If you’re planning to follow along with the handful of Lifehacker staffers participating in a No-Spend January, you’ll want to do a bit of preparation before you dive in.
Here are some ideas to help you make the most of your frugal month:
Everyone wants to hijack your January. Most people want you to stop drinking for the month, on the premise you’ve been overdoing it over the holidays and need to dry out. Others think it’s time to go vegan. I’m sure someone you know is trying to convince you to go to hot yoga every day of January to sweat out “the toxins”. I am usually opposed to all forms of New Year’s resolutions; Lifehacker’s devoted to making changes every day of the year. But one resolution I’m looking forward to anxiously is my tradition of a Spend-Free January. Hear me out.
Reflect on Why You Want to Participate
You might read this and think: to save money, obviously. And that’s great. But take it one step further—why do you want to save money? Are you building up your emergency fund? Saving for a house? Do you simply want to consume less, or see where your money has really been going? These are all great reasons, and ultimately these reflections will be more valuable in the long term than your savings from a single month. You might also consider what you’re willing to sacrifice to reach those long-term goals.
Here’s mine: I want to become less reliant on stuff, yes, but one day I’d like to own a home (or at least have the option of moving where I’d like). I also work in media, and don’t expect to be gainfully employed for the rest of my life with no interruptions. For these reasons, I’m trying to cut down on my expenses and save more now. I’ve told myself the past few years that because I’m young and doing other things right, it’s OK not to have the biggest savings account. But I’m not that young anymore, and I need to make smarter choices.
In the ideal financial world, we’d all have fluffy bank account balances, solid investment portfolios, houses that are paid off and no debt. In reality, it’s difficult to see even one of those goals come to fruition, let alone all of them at once.
Write Down Your Exceptions
Obviously it’s impossible to spend nothing. We all have rent or mortgage payments, bills that can’t be cut out, surprises that will crop up, and, you know, you need to eat. So write down your recurring expenses. Look through some bank statements for this time last year to see if there are any annual expenses that will crop up (for example, my Amazon Prime membership renewal comes up each January, though I’m putting off auto-renewal until I have a use for it this year).
And every person will have different things that they just can’t or don’t want to do without. And that’s OK. Unless you’re in dire financial straits, you should enjoy your life. If your goal is simply to be mindful of your spending and cut out things that don’t add value, it’s OK to have a few things you allow yourself to spend on (like a date night every week, or whatever). Mine is a trip to Philadelphia I have planned with a few friends. None of us have ever been before, and I’d like to have a good time (and eat a cheesesteak or two) without worrying about pinching pennies just because.
This weekend, I bought a bouquet of $US8 ($11) peonies for my new apartment, a small celebration of sorts. The few dollars were tiny drops in the bucket of money I had just spent, considering the movers, increased rent, fees and everything else that comes with a move.
Unlike those costs, however, the flowers were rather impractical. Beautiful, yes, but purposeless. And so as I walked home with them in hand, I couldn't help feel a twinge of guilt. Sure, it was only $US8 ($11), but with all the other money I had just spent, was it necessary?
Track Your Progress
This isn’t a necessity, but might encourage you to stay on track. Figure out a way to track your progress—via an app, in your bullet journal, etc.—and use it throughout the month. I already track my spending in DollarBird, so have multiple days/weeks of $US0 ($0) days is enticing, and I’m also planning on using a larger paper calendar on which I’m tracking on other goals.
Then again, if too much tracking makes you anxious or you find it pointless, then you don’t have to do it. The beauty of this challenge is that you set your own rules, and you can change them whenever you’d like.
One of the toughest aspects of the challenge is going it alone. If you don’t have a friend, or even your spouse, board, it will be more difficult to pass the time or hold yourself accountable.
So, have a chat with someone you trust now about your plan. Ask if you can text them for support when you’re being tempted, or to check in weekly to see how you’re doing.
And consider joining a community of fellow no-spenders. Plenty of sites engage in frugal months—for example, the Frugalwoods have a challenge each January, including a newsletter and a Facebook group. I recently joined an email “support” group of other people trying to have a more frugal 2019.
Automation is one of the most important tricks to getting your finances in order. Having auto-deposits to a retirement or other investment account and transfers to a savings account are proven to get people to save more, while auto-bill pay can help individuals cut back on late fees and boost their credit scores.
Prep Your Pantry
Food likely is, and should be, on your list of exceptions (groceries, that is, not eating out necessarily), but having a stocked pantry and fridge of inexpensive basics and meal builders will help you from splurging on something you don’t need at the grocery store. This will depend on your preferences, but might include:
Canned beans (or dry, which are cheaper and have less sodium)
Once you have your bases covered, you can pop into the grocery to buy fresh produce, meats, etc., to add to your meals. Also, you’ll want to make sure you have zip-lock bags (reusable ones, if you’re eco-conscious) and food containers on hand for freezing/storing for lunches and a few go-to easy recipes that you can meal prep and reheat. Learn which foods are cheaper to make yourself.
Here are some resources we have on meal-prepping:
Additionally, check on things you use every day, like trash bags, shampoo and conditioner, etc. Are you close to running out? If so, write them on your exception list or pick them up in a quick grocery store run today. Nothing can derail your month more than stopping at Target for “one” thing.
Bookmark Some Free Activities
Nights and weekends out can be a budget killer. To that end, let your friends know that you’re cutting back for a month, and make a list of fall-back activities you can engage with on your own or with others who don’t mind free entertainment.
We wrote about some inexpensive group activity ideas here. When you have some downtime, you’ll also want to download the Libby app, which gives you access to your local library’s e-books and audio books. Pick a topic you’ve always been curious about, and borrow books from your library about it, search videos on YouTube, listen to podcast episodes about it, etc. Read the authors that inspired your favourite authors. Get really fit. Take a free online course.
Beyond that, there’s no shortage of resources out there to help you find free stuff to do (there are email newsletters for every major city, and you can probably Google your town + free activities and find a good list). If you participate in something like a bowling league with your friends and really enjoy it, consider adding it to your “exceptions” list.
After a year or two of increasingly frivolous spending, one of my goals going into the New Year is to save as much money as possible. In some areas of my life, like eating out or buying clothes, it’s obvious what I need to cut, and there are plenty of easy ways to save money.
Take It One Step Further
If you find that this is all too simple, then consider taking it one step further: Do what the Frugalwoods call an Uber Frugal month. Cut out all unnecessary subscriptions, like Netflix, eliminate your gym membership and only use free videos on YouTube or a run through your neighbourhood, etc. Exactly how far you’ll go is up to you, but you want to make it hurt a little, don’t you?
If you decide to try a no-spend month, let us know how you’re doing throughout the month, or if you came up with creative solutions to problems that arise. Leave it in the comments or email me at [email protected].