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It’s 2020! A new decade! A new frontier! If you’re looking to get more financially fit this year, now is a great time to do a no-buy/no-spend challenge. If you’re going “DEAR GOD THAT SOUNDS TERRIBLE!” then I am going “I KNOW BUT IT DOESN’T HAVE TO BE!”

One of the things that’s so off-putting about the term “no-buy/no-spend” is that it implies that you’ll be suspending all monetary transactions for a predetermined period of time, reading by candlelight and spinning your own wool, and that’s just not the case. Yes, there will be a target amount of time in mind, usually a month to a year, but you won’t be locking your wallet in a safe and hurling it into the sea, opting for a life of dumpster diving and churning your own butter. (Of course there are some people who live on self-sustaining farms or are hardcore freegans, but that’s not what we’re talking about today.)

No-buy/no-spend is actually a pretty simple concept, and it’s fairly flexible; it’s just a way to slash unnecessary expenditures and redirect the savings to things that actually matter to you, so it’s up to you to determine what the parameters will be. As long as you’re being honest with yourself about what you want to achieve and what’s a sustainable way to go about it, the “challenge” shouldn’t necessarily be all that challenging.

So let’s start there, yeah? What is it that you hope to attain by cutting back on your spending? Is there a specific chunk of debt you want to tackle, a target for monthly investing you’d like to hit, a philanthropic cause you’d like to support more, or even just a travel/vacation fund you’ve been neglecting that you’d like to boost? While it’s not necessary to have an exact dollar amount in mind re: what you hope to save, it can be pretty helpful to have a general idea of an end goal(s); that way, you can take a more informed look at your budget and set some realistic rules for yourself that will facilitate the process.

Once you’ve figured out some rough goals, it’s time to look at your flippin’ expenses (and your income) and create a budget. SHUDDER This is 100% the scariest part of this process, because you have to face your spending habits head-on, and a lot of the time it’s not very pretty. (Example: I was able to determine that I was spending a bonkers amount of money on alcohol and cigarettes, which is understandable given our current trash fire timeline, but there’s very little to show for it, and I’d rather be putting that money towards more meaningful things.) January is a good time to scope out where your money went in the previous year by scouring your bank statements online, but I personally feel like taking a magnifying glass to the previous month (or up to three months in the past) is sufficient to get an idea of where your money is going. 

From there, map out the expenses you can’t change (aka rent, utilities, bills, etc.), and then, based on what’s left over, determine what you are and aren’t willing to cut from your monthly spending. Using myself as an example again, I am willing to cut back drastically on ordering Seamless, getting drinks, taking Ubers, etc., but one thing I am not willing to part with is my YouTube TV subscription. (Yes it’s $50/mo, but for now it’s a critical distraction if I’m trying to spend less on going out. Also, I fucking love television.) Meanwhile, I’m actually willing to invest more in my grocery bill than usual so I’m less tempted to get delivery or go out to eat. And I am 100% not willing to compromise when it comes to gift giving for family and close friends, y’all! (Not about that cheapskate life, although I do try to make sure the gifts I pick out are thoughtful so it’s not money or effort wasted.)

Everything else is pretty fair game when it comes to cutting back, but there are exceptions! Emergencies obviously don’t count when it comes to no-buy/no-spend, but there are other things you can be loose on. For instance, if there’s a special occasion (like a friend’s birthday dinner, or some insane never-gonna-happen-again pop-up dinner from a chef I really like), then you might consider lifting the “ban” on going out to eat. But try not to make impulse decisions about these things, you know? That’s where the predetermined rules come in very handy. And remember that the main point is just to start being more intentional about where your money is going; that way (theoretically) you’ll be more appreciative/present when you’re consuming goods and services, and your overall quality of life (again, theoretically) will benefit.

And now for the easy part! Practicing what you preach! Just kidding, I know it’s not “easy,” but it doesn’t necessarily have to be super hard. If you’re completely new to the game, there will be some learning curves for sure. But one of the things I’ve found helpful is to predict what your biggest stumbling blocks might be, and then try to put some strategies in place to curb the temptation of instant gratification.

If you tend to buy your lunch when you’re at work, think about the types of things you typically go for, and then try to recreate a version of that at home beforehand (maybe do some weekend meal prep to assemble the night before or morning of work) to take with you for a fraction of the price. (Learning how to make a dupe is another good distraction, and you can usually find some solid tutorials via free resources like YouTube. Also, how hard can it be to make a salad or rice bowl or sandwich, right?) Or maybe shopping is your vice, in which case you might consider a challenge within the no-buy/no-spend challenge to create a capsule wardrobe out of items you already own, do a swap meet with friends, etc. Sucker for the book store? Get a library card if you don’t already have one, or start trading titles with friends or co-workers! Worried you’ll be bored staying in? Plan a movie/craft/game/potluck/etc. night to help keep you occupied! Basically, there are a lot of low or no-cost solutions to mindless consumerism, and this is a really great time to start thinking outside the box. It’s also an excellent time to start learning new skills!

To really help things stick, track all your expenses in an app like Mint or a Google spreadsheet (my preferred method); you don’t have to do it immediately, but at the end of each day (or even week), look at your bank statement and plug in numbers to see if you’re hitting your desired targets. If so, woo-hoo! If not, how can you realistically improve? Having a visual for your progress is a really helpful way to keep yourself motivated and on track. And at the end of each month, hopefully you’ll be able to see a big chunk of money saved that can go towards your end goal(s)!

Again, this “challenge” isn’t meant to make you miserable! Quite the opposite, in fact! It’s supposed to make you take a look at what things are and aren’t making you happy in your consumerist habits. Often, if you’re taking an honest, hard look at those patterns, it’s easier to see that a lot of what we buy isn’t essential to our overall well-being. (And sometimes is even detrimental.) Doing a no-buy/no-spend experiment, even if it’s just for a short burst, can help you isolate which habits you want to keep and which ones you want to leave in 2019, or whenever you decide to start. SO, best of luck, and I wish you all of the financial prosperity from this day forward!