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How I Totally Screwed Up My Spending Fast

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This year, I kicked off the spring by spending an absolutely bonkers amount of money.

This was mainly due to a few big expenses. I was moving into a new apartment, which meant paying a hefty broker's fee, and I also needed to buy a bed, which ran to $800 between frame and mattress.

But that wasn't the end of it. Around that time, I also had to pay a tax bill, the result of spending several months freelancing last year. I went to a college reunion at the end of May, which cost me a few hundred dollars. I was spending way too much on clothes. And because I'd declined to get cable at my new place, I found myself running up tabs in sports bars so that I could watch the Stanley Cup playoffs.

When I checked my net income on Mint.com at the end of April, I found myself a few thousand dollars in the red. May was better, but I still had a lot less money to my name than I did at the outset of spring.

So I decided that in June, I wouldn't spend any money.

I'd heard of people using "spending fasts" or "no-spend challenges" to help get out of debt, and decided to try it out. While essentials like rent, utility bills and food are permitted, all discretionary spending -- including clothes, bars, restaurants, parties and new furniture -- is off-limits for the duration of the fast.

I thought it would be relatively painless. I was wrong.

A Series of Unfortunate Decisions

It started out well. I stayed away from restaurants, and while I didn't completely shake my habit of going out for lunch during the work week, I did a better job of getting to the grocery store so I could make cheaper meals at home. I made one trip to Target that set me back more than $55, but that was for essentials like soap and shampoo. I wasn't exactly on a fast, but I could defend all of my purchases, and I was spending a lot less than I had been.

But halfway through the month, things got a lot harder. Friends came to visit from out of town, so we went out to eat. A few nights later, I went out to eat with a different group of friends. Then I got a long-overdue haircut. Then I went to Home Depot to buy some shades for my apartment. Then I went to see the new Superman movie.

At the end of the month, I added up my spending. Excluding rent, subway fare, bills and other fixed expenses, I wound up spending $1,062.11 in June.

Everything I Did Wrong

So how did my fast turn into another month of big spending?

To find out, I turned to a couple of budget bloggers who have pulled off spending fasts with more success. In speaking to them about their own experiences, I came to realize a few ways I screwed up my own challenge.

I set too short a time period. Budget blogger Anna Newell Jones went on a year-long spending fast to dig herself out of debt. In her view, committing myself to just a month was probably a mistake.

"I definitely recommend, the longer the better," she says. "If you do a month-long [fast], it's great and I think there's benefit, but the more you do it, the more those habits get changed."

She says people tend to run into trouble in those first few weeks, and the key is to get past that initial difficulty and then develop better spending habits that will stay with you. By limiting myself to only a month, I didn't give myself time to work past my early difficulties and get into a groove.

Doing it for only a month created another issue: It meant that it was fairly easy for me to just put off purchases until the fast was over. Had I set myself a longer goal, I would have been forced to actually go without those purchases, rather than merely postponing them for a few weeks.

I didn't set clear rules. Food, of course, is considered an essential item. But what kind of food was a necessity, and what kind was a luxury?

Were restaurants and delivery always a luxury? Did I always have to pack my lunch, or could I sometimes go to a sandwich or salad shop? And if I was cooking at home, did I always have to stick to the cheapest possible option, or could I cook a fancy dinner that required some pricier ingredients?

There's no universal rule about what food is and isn't allowed during a spending fast. But the important thing is to put your own rules in place before you get started and stick to them. Jones says that before she started, she divided everything into clearly-defined categories of wants and needs.

In my case, I probably should have decided in advance that I was allowed one or two restaurant nights, but that going out for lunch during the work week was just a "want" born out of laziness. Instead, I left it as a grey area, so I didn't have firm rules to stick to.

I did it during the summer. While there are a few ways to keep summer fun from totally busting your budget, it's a difficult proposition. So it was probably a bad idea to try to cut off all discretionary spending in June, when everyone wants to go out and enjoy the warm weather.

With that said, it's not impossible the maintain a fast through spring and summer.

J. Money of the blog Budgets are Sexy did his first no-spend challenge for Lent one year, and the fast actually wound up lasting about a week beyond that initial 40 days. He says one thing that can help with the social spending is having friends that will support you.

"A challenge is one of those things where friends want to help out with it," he says. "For me, I feel like it's better to put it out there and make it a thing."

Tell your friends what you're doing and why, and they might be more likely to throw potlucks instead of going out to eat, for instance. And in cases where they definitely want a night out on the town, they'll be more understanding if you want to skip the evening (or just meet up later in the night).

Still, if I ever try a spending fast again, I'll probably aim to start things off during the winter, when staying in and cooking is more socially acceptable. And by the time the warm weather comes, I'll hopefully have enough momentum to keep things from totally falling apart.

Matt Brownell is the consumer and retail reporter for DailyFinance. You can reach him at Matt.Brownell@teamaol.com, and follow him on Twitter at @Brownellorama.


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joehennes

One of easiest things to do is not carry cash. This assumes, of course, that you have the discipline to pay off your credit card balance completely every month. If you do, then you have a complete record of what you spent on what that can be downloaded to a spread sheet and categorized. Then you know exactly what you are spending on, and can decide what you need to spend less on. It is really tough to keep track when you use cash. Most people have no idea where their money goes and so can't make good decisions on where to cut.

July 16 2013 at 12:16 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Rich

about 25 years ago I stopped smoking, cigs at the time were about 3.50 per pack, I was good for two a day.....7 bucks every day, I have put this amount away almost 100% of the time since the day I quit smoking, with simple compounded interest that would have come close to 90 grand, WOW can you imagine just CIGS, but I did not put away, the money at the end of the year is a reward to me for quitting smoking, we use the amount over 2500.00 usually for vacations, but I have bought tv, computers, cameras......lots of luxury items I would not ordinarily spend money on..........each year we get together and count and sort change, great fun............we are off to disney this october, clear lungs and all.........

July 16 2013 at 10:30 AM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
debra

I paid off over $34,000 of debt in 3 years while raising 3 kids and on one salary. I had to do without. No going out, $20 spending money in my pocket for each week which I could use for whatever I wanted (linch, wine, etc) It was the hardest thing I ever did. Got rid of all credit cards but 1 that I held for emergencies (and only used twice). Budgeted food, brought lunch to work, avoided shopping malls. Finally finished paying everything off last February. Guess what? I learned that I dont need to shop for fun or therapy. Eating out is only for the special occasion and like in when I was young is very anticipated and appreciated. Need new clothes? Shoes are necessary when they need to be replaced. Everything else I already have two or three of. Now I have a hard time spending my hard earned money. I buy with cash and after thinking about it. No buyers remorse in the end.
Stop using shopping as a hobby. You dont need the newest technology, next year there will be newer (save if you really to buy it) Go walking, find all the free activities (concerts, street fairs, art shows) in your neighboring areas and go to them. Vacation at home or save for that vacation. Put your change into a large jar everyday and leave it for something special. Grow up and stop falling for the myth that more is better. Life is too short to have so many bills.

July 16 2013 at 8:58 AM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
itooso

Pay off credit cards ASAP, interest rates are out of this world, they are worse than loan sharks.

July 16 2013 at 6:37 AM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
Obz3rv3r

I don't go to the movies. At $10.00 a show, I'd rather spend that on gas money. Eating out with friends? No. Having friends over to the house to eat. My wife shops where she can find bargains and discounts. That's how to save money.

July 16 2013 at 6:21 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
BRUCE

Several things helped me to save... 6 years ago I quit drinking entirely, the savings right there were phenominal, not only from not buying the alcohol but from stupidly buying junk just to entertain myself for a few moments to include "setting up the bar" and online shopping. Everytime I had the urge to buy my drink of choice I put the money in jar....first month I saved about $400. I then parked the car and pedaled a bicycle back and forth to work and to the store...amazing what you can cram into a backpack. Direct deposit and online bill pay is a must, then only take out what you will need until next payday...and stick to it. When I need to go and buy something as we all need to do...I take ONLY what I need to spend and leave the ATM card and check book at home. Not only have I managed to save a very nice amount, but have raised my standard of living as well, I don't cut back on food items as I see no reason to suffer by sacrifice. Just smart budgeting will work wonders. In short, If you drink alcohol and/or smoke anything.....stop.

July 16 2013 at 6:11 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
websternews

It only took me FIVE years to wipe out close to $14,985 worth of debt! I was doing OK until 2008 when my wife passed away and the monthly income was cut in half. I had to file bankruptcy which took 4 years to pay the attorney fees and court costs; I paid off my vehicle aftter the finance company lowered the monthly payments. I literally did without the luxuries of eating out at fiine restaurants, went without buying new clothes, went without going to concerts or movies, and stopped joy riding, As of June 13th - - - the ONLY debt I hav left is a Student Loan. It CAN be done.

July 16 2013 at 5:34 AM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
sbourg55

Hey Matt, article-writer: Did you know our fed govt under Obama/Reid is spending $4T/yr, our state/local another 2T, and the country's total AGI is 9T......thus our f__ing govt entities are spending 67% of our income each year? Thus, we, our economy & our children are basically screwed under these big-lib-spenders. So.....save the max you can pre-tax in your 401(k) plan. My wife & I save over 35k/year, it's a way to beat the tax-men to a small degree. That's Job1. Then retire in a fiscal conserv state to save taxes in retmt. That's Job2. That's all the advice and fiscal sense you need to know. But invest more conservatively that the experts tell you, until our govts' (plural cuz fed/state/local) houses are in order. But that'll be awhile ! We're turning into the soft socialist Euro-model and they are blowing up right before our eyes. Check out globaleconomicanalysis.blogspot.com And don't read any MSM crap about the economy.

July 16 2013 at 3:09 AM Report abuse -3 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to sbourg55's comment
Hi Den

I am like you, I keep socking money away in my 401k, but Washinton has been holding hearings over the last coulple of years trying to find a way to confiscate and annuitize your 401k. You know how it is, if they are talking about it, they are going to try to do it.

July 16 2013 at 11:58 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
MONTOOTH

The author doesn't say whether or not he is "paying himself first," which is one of the first rules of accumulating a little wealth. Saving a set amount each month, especially through a SEP (self-directed savings plan), or an employer plan is a must. I adopted a couple of other rules also: Make as much money as you can; Spend less than you make; and Save more than you spend. All debt is not bad, I carried debt through my working years, but abided by the rules above. In the end and now that I am retired, I am debt-free (the mortgage excepted--good debt), and I have a very substantial nest-egg invested and providing income as a result of always paying myself first. Time is on your side, use it. Save, invest and you'll be amazed at the end result.

July 11 2013 at 11:42 AM Report abuse +2 rate up rate down Reply
tjintol

Set your financial goals and stick to them. Your broke friends are more likely to laugh at you, instead of throwing a potluck. But in the end when you are out of debt and piling up money who is going to be laughing then? Buy a paper and read the sport results the next day instead of going to bars.

July 11 2013 at 6:30 AM Report abuse +2 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to tjintol's comment
sbourg55

Well if watching sports is so important (which it is to most of us at times) then watch more at home. Only watch at sports' bars rarely. And eat at home, have first beer at home, then you're just buying 2 beers at the sports bar. Spending more than $15 @ sports' bar is just stupid.

July 16 2013 at 3:13 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply