Updated on 11.03.06

The One Month Challenge

Trent Hamm

I used to waste tons of money on silly little things. I did it so often and so regularly that I didn’t even realize that it was adding up to a huge dent in my finances. A pack of Tic-Tacs here, a CD there, a DVD here, a new book there… it wasn’t long before I was dropping hundreds of dollars a month on silly things and not putting together the bigger picture.

When I reached my financial rock bottom and decided to change things, I realized it wouldn’t be easy to immediately change my habits, so I took a “one month challenge” to see what exactly my money was going on. I kept a little notebook in my pocket and I recorded everything I spent in a single month, from a pack of Tic-Tacs to a book at Borders to an itemized grocery list to song purchases on iTunes. I kept a spreadsheet of every expense, including every single item I bought at the grocery store, item by item, and everything else.

At the end of the month, I went through and marked things as either essential or non-essential, then I totaled each amount. What I saw then truly shocked me: I had spent more on items I labeled non-essential than on items I had labeled essential. This meant that more than half of the money I brought in in an average month was completely wasted. Even scarier? I spent more money than I brought in.

I then repeated the “one month challenge,” except this time I made a strong effort to ask myself whether each purchase was essential or not. By simply asking myself that question for every single purchase, my non-essential purchases went way, way down. At the end of the second month, when I tallied up my spreadsheet, I knew the news would be good and it was: my frivolous spending was about 20% of my non-frivolous spending, and I still had about 40% of the money I brought in that month. That 40% paid off a good chunk of one of my remaining credit cards.

This experiment provided such a personal shock to me that I now ask myself before every purchase: do I really need this? If the answer is no, then I literally put it back on the shelf and give myself a few minutes worth of breathing time. Almost always, I don’t pick the item up again.

If you’re drowning, try taking the one month challenge! At the start of a month, begin a spreadsheet that includes every single expense you have in a month. I’d recommend going so far as itemizing receipts, listing each item that you buy and what it cost. At the end of the month, mark each item as essential or non-essential and total each, then compare those amounts to what you brought in for the month. If the non-essential amount is anywhere close to the essential amount, you have a lot of fat that you can cut from your spending diet!

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  1. twinsmommy says:

    Great post. I have tracked my expenses but not to that detail. I am going to do that. I am sure that I will still (I have attempted to cut expenses) be surprised by the results. Especially when I look at my grocery spending and the things that I buy for my children.

  2. Xander says:

    How did you get GNUCash working for Windows? I only see it for Linux?

  3. This challenge sounds like a great idea, and I will be undertaking it for the month of January! A great way to start off the New Year!

  4. Renee says:

    I have always wanted to do this. Should you always being at the beginning of the month?


  5. I’ll be doing the one month challenge for February and posting updates on my blog. Thanks for the idea.

  6. Leo says:

    Great post … I decided to take up the One Month Challenge myself. Wish me luck!

  7. I have finished the One Month Challenge. The results are posted on my blog.

  8. I just wrapped up the one month challenge and posted the results on our blog. Thanks for the kind words at the beginning.

    (please delete my previous post, I forgot to close the link code!)

  9. Shasta says:

    I’m going to do this starting with my next paycheck. :)

  10. Una says:

    This is great! I sent the page to my college freshman daughter as well. I’m taking the challenge.

  11. Lacy says:

    This is such a simple idea and suggestion. I have been awful with my money for years. (Ever since my first paycheck at 15) I’ve tried time and time again, but I’m always prone to waste money on silly things. I’m going to start this the beginning of this coming week and hopefully it will show me where I am at fault. Then, hopefully, I too can fix my problem.

  12. alex says:

    I am a compulsive shopper. I think i just shop becuase im bored and becuase of habit. I’m going to try this at the beginning of the month…wish me luck!!

  13. Bill Wodarczyk says:

    I used to track eavry pwnny I spent until I got married. My wife never saves receipts and writes checks for cash and God only knows where that goes.

  14. Brandy says:

    This sounds like a GREAT opportunity for me. I am going to try this next month in May. I am a very terrible spender. I feel like I just blow my money and it means nothing. Its sure not teaching my child how to budget. This will be a big test for me.. especially now that I just moved into a new house from a place I had owned and made no house payments. SO THIS IS GREAT!

  15. Kare says:

    My husband has been doing this for years and I must admit it has allowed us to live more comfortably than others with similar finances. However, it has taken most of the joy of living out of life. We rarely go out, we’ve only had one vacation in the last ten years and it was two weeks of tracking what we spent on everything instead of enjoying our time off. Sure we’ll have money to live on when he retires, but will either of us be alive to enjoy it?

  16. Jenny says:

    I track every cent, every month on a simple Excel budget spreadsheet. By tracking where we were spending, we were able to pay down over $15K in credit card and student loan debt, buy a house, and pay for graduate school WITHOUT loans. We’ve also managed to take a few nice vacations since we could see where we could save to offset the costs. It takes time to keep it up, but it’s actually very freeing to understand where it all goes. I will never live without a budget again.

  17. Dev Giri says:

    I would like to get details of this sytem.

  18. JANET says:

    I would like to get the details of this system. Will start it as soon as I get it. Would love to start a budget that works.

  19. JEANETTE says:


  20. theused says:

    I’m 19 and I’ve been doing this for years, I even have a $20 weekly grocery limit and manage to actually always spend less than the $20, I wish I could limit the gas but I have to fill up every 11 days like clock work

  21. Kristen says:

    I am a bit ashamed that I am the same way. I bring home around $2,500 every month, but I spend a LOT of money on non-essential things from places like Target, Walgreens, Meijers, etc. I’m still stuck in this cycle because I haven’t been able to break out of it yet. I tried tracking my spending, but I’m so ADD about it (not really, I’m just freaking scatter-brained) that if I miss a few days I’ll just stop completely because I figure “Well I stopped may not start up again!”.

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