A few months ago, I decided to stop procrastinating and get my personal finances in order. With a kid headed off to college and an embarrassingly small amount saved for retirement, I knew it was time for a lifestyle change.
I set out with a brand-new budgeting journal and a lot of good intentions, diligently tracking expenses and trying to grow my savings account. But after a few months, I hit a roadblock. I’d figured out how and what I was spending money on, but I didn’t feel empowered to change those spending habits. Sound familiar?
Enter a no-spend challenge. I set aside a no-spend month to see if I could break bad spending habits. But does a spending freeze actually help your financial goals? Here’s what I discovered from my own no-spend challenge.
How I Set Up My Own No-Spend Challenge
No spend challenges are pretty much what they sound like — a concerted effort to curb unnecessary spending for a set period. You can make your own rules, but many no-spend challenges span a month. That’s the window of time I committed to: 30 days, no discretionary spending.
Do you have to completely stop spending money during a no-spend challenge? Not exactly.
You’re allowed to spend money on essential expenses like groceries, utilities and, of course, mortgage and car payments. Instead, no-spend challenges hone in on categories of non-essential spending such as clothing, dining out or that daily latte love affair you have with the local coffee shop.
Did My No-Spend Challenge Save Money?
Spoiler alert. I was skeptical, but the no-spend challenge did cut costs from my bottom line. More than that, it offered me a reality check on how much I was actually spending.
A 2019 survey found Americans spend $18,000 a year — roughly $1,500 every month — on non-essential items like streaming services, impulse purchases and other discretionary spending like clothing. That’s a lot of money being diverted from your bank account or hitting your credit card every month.
In reality, it’s not possible to spend absolutely nothing for an entire month. You still have the mortgage and utilities to pay and food to keep on the table. But you can have a successful no-spend challenge if you’re willing to plan ahead and commit to keeping your hands off the extra money in your account.
My No-Spend Challenge: Week by Week
If you’re wondering what sort of obstacles to plan for in your no-spend challenge, here’s a sample of what happened in my house.
Week 1: No Spend Challenges Are the Gift That Keeps on Giving
Because I had just paid bills and bought groceries, the first week of my no-spend challenge was stress-free. However, I did hit a snag. We have a family tradition of doing secret valentines in the weeks between New Year’s and Valentine’s Day.
That meant I had to buy all my gifts before starting my no-spend challenge or come up with some creative handmade gifts. I opted for a combination of both.
If you need to buy a gift during your no-spend challenge, try our list of thoughtful free gifts that prove time is money.
Week 2: My No-Spend Challenge Came With Some Surprises
I thought I was clever, paying everything ahead and then — boom. I started getting email notifications as app subscriptions auto-renewed in the Apple app store. The frustrating part is none of the subscriptions were even mine.
It was a good reminder that smaller expenses can really stack up. Does my 11-year-old need an $8 app that tracks her water consumption? Probably not.
While you can’t plan for everything, you can make your fixed expenses more predictable. Try budget billing to control seasonal spikes in utility bills.
Week 3: No-Spend Challenges Have Serious Silver Linings
When I started my no-spend challenge, I talked to family and close friends about my plans so they wouldn’t be blindsided when I refused to go on social events or pick up the check on date night.
The unexpected bonus? The people in my life were mindful about inviting me to free or cheap activities and picking up the tab themselves.
Talking about money can be tough. Use our guide to having crucial budgeting conversations with your partner.
Week 4: My No-Spend Challenge Was a Revelation
As the groceries started to dwindle, my kids took to haunting the cupboards looking for snacks. I realized that normally when this happens, I might do a small grocery order or order Uber Eats to make do for a while.
It dawned on me that this approach was probably costing more money than it was saving. I’m reluctant to spend hundreds at the grocery store, but that food stretches much further than a single night of takeout.
Want to see what you’re actually spending? No need to reinvent the wheel. Here are the best free budgeting spreadsheets and budget apps.
Pros and Cons of My No-Spend Challenge
Let’s be clear. Not spending money for a month was no picnic. But if you want to get a better handle on your spending habits, I’d say no-spend challenges are worth a shot.
- Curbed my impulse purchases
- Helped me save
- Broke some of my lazy spending habits
- Encouraged lifestyle changes
- Anxiety about emergency or unplanned spending
- Feeling discouraged about failing to account for some expenses
- Difficult to control family spending
- Had to turn down some social events/outings
The real advantage when I stopped spending money? That extra $1,500 in my bank account is hard to beat. But my friends suddenly suggesting a free event to attend instead of forcing me to fork over $75 every week for brunch isn’t bad either.
4 Things I Learned From My No-Spend Challenge
Ready for some real talk? While I was excited because a no-spend challenge meant devoting more money toward my savings goals, I was skeptical that I’d actually learn anything. I’m happy to report I was 110% wrong. Here are the four big takeaways from my no-spend month.
1. I Was Spending More Money Than I Thought I Was
I’m not an impulsive shopper. I rarely dine out and I buy secondhand clothes. How much extra money could I really be spending? Well, turns out several hundred dollars more than I anticipated.
The problem is, like many people, I cram all my purchases onto a credit card that earns points. And I don’t pay attention to the card balance until it comes time to pay it off. It’s a recipe for less than thoughtful discretionary spending.
2. Other People Were Spending My Money
Not going to lie, but it was rather shocking to see how often people were spending my money. My credit card is hooked up to all sorts of things, like the family iCloud, and both the kids and my partner were subscribing to stuff that wasn’t part of my budget.
3. I Was Spending Money Even When I Thought I Wasn’t
On that same front, I have quite a few things that are enrolled in auto pay. Not just app subscriptions but other bills, like my cell phone service and even pet supplies. That’s usually a financially savvy move to ensure you don’t miss a payment, but it doesn’t support thoughtful budgeting.
4. I Wasn’t Saving Money by Delaying Some Expenses
This was a big lesson learned the hard way. I don’t like going to the grocery store or having a panic attack about paying $8 for eggs, so I avoid it as long as I can.
I also was putting off buying some expensive personal care products until they dwindled down to nothing. But that left me in the lurch and forced me to purchase at a higher pricetag rather than being able to shop around.
Should You Do Your Own No-Spend Challenge?
Trying to curb a dining out habit or a ballooning clothing budget? A no-spend challenge can be a great re-start to break bad spending habits and get back on track.
And if you need to save a large amount of money quickly, leaning into cutting discretionary spending through a no-spend challenge will build that nest egg fast.
My no-spend challenge netted me about $1,500 extra in my bank account, which enabled me to reach my stretch goal of contributing $2,000 to my savings this month. Was it worth the sacrifice?
You’ll have to be the judge of that.
Kaz Weida is a senior staff writer at Codetic covering saving money and budgeting. As a journalist, she has written about a wide array of topics including finance, health, politics, education, and technology for the last decade.