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It’s January 2020, the start of a new year and a new decade. It also means that I completed the No-Spend Year Challenge that I started for myself at the beginning of 2019. Looking back, I realize how naive and idealistic it was to say I wasn’t going to spend any money frivolously for an entire year. However, attempting the challenge taught me a lot about myself, my budget, and life in general, so I’m very happy that I did it, and proud of myself for seeing it through for the whole year (though there were quite a few lapses throughout the year!). Read on to discover the lessons learned from a no spend year challenge!
Lessons Learned from a No Spend Year Challenge
What is a No Spend Year Challenge?
Before we dive totally into the lessons learned from a no-spend year challenge, let’s have a quick recap. Way back in January of 2019, when I had first moved to Pennsylvania, I set myself up with a challenge: No spending any money needlessly for the entire year. No buying new clothes, no trips to Europe, no spontaneous vacations, and the hardest part: no going out. That meant eating at home, no movies, no shopping, no bars. For an entire year!
My No Spend Rules
Okay, I wasn’t that harsh on myself. The first of many lessons learned from a no-spend year challenge was learned before it even started. You can’t completely limit yourself. So, I gave myself some tough (but I thought achievable) parameters. I’d allow myself two nights out per month – because sometimes you just can’t cook at home and sometimes you need a date night to unwind with your partner. I also allowed myself to spend money on a few cheaper trips that were already sort of planned – Fincon and a trip to LA to see my friends, and I knew I wanted to get away to at least visit New York City.
The final thing I was allowed to spend on was necessities. I knew I needed to fix the house up, so spending money on anything to achieve that was allowed. I also wasn’t going to go super frugal and make my own household items, so soaps, cleaning supplies, stuff for the pets, and other general items were ok to buy.
Everyone has their own reasons for doing a no-spend year challenge, so your list of what is okay to buy and what’s not allowed might be a little different. You might laugh at the fact that I had three trips on my list of okay, and I might scoff at the idea that you allow yourself a clothing allowance (or whatever else you might allow yourself). That’s okay – the point is to make the challenge work for you.
What Lessons Did I Learn from a No Spend Year Challenge?
So now that the rules and recap are out of the way, let’s get to the down and dirty. What did I learn from attempting this ridiculous challenge?
1. Everybody Needs to be on Board
The first big lesson I learned from attempting my no spend year challenge is that everyone in the household needs to be on board. I started the year in a relationship, and about midway through I learned that he wasn’t remotely interested in not spending money. He had just agreed as a manipulation tactic to make it seem like we were on the same page. The no spend challenge was a catalyst that led to the relationship ending.
In the grand scheme of things, that was one of the best things that could have happened. Engaging in the no spend challenge showed me his true colors. If I wouldn’t freely give him money to spend, he’d just steal it from me or trick me into buying it (mixing a gift card in with the groceries and grabbing the receipt so I wouldn’t notice, for example). Discovering that he was a terrible person was a great lesson and one that I’m glad the challenge helped me learn.
But even if it didn’t turn out that he was an awful person, I did learn that everyone needs to be on board. You need a partner who will be honest about their feelings. Sometimes it’s easier to go along with what your partner wants because you don’t want to argue or you have problems expressing your own needs. These patterns can lead to resentment. It’s better to have honest discussions about both of your expectations and desires.
2. It’s Easy to Not Spend on Things You Normally Don’t Buy
I’m not a shopper. I don’t like to go to the mall and buy new clothes. It’s just not my thing. I wear a uniform to work and pajamas at home. On the rare occasion that I do go out, I’m usually sporting jeans and a casual top.
For me, not spending money on clothing was the easiest part of this challenge. I didn’t buy anything all year. But, if I really think about it, was that much of a challenge? I usually shop for clothing once a year, and this year I skipped it. Should I be super proud of that? I don’t think so.
I’m prouder of the fact that I hardly bought any new books and (almost) stuck to my two meals out per month. Those are the things I tend to splurge on. Although I didn’t meet my goals every month, I know that being mindful of the challenge helped.
3. Being Accountable Helps
One of the biggest reasons why I was successful at all during this challenge is because I knew I’d have to write about my failures. Was going out to eat every day that week worth having to tell all of my readers that I couldn’t keep it together three days in a row? It wasn’t for me, and let me tell you, that’s an amazing motivator.
Not everyone is a blogger, but everyone has someone or something that they can be accountable to. Whether it’s an accountabila-buddy, your partner, or even a diary. Having that someone or something to be accountable to helps people achieve their goals. I know it helped me.
4. Cooking isn’t That Hard
One of my biggest concerns in starting the challenge was that I’d have to eat at home most of the time. Unfortunately, I was a terrible cook. To mitigate that, I bought a meal planning bundle filled with recipes, meal plans, and all sorts of kitchen help. As it turned out, I could follow a recipe. I learned how to cook!
I also learned that meal planning isn’t all that difficult. Look at the ingredients you have, decide what you’re going to have for the week, and buy the rest of the stuff you need. This might seem like common sense for those of you who have been adulting for quite some time, but for people like me who struggled in the kitchen, it was an epiphany. My no spend challenge made me a better cook and made me better at meal planning. Who would have thought?
5. Not Spending Money Turns into Habit
The best lesson I learned from my no spend year challenge is how easy it is to turn not spending money into a habit. Sure, I had a few failures over the course of the year, but now that it’s January and I can freely spend again, I don’t really want to.
It’s easy to run to McDonald’s when we are out, but it’s just as easy to run home and have a sandwich. It’s easy to order a pizza, but it’s just as easy to stick the frozen one into the oven. Shopping can be a fun relaxing activity, but window shopping achieves the same thing and you don’t have to spend anything. Hopefully, I’ll take these newfound habits into the next few years.
6. Not Taking a Vacation Sucks
I’ve gone someplace awesome every year for the past 7 or so years (sometimes multiple times per year!). Giving that up this year was tough. My only vacations this year were short weekend trips. I did LA twice, Savannah once (but that was part of moving – had to pick up my dogs!), New York, and DC for Fincon. That probably seems like a lot, but I’m used to taking a week or two and going to a different country. Traveling is one of my biggest passions, and not getting to engage in that this year wasn’t easy. It makes me wonder what I’m doing all this for if I can’t do what I love.
Unfortunately, I may have to sacrifice a trip this year as well, if I can’t get the costs down on some of my home improvement projects. I’m going to take a longer tip to LA (free lodging and Fincon!) this year and take a few weekend trips. Maybe those things will help me feel better about not traveling, but I know the travel bug is catching up with me. I’m getting antsy for a big adventure. Hopefully, I’ll figure out a way to get one in this year.
Doing Another No-Spend Challenge
Although I learned a ton of lessons from my no spend year, I doubt I will attempt it again. I might try smaller periods with stricter rules. For example, I might attempt a no spend month where I’m not allowed any dinners out, or a no spend week where I can’t even grocery shop. I definitely won’t try doing a whole year again. It was fun, I learned a lot, and probably saved tons of money, but a year is such a long time. It’s hard to stay conscientious that long (my spectacular September failure is an epic example!)
Have you ever tried a no spend challenge? What were your rules and how did it go? I’d love to hear about it in the comments!
Melanie launched Partners in Fire in 2017 to document her quest for financial independence with a mix of finance, fun, and solving the world’s problems. She’s self educated in personal finance and passionate about fighting systematic problems that prevent others from achieving their own financial goals. She also loves travel, anthropology, gaming and her cats.