Ok, first things first. Does January 1st feel like it was a year ago? I swear, it feels like forever since I told you guys about my intentions for 2019, and while a few of them haven’t received much of my attention yet, I’ve been off to the races with others. One of these has been getting on top of my finances, and if you happened to catch that intentions post, you may recall that one of my mini-goals within this was a January spending challenge.
More specifically, my goal was to have at least 20 $0-spend days.
The rules I made at the beginning of this self-imposed challenge were as follows:
- Uber and Lyft rides don’t count (because if I had a car, I wouldn’t have counted my transportation
- For food, days when I actually make transactions count, but the days between do not. (Example: Buying groceries on Saturday counts as a spending day, but eating meals prepared with those groceries throughout the week do not.)
- Money spent on coffee/tea dates with friends does not count because cultivating more in-person connection is another one of my intentions for the year. If I were to grab a tea on the go just for myself that would have counted as spending, but I rarely do that.
So the big question: Did I actually make it throughout the excessively-long month of January with at least 20 $0-spend days?
Not quite – I fell a little short and only achieved 18. This was mostly due to more spending on entertainment when my sister was here visiting during the first half of the month, but in retrospect, it’s not so much the exact number of spend-free days that matters.
My original hope with this challenge was simply to cut myself off from making so many impulse purchases, which WAS one of the results. (Hooray!) I work in email marketing, so sale alerts, back in stock notifications and abandoned cart emails are my jam. I write them, code them and send them. But even I fall victim sometimes – and often, as was the case before Christmas! The challenge certainly did help to limit my spending on clothes, but the other lessons I took away from the challenge are ones I believe will be even more impactful and long-lasting than I originally anticipated.
I became more conscious of the act of spending money.
Today we have things like Apple Pay, online shopping, apps, autoship subscriptions, PayPal, one-click ordering, and websites that store our credit cards in a digital wallet – all of which are great features for our convenience. It’s also great for the businesses on the other side of those transactions because it eliminates the physical need for us to reach for our wallets. It makes selling things a whole lot easier. But for us as shoppers, this kind of convenience means we can go days – even weeks – without having to take out our credit cards, all while letting money quickly slide out of our bank accounts.
I noticed my high purchase frequency.
Tracking my spend and no-spend days not only limited my impulse buys, but made me SO much more conscious of my purchase frequency and the importance of planning. In a nutshell, I was buying things every single day. Online ordering is so easy and frictionless, and the shipping offered by most companies I buy from is super fast. All this had led to me falling out of the habit of making shopping lists. If I forgot something in one order, I could quickly place another the next day and have it arrive the day after. More often than not, I’d find another couple of things I “needed” in that unplanned second order, and so on and so on, day after day. I’d stopped making lists, and I’ve learned that list making is something that keeps me on track across many areas of my life – not just finances.
I became conscious of the amount of time and mental energy I was wasting on purchase consideration.
One big thing I noticed when moving from Canada to the US is that when it comes to buying something here, the amount of choice is a bajillion times larger. A search that returns 5 pages of results on Amazon.ca returns 50+ pages on Amazon.com, which means more products and prices to compare, more reviews to read, and more mental energy consumed. That can be exhausting as physically being in a mall and shopping – and you’re not even getting the exercise of walking from store to store! When I knew that I only had 11 days in the month on which I could buy things (most of which would be weekends), I stopped browsing online shopping sites during the week. I also got more sleep!
Other things I did that helped during this challenge
A Mint account
At the beginning of January I refreshed my setup in Mint and vowed to actually use it to track my spending. In case this is the first time you’ve heard of it, Mint is a free personal finance tool (web and mobile app) but there are plenty of others if you prefer that have similar features. I categorized all my transactions so that I could easily see in the reports section where my money was going – mostly to things like groceries, utilities, rent, clothes and fitness.
(FYI – in the chart below, rent is in the ‘Home’ category, ‘Food + Dining’ includes groceries, and ‘Shopping’ includes clothes and a few other retail sub-categories I set up This is very customizable so you don’t necessarily have to categorize things this way and I’m still re-categorizing some things. I’m able to hover over each part and click through to see all the transactions in a specific time period that are included in each piece of the pie chart.)
Without even looking at the amounts of each transaction, simply reducing the number of them helped me to save. I wasn’t necessarily trying to spend less money – just less frequently.
I also used Mint to set myself some loose budgets, and looked at the automated report that the tool emails to me every week to see how much room was left in each. (PS. Mint has AMAZING graphs and chart visualizations if you like to geek out over these things like me!) Just looking at those numbers more frequently was helpful, and when I compared the full month of January to December, I’d spent 7% less on groceries, 13% less on clothes and “non-essentials”, and 11% overall.
I moved all my marketing emails in my inbox to my Unroll.me roll-up.
I realize that I’m kind of shooting my email marketer self in the foot by encouraging you to do this, but let’s consider it my good deed for the day. This is a tool I mentioned earlier in January, and one I’ve been using for years. In a nutshell, it’s an inbox extension that recognizes all the marketing emails you’re subscribed to and for each, provides you with the option to either 1) roll them up into a daily digest, 2) keep them in your inbox, or 3) unsubscribe. It filters away all these emails in a folder so that you don’t have to see them (unless you open the folder), and delivers mini screenshots in one daily rolled-up digest.
It had been a while since I’d revisited my settings, which meant I was seeing a whole lot of the word ‘SALE!’ in my inbox. Speaking from personal experience, you’d be very surprised what simply not seeing these words can do for your bank account! Not only has it saved me time I’d previously been using to open and/or delete, but it’s reduced the mental distraction of thinking about buying things, and the potential FOMO feeling of missing a sale (which is probably for something I don’t really need anyway.)
In my case, I do go into my Unroll me folder to see marketing emails every week or so since it’s part of my job to be educated in this area, but seriously – if you are struggling to keep your spending in check, this is a really easy first step.
How I plan to adjust my buying behavior now and in the future
- All marketing emails for non-necessities (like clothes, makeup, and basically all the fun stuff) go to my Unroll me within a week of subscribing.
- If I’m buying anything online, I have a rule that in most cases, it needs to sit in my cart overnight before I actually pull the trigger. (You’d be surprised by how many “1 day sales” aren’t really only 1 day!)
- I keep a list on my phone of everything I think I need to buy at the end of the week (typically from Thrive Market, Amazon, and Instacart), review the list, and then make all those purchases on the same day. Just like during my challenge, I think this will help keep me conscious of the total amount I spend, as opposed to letting little bits of money go here and there. Really, I don’t have much reason to need to buy stuff during the week – I basically just sleep, work, go to the gym, and eat!
- I’ll continue to use Mint for budgeting and reviewing transactions. I think tracking progress is a big part of any goal, and can be extremely motivating when you actually do it – and if you can turn it into a game to make it fun. I like Mint’s budgets because I always feel great when I finish the month, compare to the last, and see that I’ve done better than expected.
I know there’s even more for me to do here in order to reign in my discretionary spending, but one month in, I’m excited and motivated to do it. By thinking of this like a game against myself, it’s a lot more fun to work on!
Ok, now I’d love to hear from you! Do you have any financial goals for yourself this year? Have you ever tried a low/no spending challenge? How did it go, and did your spending behaviour change because of it?
5 thoughts on “What I learned from my January spending challenge”
Ooooh boy, I’m not sure this comment box has the character limit to answer the above questions! Lol. In all seriousnes, this is a topic near and dear to my heart! I took up a similar exercise a couple of years ago that produced the same results. I took a different path but the objective/goal was the same: less frequent spending. My habits changed dramatically. I kept it going and ended up saving $1200+ in a year. In the end, you used Mint, I used a spreadsheet I built out (are you surprised? Lol), but it was the act of tracking it that changed my behavior. It made me really think about whether I wanted or needed what I was buying. Just knowing the impact it would have on my account helped tremendously. Love the challenge and glad it worked out!
OMG Mike, I’m SO sorry for the delay on this! I’ve just recovered a whole bunch of comments from my spam that I never knew I had, and your friendly face popped up! I’m sure if I still lived in Vancouver we could geek out over coffee for HOURS on this. I remember you doing a spending challenge back when we were at HS and at that time thought to myself that I should really do the same exercise. That is phenomenal that you ended up saving over $1200! I think I’m going to re-start the challenge when I get back from Hawaii (because when on vacay, #yolo), and make it a longer-term practice. Thanks for being one of the first people to plant this little savings challenge seed in my head!
Have 3 credit cards. I for essentials – food , gas , drugs. And other for extras- clothing , entertainment trips. One other is only for My online purchases. Thiscard only has 800 limit on it. Amazing how the tally stacks up at end of each month!
After having baby #2 the last thing I want to do is go to the grocery store with an infant and a toddler. I now use Whole Foods delivery and I swear it is saving me a fortune because I can’t wander the aisles and impulsively buy something. Hehe baby also keeps me too busy to shop but I have purchased some things from ThredUP to fit my postpartum body which I know saved me money.
OMG I was thinking the same thing the other day when I was explaining to a friend why I use Instacart. I’m sure that you, like me, could spend HOURS wandering Whole Foods and finding all sorts of things we didn’t know we needed, but ordering online definitely limits the amount of time spent – and impulse purchases! Great to hear from you, Lauren!