One of my favorite practices to undertake in my life is a 30-day challenge. It's something I do almost every month in an effort to regularly find better ways of living, whether it's a more efficient way to work or a healthier habit in my daily routine or something else entirely. The goal of a 30-day challenge is to give a trial run to a new idea to see whether or not it makes my life better.
So, how exactly does it work? A 30-day challenge is a commitment to a new personal habit or routine for 30 days. The purpose of that challenge is to simply find out if this interesting new habit or routine is something that really works well in your life.
For me personally, I usually start a new 30-day habit or two each month. For the month of January, my 30-day habit was to practice Three Morning Pages, which basically means that as a part of my morning routine, I simply sit down with a pen and brain dump onto paper until three pages are full. I found this to be a really amazing practice and plan to keep it up.
Usually, if I find that a 30-day challenge really clicks, I only try one new challenge in the coming month and try to keep the previous one going. So, for February, I'm only going to start one new 30-day challenge and keep the morning pages going.
Why? Thirty days is not quite long enough to burn a new routine in as a new personal habit or routine that you do naturally. The science varies on this and it does vary from person to person, but a new habit takes somewhere around 80 to 120 days to feel completely natural. However, 30 days is long enough to figure out whether this is a habit you want to continue and it's long enough to start seeing at least some benefits (or drawbacks) from that new habit or routine.
That's why, after a really successful 30-day challenge, I generally try to spend the next two or three months trying to nail it into a completely natural routine that I'll just continue as a normal part of my life, and that means generally starting only one new challenge for the next month. If I'm not trying to continue anything, I might start two new 30-day challenges.
As you may nave noticed, 30 days also matches up really well with a calendar month (except for February - I usually "cheat" one day on each end of February). You can start one at the start of a calendar month and it's over before the calendar turns to the next page. If you're a Christian who practices a discipline during Lent or practice another faith-based discipline, a 30-day challenge can also work during that period of reflection.
Over the years, I've used 30-day challenges as experiments in my life. They're trial runs to see if a particular idea actually works (for me) and to see whether or not it's a new pattern I have time for or want to keep up with. I tried being vegetarian for a 30-day challenge and it stuck; I later tried being vegan for 30 days, and it didn't stick. I jogged/ran a 5K each day for 30 days and eventually decided that daily running is not something that my knees wanted to sustain. I've read a book for two hours a day for 30 days, a practice that I largely kept (I block off an hour and a half for daily book reading, seriously; I find that time by basically not watching any television.) I tried drinking a morning cup of black coffee each day for 30 days, and that one stuck.
I could fill up page after page with different 30-day challenges I've tried. Most faded away, but a few stuck in my life and, in my opinion, changed things for the better.
Of course, personal finance is absolutely loaded with great ideas for 30-day challenges. There are many, many lifestyle changes and routine alterations which save money that you can try on for 30 days to see if they fit for you. When I first started making big financial changes in my own life, I used 30-day challenges to make them click into place and several of them became the norm.
Here are 10 great 30-day challenges for personal finance, including all the ones that locked into place in my own life.
Challenge #1: For 30 days, make all of your meals at home.
The idea here is to take advantage of the fact that cooking at home is far less expensive than eating at a restaurant or consuming delivery food or takeout. It's just cheaper to make food yourself.
The thing that keeps people from jumping on board with this is that cooking is often perceived as difficult and a big time gobbler. Often, people eat prepared food because they're either intimidated by cooking or intimidated by the cleanup.
Committing to a 30-day challenge related to preparing your own food lets you experience the savings while, at the same time, honing your cooking and cleanup skills so that the threshold seems far smaller. It's about saving money, sure, but it's also about building skills in the kitchen and learning that it's not really that hard to prepare several dishes that you quite like.
My own passion for cooking at home was really launched with a 30-day challenge very similar to this one. The simple act of going into the kitchen and doing basic food preparation tasks over and over again over the course of a long string of days not only showed me how much money it could save me (literally hundreds of dollars a month), but also showed me it wasn't as hard as I expected it to be. We now rarely eat anything that wasn't prepared in our own kitchen.
Challenge #2: For 30 days, buy no name-brand items.
The goal here is to introduce yourself to the store brand version of a lot of the products you buy so that you can evaluate for yourself how well they work for your needs. By committing to avoiding name brand items, you're going to be filling your cart with a lot of store brands instead.
I virtually guarantee you that if you take on this challenge, you'll realize that a lot of name brands are basically identical to the store brand version and that you're paying a pretty healthy premium for nothing more than a name written on a box, which is just silly.
I would suggest two minor alterations to this challenge. First, obviously, if you need an item and the only version available is a name brand, you can still buy the name brand. Second, if you are making a major planned purchase, do the appropriate research and make the right long-term purchase. Remember that this challenge pertains to ordinary purchases like groceries and household supplies, not buying a generic television or HVAC system.
We buy store brand versions of most things - the only big notable exception that comes to mind is garbage bags, because that's something we're particularly picky about. You'll probably find one or two things yourself (which may or may not include garbage bags) where the store brand just didn't live up to expectations, but for everything else, you've now witnessed that the store brand fulfills your needs for less money, so there's no reason not to stick with it!
Challenge #3: For 30 days, don't use a credit card for any purchases.
Credit cards are something of a double-edged sword. They make purchasing way more convenient which saves time and money management hassle, but at the same time, they make purchasing way more convenient, which means it is far easier to make spending mistakes and buy things you can't afford or have forgotten about.
By taking on a 30-day challenge to financially survive without a credit card (and, ideally, without debit cards, too), you're forcing yourself to be more conscious of every financial transaction that you make. Your transactions will be done entirely by check or by cash, which means you have to actually reflect on the money leaving your account with each purchase rather than simply swiping a card and forgetting about it.
This is an inconvenience, to be sure, but it forces you to start thinking about your unconscious spending habits. You'll see again and again throughout this month how you take a credit card for granted and how easy it is for you to use it to just buy things that you almost immediately forget about, which is a very bad financial habit to get into. Breaking that connection for a while forces you to look your bad habits in the eye.
During the month, it's almost a guarantee that you'll spend less money, but you'll still be able to buy the things you really care about. What will really matter is how often you notice that you're not able to just buy things out of reflex, and that will help you to start really rethinking your overall spending choices. This is, surprisingly, a very reflective 30-day challenge.
Challenge #4: For 30 days, don't turn on the television.
This might seem like a surprising 30-day challenge for financial reasons, but bear with me. Doing this challenge has a number of financial benefits.
For one, it can show you that you can live a happy and healthy life without television as a part of it. The default state of just watching some TV in the evening is eliminated, so you have to find other things to do. At first, that might seem tricky, but after a surprisingly small number of evenings, you start finding lots of things to do. My 30-day television challenge led me to reading a lot more, giving a few hobbies some more undivided attention, and going to sleep earlier and getting better rest, all of which improved my quality of life.
For another, not watching television virtually guarantees a lower exposure to advertising. Most television programming is buoyed by advertisements. Almost all television programming features product placement within the shows, whether it's a sponsorship of a segment, a character using a product in an obvious fashion, or a breathless "news" story selling a product to you. The less exposure you have to those things, the less desire you have for a constant stream of more stuff and more experiences in your life.
For yet another, many Americans have expensive cable or satellite packages. If you demonstrate to yourself that you're fine without such a package, then what's the purpose in keeping that package? You can always reduce your television use at home to an over-the-air antenna that picks up local stations for free and to going to social events for big sporting events or other big moments.
Eliminating television from your life can be a really big benefit in a lot of ways, and a 30-day challenge is a perfect way to give it a trial run.
Challenge #5: For 30 days, sell or get rid of one item from your closet each day.
Many of us have closets in our home that are filled to the brim with stuff - half forgotten or completely forgotten purchases and gifts that were placed in there with the best of intentions of getting around to it someday, but the fact is that someday isn't coming. They're just not things that are a part of your daily life.
The end result for many people is that they have shelves and racks in their closet full of things that they've barely used and are likely never going to use, put back there with good intention but a lack of time and opportunity.
All of that stuff gobbles up storage space in your home. All of the items stored in there are things that someone else might actually put to some kind of productive use. Perhaps even more important, all of the items stored in there have some amount of secondhand value, which means you can turn them into money in your pocket or charitable gifts for a deduction on your taxes or simply give them to someone because it will lift up their life.
For 30 days, dig into your closet and pull out one item each day to sell or to give away. If you're going to sell it, head over to Craigslist or a local Facebook group or eBay or Amazon Marketplace and put up a listing. If you're going to give it away, figure out a friend or a charity that could really use it and unload it there.
The goal is to remove 30 things from your life, whether it's articles of clothing or books or games or something else entirely. Not only will it clear out some space in your home, it'll also clear out a bit of space in your psyche while also producing a bit of money or a bit of goodwill.
Challenge #6: For 30 days, keep your thermostat five degrees cooler than normal.
This is a great challenge during the winter months; for the summer months, shoot for keeping your thermostat five degrees above normal.
In either case, the goal here is to keep your air conditioning or your furnace from running nearly as much for a month, which will save a lot on seasonal heating and cooling costs. It's going to put money straight in your pocket.
However, beyond that direct change, it's also going to be an opportunity to push yourself to find little strategies for making those new heating and cooling settings work for you.
In the winter, you might want to try things like wearing a sweatshirt and thick socks around the house or running the ceiling fans in a direction so that they pull air upwards rather than blowing it downwards. In the summer, you might try opening the windows and wearing minimal clothing inside and making sure the ceiling fans are all blowing downwards. There are lots of strategies for both seasons to make the temperature more tolerable.
Even if you end up deciding, at the end of the challenge, that a particular temperature is too extreme, you'll probably find that your original setting is probably unnecessary, too, and you'll end up at a happy point somewhere in the middle - something that you now feel completely comfortable with that also results in lower heating and cooling bills.
Challenge #7: For 30 days, make your morning coffee at home and take it with you in a travel mug.
This is surprisingly easy to do, even if you don't have a coffee maker at home. (If you do, obviously, just brew a couple of cups or a pot before you leave the house and fill up a travel mug to go.)
If you don't have a coffee pot, don't sweat it - just get a simple cold brew coffee maker like this one and start making it in your fridge with ease. All you do is put some coffee grinds in the filtered portion, fill it up with water, and let it sit overnight. The coffee's ready to go in the morning and you just heat it up in the microwave as you wish.
You can try a bunch of different additives and sweeteners to get it just how you like it each morning. Trust me, the cost of buying a few bottles of sweetener and a bag of ground coffee is far less over the course of a month than the cost of buying coffee every day at the coffee shop.
If you can find a mix that you like, then let it become a permanent replacement. The ongoing cost of making your own coffee at home versus buying a big cup at a coffee shop every morning isn't even comparable - you will save money doing it yourself assuming you're aiming for something comparable. Plus, you may just find a mix that you like even better than what's sold at the coffee shop.
Challenge #8: For 30 days, don't purchase any unnecessary possessions.
Over the course of 30 days, don't buy anything that's not something you need for basic living. Buy the basic food you need, buy store brand household items as needed, and cover your bills. Beyond that, make no extra expenditures for hobbies or interests or anything else. Lock it down.
Obviously, this will save a lot of money, but won't it be miserable? Surprisingly, it really isn't that miserable at all. Knowing that it will end makes it far more palatable.
Even better, along the way, you'll almost always discover some interest or passion that you've overlooked lately, something that you really love that you've whittled out of your life because of the convenience of spending money.
When I first did this challenge, I really rediscovered hiking and bicycling. I spent a lot of time going on some really great nature walks in my area, hiking into some beautiful backcountry, and going on a few amazing bicycle rides along Iowa's many great bicycle trails. It really reminded me how much I loved those things, especially nature walks and hikes, and I've made them a much larger part of my life ever since.
What will you discover? You won't know until you try this challenge and see what unfolds in your life when you commit to not spending any unnecessary money for 30 days. At the very least, you'll save some significant money during the challenge, and there's a good chance you'll discover or rediscover something wonderful that fills a place in your life after the challenge is long over with.
Challenge #9: For 30 days, brainstorm each day 10 gift ideas for a person in your life.
This is an unusual challenge. How could you possibly interpret this as a financially wise move?
It's simple. By the end of the challenge, you should ideally have a list of 10 good ideas for everyone in your life that you ever have to buy gifts for - relatives, friends, coworkers, everyone.
Now that you have those lists, you have ideas for all upcoming gift occasions with a ton of lead time between now and then. This means you can start searching for those very items to find huge bargains on them.
Let's say you have 10 ideas for someone you always exchange gifts with at Christmas. She loves sweaters, so at an end-of-winter sale you find an amazing sweater that's her size at a huge discount. Boom! You buy it and stow it away somewhere for Christmas.
You think your nephew would love a good pair of binoculars, so instead of buying one at high prices near his birthday or at Christmas, you start subtly shopping around now for them. Thanks to price tracker tools like CamelCamelCamel, you can just sit around and wait for a great price on a few models, maybe choosing one with a normal price just a bit above your price range but one that will save you a lot when it's on sale. Your $50 gift turns into a $75 pair of binoculars that you bought for $25 because you had so much lead time - an amazing gift and money in your pocket.
That's the advantage of preparing gift lists like this, and forcing yourself to brainstorm now outside of the auspices of the season gives you tons and tons of lead time.
Challenge #10: For 30 days, track every single dime you spend.
Keep a little pocket notebook with you and every time you spend even a penny, you write it down in that notebook for 30 full days. Everything. If you spend a dollar in a vending machine, write it down. If you swipe your credit card to buy a sandwich, write it down. Write everything down. Stick receipts in there for every swipe you make - grocery receipts, gas receipts, everything.
What does this do? First of all, it will give you just a moment's pause with every purchase and will nudge you just a little against silly and unnecessary ones. That's a valuable nudge to have in your life.
The second benefit is a bigger one, though. At the end of the month, you can take all of that info - along with credit card and bank statements to back it up and fill in blanks - and group all of those purchases together however you like.
You can - and should - parse grocery receipts and separate things into sensible categories, like necessary food and frivolous food, necessary household items and frivolous household items. Do this for everything. Make as many categories as you can, but try to make ones that separate needs from wants and impulses.
Then, when you've separated everything, total each grouping and see where your money went.
The thing to remember here is that it's not a problem that you have some frivolous expenses, but the sheer amount that's the problem. If you're shocked by the number, you should be, and you should use that experience as a driver for shaping your future spending habits.
- Related: Why You Should Track Your Spending
Thirty-day challenges can mold your financial habits - and your other life habits - in countless different ways. A simple month devoted to a new way of doing things can create profound and lasting change in your life.
With most challenges, the worst possible outcome is that you realize that something didn't fit for you but you have an interesting story to tell about it, and you probably made a minor positive change in some area of your life. It only gets better from there.
Start trying a 30-day challenge in the coming month. You might be surprised at what you find.