Starting a No Spend Year? Read This First

Are you watching your finances in 2021? I am, I'm doing a no spend year. And this is not my first rodeo, I'm pretty well-versed in not spending money. It's actually always been in my nature - I used to sell my Halloween candy to my cousins and mom rather than eat it, and then spend the money on ... nothing. So I have a lot of tips and tricks to share because being that hyperaware of finances doesn't come easy. If you're in the privileged position to have disposable income, it's easy to buy a nail polish here or a pair of new shoes there but when you don't need or use those things, it still adds up to wasted money. Money that could be better spent on things that align with your goals and values like travel, family, adopting dogs, or saving for retirement.

In theory, that makes sense, but it is harder to put into practice, especially when you leap into something as intense as no spending for an entire year. You need a plan.


Pick the Right Challenge


There are a few different ways you can go. I'm doing a no spend year but that's not the only option.

No Buy - This is the most extreme version of a financial challenge. Of course, essential purchases are allowed like groceries and bills, but you're making a conscious effort to spend absolutely no money on the things that are nonessential like makeup, skincare, clothing (assuming you have more than enough in all of those categories), eating out and/or takeout, even other entertainment like your 5 different subscription services. If it's not a bill, you think long and hard about it before spending a single cent. You can set the time frame. Maybe a whole year is too much, but just January is doable.

Low Buy - This is an easier way to approach watching your finances. You can either set a dollar amount or a number of items amount and commit to buying only under those numbers. No more than 5 or 10 new items a month or keeping spending under $5,000 or $10,000 a year, whatever fits into your life and budget. You can also set the time frame here too.

Categorical No or Low Buy - You may be completely in control when it comes to spending on your pet or on travel, but may buy way too much makeup or Starbucks coffees. In that case, a categorical no or low buy would be your best option. That way, you only have to watch your spending in the particular category or categories that give you the most trouble.

So how do you choose? Ask yourself these questions: Do you need a lot of rules and structure? Are you an all or nothing kind of person? Have you done smaller challenges already? A no buy may be for you. Don't like to be so restricted? Afraid you'll fail? Try a low buy instead. Struggling only with your coffee habit or overflowing closet? Try the category restriction instead.


Avoid These Pitfalls


Not Being Clear. Outlining the rules for yourself is so important because we love to find loopholes. A no buy is pretty straightforward compared to a low buy, but even then you have to consider - are you buying gifts for others? Setting a gas budget for your car? Making donations as usual? Purchasing when your niece starts selling Girl Scout cookies? Be clear with yourself from the start so you know how to handle these situations. Being caught off guard can easily trigger a spending spree.

Not Including Others. You have to be honest with the people who influence your spending. If you always overspend on Christmas with your spouse, tell them you're cutting back this year. If you get coffee every Monday with your bff and decided it's not in the budget this year, let them know why and suggest an alternative. Having support is so important. Even if it's not someone you spend money with, having someone who can talk you out of a purchase can be such a benefit.

Don't Go Too Hard Too Fast. Going straight to a year long total no buy is a bold move but not for everyone. I did a lot of smaller month long and categorical challenges before working my way up to a whole no spend year. Going too hard too fast can lead to burnout and you'll quit before you see any real results. Set yourself up for success with a lot of little wins so you can build your confidence. That's what will motivate you to keep going.


More Tips


Keep a list of questions. You'll often find yourself in the position of almost buying something. It happens more often than you think. So keep a list of important questions to ask yourself in these situations. Is it something you need? Does it break your rules? Is it more important than the financial goals you set? (see below) Using this method will help you stop and think in the moment, giving you time to reassess the decision you're about to make.

Keep a list of strategies. Think about the times you most often spend money now and then make a list of how you'll combat them when they come up. Do you spend when you're bored or sad? Do you always buy a latte when you're in the car? Impulse buy the candy and magazines at the grocery store check out? Plan out what you're going to do instead in these situations. Perhaps bring your own coffee in the car or your own snacks, eat before grocery shopping, or find a way to distract yourself in checkout lines, maybe by texting a friend for support.

Stop following the things that make you spend. If you're not buying clothes, you don't need the sales e-mails from your favorite stores. Unsubscribe - you can come back to them when you're ready to shop again. Unfollow anything that tempts you into spending money. This could be Instagram influencers, bloggers, shops you follow on Facebook. And the fact is, even if you don't buy something from them in that moment, what you view influences what ads you're shown across all social media platforms (ahh the internet), so you'll be continually bombarded with these things. Resisting once may not seem too tough but we only have so much willpower in a day. Why test it? Follow new content that doesn't make you want to purchase anything.

Keep a list of goals. Saving money is easier when you have a clear reason why you're doing it. And retirement may not be a good enough goal if it's so far away that it's too intangible. So determine your actual motivator - are you saving for a home? Paying off debt? Adopting a child or pet? Or just saving to buy a new phone or laptop? Know your why so you can reference it every time something tempts you to spend.

Keep habits you love. Just because you're on a no or low spend challenge doesn't mean you have to cut out everything you love. If it's not the point of your financial pain, it doesn't need to get cut. If getting your nails done once a month fits into the budget and makes you happy, keep going. Just because someone else cuts out buying nail polish and getting weekly manicures doesn't mean that you're 'wasting' your money in the same way. What constitutes a waste to someone else may not be that for you. You have to adapt it to fit your life if you're going to stick with the challenge.


My No Spend 2021


Since I've done this before, I'm comfortable with the full year time frame. And my rules are pretty strict - no spending outside bills and groceries. We almost never eat out or get take out anymore, and for me in particular it doesn't mesh with my lose 50 lbs goal. As far as other necessities that aren't bills, I think I'm well-stocked for the year. I shouldn't need shampoo, soap, makeup, clothing, nothing. We'll likely need household supplies like toilet paper, but I include those items in the grocery category. Of course I also spend on pets. Which used to just be Hawkeye but now we have a billion feral cats out there (well, 7) so we buy cat food too. I have a limited budget for gifts, but I have some plans to earn on Swagbucks and other ways to get essentially 'free money' to purchase gifts with. The only thing outside these categories is getting my hair done twice a year and setting a small budget for hosting a Halloween gathering and buying Halloween candy. It may seem pretty strict, and it is, but I need that sort of restriction in order to think mindfully about every single purchase before I make it.


Are you watching your finances in some way this year? Any tips to add for managing your money well or surviving some sort of shopping ban and no spend year?

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