Years ago I read a personal finance article about completing a budget challenge for the month of February. The ground-rules couldn’t be simpler: for the entire month, you could only spend money on essential items. The thinking went that the challenge would be less daunting to take on in February, the shortest month of the year. I was intrigued at the time but didn’t follow through; it seemed there were always upcoming social events that would require “non-essential” spending.
After a family vacation last November followed by the expenses of the Christmas season, my husband and I knew we needed to do something to reign in our spending. I remembered the one-month budget challenge and thought it was time to give it a try. We opted for January instead of February, as a good kick-start for our 2015 financial goals. Beyond our monthly bills, we could spend money only on groceries, medication, and transportation (gas and needed car repairs/maintenance). Eating out and ordering takeout were off limits, with the exception of when my husband travelled for work.
As a Moderate Mama, I knew that such extreme spending limits wouldn’t be realistic or sustainable in the long-term. The experience, however, has been extremely eye-opening. As the month nears its end, I wanted to share some things that have happened along the way.
I learned that a penny saved isn’t necessarily a penny earned
If you’re anything like me, your email is inundated daily with offers promising you unbelievable deals. Save $25 when you spend $75! Clearance deals starting at $1.99! Items available 75% off retail price! And of course, those steals are only available if you act BEFORE MIDNIGHT! It’s easy to succumb to the pressure to shop when these too-good-to-be-true deals are tantalizing you from your inbox. But you’re only truly saving money if you’re purchasing items you need and planned to buy anyway. Otherwise, saving $25 when you spending $75 isn’t actually saving you $25 at all; it’s costing you $50. When you put the brakes on your spending with the budget challenge, you realize that oftentimes you’ll ultimately spend less by ignoring these “bargains” altogether.
I turned my trash into treasure
I wanted a cute way to post the New Year’s resolutions my husband and I had made, to help inspire us and keep us on track beyond the first few weeks of the year. My first thought was to buy a large cork board to display our goals. But with the budget challenge, this was a no-go. So I started thinking about how I could achieve the same end with items I already had on hand. Sitting in the basement was a picture frame I’d had in my old apartment, which had been collecting dust for years since my husband and I combined households. It would be a perfect way to showcase our goals, and it cost me absolutely nothing.
I broke my cyber habit
Online shopping is a beautiful thing. When I think of an odd item that I need, instead of driving 25 minutes and wandering from store to store in hopes that I’ll stumble upon what I’m looking for, I can find exactly what I need from the comfort of my couch (without having to change out of my pajama pants!) Within minutes of thinking “I could really use one of those,” my virtual checkout is complete and the item is one its way to my doorstep. But that great advantage – convenience – is exactly what can make online shopping so dangerous. There’s rarely a pause, a chance to step back and decide whether this item is something you really need. My husband and I had discussed buying a growth chart for our son. My Google search results quickly escalated from $25 basic growth charts to a $60 personalized one with custom colors to perfectly match his owl-themed bedroom. Because of the budget challenge, I browsed but did not purchase. I eventually realized that we didn’t need one at all, but could do it the old-school way and mark his height on an out-of-the-way door frame.
I led myself not into temptation
My quickly diminishing shampoo and bath gel bottles would ordinarily mean a trip to my favorite big-box store. My brands of choice cost less there than at the grocery store. I use this as justification for a trip to the store, but let’s be serious, I’m just looking for an excuse! I love wandering through this mecca of cute housewares, baby stuff, accessories, and just about anything else you can think of. No matter how disciplined I try to be, I always manage to come home with about three times as much as what was on my list. Knowing that I’d have to stick to necessities only made the prospect of a trip to the big-box stores much less attractive. Why drive the extra 20 minutes when I can’t buy anything fun? This made me realize that saving 50 cents on shampoo is cancelled out many times over if you succumb to the temptation of impulse buys.
We cooked all our own meals for a month, and survived
We’ve all been there- it’s Friday night, you’re staring into the abyss of the refrigerator feeling zero inspiration, and then your eyes fall upon the magnet for your local pizza place. Thirty minutes later you feel gross after eating one slice too many, your fingers are dripping with pepperoni grease, and your pocket is $25 lighter (but on the bright side, no dishes!) When take-out isn’t an option, you realize that throwing together a quick frittata or pasta dish with whatever scraps are left in your fridge isn’t the end of the world. It will cost you less, and probably be kinder to your waistline. Don’t get me wrong, we’ll be ordering plenty of pizza once the challenge is over, but we didn’t miss takeout as much as we’d expected.
I re-calibrated my mindset
Even outside of the budget challenge, I’m ordinarily a very thrifty person. But after my husband and I bought our first house together last year, there were seemingly endless things to purchase in order to furnish our new home. I lost my usual reluctance to make major expenditures, reasoning that it was worthwhile to spend more on things I really liked, rather than getting something cheap that I’d just replace in a year or two. After all, we’d have these furnishings for years and years to come, so we should choose well-made items that we truly loved. While that thinking certainly made sense, it became a slippery slope. If I saw a décor idea on Pinterest, I felt compelled to go shopping immediately. This budget challenge helped shift my mindset. Not every idea for the house that popped into my mind needed to translate to an immediate purchase. The time-out from spending helped me really stop and think about what purchases for the house were worthwhile.
Nobody enjoys budgeting. There’s nothing fun about it, and few of us are disciplined enough to follow-through. Ironically, the budget challenge takes the “challenge” right out of budgeting, in the sense that spending decisions are easy when you can’t buy anything you don’t absolutely need. You don’t have to worry, for example, about overspending on your “entertainment” budget for the month, because the budget is zero. This forces you to be creative and resourceful, which turns the drudgery of budgeting into a fun game – how can I keep my family entertained without spending a dime? It gives you a better perspective on real needs versus wants. Having to fight the temptation to acquire new things brings into focus how much you actually already have.
Did we abide 100% by the rules? No. Will we continue to stick to such stringent budgeting? Certainly not. There are plenty of things in life that cost money and are well worth the indulgence. But eliminating unnecessary expenses for the month was a great experience. Not only did we save a lot of money, but we gained a fresh perspective that will continue to help us with our savings goals. So I’m extending the challenge to all of you! How about making February a no-spending month?