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The author celebrating a day trip to Boston during which she spent no money.
Ever wish you could ask others how they spend their money? We’re going there. In our “Cash Confessions” series, LearnVest breaks down the numbers to show how real people spend their paychecks, and whether their habits are financially on track — or off the rails.
Here, LearnVest copywriter Lauryn Paiva shares what happened when she challenged herself to a month-long spending fast.
Fresh off of tracking my money for the entire month of September, I spent most of October thinking about how to make meaningful changes to my budget. Overhauling how I spend seemed like a good place to start, and so I dove right into the world of extreme budgeting — and committed to a “No-Spend November.”
Yep, I wouldn’t spend money on anything but necessities (rent, bills and groceries) for the entire month. I thought of it as a juice cleanse for my wallet, a hard reset that would put me on the path to better spending habits in December and beyond. I knew it wouldn’t be easy. I’d have to cut way back on my social activities and avoid Black Friday and Cyber Monday, the high holidays of shopping. I knew I’d be tempted to spend on those days in particular, but was feeling confident enough that I’d be able to stick out the month.
But I underestimated this challenge in a lot of fundamental ways (spoiler alert: I failed on the very first day). As it turns out, deliberately *not* spending money ended up being harder than sticking to a budget.
Behold, all of the times I failed to stick to my No-Spend November:
Not spending for one day would have been a pretty low bar to set for myself — yet somehow, I didn’t even meet that. I spent $3 for a single subway ride when I couldn’t find my pre-tax monthly Metrocard (it was floating somewhere in my tote bag). No big deal, I thought. Getting to work counts as a necessity, and I could just start fresh the next day.
Another small purchase causes me to deviate from the no-spending rule again: a birthday card I bought for about $5.
Agreed to a “one drink” happy hour that, you guessed it, turned into more than one drink. Pretty sure I spent about $40 that night. I had a really good run of not spending money for over a week, so I convinced myself that a couple of drinks were well-earned. And, if I’m being honest, I am much more likely to spend indiscriminately after a couple glasses of Malbec (which explains the bar food we added to the tab).
Realized I left my earbuds at the office before leaving for a week of vacation, so I bought a replacement pair at Duane Reade for $16.95. Challenge or no challenge, I wasn’t about to travel without them.
Took a very early Amtrak home to Massachusetts for Thanksgiving, so I designated Starbucks as a must-have that day: $3.43 spent on a large iced coffee.
Days 18 to 26
This is when my experiment really went off the rails. I wasn’t tempted to binge spend after being (reasonably) frugal for a couple of weeks, but I had a hard time being home and saying no to things like grabbing breakfast with my sister or getting some impromptu drinks with high school friends. I’d say I spent about $125 during this time. I probably could have politely declined these invites and sat at home experiencing FOMO, but I didn’t want to bow out of stuff I could easily afford (and enjoy!) just for the sake of not spending money. One win: I took a day trip to Boston this week, where my mom treated me to breakfast and where I managed to have fun just walking around the city without buying anything.
I largely avoided Black Friday and Cyber Monday, but I’ve never been one to turn down a bargain. I spent $15 on a wireless mouse for my laptop and $79.50 on a Christmas gift for my mom. Between these two purchases, I saved around $70 on Cyber Monday as opposed to buying each of those things full price in December.
I closed out the month by spending a whopping $110 to renew my passport, plus $5.94 to mail it in — a task that I couldn’t put off any longer.
So basically, in a month when I intended to do no extra spending, I spent half of that time feeling guilty about the relatively small purchases I did make and the other half coming up with excuses to get out of socializing. That said, I actually did save money. When compared to October, I spent $476 *less* in November on things like going out or mindless shopping. So while I technically failed at my challenge, I’m still considering it a win for my budget.
Here’s what I learned during my No-Spend November, and some insight I got from financial planner Matt Shapiro, CFP®, when I shared my experiment with him.
Being too restrictive is just as bad as not budgeting. I managed to avoid the binge spending I was initially worried about, but I can see how easy it would be to go overboard on spending after militantly hoarding every dollar. Shapiro says it’s not unlike yo-yo dieting. “It’s like when you say, ‘I’m not going to eat anything,’ and then say ‘I’ll take a dozen Krispy Kremes,’ after you go off a diet,” he says. “If you’re looking to cut back, it’s easier to change one small thing with your spending one month, then another small thing the next month, and so on. Small habits lead to big changes.”
Spending mindfully was more satisfying. While this experiment wasn’t a success in the strictest sense, I did find myself really thinking through my purchases before I made them. I realized I valued spending on experiences with friends and family more than impulse buys. When I was spending money on things like going out to eat, I was genuinely happier than when I was buying a Madewell skirt I hadn’t budgeted for (hi, frivolous October spending!).
And knowing what you value can help you figure out where to save. Shapiro suggests looking through old credit card bills and seeing which charges you clearly could care less about — it’s those items you can easily cut out of a budget. “At the end of the day, if you have a savings goal, it doesn’t matter where that money comes from,” he says. “If you really enjoy that morning latte, then keep it and find someplace else to cut. Having a framework for spending — rather than just deciding not to spend anything — allows yourself to judge, ‘Is this thing worth spending money on, relative to another item I might buy?’ ”
Budgeting is about balance. So does a $5 latte every once in a while bring me joy? You bet! Treating yourself every so often on the small stuff won’t bankrupt you, so you shouldn’t beat yourself up over those “indulgent” purchases. I realized that how we choose to spend our money is a form of self-care — so as long as I’m buying things that add value to my life and aren’t breaking my budget, I’m not going to stress about it.
Certified Financial Planner Board of Standards Inc. owns the certification marks CFP®, CERTIFIED FINANCIAL PLANNER™, CFP® (with plaque design) and CFP® (with flame design) in the U.S., which it awards to individuals who successfully complete CFP Board’s initial and ongoing certification requirements.