring bills (utilities, mortgage), and set a strict food budget.
Write down this list or save it in your phone, so you can easily access the list to help you decide whether certain purchases are allowed or not. (When in doubt, probably not.)
2. Set your challenge date
Decide how long your no-spending challenge will last and set a start date and end date. We recommend a no-spend month.
A no-spending day is too short to provide you with much information, and three months may be too long to retain.
3. Take charge of your month’s food needs without spending your money
Some people like to get ready for a no-spend challenge by stocking their pantry or freezer, so they’re not tempted to eat out or make impulse purchase of snacks.
However, you can overspend by buying unnecessary snacks before your challenge, which defeats the end goal.
Instead, stock up on your staples and freezer pantry, and plan your no-spend month’s menu to use up the items you’ve already purchased.
We recommend writing out your meals for each week of the no-spending challenge, focusing on ingredients you have at home and supplementing with fresh fruits and vegetables, inexpensive meats, and inexpensive but healthy kitchen items, such as nuts or pasta.
4. Plan for free fun
Make a list of free things for you and your family to do during the no-spending month.
Sure, life can get a little boring when you can’t afford to spend on entertainment, so be sure to start your no-spending month with a list of activities and no-cost outings.
Find free local hiking trails and local events, download free e-books, and plan some projects or household crafts you can do with the materials you already have on hand.
Find free things to do in your area by searching the local websites of the Living On the Cheap chain.
5. Set motivating goals
Decide beforehand what you will do with the money you will save. Having goals and working towards them can be a great motivator and give you an incentive to stick to a no-spend plan.
Maybe you’re saving to buy a new mattress you’ll need for two years or to pay off the credit card balance hanging over your head.
If it helps, write down your goal and post it on your fridge or post pictures of things you need to buy around the house to motivate you.
Tips for success
If you’re going to stop spending money for 30 days, here are some tips to get you through the month.
Tip No. 1: Avoid months that are usually extravagant
Starting your no-spending challenge in December when you have holiday shopping to do is never a good idea. There’s also no month when your kids are out of school or you have multiple family birthdays.
Choose a month that is usually simple for you and your family.
Tip No. 2: Track your expenses
Track the bills you pay and expenses you incur during your no-spending month so you can evaluate your spending at the end.
Take notes in a plain old notebook or find cute printable “free month” trackers online.
Tip No. 3: Track what you don’t buy
It’s also a good idea to write down everything you think about buying but don’t do because that’s not allowed during a no-spent month.
It can be anything from a Frappuccino mocha to a cute blouse, a fast food burger, online movie rentals, or a stuffed animal that your child asked you to buy.
By doing this, by the end of the month, you will have a list of your typical impulse buys that will help you understand how unnecessary spending goes.
Tip No. 4: Tell your family and friends
It’s too easy to get derailed by your no-spend challenge when no one knows you’re doing it.
Tell your partner, your best friend, your kids, and anyone else who can help you stay accountable during the challenge.
It will also take the pressure off as coworkers will know not to invite you to lunch and friends won’t be planning nights out together during your no-spending month.
Tip No. 5: Keep track of your successes
Try using a habit tracker app like Habitshare or Habitbull to mark each successful day of your no-spend challenge.
For some people, the simple act of checking something can be motivating and uplifting.
What will I get from a no-spent month?
At a minimum, completing the challenge without spending will earn you some extra cash in your pocket at the end of the month.
More importantly, going a month without spending money will help you understand your finances better and help you prioritize how you spend your money, figure out where you can save and understand what steps you need to take to reach your financial goals.
It’s also helpful if you’re on a regular income but want to save for something special or important like a vacation, a new expensive piece of equipment, paying off revolving debt or even helping you start saving for a bigger goal like buying a house. or a car or moving out of state.
Are you ready to take on the challenge for nothing? As you see fit, get ready… save!