For many families, the month after Christmas is a time where people feel the need to cut back on their spending and live lean for a little while to reset their financial balance. For us, it’s usually just after our family’s summer vacation, where we’ve spent a ton on gas (and car maintenance… and sometimes roadside emergencies) and food and admission fees and other such summer vacation expenses.
One way we sometimes respond is by putting a family moratorium of some kind on non-essential spending for a certain period of time. We call these “money-free” periods, like a money-free weekend or a money-free week. A real challenge, however, is a money-free month.
It’s simple, really. For a full calendar month – say, September – you spend no money on anything other than bare necessities or contracted bills. Other than your continuing bills, you spend no money on hobbies or entertainment or any extra expenses whatsoever.
Let’s walk through some of the principles you might apply to such a month.
No dining out or ordering takeout. Instead, you prepare meals at home with inexpensive ingredients and take leftovers or other simple meals to work with you. This is a great opportunity to bone up on your meal preparation skills so that the idea of preparing a simple meal in the evening no longer seems intimidating or using a crock pot no longer seems like a serious challenge (because, really, it isn’t).
Buy store brands. If there’s a store-brand version of an item you buy normally, purchase the store-brand version. You’ll often discover that store brands are functionally identical to the name-brand version and that there’s no real difference between the two, which means that there’s no reason not to continue buying those identical store brands and continue to save money.
Entertain yourself with what you have on hand or free community resources. “What you have on hand” can include services you’re already contracted to pay for, like your normal cable bill or home internet, but no buying anything new. This encourages you to find other avenues for entertainment, some of which I’ll discuss below.
Use items on hand for meal preparation as much as possible. The goal is to reduce the length of your grocery list – yes, you can buy groceries, but you shouldn’t buy groceries simply for convenience or to prepare new meals when you already have a bunch of stuff on hand to use. This encourages you to dig through your pantry and freezer and cupboards.
Attempt to repair things rather than just buying replacements. Have a minor problem with a shirt? Try fixing it instead of tossing and replacing it. Toilet on the fritz? Watch some YouTube videos and repair it yourself.
It’s really easy. Just don’t spend money on non-essentials or regular bills. That’s it.
Pulling off a money-free month has a lot of great benefits.
You save a LOT of money. This is the most obvious benefit. If you spend nothing on entertainment, nothing on hobbies, and minimum amounts on food, fuel, household supplies, and other budgetary categories, your spending is going to drop by a significant amount for that month. You’re going to have a big wad of cash left over at the end of that month, which you can use for smart personal finance moves like paying off a credit card or making an extra payment on your mortgage or building up an emergency fund or even saving for retirement or your child’s college education.
You detach from your wants and have time to consider them carefully. When you intentionally say “no” to all of your wants for a period of time, you start to detach from them a little bit. Rather than just fulfilling a lot of little wants in your life, you’re forced to step back a little bit and ask whether or not a particular want brings genuine value into your life. Does that daily coffee from the coffee shop really bring any more value than drinking a free cup at work? Does buying these name-brand items really bring anything extra into your life? A money-free month makes you address questions like that.
You reconnect with other interests. Since you’re not spending money to entertain yourself, you suddenly have more free time and more space in your life for some of your other interests that you may have neglected. You now have time to read a book, for example. You now have time to pull the materials for one of your hobbies out of the closet and engage in that hobby again. You now have time to explore the trails at a nearby state park. Whatever your neglected interests are, by simply saying “no” to things like going out on the town and shopping socially, you’ll suddenly find yourself with a lot of new space in your life. Take advantage of it and reconnect to things you may have put aside.
You use more stuff you already have. Many American households have a pantry stuffed full of unused food items, a garage jam packed with scarcely used tools, bookshelves full of unread books, DVD racks full of movies watched just once or never watched at all… you get the idea. A home full of unused stuff is a home full of stuff that deserves your attention and use. So use it. Use that food in the pantry. Read those unread books. Use those unused tools. Watch those unwatched movies. You’ll quickly find that your home that you constantly overlook is actually a cornucopia of delights.
You build skills. One great tenet of a money-free month is a willingness to take on minor home improvement and repair tasks that you might have simply ignored until they got worse or paid someone else to do. By simply taking on some of those tasks yourself, you’ll build up a few basic home improvement skills: familiarity with tools, improvement of your ability to use some tools, and the confidence to take on little tasks like replacing a leaky faucet or fixing a toilet.
You learn about community resources. A money-free month provides a great motivation to look around your community and see what things are available for free. You might explore the library and discover that it not only houses a ton of free books, but a lot of free movies and other resources you never knew about. You might visit meetup.com and find that you community has a couple of really cool social groups that you never knew about. You might check out your city’s parks and recreation department and find that there are adult leagues and exercise classes that are completely free. Maybe you’ll look at your city’s community calendar and find out about a great free concert series that you were completely unaware of. If you’re afraid of being bored during a money free month, look around your community with your eyes and your mind wide open and you might just be stunned at what you find.
You make new kinds of social connections. Rather than just going out on the town with friends, you’ll invite them over for dinner and a movie at your home or apartment. This gives you a great opportunity to get to know those in your social circle in a different way and also helps you figure out which of your friends are actually friends with you or are just acquaintances who are more interested in going out than in hanging out with you. You’ll also have a bunch of new social opportunities through things you might find on meetup.com or in community groups you might find on the community calendar, the city website, or at the library.
A money-free month might sound intimidating at first. A whole month without spending anything beyond the minimum? It can seem like a massive challenge.
So, for your first step, try a money-free weekend. Go from the time you get off work on Friday until you go to work on Monday without spending any money at all. See what you can fill your weekend with that doesn’t involve spending money on activities or things that you want. You’ll find it more enjoyable than you think.
When you’ve done that, stretch it to a money-free week. Go from Monday to Monday without spending any extra money at all. Dabble in preparing weeknight meals for yourself. Take on some new routines. Enjoy a few things already around your home.
Then, give the full month a shot. See how much money you can save. Disrupt some routines and learn some new ones. Give your social life a gentle reboot.
What you’ll find is that it’s much easier than you think that it is, it saves you a ton of money, and it teaches you a few things about yourself in a gentle fashion.