The Big Cutback: The Value of Longer ‘No-Spending’ Challenges

During the early days of our financial turnaround, Sarah and I often did “money-free weekends,” where we would simply go for a weekend – from the time we got off work on Friday until we returned to work on Monday – not spending any money at all. We lived on the food we had in our home and enjoyed free entertainment or the items we already had on hand.

Several times, we extended this to a “money-free week,” where we essentially did the same thing from getting off of work one Friday to getting off of work the following Friday. That longer period was harder, as it usually required some planning ahead for food, and we did make the strict exception of putting gas in our cars to make sure that we were able to commute to work.

Twice, I took on a “money-free month” – a 30-day version of this challenge. Here, the only exceptions were putting gas in my car and buying fresh foods. I could have done this without the fresh foods, but the latter half of the month would have involved a lot of canned and frozen imitations of fresh foods, so I decided that it was silly to make that choice. Basically, I just bought fresh versions of things I could have had on hand in frozen or canned versions. It turned out that this was much harder, and it was in those challenging moments that I learned a lot about my relationship with money.

For starters, I felt really, really deprived in the middle of that challenge, but that sense of deprivation started to fade a lot near the end. At the start, I was rather inspired by the challenge, but after about 10 days, the challenge started to feel really restrictive and I began to feel like I had no freedom at all. I felt pretty miserable for a good two weeks in the middle of both of the 30-day challenges.

The funny thing was, near the end of the challenge, this feeling of being deprived faded away. For the last week or so of both challenges, I actually felt pretty happy with things, and it wasn’t because the challenge was coming to an end.

The truth was that I hit some kind of “breakthrough” point where my mind really switched to finding happiness in what I had rather than disappointment in what I didn’t have. I felt really excited to go home and read a book that had been sitting unread on my shelf for a few months. I went on some really long walks with my son around town (at the time I first tried this, my second child – our daughter – was on the cusp of arriving and our first child was a toddler) where I pushed him in the stroller and we just went wherever we wanted to go. He’d point in a direction and we’d go that way and then I’d say, “Let’s go this way!” and he’d smile and we’d go this way. I played all the way through one of my favorite old video games. I spent a lot of time working on The Simple Dollar, which was still in its infancy.

At the time, I didn’t really notice that the switch had happened. I only noticed it later, when I read my old journal entries and realized that near the end of those months, my entries got really bright and sunny and happy, even though I was still a good week away from the end of the challenge, and they stayed that way, and even at the end of the challenge, it was a long while before my spending really picked up again.

This brings me to a few additional interesting notes.

Shorter challenges didn’t really bring about any changes in our spending that really lasted. We saved some money by not doing any spending for a weekend and especially for a week, but our old habits returned after that short break. After my longer breaks, I found that I kept going with a lot of the new routines I’d figured out. I had “broken” at least some of the spending habits I had earlier – not all of them, but a lot of them. I never returned to some of them. A few others slowly came back later, and a few others came back in modified form.

Basically, the longer spending challenge actually created some real permanent change in my spending habits, in a good way. The things I ended up cutting were things that were genuinely unimportant in my life, so I didn’t really lose anything. I just hadn’t given those “bad” spending habits the kind of real reflection that they needed to realize that they weren’t really adding much value to my life. It took cutting all of those habits out for a while for those habits to break off.

The month-long “no spending challenge” also was a stark reminder that I used spending as a crutch in many ways in my life. I used it as an emotional crutch, to just buy something that would serve as a quick pick-me-up rather than actually fixing what the problem was. I used it as a convenience crutch, buying something that I thought would save me some time or effort. I used it as a tool to hide areas of my life that were out of balance, like a dog tossing leaves and dirt over his mess. Spending allowed me to hide all of those things.

With the emotional pick-me-up, buying something often simply served as a quick emotional lift. I’d feel good for a bit after buying a coffee or – my personal little treat of choice at the time – a slice of pizza and a Gatorade from the convenience store near our apartment. I’d feel happy for a little while, drink or eat or otherwise enjoy my treat, sigh, and ride that little emotional lift as long as I could (which often wasn’t as long as I’d like).

What I found during the challenge is that I could often find the same little lift in something free or nearly so. I’d find it in doing things like stopping work for a while to stretch, or going for a barefoot walk on a sunny day, or drinking some ice cold water. It might not necessarily lift me as “high” as other options, but it didn’t come with the “drag” of being yet another expense.

Furthermore, I came to realize that such treats were often just covering up some problem in my life. Why was I sad enough that I needed a little treat to lift me up? There were a number of things going on, largely revolving around my professional life and some familial concerns, that were causing me to feel a little less happy in my day to day life, and I often relied on those little bursts of happiness to help get me through the day. Simply backing off of those not only led me to some free solutions, but it also led me to actually addressing those concerns.

Regarding spending for convenience, I learned during the longer challenges that the “convenience” reason for unnecessary spending was often just a cover-up for my ineptness. I wasn’t very handy in the kitchen, so cooking simple meals seemed intimidating, so I’d back away from the challenge with restaurants, takeout, and prepackaged food. The longer challenges forced me to cook actual meals for myself, day in and day out, and I found that the more I did it, the easier it got. Now I’m not afraid to cook anything and most of the time I’d rather just do it myself because it turns out better in terms of what I like and it’s not much more effort, either, plus it’s far cheaper.

So, what can you take home from this experience?

Firstly, a long “no spending” challenge – say, for 30 days – is incredibly useful in terms of digging into your money habits. By the end of those 30 days, you will have learned a lot about how you spend money, whether it’s for convenience, for entertainment, or for other purposes. It’ll also nudge you into finding new things in your life to appreciate.

The reality is, however, that most people will never take on such a challenge, so what else can be gleaned from this?

A lot of money we spend on things that are convenient are mostly there to cover up the fact that we’re not very skilled at something. A lot of people spend money on convenience foods because they’re not adept in the kitchen, either at cooking or at efficiently cleaning up, for example. Many people spend money on entertainment because they’re not adept at finding other forms of entertainment. When you spend money on a convenience or something non-essential, consider for a moment what skills of yours that this expense is compensating for and consider whether there’s value in sharpening that skill.

Even more money is spent on things that are meant to provide a short term relief to a personal pain of some kind. We buy a treat to forget our cares for a while. This is a twofold problem. First, there are usually a lot of free treats that can have the same effect. There are a lot of wonderful free things in the world to appreciate and enjoy and even distract, without the expense. Second, treats don’t actually solve the problem, whether they’re free or not. If you find you’re indulging with any regularity in a treat or a vice, ask yourself what you are distracting yourself from and consider whether or not you’d be better off just working on solving that problem directly instead.

You can learn a lot in 30 days. Good luck!

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