If you'll humor me for a moment, I like to think of myself as with it in terms of my finances, especially for a 25 year old living in New York City. I save for retirement and a down payment for my own apartment, I make most of my meals at home, and I try not to go too crazy with shopping sprees or nights out with friends — that's all it takes, right?
But when taking a closer look at my credit card bills each month, I realized I might be deluding myself more than I thought and wondered. Where exactly is all of my money going?
Although I regularly track my expenses, with a big vacation just a few weeks away (California, here I come!) and a summer full of fun indulgences behind me, it was time to take a step back. I did not feel as in control of my finances as I'd like to, and wanted to challenge myself to see where I could trim the fat from my credit card bills. I decided, with the help of TODAY money expert Jean Chatzky, to embark on a three week spending ban, and Jean helped me set up some ground rules and target the areas where I really wanted to make changes long term.
My Spending Game Plan
Because my problem spending areas are groceries (I'm defenseless against a summer farmer's' market), and little indulgences, like afternoon coffees, new beauty products, and way too many bodega stops, Chatzky recommended I only grocery shop once per week, and not buy anything unless I specifically went out for it (i.e. no impulse buys).
I'd be hitting a 24-hour pause button before any purchase, so I really had to give something thought before handing over any plastic.
Since it supposedly takes 21 days to form a new habit (and I want this one to stick!), I was setting out on a two week hardcore, no-spending-at-all ban, except, of course, groceries and medical necessities. My third week of the ban would reintroduce spending, but on Chatzky's recommendation, I'd be hitting a 24-hour pause button before any purchase, so I really had to give something thought before handing over any plastic. This strategy, she says, helps to prevent buying things I don't really need or have doubles of, and will force me to stop and ask myself what will happen if I do or don't make a purchase.
After doing a little reflecting on my own, I wanted to achieve a few different goals:
- Become more aware of my little expenses that add up.
- Save $500 dollars to put towards my trip to San Francisco. I got this number from subtracting my grocery budget and a small buffer from my average normal spending in a week, and multiplying by three.
- Cut my spending by $200ish per month so I can continue saving. I am working towards a down payment for an apartment in the next five years.
- Feel more free when it comes to money and spending, especially when making social plans, and learning how to have fun on the cheap.
After mapping out my game plan (and my meals for the next three weeks), all I had to do was tuck my credit card safely in my wallet and hope for the best.
WEEK ONE: SETTING OUT FOR SUCCESS?
The first few days of my challenge were the hardest. The night before my challenge started, I treated myself to one final trip to the corner bodega for a snack. And I truly savored my freshly cut watermelon and overpriced candy bar.
But coming into a spending ban straight from Labor Day weekend, without adequate time to meal prep, was a rookie mistake. Because I wasn't eating the way I usually do (yogurt for breakfast just wasn't cutting it when I'm used to hearty oatmeal or eggs and avocado), I was hangry with a capital H and unable to pick up a snack to tide me over until lunch.
This first week, work really picked up speed with a big focus on hurricane coverage, which meant longer hours and more mental focus during the day. Normally, I'd be the first to volunteer for an afternoon cappuccino run to stretch my legs. But when the free coffee comes from a machine only a few feet away (which I'm grateful for, but let's be real — isn't nearly as strong), it felt like I was depriving myself more than I usually would.
At the end of my first week, I had my first real breach of the spending ban — I was working an extra day, and completely forgot the protein I had made for my lunch on the way out the door. Rather than munch on the free fries at work, I opted for a healthier option and bought a couple of hard boiled eggs from the deli.
My other lapse in judgement: I went blatantly off the rails and bought a coffee on day six (my first full Monday) of no spending. If that makes me weak, so be it. The situation felt dire in the moment, and only cost me $1.57 (depending on whether or not you consider my dignity).
I went blatantly off the rails and bought a coffee on day six. If that makes me weak, so be it.
Additionally this week, my roommates went to Costco — probably for the best that I was at work. The stuff they grabbed technically counted as necessities (we split the cost of paper goods, cooking spray, toothpaste and resealable bags two or three times per year), but the timing was not ideal for this experiment. Something to add to my budget planning post-ban: big expenses like these (almost $100) that don't come out of weekly or monthly budgeting for other necessities.
Although my first few days were the hardest, I felt immensely better when I was able to meal plan with more intention for week two, and honestly, was so touched by the kindness and generosity of friends. A $2 beauty treatment my roommate gifted me turned into an hour of watching Chopped reruns and giggling over the scary faces we could make with our sheet masks. A $5 happy hour beer from a former classmate totally made our late afternoon meeting a fun evening. A coffee from a coworker when I was having a tough day meant more when I hadn't already had two from Starbucks. I was feeling good, and ready to tackle week two of no spending.
WEEK TWO: FREE FUN FOR ALL (OR, I'M A HUGE MOOCH)
Week Two of my spending ban was perhaps my most "successful." I was able to make inexpensive plans with friends, and did a better job of sticking to my grocery budget. No out-of-the-blue Costco trips or illegal coffee runs here.
I coasted on the generosity of friends quite a bit. I saw a play I had pre-purchased $5 tickets for a few weeks ago, took a Soulcycle class with a buddy who goes for free through work and took a rock climbing class with a friend who's an instructor.
I felt a little guilty making plans that would usually involve food or drink on my ban — I was already taking advantage of others' free perks, and normally would treat as a thank you. But, alas, the folks in my life are very kind, and I was treated to a meal and a drink on two of these outings. Everyone is getting really fantastic birthday gifts this year, I promise.
I was able to have an honest conversation about money with a good friend of mine — something we'd never discussed before.
Social spending is the thing that is toughest for me to say no to - it's not that I'm unaware of my spending in a lot of social situations, but rather that I feel uncomfortable saying that something is too expensive, or nitpicking over a check. During my spending ban, I was able to have an honest conversation about money with a good friend of mine — something we'd never discussed before. We both felt good following our conversation, and it's useful to have the insight of someone I trust, who has the same mindset when it comes to financial planning.
In terms of saying no to friends, I've discovered that many of my peers are in the same boat. Though we're all a little strapped for cash and should be saving more, there's definite pressure to keep up with the millennial version of the Joneses, especially on social media. My strategy to keep things low cost is to come armed with suggestions of my own, and be up front if I need to pivot plans.
As for the rest of my spending, I was able to keep things pretty under control. I went over budget on my groceries (my timing on running out of staples I buy only once every couple of months is terribly unlucky), but only by about $15. I drank my sad work coffee for free, and went on a lot of walks in the park and took classes at the gym that are included in my monthly membership, which is pretty reasonable, thanks to my work discount.
This week, since I stuck to my ban pretty carefully, I was able to put $200 towards my spending goal for my trip, and it was so satisfying to move that amount into my savings account.
WEEK THREE: GOOD THINGS COME TO THOSE WHO WAIT?
Going into a third week of a spending ban, even though I could technically spend, was a weird transition. Even though I could go out and spend, I wasn't necessarily inclined. One thing I did spend on: a morning cup of coffee. If my first two weeks of the ban taught me only one thing, it's that I don't care about impulse snacks, but I do care about morning coffee. Seattle's Best is more important to me than bodega runs in the long term.
For weeks one and two, I'd been keeping track of things I wanted to buy and decided to actually look into getting one of them — a new small purse, mostly for weekend or going out use. After perusing a little online, I went to J. Crew to test out the model I'd been eyeing from their website. I found what I thought I wanted shape-wise, but not color-wise (charcoal grey instead of black). I put the bag on hold, and decided to think on it and come back the following day if I still wanted it. And, funnily enough — I didn't want it 24 hours later. Yes, I'm still on the hunt for a bag, but I took a look in my closet and decided that gray wouldn't be the best with all of the black clothes I own (New York happens to the best of us), and stood down on that $100+ purchase. I'm proud of myself for taking a step back and looking at my current inventory before adding to it.
I put the bag on hold, and decided to think on it and come back the following day ... funnily enough — I didn't want it 24 hours later.
My third week expenses were not on stuff so much as experiences — I went to visit a friend from high school in Connecticut for the night. We have conflicting and crazy schedules, and this visit had been on the calendar for several weeks. There was no getting around it because of my spending ban. So, between train fare, dinner, drinks and breakfast, I spent a little less than $100, which is usually a little more than my entire "fun" budget for a week. But because I hadn't paid to eat out (or drink at all, really) for two weeks, and it was an experience I knew wouldn't come around all the time, it was liberating to not feel like I'd overspent. That money wasn't spent on a bottle of nail polish or a bag of popcorn or an iced Americano, but on quality time with a friend that I cherish but don't see that often.
For the tail end of the week, I had both little wins and little losses. I made it to the farmers' market, and stayed on task — bought exactly four nectarines for $4, and resisted the temptation to overbuy, but a stressful day at work left me poorer in money but richer in calories after a $3 impulse cookie at Jacques Torres.
So, how did I fare after three weeks on a spending ban? Here was my breakdown:
- Despite my best intentions, I ended up overspending on groceries. The once a week shopping rule was a little too stressful for me. I wound up paranoid I'd be hungry for a mid-afternoon snack or run out of spinach mid-week. A little more flexibility on timing, but a promise to stick to my shopping list, is my game plan moving forward.
- Although I didn't exactly stick to this spending ban 100 percent, I still came under my weekly average every single week. My average among the three weeks was $185.27 — considering that included a weekend trip and a semi-annual Costco run, I am totally okay with that number.
- In three weeks, I spent only $18.13 on non-essential food items, which is insanely low for me. That is usually my biggest pain point, and I definitely have identified what is and isn't important to me anymore. For instance, buying a $1.26 cup of coffee instead of relying on the free machine I now have a love/hate relationship with: worth it. Buying $4.50 worth of watermelon at the bodega and then a pack of gum or a seltzer to meet the credit card minimum: not worth it.
- Although I didn't save the full amount I had intended, I was able to tuck away just over $370 for my trip — more than I had before, so a win in my book.
- Overall, I was able to cut my spending to less than half the damage I'd usually do in a three week span.
By planning well and taking an occasional moment to wallow in self-pity and a lack of caffeine, I survived my three weeks without spending. Although I definitely won't be doing it every month, it was a great way to become aware of where my money was ending up, and being more mindful of my actual needs versus my impulses and fleeting desires (plus, you know, that sweet stockpile of spending money for California). It was kind of fun to work towards a short term goal and get creative with spending time with friends. Checking my emotional and mental needs before reaching for my credit card will definitely become second nature post-spending ban.