The best laid schemes of mice and men often go awry – and that includes the plans we make with our budgets. Try as we might, even the most financially educated and frugal among us will have a few days, a week, or a month when sticking to set spending limits is hard to do.
A busted budget is no fun to deal with, but the good news is that there is a savings trick you can use to get back on track with your spending: a no spend week.
A no spend week might more accurately be known as a “no buy” period of time. Essentially, this exercise requires you to determine a set amount of days during which you will not buy anything. You can be a strict as you want with this savings challenge; some people choose to take not buying anything seriously and won’t buy gas or groceries during their no spend week.
I prefer to be a little more realistic when I do this challenge. I need food to eat, and I need the gas in my car to get me to work. What most people mean when they say “no spending” is “no non-necessary spending.” As in, no going out to eat, no shopping for new clothes or household items, and no going out to movies. It’s a way to cut back on what you consume, especially when it comes to discretionary spending (in other words, what you want but don’t necessarily need).
Some criticize the no spend week for being misleading, since you still have bills that (I assume) you’re going to pay, like the mortgage or rent and the utilities for your home. Critics argue that even if you simply sit at home and twiddle your thumbs for seven days, you’ve still spent money because you’re paying for the roof over your head and the heat you have running. Or, if you sit around and play cards all week, it’s not really a “free” activity because at one time you paid for the cards. This is a fair point, and one I try to acknowledge. When we try this challenge, our “rules” or guidelines usually look a little something like this:
- No non-essential spending (alternatively: no discretionary spending). In other words, our bills get paid but the goal is to not spend on anything else.
- If we need food, we buy food from the grocery store. No eating out allowed! Also, we don’t purposely stock up on groceries the day before the challenge. This would semi defeat the purpose, as it wouldn’t be hard to “not spend” on food (by eating out) if we had just brought in a huge haul from the grocery store. We do make an effort to eat whatever is on hand. This is a good way for us to make sure some of the staple items, like canned foods or pasta, that have snuck off to the back of the pantry actually get used up instead of going to waste.
- Same with gas – we have to drive to work everyday, so if our cars need fuel we buy gas. Although, like food, we don’t “stock up” right before and we consider any trips with the cars outside of commuting to work as “non-essential.” We can walk or bike if we want to go somewhere other than work.
- For us, “no spend” means no spending in that week. And, obviously, like the food and the gas, we’re not allowed to gear up for the challenge by going out the day before it starts to buy something that would keep us entertained for the week. The point is to engage in free activities, like walking or playing games, and to use what we have on hand.
I hope this illustrates our reasonable, common sense approach to the no spend week. We recognize that since we have a mortgage with fixed expenses like utilities and insurance, technically we’re spending money every day to continue living in our home with our water, electricity, and heat. But we do cut all non-essential spending, so a no spend week is still a useful exercise.
With no discretionary spending allowed, the weeks we do this challenge for ourselves call for a bit of creative thinking when it comes to planning activities to keep us busy. It gets harder in the winter, because the weather isn’t so great so going outside isn’t always the best option (especially for us recently – it’s been raining constantly). Here are some of the things we do instead of going out and spending money:
- Work on our respective projects. Writing, drawing, reading for me and editing the massive amount of pictures waiting to be processed for my husband (who is an excellent photographer).
- Get productive. We take care of things around the house we’ve been putting off, from some DIY repairs or small improvement projects to some serious cleaning. Not the most exciting stuff in the world, but it is all tasks that need to be done.
- Play games. I actually really love playing card and board games. I’m the obnoxious person who could spend hours playing the same repetitive game over and over again!
- Make plans and have some good conversation. In place of going out to a movie or going shopping, during our time at home for the no spend week we often make some tea or coffee and spend time talking about our future plans and talk about what we’re doing, what we want, and where we’re going.
- Get in a little “veg out” time. We don’t often just flop in front of the TV for hours, so a no spend week is a great time to catch up on some shows (from Netflix, the cost of which comes in the form of a monthly bill). It’s also a good excuse to check out the regular programming we pick up with our antenna (we don’t have cable). Jeopardy! makes me feel okay about watching TV – I have to think to answer the questions, so it can’t be that made for me to watch TV for that.. right?
The results at the end of the time period? We always have a great week, and it often works out to be even more fun and productive than the week or month before where we overspent or had unexpected costs pop up and cause a leak in our budget. And, more importantly from a financial standpoint, we find ourselves with some extra money to put towards savings. In an average week, we can spend up to $100 in discretionary purchases. By doing a no spend week just once in every month out of the year, we’d end up with $1,200 extra in savings every 12 months. In the summertime, when the weather’s nice, it’s even easier to spend our time outside – running, biking, camping, swimming, hanging out in the yard and simply enjoying the day – so we could easily do two no spend weeks during those months for even more money to save.
And we can all experience this anytime we choose. It’s a great exercise to use as a remedy to a busted budget, it can help you get in the habit of spending less (and buying less stuff), and it’s a great catalyst for getting creative in several different ways. Whether you feel you need a no spend week as a emergency measure to rein in spending, or you choose to participate in the challenge as a way to jump-start the month’s savings, a no spend week is definitely worth trying.
Do you participate in no spend weeks? Are there other types of challenges you enjoy that have worked to give your savings a boost?