In 2018, my husband and I experienced some financial setbacks. Our income was lower than expected because of a job change for him and (unpaid) maternity leave for me. One new baby and two minor car accidents later, our emergency fund had shrunk to nothing and we’d tacked on some credit card debt. In 2019, with a new job and a baby who finally sleeps more than two hours at a time, we knew it was time to get back on track financially.
So we challenged ourselves to a no-spend month in January. I had seen people singing the praises of a month without spending in a Facebook group for budgeting families. It always seemed unrealistic with two kids and a hectic schedule. But New Year’s resolutions got the best of me and I convinced my husband to join me in the experiment.

The Rules

For the month of January, we would try not to spend money on anything other than the necessities, like groceries and gas. Simple enough, right? We decided beer and wine could be pushed into the grocery budget, but indulgences like coffee on the road, restaurant trips and toys for our four-year-old were out.

The Reality

At the start of our no-spend challenge, I assured myself it wouldn’t be too difficult. We’re not huge shoppers, and since we live in a rural area the temptation to spend on entertainment and dining is limited. Food would be our biggest challenge. We typically dine out or order in at least twice a week, which can quickly add up to over $600 a month in added food costs.
The first week in January we cooked and ate all our meals at home. And while saying no to spending might sting in the moment, I often realized later in the day that I had no regrets about passing on that immediate gratification.

The Results

Our no-spend month didn’t go perfectly. We dined out once and ordered in twice, although we also had leftovers or breakfast for dinner on some busy nights. I bought my daughter a sled ($16) and spent a day (mostly) window shopping at the mall during a deep freeze ($48).
Despite these purchases, the challenge was a success. When I reported a story on a boutique grocer I didn’t spend any of my pay on their high-end meats; I had friends over for lunch rather than meeting for coffee out; I didn’t get my nails done. At the end of the month we put $620 toward our debt. Now, I’m taking what I learned to reduce spending and increase savings throughout the rest of the year.
Here’s what helped me change my spending habits during the no-spend month.
  • I made it less convenient. Before our no-spend challenge, we canceled Amazon prime. Just knowing that I couldn’t order anything from my warm and cozy house made me rethink my habits. I realized that if I didn’t need something badly enough to drag two kids to the store, I probably didn’t need it. I also cancelled our subscriptions to magazines and streaming services that were auto-enrolled to renew.
  • I looked at wants vs. needs. Back in November my car was in an accident, and the repairs still weren’t finished by January when my rental was no longer covered by insurance. I didn’t want to spend $60 a day, so I coordinated outings with my husband, borrowed the neighbor’s car a few times and stayed home much more than I would have liked. All of this was inconvenient, but doable. When I wanted to give in and get a rental I weighed the expense against our greater financial goals. Of course, this was an unusual circumstance, but it made me realize that even our needs are often open to adjustment with a little flexibility and a bit of discomfort.
  • I was open with friends and family. How often have you spent money on outings with friends and family even when you knew you shouldn’t? Saying no and being honest about finances can be awkward, but usually people understand — after all, most of us are trying to spend less, or are at least open to it. When I shared that I was limiting my spending, people were more than happy to join me for free activities. My sister even joined in the challenge – and did her own no-spend month.