I tried spending nothing for a month—here’s what happened

Like a lot of people, I’m in debt. It’s a mixed portfolio of student loan and credit card, and if the way I used that term is any indication I haven’t always made smart financial choices. But in the last few years I’ve pulled it together, for the most part. My credit cards gather dust in my sock drawer. I bring my lunch; I contribute to my 401k; and I sock it away for a rainy day or maybe a building where I’m the landlord.

But like many people, I like pretty things. One morning not long after Christmas and Hanukkah, I realized “treat yo self” was my personal religion. This uncomfortable epiphany came about after years of buying things I didn’t really need, cluttering up my apartment with lipsticks and comics and vintage food packaging from Etsy (old Morton Salt containers are really cute, okay?). Sick of owing Loyola and Visa, I decided I was going to start a new faith – one where I stopped buying unnecessary objects for a whole month.

The Challenge

I named my resolution No-Spend January. It sounded terrible and Pinteresty, the financial equivalent of clean eating. It also sounded hard. I really like French fries, and I really like giving myself presents.

Spoiler alert: I did it. It was hard. It wasn’t impossible. Even if you don’t have a problem with spending, it’s a reasonable (I promise) challenge that can help you take control of your finances, save money, and focus on what matters.

Hear me out, and hop into the world’s lamest time machine. It’s powered by Dave Ramsey quotes and leftover spaghetti, and takes you back to the date of your last major money decision – in my case, just before the new year.

The Rules

  • Know your habits. Figure out where you spend.I use Mint to track my finances and set budgets, but there are other programs that work, or even a good old spreadsheet. How you track it doesn’t matter. What does is determining your weak spots, and using this to decide what you’re going to cut.
  • Make it reasonable. I knew I couldn’t go overboard. To throw fad diets under the bus again, one thing I knew would fail was the cold turkey approach. Going from cheeseburgers to kale leads to late night drive-through flavored with broken promises and tears: if I went too extreme, I’d screw it up.
  • No clothing, books, or makeup. My lipstick collection could fund a small country. I have stacks of never-cracked graphic novels. My closet groans with the weight of a thousand Madewell sales. These are not things I need. Nothing in my life is dependent upon acquiring more of them.
visual of poor choices courtesy of Mint
visual of poor choices courtesy of Mint

There are other areas I could have turned my scrimping. I live in a major city with a number of amazing restaurants, which I enjoy frequenting. I have a soft spot for fancy beer and cheese, gel manicures, and movie theaters. Going out is how I see my friends, Shellac keeps my hands pretty, and seeing stories on a big screen is $12 of escapist joy. I left those alone. This goes back to the Cheeseburger-Kale Theorem: if you start to live like a monk off the bat, it creates the feelings of deprivation and anxiety that lead to money mishaps. We’ll get back to those in a minute.

The last, unspoken commandment of No-Spend January is you do you. I’m pretty good at not eating out for lunch, but maybe an overpriced, delicious sandwich Monday through Friday is your thing. That’s okay. You do have to cut out something, but it shouldn’t be everything. Baby steps.

Making it Through the Month

At first it was easy, if a little weird. I just stopped buying things. I had a busy January ahead of me and was fresh off the holidays, aka a time when you get presents. I worked. I wrote. I went about my day. I didn’t buy clothes, books, or makeup. I got this, I thought smugly, not sure why I ever thought it would be tough.

Then I had a bad day. Nothing earth-shattering, but one of those days where you don’t get done a quarter of you what you wanted. Everything seemed impossible, and to top it off those pimples that hang out on my jawline sometimes decided to make a surprise reappearance. I felt ugly and useless. I planned to go to Sephora after work. I needed that new brow powder I’d been meaning to get, I decided, and probably some Tarte lip tints too. I thought about it all day, chanting Sephora Sephora Sephora like a prayer. Well-defined brows would stop those washing feelings of toadliness. A sheer berry pout would surely help with time management.

I stopped at the elevator doors of my office and said it aloud: “No. You’re not going.”

I didn’t go to Sephora. I went home to my boyfriend and cat. I watched TV. I read one of my many unopened books. I took a hot bath. These things also make me happy, and don’t leave me out $50.

The Sephora decision had a snowball effect: I stopped going to stores where I knew I’d walk out with a bag. I stopped checking out websites where I knew I’d spend money, though they still sent me emails. These got to me. I’d see a flashing 30% off with free shipping, and my fingers would literally itch. It was such a good deal. The sweater would be so cute. I couldn’t miss out on this once in a lifetime opportunity. I’d save like, 14 dollars. It’s almost like retailers capitalize on your sense of urgency, and spend billions of dollars ensuring their products are always floating in your consciousness.

What I Learned

The hardest part of No-Spend January was realizing how much I bought things to fill a hole, shoving possessions into a mind-pit of anxiety and sadness. Looking pretty and having interesting things to read are great, but they’re not a salve for everything painful. It’s easy to drop your debit card. It’s hard to sit with what’s really bothering you, and try to figure it out. I will always love the way a pretty dress catches the light, or how a novel takes me to new places. But I wanted to enjoy them for what they were, not give them unholy healing power.

Possessions take up space in your house and heart. It’s not just buying the thing. It’s thinking about the thing. Fantasizing about it, how good it’s going to be. Planning what you’ll give up to afford it, how you’re not going to buy anything for the rest of the week, the month, the year. It’s exhausting.

When you start to clear out the clutter, what actually matters becomes visible. Friends, family, and pets will love you whether or not you have new leather boots, and if they don’t they may be wrestling with their own materialistic demons. I was lucky in that no one around me pressured me to spend, or even noticed– most of my bad choices took place alone, on the sly. It’s hard if your aunt only wants to go shopping, or your Labradoodle huffs at your old coat. If you do get flak, don’t make a big deal of it (“Just trying to save money!”) and move on. Ultimately, the only person you’re keeping up with is yourself. Also, your dog is a jerk.

It wasn’t easy. There were slip-ups. My friend’s boyfriend made an awesome t-shirt, and before I knew it I’d bought it. I beat myself up for awhile, then started again the next day.

Be kind to yourself throughout your No-Spend month. You don’t change ingrained and socially encouraged behavior overnight. All you can do is recognize why you did it, and do better the next day.

Also, make your behavior work for you. It was about midway through the month when I decided to fight back against inbox sale pings—with the Internet. Rewards motivate me, and now they were going to motivate me to stop. I started a Pinterest board featuring everything I wanted to buy that month, but didn’t. (Please forget I trashed Pinterest a few paragraphs back.) Every time I felt the urge to spend, I hit the browser add-in, putting my wants into a neat series of tiles. I promised myself that at the end of the month, if it made sense financially, I could buy one thing off the board.

I was surprised by how much it helped. Staunching the constant stream of new and shiny forced me to take and take stock of what I already had. Unsurprisingly, I had a lot. So many of my wants were just that – desires. Not necessities.

Paradoxically, loving my existing stuff helped me realize what I actually should replace. I kept coming back to a laptop bag. I’d bought my last laptop bag just out of college. It had seen better days. Every time I looked at it I winced at the rips and stains, but being scared about money always kept me from getting a new one.

Money became less scary when I realized that just because I had it, didn’t mean I had to spend it. Taking out the majority of my impulse buys made me feel calm and in control, probably because I had more money, probably because no duh, when you spend less your bank balance stays steady. I’m still crunching the numbers, but through No-Spend January I saved several hundred dollars. Unless you’re an heiress, that’s significant, and if you are an heiress, please reach out to the email in my bio.

I am incredibly privileged to have a measure of self-made financial freedom, and I’d like to not blow it. Anthropologie’s beautiful highway robbery will always catch my eye, but chilling out on overpriced blouses opened my eyes. There’s a possible presidential candidate I’d like to support. Organizations that need help. Closer to home, a savings account that doesn’t get enough love. Not having a panic attack when I open my dentist bill. In cutting out many small things, No-Spend January helped think bigger.

Don’t worry. I haven’t gone completely capsule on you.

On the first day of February, I bought the laptop bag. It’s beautiful and useful, but most importantly, it was purchased with mindfulness and intent.

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