Much of our day-to-day lives has personal finance implications. We’re constantly making choices that either directly spend money or use up resources that are going to have to be replaced. When we eat, we shop, we go to work – all of those things, and many many more, have financial impact.
At the same time, humans are routine-oriented people. We like patterns, and it’s not hard for us to get stuck into a daily routine filled with familiar ways of doing things. Even the craziest of lives is filled with little patterns that repeat themselves over and over again, because we tend to just do what’s familiar when it comes to the day-to-day process of living our lives.
For various reasons – marketing, bad role models, an addiction to momentary pleasure – some of the routines we choose in our life aren’t the best ones in terms of our money. Yet, they’re familiar and we understand them, so we keep using them.
Breaking out of normal routines and finding new ones is perhaps the greatest challenge people face when turning their finances around. Moving from “spend more than you earn” or even “spend everything you earn” to a “spend less than you earn” mindset means that you’re going to have to change some of those routines – and that’s hard.
So, how can you do that? I suggest “personal finance challenges.”
A “personal finance challenge” is simply a direct challenge to yourself to alter a specific behavior in your life in such a way that it will cause a better financial outcome than the way you currently do things. You “challenge” yourself to do this thing over a period of time – say, a weekend or a week or even a month. Here are three reasons why such personal finance challenges are beneficial.
Reason #1: A Personal Finance Challenge Will Directly Improve Your Finances
Just by participating in a personal finance challenge, you’ll directly improve your finances – or, in some cases, provide a powerful indirect boost to your financial situation. Such a challenge will either directly put more money in your pocket or it will improve your life in another fashion so that it becomes easier to save or earn money in the future.
No matter what you choose to do at the end of the challenge, you’ll still have this benefit – either more money in your pocket or better opportunities for that money.
Reason #2: A Personal Finance Challenge May Show You a Better “Normal”
Throughout the challenge, you’ll be evaluating a new way of doing things in your life. You may actually find that the “challenge” isn’t really a challenge at all. In fact, it might end up simply being a more sensible way of doing things.
Sometimes, you find that a new pattern of behavior is just as good as what you were doing before, but it saves you money. At other times, you’ll find the new behavior works even better than before.
Reason #3: A Short-Term Challenge Is Easy to Survive
It’s not hard to survive a short-term challenge. If you’re focusing on making a specific change for just a week or two, you can do that.
Most people get overwhelmed when they’re looking at making a change that’s supposed to last a lifetime. They see things they enjoy vanishing into the mist. With a short-term challenge, it’s not going to last that long. At the end, you can have your old behaviors back, no questions asked.
25 Challenges to Try
Here are twenty five examples of money challenges for you to try. Many will work well in your life; others might not be relevant at all. Focus on the ones that will be challenging for you, but not impossible.
Set a timeframe for each one, too. A week is a great timeframe for an empowering challenge, though some might make sense over two or three weeks. Changing that to two weeks or a month will amp up the challenge, but improve the rewards.
Remember, the goal is to try something new that obviously saves money. If it turns out that you like this new method of doing things, stick with it and your budget will go down forever. If you don’t? No big deal – you’ll still save a little and you can go right back to your preferred way of doing things.
Excepting meals that you have to eat at work, consume every single meal you eat at home. No restaurants, no fast food, no take-out. All of it comes from ingredients you bought at the grocery store, brought home, and prepared yourself. The simple process of using the grocery store instead of a restaurant means you cut out a lot of food costs – you’re no longer subsidizing the upkeep of the restaurant or the costs of the restaurant employees. Virtually every meal is far cheaper to make at home, so try it out!
Whenever you spend even a penny, write it down. Make a note in a pocket notebook or in an appropriate smartphone app that tells you what you bought and how much it cost. This material can provide the backbone of building a budget in the future. It also provides some pressure not to spend, as there’s a small psychological push to “be good” and not write down frivolous purchases.
This challenge works well in concert with #7.
The communities around us are loaded with free activities and programs that are well worth trying out. The websites of most towns and cities have thriving community calendars, plus local libraries usually have a wealth of activities to try out. Choose a few that sound like they might be interesting and simply find out what they’re all about by attending.
With this challenge, it’s useful to set both a number and a timeframe. For example, you might choose to check out two new things this week or five new things this month.
The only time you walk into a store or visit an e-commerce website is to buy food and other household essentials. You simply choose not to buy anything else unless it’s an outright emergency. This forces you to not only discard shopping as a source of entertainment, but requires you to use the things you already have on hand.
I live within three miles of a Dollar General, a coffee shop, a post office, and a Subway. If I ever have a use for these things, it’s tempting to just drive there, but by doing that, I burn fuel, add miles to the car, and move the maintenance schedule forward. Instead, I can ride a bike there, which doesn’t have any of those costs plus it also has a bit of a health boost, as riding a bicycle is pretty good exercise.
Most of us have a book or two we’ve always wanted to read or that we’ve heard our friends talking about lately. Instead of buying it – or instead of skipping over that book – just head to the local library, check it out, and set aside a bit of time each day to read it. Not only will you expand your mind a little bit, it will provide lots of free entertainment time, too – and you’ll have something to talk about with your friends when you finish it!
This challenge works well in concert with #13.
#7: Learn How to Use a Budgeting Program Like YNAB
There are some amazing software packages out there for assembling and maintaining a budget. However, most of them have a bit of a learning curve involved. My personal pick of the available options is You Need a Budget, but it does take a little bit of time to learn how it works and the philosophy behind it as well as setting it up to record items on your smart phone. That time is a great investment in terms of getting more control over your money.
This challenge works well in concert with #2.
Instead of idling at your desk or hanging out in the breakroom, find some way to be productive during your non-break moments at work. If you don’t have an immediate task to work on, find something to do and do it. Virtually every workplace is filled with tasks that are useful if completed, so take on some of those.
This task is a great way to build some respect at work, particularly when the tasks are noticed by supervisors. You’ll be seen as more valuable in the workplace, helping you line up for raises and more hours and potential promotions and less likely to be laid off.
I’ve outlined our family’s meal strategy many times, but it boils down to this:
Step 1: Get a Flyer
Step 2: Find Sales on Fresh Ingredients
Step 3: Do Some Recipe Research
Step 4: Create a Week-Long Meal Plan
Step 5: Make a Shopping List from the Meal Plan
Step 6: Go Grocery Shopping – And Stick to Your List
It’s a new routine for most people, but it provides a lot of food and a sensible plan for using it at a minimal price. I use this routine every week.
This challenge works well in concert with #21.
Most of us have a bunch of unused items stowed away in closets or in attics or in the garage. Often, that stuff hasn’t been touched for years – and, if we’re honest with ourselves, it probably won’t be touched again.
Challenge yourself to go through a few boxes of items – set yourself a goal for the next week – and sell off anything you haven’t used in more than a year and likely won’t use in the near future. That’s what Craigslist is for!
For the financially savvy person, television has several things going against it. It’s loaded with advertisements that seek to increase the desire to buy things. The programs are often full with product placement, which has the same effect. It gobbles down energy, plus it also often requires a cable or satellite package. Not only that, the time you spend watching it could usually be used to do something more fulfilling, like reading a book or taking care of your to-do list or getting an extra hour of sleep.
Turn off the television for a week. Take care of that to-do list. Read a book. Get a bit more sleep. See if you’re not happy with the results. If you’re not, the television will be waiting after that week!
If this isn’t already your routine, this is a great challenge to take on. Find food around your house – preferably the remnants of earlier meals – and take it to work with you. If you have a refrigerator, store it there. Otherwise, pack it in a cooler with an ice pack.
Most home-prepared meals produce at least some leftovers. Don’t let them go to waste. Instead, use them at a time where people are often tempted to order food. It’ll trim your food budget really quickly.
This challenge works well in concert with #1.
My local library has an amazing collection of films on DVD, both classic films and new releases. If it’s a well-regarded film of the last twenty years or a true classic of film history, they probably have it. Whenever I have a desire to watch a classic film, I just go there to check one out. There’s no reason to buy it. It becomes two hours of enjoyment for just the cost of running the television and the DVD player, providing some great inexpensive entertainment.
This challenge works well in concert with #6.
It’s often tempting to just run a quick errand with the car. You need some minor item – take the car and get it. How about challenging yourself to not use the car and find alternative solutions to your small problems? This keeps you from burning fuel and adding miles as you’re out and about as well as pushes you to find better solutions to your problems around the house.
Addicted to soda? How about coffee? What about bottled water? In all of those cases, you’re spending money on a beverage, while you can get cool water from the tap practically for free. Switch yourself to drinking water from the tap and you’ll basically eliminate beverage costs.
Like grabbing bottles from the fridge? Fill up several and stock your refrigerator with them, pulling them out when you like. Enjoy a splash of flavor? Add a bit of fruit juice to each one.
Volunteerism is a hobby that’s as free as can be. You’re not at home, so you can turn off virtually all of your energy-eating devices. It gives you a chance to be out in the community meeting new people. You’re probably going to get some exercise, too. Often, you’ll get a meal when you volunteer as well.
Look around your community for volunteer opportunities and try one out. If it clicks with you, you’ve found an incredible low-cost hobby. If it doesn’t… well, you spent an afternoon without spending money.
Many of our incidental expenses go toward entertainment costs – a trip to the movies, a rental from Redbox, a magazine at the checkout, a book on the Kindle store. These are little things that quietly add up and turn into a real expense. It’s much easier to see it when you pledge to just cut out those expenses for a while. Find other sources of entertainment. You might just be pleased with what you find.
Most of us overuse our common household products. You only need a tiny bead of toothpaste to brush your teeth, and only a few drops of conditioner and shampoo are enough for most people’s hair. If you actually take a moment to read the package directions, this is actually explained quite well, but people consistently use far more than they need.
Spend a week following those package directions. Cut back on your toothpaste, your shampoo, your soap. Use enough – just don’t use more than you need. See if you get clean (and if your clothes and dishes get clean).
Much of the world wide web has the same problem as television – it’s littered with ads and often has content with products carefully placed to make you want them. Take a break from the internet for a few days.
Sure, many of us – myself included – need to use email and some messaging programs for work. Don’t cut those out – just cut out the web surfing and other “information” sites. Find other things to fill your time. You’ll probably find that your desire for stuff slips a little, too, plus you’ll get more things done. And, as with television, it’ll be waiting for you at the end of the challenge!
Walking is a free way to get simple exercise – and some sources indicate that it’s the best exercise you can get. It can stop blood sugar spikes and prevent other health conditions.
Take a nice long walk after dinner – two or three miles, if you can. You’ll feel great at the end and it won’t cost you a dime. It’ll fill those evening hours for free and leave you in better shape than when you started.
If you’re making a meal at home, why not make three duplicates of it at the same time? This lets you buy ingredients in bulk, saving you even more. You can stow those extras in the freezer and easily pull them out whenever you need them. Try making a few “quadruple batches” of meals – most meals work really well with this method, but there are many cookbooks that offer recipes engineered for this idea (I particularly like this one). Stow away the extras, then pop them out down the road for a simple home-cooked meal.
Instead of using your car to get to work, try using the public transit system for a week (if it’s available to you). It might take a little longer, but you can often take advantage of the time to catch up on reading or perform some other simple tasks. It’s almost always far cheaper than the cost of driving, too.
This challenge works well in concert with #14.
Do you have a bookshelf with a lot of unread books on it? How about DVDs you haven’t watched yet? Board games or video games you haven’t played yet? Choose one of those unused entertainment items and dig in. Since you’ve already purchased it, there’s no additional cost to you, plus it will provide you with a nice period of entertainment.
Many of us – myself included – have lots of items stowed away in our pantry. Large containers of nonperishable items, for example, or items bought for specific recipes end up getting stored in the cupboard then practically forgotten about. Use them! Dig through your pantry and your refrigerator and see what kinds of recipes you can assemble with just what you already have on hand. It’s practically a free meal, plus it clears out space in cluttered cupboards.
A good filing system can actually save you money. For example, you can put all of your tax-deductible receipts in one place, or you might want to put all of your insurance statements together in case there’s an accident and you need proof. Once you’re into budgeting, having old bill statements can sometimes be helpful, and good filing always helps if you’re audited and can probably reduce your tax bill.
It just takes time, both to set one up and to maintain it. Devote the time to getting a good personal filing system in order so that it’s as easy as possible to keep maintaining it. Even if you stop using it in the future, you’ll probably still keep at least a folder with your tax receipts in it, which will save you some real cash down the road.
These examples just scratch the surface of ways you can challenge yourself to change your behavior to improve your finances. Not only that, the concept goes far beyond personal finance – you can use these challenges to improve your diet, increase your exercise, and push yourself toward better time use.
I use short-term challenges all the time to improve myself. I hope you’ll take advantage of them, too.