We just completed our first ever no-spend month and I wanted to share our experience with this challenge. In doing so, I hope you can gain some ideas and practical tips on how to get the most out of your no-spend month.
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What is a No-Spend Month?
In a nutshell, a no-spend month is a commitment to only spend money on your bills and necessities for an entire month. This means expenses such as rent/mortgage, groceries, utilities, transportation costs and childcare make the cut. BUT other non-essential expenses (more “wants” rather than “needs”) like dining out (take-out included), going to or renting movies, clothes shopping, toys, books and concert tickets must be cut.
Why a No-Spend Month?
Before you make this month-long commitment, stop to think about why you want to participate in a no-spend month. Your first instinct to answer will most likely be “to save money.” But I challenge you to probe a bit more. Why do you want to save money? Do you want to build up your emergency savings fund? Do you want to pay off debt? Do you want to save for a large purchase?
We’re drowning in student loans – and we’re quite sick of it. So, we are embarking on a fairly aggressive pay-off plan. With our financial goal to eliminate our student loans as quickly as possible, we’ve been looking for ways to help us bring in more money or simply save money to help with this feat.
I also wanted to use it as an exercise for our family to improve our spending discipline. While I don’t consider our family to be frivolous spenders, we do have some spending habits that can definitely be improved, including our ability to delay gratification.
So while we used a no-spend month to help us with our financial goal, we also used it to help us be more planful and mindful of our spending.
Need some help with your why?
When to No-Spend Month?
We decided to try our first no-spend month to be February for two reasons – it was a short month AND we didn’t have a lot of activities and festivities going on. Being our first time to try this, it was definitely to our advantage that we give it a go on the shortest month of the year. 🙂
But more importantly, we knew we didn’t have any special events or occasions in February that would require us to incur additional expenses. If we had tried a no-spend month in November or December, we’d be setting ourselves up for a giant failure. As a newbie (and perhaps even a veteran no-spender), the holidays are just more difficult time to be engaging in such a challenge.
How We No-Spended
1. The Spit-Shake
First, we made the commitment as a family (more so my husband and I because our kids are still fairly young) that we would try out this no-spend month challenge and only spend money on essentials.
We did explain it to our daughter, who’s 6, that we weren’t going to be eating out for a little bit so we can save some money. Her response was “If we need money, you can take some of my cash in my piggy bank.” We laughed and were so smitten by her response. 😉
2. Set Clear Guidelines and Parameters
We set the parameters on what this no-spend month looked like for us. Every family’s situation is different. Do what makes sense for your family. What’s important is your family is on the same page and in agreement of the criteria for what you will spend money on and what you will cut for the month.
We looked at our monthly budget and decided what expense categories we considered necessities and what were not. For us, that meant …
- No restaurants – not even take-out.
- No random additional purchases at Target outside grocery items and household essentials.
- And no “Oooh what an awesome deal” purchases for things I think we need, but could probably do without from Amazon. (This one’s more me.)
One of our biggest non-essential expenses is dining out or take-out. At least once a week, we’d do take-out because it’s more convenient. We knew this wasn’t essential and needed to get cut.
After assessing and weeding out expenses for the month, we set our February budget and calculated how much our potential savings was going to be: $419.58.
And as I mentioned earlier, we agreed to apply this $419.58 to my Discover student loan (the student loan we are trying to pay off right now).
3. Prep for the Big Event
I was quite excited (and a little nervous) to have our first no-spend month. To achieve our financial goal of being student loan-free, we needed to get creative, make sacrifices and be okay with discomfort. By taking this challenge on, we were willing to do these things. And, that excited me.
With this excitement, I wanted to set us up for the most possible success. So, before February began (and throughout the month), I made sure our kitchen was stocked (and remained stocked). I had made it a point to have easy to make dinner ingredients, as well as pre-made foods for busy (or lazy) nights. This included keeping a couple of frozen pizzas and pasta dinners in the freezer, as well as getting other pre-made foods we could easily serve like a rotisserie chicken from the grocery store.
I also purchased Erin Chase’s MyFreezeEasy Freezer Meal Planning earlier this year with the intent and hope of:
- Having a stash of pre-prepped meals to help me with getting home-cooked dinners on the table (Unfortunately, my dinner exchange buddy had moved to the Philippines for the next 5 years).
- Saving time – with batch cooking, my overall time spent prepping, cooking and cleaning up is reduced.
- Saving money – in addition to cutting down on take-out expenses, meal planning can help with our grocery spending as well.
For the month of February, I made a total of 16 freezer meals using Erin’s MyFreezeEasy program and it helped us not have to eat out during the week because even on our most hectic days or when I didn’t feel like cooking, I had something I could easily put together.
Knowing that eating out was one of our main weaknesses with our budget, I really tried to focus on ways we could prevent this. Having a stocked kitchen with some back-up frozen or pre-made entrees really helped, as well as my home-made freezer meals.
Another thing I did before February hit, I reviewed our online subscriptions for household items and cancelled everything on our Amazon Subscribe & Save list for February because we still had enough of those things. The one thing I kept was our diaper subscription – I’d say this counts as a necessity! 😉
I then looked around the house to see what supplies we were running low on and would be running out of soon– such as toilet paper and hand soap – I bought these before February to keep those expenses within our January budget and really trim down what money came out in February.
In the Thick of It – Navigating Through Our First No-Spend Month
In the Beginning …
February started on a Friday and that weekend was the first weekend our family was somewhat healthy again after a
We don’t always spend money when we’re out. But in that moment, the knowledge that we made this commitment not to spend on anything aside from bills and essentials – meaning no getting the kids a hotdog when we’re out or even something that we could use in the house even though it was an awesome deal – felt restricting. Like it made me want me to spend more, you know?
My husband asked about getting some free passes from the library to a museum or something. And I reminded him that unfortunately, we’d either only be getting discounted tickets or only a couple of us would be free and we’d have to purchase tickets for the rest of us. So that wasn’t really an option. In that moment, we weren’t sure what activity we’d do with the kids that would be free.
I was bummed at first. We had just started our no-spend month and we weren’t off to a very good start. But it turned out to be a good thing.
Since we hadn’t scoped out a free activity we could do, we decided to put ourselves to work instead. We’ve been wanting to declutter around the house for some time, but just hadn’t made it a priority with everything else. Why not that day?
It was a lot of work, but in the end, we were able to go through a lot of things we no longer wanted or needed, lots of clothes, shoes, some kitchenware, even books, toys and baby accessories. My husband and daughter were even able to make a trip to Goodwill to donate our stuff (the ones that didn’t end up in our garbage bins), while I finished up at home. We even got the motivation to clean up the house the next day as a result.
The first week was the hardest because it just seemed like we had so much time ahead of us for this challenge. And for me in particular, the thought of having to cook/prepare dinner each night, every night, without the option of falling back on take-out when I’m not in the mood to cook or had had a long day at work felt like a tall task to accomplish all month long. I always had to be planful, so that I was able to accomplish this and it felt like a lot of work.
As the Month Progressed …
But after the second week, it got better and easier. And it started to feel more like our routine. And on evenings I wasn’t prepared with dinner, I had my frozen dinner stash or leftovers to fall back on J My daughter, who in the past year has frequently asked to eat out actually stopped asking if we could eat out. (Expect for one weekend we were watching “Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives” and she saw this awesome burger in some joint in Hawaii. She all of a sudden said she would love an In-N-Out burger for dinner. We all agreed how awesome it would be 🙂 But stuck to our plans of eating at home.)
Note to Self: Don’t watch shows like “Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives” during a no-spend month – it reduces your willpower not to eat out. 😉
And as we got our groove, we got better about being more mindful with our purchases. For instance, when something came up and either I, or my husband felt we needed to purchase something outside our set and agreed upon expenses, we first discussed it with each other before doing anything. We made sure we were on the same page. Talking about our purchasing decisions and keeping each other updated on how we were doing helped our process. We also got each other pumped about how we were taking these steps to be debt-free.
When we set out for this challenge, we mapped out our budget. And, based on what we decided to cut, we projected we’d save $419.58.
One month later. Challenge completed. How did we fair? We tallied our expenditures, and drum roll please…
After our first no-month spend, we ended up saving $282.76, which is $136.82 short of our target.
Why? Well, we had a few unplanned expenses bubble up in February. These included:
- Jury Dury Transportation Costs: Paul was summoned to jury duty. He had to go to the courthouse twice. And with only one car, he needed to take public transportation to the courthouse, which was quite far.
- Over-the-Counter Medicine and Digital Thermometer: It feels like our family has been playing “hot potato” with a virus and have been taking turns being sick again through February (after one weekend of not being sick). With everyone down with something, we needed to get medicine for the family. And during this time, we also learned our thermometers (all three) were broken and needed replacing so we could check our kids’ temps.
- Birthday Present: Our daughter was invited to a birthday party and we needed to get the celebrant a gift.
Because we feel we couldn’t have accounted for these in advance, we’re not sweating these or beating ourselves up about these unexpected expenses.
And although we fell short on our monetary target, I was pleasantly surprised and proud that we went an entire month without eating out or getting any take-out. For my family, this is HUGE. Normally, we’d have at least one meal a week wherein we brought some take-out home.
As I shared earlier, this definitely felt harder at the start of the month, knowing we couldn’t eat out felt restricting. But, as the month went on, it got easier. It really helped that I planned our meals ahead of time and meal prepped over the weekends, giving us a stash of freezer (home-made and some store-bought) and pre-cooked meals for the week. Some weekends, I really didn’t feel like doing it, but I’m glad I pushed myself to because that enabled us to avoid eating out during the week.
While we didn’t hit our $419 goal, I’m so happy about the effort, planning and mindfulness we put to into this challenge. This challenge helped us to pause and think about our spending choices before simply spending. Do we really need that? Or could we make do with something else we already have as an alternative? Perhaps we can we hold off another couple of weeks before we actually purchased an item?
Room for Improvement
What could we have done to do things better?
Research Free Activities
Based on how our first weekend went, I’d say we could have researched or planned some free activities we could do as a family. But given how we were able to pivot our plans and mindset that first weekend and we instead put ourselves to work around the house, it wasn’t so bad that we didn’t have a free activity planned out. And for the remainder of the month, we pretty much just winged it.
However, if we do plan on doing more of these no-spend months in the future, it will only help us to have some ideas for fun and free activities and entertainment we can do during those times.
Better Tracking of Expenses
I could also have better tracked our grocery expenses. In the last two weeks, I didn’t log our expenses as diligently into our YNAB account (budgeting tool), which led us to going over our grocery budget. I got lazy. Had I kept our expense tracking current throughout the month, I would have caught that we were almost up to our allotted grocery budget. Having said that, we only went over by $13 – so it wasn’t too bad. Also, this overspent category was offset by our laundry expense category being underbudget. 🙂
Would we do it again?
More than just using this challenge as a tool to help us with our overall financial goals, it helped us practice being more intentional and mindful with our spending. It made us pause before making decisions to simply buy something, even with small purchases.
We dream of being free of our student loan debt and the journey to make this happen will require a lot of planning, perseverance and sacrifices. Honing our ability to be more mindful with our money choices and practicing delayed gratification is essential in this endeavor.
In fact, after our no-spend month ended, we grew confidence in ourselves that we can be even more frugal than we have been and decided we won’t eat out (except for special occasions) until my Discover student loan is paid off. 🙂
Try it Yourself – Practical Tips You Can Apply
Enough about us. Let’s get you going with your no-spend month. Why else would you be reading this, right? Let’s get to it.
If you’re interested in having a no-spend month, here are the steps and tips I recommend based on our experience:
Before You Get Started
Pick a Month
- A lot of people tend to go on
a spendingcleanse in January, right after the holidays. But you’re not limited to this.
- Think about the coming months and identify one that would be easier to have a no-spend month – one that has limited special occasions, events, activities (such as family vacations, birthdays, parties
andback-to-school) that would require you to incur additional expenses.
- I highly recommend avoiding November and December as well due to all the holiday festivities.
Know Your Why
- Before you make this month-long commitment, stop to think about why you want to take on a no-spend month.
- Your instinctual answer is most likely “to save money.” But I challenge you to probe a bit more.
- Why do you want to save money? What’s your bigger financial goal? And, what do you wish to get out of this challenge?
Make the Commitment
- As a family, make the commitment that you’ll give this no-spend month a fair shot and do your best to only spend money on necessities.
Set Clear Guidelines and Paramaters
- Go over your budget and identify monthly bills you must pay for (these will most likely include rent or mortgage payments, utilities, car payment or public transportation, insurance and childcare) and other expenses to cover your family’s basic needs (such as food, toiletries and diapers).
- Cater this to your family’s needs. And remember – “Well, our coffee pot’s pretty old and that nice-lookin’ coffee pot is on sale,” as you’re walking down the aisles at Target when you’re there on a grocery run is NOT a necessity.
Plan and Prep
- Stock your kitchen with food. Pre-made dishes and frozen dinners are helpful back-ups. Have some easy-to-make canned and dry goods on hand as well, such as mac-n-cheese, canned veggies, pasta sauce
- Research some potential free activities and events you and your family can do together.
Know Your Achilles Heel and Prevent It From Tripping You Up
- Do you have a spending habit that is detrimental (or at the least, somewhat hazardous) to your budget? Perhaps, like us, you tend to lean on take-out for when you are too busy or lazy to prepare dinner. Or you like to get a morning or afternoon coffee at the coffee shop around the corner?
- Think about what you can to do still enjoy the perks of these spending habits, without spending.
- For the take-out dilemma, you can have some frozen meals on-hand like us. And for the coffee purchases, perhaps brew your own coffee to take to work and/or use the office coffee maker in the afternoon. If they don’t have one you can use an AeroPress Coffee Maker (they’re great!) at work.
During the Month-Long Challenge
Have a Weekly Meal Plan
- Plan your meals every week.
- Before the week starts, think about what meals you’ll be serving the following week.
- Make a grocery list and shop during the weekend so you’ve got what you need before Monday. Don’t forget to include a couple frozen meals, just in case.
Keep Your Fridge and Pantry Stocked
- Don’t let not having food in the kitchen put you in the position of having to eat out. Throughout the month, make sure to keep your fridge and pantry stocked with food and snacks your family enjoy.
- Have a stash of easy-to-prepare foods, family favorites and snacks (fruits are great) everyone can munch on.
- Also have some fun and easy-to-pack snacks on-hand for you to bring when the family’s out and about.
Track Your Progress and Stay on Top of It
- Consistently keep track of your expenses to ensure you stay within your budget for the expense categories you have identified as necessities.
- While logging your expenses every few days is ideal, tallying things up at the end of every week will suffice. As long as you regularly review your expenses against your budget to make sure you don’t go over-budget. And if you must, you can pivot – see where you can reduce an expense to cover where you’ve gone over-budget.
Hold Each Other Accountable
- During the month, when your willpower is tested, talk about it. Remind and encourage each other of your overall goals and why you’re doing this.
- You’re in this together! Support each other through this challenge.
Ready to get started?
Download this quick worksheet to help you think through your intentions before beginning your no-spend month.
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