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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, a frugal-living devotee takes thriftiness to the extreme.
I’ve always considered myself a frugal person — I usually make my own coffee, I often bike instead of drive, and I committed to save 70% of my income this year.
Still, my recent credit card bills slowly became bigger than I liked. My grocery bill creeped up, and I was making mindless purchases (like random candles at the checkout line).
Now, there’s nothing wrong with buying food you enjoy and things to make your home beautiful. But my spending had gotten less and less mindful. Plus, since I’m a freelancer with fluctuating income, it’s important that I have robust savings and keep a firm hand on my budget. While my spending increased, my savings decreased, and I didn’t like that trend.
So implemented a month-long shopping ban. February would be a no-spend month. Here are the rules I set:
Necessary Spending: These included rent, groceries, gas and parking, therapy, phone and internet, health insurance, and key business expenses like email hosting.
Unnecessary Spending: I would eliminate every other "fun" purchase, including all meals out, impulse-buys (like those sneaky candles), non-essential business expenses like new journals, and takeout coffee.
Week 1: Smooth Riding from the Start
As with any challenge, my ban started with a bang. For the first three days, I was 100% focused. I got around by bike exclusively.
On February 4, my partner and I hosted friends for the Super Bowl. We made veggie chili, and friends brought bread, beer and dessert. I spent $14 on fresh produce and canned tomatoes, rather than probably $50 at a bar.
Week 2: No More Coffee + a Valentine’s Day Workaround
In the second week, it became clear where I really struggle: coffee dates. I love meeting with people who want to work with my personal finance workshop company, Bravely. But those coffees had to go!
So whenever someone asked to meet for coffee, I suggested a walk instead. This worked well with people I knew already — friends were game for a 45-minute walk-and-talk rather than spending $5 to sit around at a coffee shop.
For people I didn’t know as well, I asked to chat on the phone rather than meet in person. It’s free to arrange a call, and more time-efficient. I managed to completely cut out spending on coffee.
Valentine’s Day also capped off the second week of February. My partner and I are very low-key, and we found a $20 gift card for Torchy’s Tacos (a local place we both love). We biked there and spent $35 on tacos and drinks. My boyfriend treated me to the $15. So far, so good.
Week 3: Breaking the Ban
By the third week of February, I had a good routine in place. I was still mostly biking, and had only used my car six times, keeping my gas spending at $24 and paying no parking fees. I’d hosted friends for dinner, and went to a pizza-and-board-game night at another friend’s.
My first thought before making any plans was always "how does this fit with the ban?" While that might sound extreme, it really just meant taking a few extra steps before saying "yes" to anything. Before I agreed to plans, I mapped out my biking route. Before I offered to make dinner for friends, I checked to see what was in our pantry.
Despite my planning efforts, week three was the week I broke the ban. I get my hair done at the Aveda Institute by students in training. The student I like best was graduating in February and moving to California — if I waited until March, he’d be gone! I signed up for a haircut. It was $18.
Later that same week, I took my partner’s mom out to a $30 lunch. In just one week I’d broken the ban by $48! I felt guilty in the moment, but both these purchases were things I really needed and enjoyed. Neither was mindless.
Week 4: Focusing on Values-Based Spending
This week brought two more unforeseen expenses. After a conversation with a close friend about depression, I made a $50 donation to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline — a number anyone can call 24/7 to get support if they’re feeling suicidal.
Though I broke the ban again, my goal was to be more mindful of my spending, to save for and spend on things I care about. This donation definitely met that criteria.
Another close friend got into a bad car accident two months ago. She’s still out of work, so nine friends and I each sent her $20 for a grocery gift card.
The End of the Ban
By the end of the month, I’d biked more than I had all of January, and I’d successfully eliminated small purchases like coffee and candles. I considered each purchase before I swiped my card and was more comfortable with my money because I felt in control of it.
Though I spent $118 I hadn't planned for, I had cut back in other areas — so I still hit my savings goals. I feel less guilty about those pop-up splurges, because spending on causes and people I care about is how I want to use my money.