I sit reviewing the budget for the hundredth time and I find I am still spending more than I make. Urg why won’t these numbers work in my favor! I haven’t had cable in years, I rarely go out to eat or even buy lunch, I drive a modest car, nor do I go on lavish vacations out of the country. I buy groceries at Wal-Mart and have sworn off shopping for clothes. But where is my money going? I’ve never been this broke. Why am I suddenly so strapped for cash?

This was me just a few months into paying a mortgage and car note for the first time. I had just redone the flooring on the first floor of my house and made several needed repairs (AC and plumbing are expensive necessities). My finances took a hit and I had to find a way to recover. I was working long hours at work and attending grad school on the weekend, so I didn’t have any spare time. Thus getting another job wasn’t an option.  I had to think of something quick.

The Quick Fix

A few months prior I had purchased Ruth Soukup’s life planner. This purchase came with a free copy of her book “Living Well and Spending Zero.”  I finally sat down to read the book and committed to taking on the challenge of “A No Spend Month.”  The concept was simple and rules were clear. For one month you committed to only spending on essentials and I mean true essentials. That means you outline what you will pay for such as your bills, tithe, and allow a limited allowance for things like gas or toilet paper; because running out of those would be a problem. There is absolutely NO money spent on entertainment, clothing, hobbies, or home decor (this was hard for me since I was living in a pretty empty home).

I signed on the dotted line and committed to the rules. I was even crazy enough to limit my grocery allowance to $30, despite not having been to the supermarket for at least three weeks and being on a low food supply.

But if there is one thing I am good at, it is being frugal. But this was frugality on a whole different scale. Not spend a single dollar outside of recurring bills….NOT one dollar!  I even managed to not spend the $30 I allowed for groceries.

Stay Focused

Setting a clear goal of what I hoped to achieve at the end of the no spend month really helped me stay focused when I wanted so badly to treat myself to a meal, a simple trinket, or rationalize going out with friends. It was super bowl weekend and my city was hosting. It’s hard not to make concessions for something like that.  However, rereading my commitment and knowing that the money saved would go towards getting rid of a credit card kept me focused.  This brings you a little closer to financial independence I would tell myself. I didn’t realize that this one month would bring so much more.

8 things I learned from doing a no spend month

  1. I waste a lot of food.

In the first week of the challenge, you organize your pantry.  This process helped me realize just how much food is wasted because it goes unnoticed and expires.  I threw out a bunch of spoiled goods and made a plan to eat what I had.

  1. We have a lot more food than we think we do.

Because I was allowed to spend only $30 on the absolute essentials I got really creative. The simple act of knowing what was in my cabinets, fridge, and pantry was eye-opening. I am actually learning to stretch my food out a lot longer and grocery shop less.

  1. I spend a lot of time and energy making trips to stores to buy things I don’t really NEED:

I survived that month and made do with what I had.  How often had I told myself that I needed something when it was really just a want?

  1. Entertaining yourself at home gets hard after a while.

Ruth suggests activities to keep you entertained each week like family game night and craft projects which are fine if you have a family and y’all are going through this process together.  But as someone who lives alone and is an introvert, I even found myself wanting the company of people. I wanted someone to share the struggles with and chill with that understood the goal and wouldn’t make suggestions like “Let’s order pizza.” I would highly recommend doing the challenge with a friend if you are single like me.

  1. The weekends are when I spend.

I was usually too tired after work to want to meet up with friends, so not spending on entertainment was only a challenge on Saturday and Sunday when I wanted to reward myself for working so hard.

  1. My DIY habit is quite costly.

Since I wasn’t out spending money I had time to work on a few projects:

Unfortunately, I had a list of items that I needed to purchase to complete the projects. I realized how much those quick trips to Wal-Mart and Home Depot were really costing me.

  1. I shop because I am bored.  

Wow! This was shocking. I am naturally careful about how I spend my money so if you would have told me this before, I would strongly disagree. But when I sat around my house on a Saturday afternoon, all I could think of was an activity that would uplift my spirits and get me out of the house…shopping. Whether I convinced myself to check the secondhand store for cool furniture projects or Home Goods for some wonderful treasure I didn’t know I needed until I saw it.  Shopping for the new house was always a great excuse to spend money.

  1. I am lonely, so I buy things to make me feel complete.

It was as if the more stuff I brought into this house, the fuller it would be and somehow I hoped this fullness would spill over into me.  As if the furniture would somehow make me feel whole in a way the empty space couldn’t. Even if decorating the house was complete, that emptiness would still live within me.  Shopping can fill no voids, it is a temporary distraction.

My biggest takeaway

The no spend month was an example of one challenge I’ve taken on to get closer to my goals. At the end of the month, I managed to finish paying off over $2,000 owed on my Lumber Liquidators credit card and could close that account. I was astonished at how much money I was able to save in that short amount of time. While I value the money saved from taking on a no spend month, the self-awareness it brought to my relationship with money and shopping was even greater.  Learning how I was buying items in hopes to fill a void was eye-opening.  This has caused me to radically change the way I determine what I NEED and what is just a want. I can’t say that I do not occasionally slip in a lipstick when I go to the store for allergy meds, but I am much more aware of this now. Most of all I have allowed myself to let go of this idea of furnishing my house as soon as possible. My house is beautiful and has everything I need and more. This does not mean I won’t buy items for it in the future, but I will be more conscious of which items I choose to fill the space with and know that this can happen slowly. There is no relation to my home furnishings and my heart. That healing comes from within me not the decor in my space.

Moving Forward: What would you be willing to sacrifice to get closer to meeting a financial goal? Could you do a no spend month or a challenge to get you there a little faster?

Please comment on any challenges you’ve taken on or changes you have made to meet your financial goals.

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