Thursday, May 21, 2009

What I Learned During Our One-Month Spending Fast

My husband came to me one day in February and suggested that we do a spending fast for the month of March.

I almost fainted.

And, then he explained to me what he meant.

- Only buy absolute necessities - essentially bills, groceries and gas.
- No eating out.
- No Starbucks or drive-thrus.
- No paid babysitters.
- Only packed lunches for work.
- No clothes/shoe shopping.
- No buying toys, movies, games.
- And, let's get the kids in on it.

And, then I fainted. Not really.

But, I cried.

Because I was scared. Because I didn't want to lose my freedom - even temporarily. But, I knew God was leading my husband and our family to do this. You know how sometimes you just know when God is prodding? Well, I knew.

But, how could we *possibly* go one entire month without spending any money?

Well, friends, we did.

And, I've now had a month and a half to think about it, process it, and really evaluate what I learned. And, to see if it has changed me.

It has.

It's changed my perspective about spending in ways I never could have imagined. And, it taught me so much about myself - in real and practical ways that I'm applying to my daily life.

I'm not posting what I learned so that you'll think more highly of me or my family. Oh, man - we struggled through this. But, we are so thankful that God placed it on our hearts to do it. It was such an awesome experience in discipline - kind of like getting up to exercise every day (which I've never done, hello thigh dimples), but seeing the rewards over time. We needed discipline in this area.

I'm posting what I've learned because I think it might encourage some of you to try it and be changed by it as well. It was a difficult and humbling experience.

It wasn't easy.

But, most things of real value rarely are.

What I Learned During Our One-Month Spending Fast

1. I fell in love with cooking all over again. We couldn't eat out. So, I cooked. And, baked. And, cooked and baked. I didn't have a choice. But, the more I cooked, the more I couldn't wait to get back in the kitchen, again. And, my family has never eaten better. We made many new memories just being at meals at home together. Just us. Our family. Sitting around the table enjoying a home-cooked meal. I loved watching my family enjoy the meals I made for them!

2. I eat for comfort. We had only been doing our spending fast for 3 days, when I met a friend at the mall. I packed the boys' lunches - knowing that I couldn't buy food there, but had eaten a large breakfast, so I didn't pack anything for myself.

The boys were so challenging that day at the mall. It was a hair-raising day. They were bouncing off the walls - literally - and I was frustrated and should have taken them home. But, I had packed lunch for them to eat at the mall, and didn't want their behavior to spoil the time I had with my friend.

I bought Chinese food for lunch. Yeah. A big ol' styrofoam container of it. I wasn't hungry. I was upset, sad, frustrated - and I knew it would make me feel better.

I called my husband in tears on the way home and told him that I blew it. At which point he (always full of grace and the last person on earth to be judgmental towards me) reminded me that this wasn't meant to be a legalistic smack down on our lives, but a way to teach us about ourselves and our decisions.

I learned that I eat for comfort - and when I'm out of the house, that eating costs our family money. I learned that very early on in this process.

3. I like to eat out because I get served. The food we eat at home is better than the food we get out. It just is. It's homemade, fresh, and I LOVE to be in my kitchen. (Except to do dishes. No.) But, at 3pm, when I haven't thought about dinner and the family room is trashed and filled with laundry piles, I would often call the hubs and say, "Let's just go out tonight."

I couldn't do that during our spending fast. And, I realized that when I pick up the phone and make that call, it's because I want to be served. I want someone else to cook for me, do the dishes, and clean up the crumbs on the floor when we're finished.

So, during our spending fast, my husband stepped up and helped clean up dishes and swept the floor, and told me to go sit and relax. He learned new ways of serving me, and I learned to accept his help. We have continued tackling dinnertime together - and it's been great for our marriage.

4. I didn't miss Starbucks. At all. I thought I would miss it terribly. And, I didn't. Starbucks had become a habit - just something I did for comfort (sensing a theme?) when I needed a "pick-me-up". I began making hot chocolate and coffee at home and taking it with me, and I broke the habit of pulling into the drive-thru whenever I felt like it.

5. Grey roots are just grey roots. Birthing my sweet babes has done a doozy on my hair - and with each subsequent child, unwelcome shades of grey are sprouting up all over the place. I get a haircut/color about every 6 months (it's long, doesn't need much attention), and was due for some TLC in January. But, the January slipped away. So did February. And, when I realized on - oh, about March 2nd - that I was gonna have to wait another month to get my hair done, I threw a little pity party for myself. But, you know, grey roots and split ends are just grey roots and split ends. I got over it. I may have tried to put mascara on them. I'm not telling. (Tip: Don't try that. It doesn't work.)

6. If I only had nine dollars to my name, I would spend it at McDonald's. Or Chick-Fil-A. Or Bojangles. On March 13th, my husband found a $20 bill squished between some receipts in his wallet. He broke that $20 bill at the pharmacy, kept $10, and gave me NINE WHOLE DOLLARS! OH, the possibilities. It was my money to spend on whatever I wanted.

Would you believe I spent EVERY SINGLE DOLLAR at McDonald's? The kids and I had gotten in such a habit of a little "drive-thru sanity" and I missed it. Terribly. The quick meal, an iced tea, a pack of fries while waiting in the carpool line at school. I spent EVERY PENNY on McDonald's.

I learned that I rely on this too much. It's silly. On occasion, as a treat, it's fine. But, I do it too much. I'm working on this one.

7. Eating out is not peaceful when you have three little boys. It's just not. I already mentioned that we eat better food at home - and that the primary reason I like to eat out is to be served. Well, let me tell you - it comes at a cost. I might not have to clean up, do the dishes, and sweep the floor when we're at a restaurant, but when you have three little boys under the age of five with you, eating at a restaurant is not a peaceful, pleasant experience. We usually leave feeling like we just wasted a bunch of money and spent an hour yelling at the boys.

Because we ate at home all month, we not only saved money, but we had many semi-peaceful dinners at home that would have been replaced by chaos at a restaurant.

8. Eating out is a double whammy. When we eat out during the week, it's a double whammy on our budget. We spend $30 or so at the restaurant, and then my husband doesn't have leftovers for lunch the next day - like he would have if we'd eaten at home. Then he spends another $5-$10 eating out for lunch. Or scrambling around for something else.

Eating out on a weekday hits our family twice.

9. A budget is freedom after having $0. Since I couldn't spend money on anything but necessities during the month of March, when we set up a budget for April, I felt such a tremendous sense of freedom. I could spend money, again - even if it was less than I would have wanted pre-spending fast. What would have seemed like small potatoes in February, seemed like a billion dollars in April.

I learned that I could get through a month and not spend one single dollar on clothing or shoes or this or that. I can get through any month now - having a reasonable budget and sticking to it.

Perspective. I learned a lot about perspective.

10. Cheap meals can be really, really good. One of our goals during our spending fast was to not increase our grocery budget. It would have been easy for me to justify and "hide" spending by saying, "Oh, I bought this at the grocery store." So, we stuck with our same grocery budget.

I was amazed at what we came up with when there wasn't any money left for more groceries. We had delicious quesadillas one night using all the leftover produce we could find. And, we went to bed feeling so satisfied knowing that we would have high-tailed it out of the house and gone to Outback had we not been on the spending fast.

We saved by being creative!

11. Kids will get behind you. We wanted the boys to learn during the month as well. So, we talked to them in very simple terms about what we were doing and we told them that we were going to stop going to McDonald's and buying their favorite treats - fruit snacks - just for one month. I thought they would throw a fit, but they didn't. For a few days, they asked me how long it would be until they could have them again, but that was it.

I was amazed at how they adjusted. They got it. Quickly. And, now they are no longer in the habit of popping pack after pack of fruit snacks. We're still working on McDonald's, but I was amazed at their willingness to "get on board" with us.

12. Going on a spending fast the month before you go on vacation will save you a lot of money! We had been dreaming about and planning our Disney vacation with the boys for over 6 months. And, I had done little to prepare prior to our spending fast. I would have easily spent $500 or more without hesitation in preparing for our trip - new clothes for me, the kids, my husband, new shoes, toys, bathing suits, makeup, movies, books - the list would have been enormous. But, not being able to spend the month before, I bought a few necessities and some spring clothes for Jack (our oldest) two days before we left, and that was it. And, we had everything we needed. Our trip wouldn't have been more special had I dropped all that money on a whole bunch of extra stuff.

Spending fast. Pre-vacation. It'll save you a boatload.

13. Browsing sale racks encourages impulsive spending. I love a good sale. I hardly ever buy anything full price. But, during our spending fast, I realized that way too many of the purchases I make are impulsive. I have always had a hard time avoiding buying something if it was a "good deal". I mean, a shirt at my favorite store for $4.99? How could I pass it up?

But, during our spending fast, I realized how much stuff I accumulate just because it's "on sale", "a great bargain", "75% off". I have accumulated more than I could EVER use or need. It became abundantly clear to me during our spending fast that I spend WAY too much money on stuff I never had any intention of buying.

14. God used our spending fast to provide for us. Right before we left for Disney World, we took the van in for regular maintenance to be sure it was ready for our long trip. We got a call midday telling us that the repairs on our van would be three times what we thought. (Because aren't they ALWAYS) That money would have normally come out of our savings - but, because we had refrained from spending for the month, we had the money. And, instead of causing us to fret over the money we had to spend on the van, we thanked God for providing for us in such an amazing way.

I am so thankful that my husband led us through this one-month spending fast. It wasn't easy. It wasn't always pleasant. And, there were times when I wanted to quit. Oh, how I wanted to quit some days.

But, I've learned so much about myself, about my spending habits, and about the triggers that send me into irresponsible spending.

More than anything, I was amazed at how empowering it felt - to reign in the "extra" spending, to not clutter our home with things we didn't need. To simplify, stay at home, and enjoy one another.

And, find contentment in what we already have - instead of the hope and fulfillment of what thing or meal or comfort we might purchase next.


  1. AWESOME post Sarah! Thanks for sharing your insights on this, it was very inspiring and honest. Isn't amazing how much power money/spending has on us?! And how awesome it feels to overcome that?! We've had to do the same, except for several months now, since I lost my job. It was tough but has become such a relief in so many ways too. God chooses some amazing ways to teach and bless us, doesn't He??

    BTW, I think I'd have a tough time giving up Mickey D's too! They put something in those darn fries I tell ya! :)

  2. nicely said! i do this every now and again - "a self-imposed spending freeze" which is just a fast. i find it's a good idea if i'm being extra-impulsive or if i've just gotten in a rut. w/ 4 kids on a teacher's salary, we don't eat out much (maybe once on the weekend but that's it), but i find that i can spend in other ways for comfort just like you said. it's amazing how "not spending" will awaken your other talents and interests - and just make you more creative with your time and energy. i find, at the end of the month, the things i saw earlier that i wanted i really don't want anymore.

    i'm co-teaching a women's study at church, and just taught a chapter on self-control a few weeks ago. this was one of my main points. anytime we fast, it's a good reminder that the things are meant to serve us... not the other way around.

  3. Way to go Sarah! Kudos to you for browsing through Target and not buying a thing! I think this would be a good thing for me to try. I had read about it in a magazine before. Your insight on this experience is great. I too find it hard to pass up a good deal as I don't like to pay full price for anything. And I'm sure your cooking is a lot better than what you get at most restaurants.

  4. What an amazing life lesson. We live on a tight budget just due to our income. We don't have jobs that pay great wages. You know we eat out alot, and I always think of that as my reward for not shopping, no Starbucks unless it's a gift card, and being good stewards of the other areas we could spend freely, but don't.

    I'm so proud of you! It's such a good feeling to know that you are living a simple life and feeling blessed one hundred times over!

  5. And as your sister, I know what a huge triumph this was for you b/c you have always enjoyed shopping and going out and about.

    The meals out are what get us the most. Even though we don't go out to eat that much, just a few times a month really adds up, and after dealing with the boys at a restaurant, it's never worth it (unless it's mcd's or chicfila) And I find if I don't step foot in stores, I want less and am not tempted to buy anything.

    Something that God has taught us is what we from our human perspective view as restrictive is actually what gives us freedom. When we stay within our budget, it gives us freedom to enjoy things without guilt, freedom to give without hesitancy, and a peace of mind.

    Cash, cash, and cash! I'm convinced that paying cash for everything is key to sticking to any budget!

  6. Oh Sarah, this post was awesome!

    I see myself in so many of your points:comfort eating, weakness for McD's, impulse shopping. (I am a sucker for those sales too)

    I've tried to convince myself that we really don't spend that much on "extras", but we recently took a month and wrote down EVERYTHING we spent our money and I was horrified at how much I actually spend on things like fast food and random things I found on sale. Yikes! What a wake-up call!

    I love your insight, especially in regard to eating at home vs eating out. You couldn't be more right when you say eating out with three small children is NOT relaxing :)
    Plus eating at home is better and cheaper!
    My love for my kitchen is growing too :)

    Thanks for your insight- both encouraging and challenging!

  7. Love this, Sar! It is so true. Adam and I are usually pretty good about sticking to some sort of a budget. But then I look back through the checkbook and add up all those little $3 and $4 purchases that don't seem like a big deal at the time. The end total is always a little outrageous. I will prayerfully consider doing this same thing with Adam. Great idea and great encouragement! Thanks friend!!!

  8. This is so, so interesting. Thank you for sharing this! I'm thinking we're going to do this in September (pre-Fall Break trip).

  9. This was a neat post. I also think that it is amazing that you did not blog about it while you were doing it, but instead, took the time to go through the month and see what you were learning.

    This is how I was raised. We NEVER ate, I'm really not exaggerating. That is what helped to make vacation even more exciting...we'd be eating out once or twice and we'd get to drink SODA!!! I remember one time being stuck out running errands and mom had a $5. She bought one meal and we each took a bite or two and had a couple fries. But, because of her attitude of how special this was, and "boy, I'm so full after those couple bites!" we thought we were full too!

    I agree with your sister on staying out of the stores. When I go in the mall and browse around, it always make be covetous of the things I don't or can't buy. Better to stay home and focus on my family here and all that God has already blessed us with.

    Hope you can stay with your "freedom" budget!

  10. We also had a "No-spend March" and it was amazing. You really summed it up well. There were so many days I wanted to go through the drive through with the boys because it would be "too much work to cook" when we got home. But we made it and it was really good for us. I also spent less at the grocery store because I used up what I had in the freezer/pantry. It was a blessing and I'm glad it was a blessing to you too!!

    Have a great day!

  11. *me giving you a standing ovation*

    We're doing the same thing here because of a couple of vacations we have in mind. :-D

  12. Great post Sarah! You inspire me. I think we so easily nickle and dime our money away.

  13. Love, love, love this. I'm de-lurking just to tell you that I'll be sharing this with everyone! Inspiring, practical, transparent. Thank you!!


  14. Sarah you wrote this post so beautifully. Even though I knew many of these insights from you already, it was still a pleasure to read it as if it were brand new information. And we felt so blessed to have had a small part of this journey with you. Great, great job summing it up.

    Oh and totally unrelated, but we tried the baked ziti (using penne) and we LOVED it!!!! Thank you for sharing that recipe!

  15. Loved this post-what an accomplishment! What is it with McDonald's? I have a serious problem with that as well...

  16. Wow, what a great article! :)

    It's amazingly freeing (in a funny way) to not have to spend a dime on yourself. You learn how to do your hair without hair gel (gasp!), etc. Out of necessity, I've had to do a little fast myself & it's amazing looking back how much I used to spend on vitamin waters & going out to eat. "I deserve this, I work hard." When what we deserve is the freedom of knowing we did absolutely everything we could to not bounce a check! :)

    Not that I don't love my Outback... ;)

  17. Wow, what a great article! :)

    It's amazingly freeing (in a funny way) to not have to spend a dime on yourself. You learn how to do your hair without hair gel (gasp!), etc. Out of necessity, I've had to do a little fast myself & it's amazing looking back how much I used to spend on vitamin waters & going out to eat. "I deserve this, I work hard." When what we deserve is the freedom of knowing we did absolutely everything we could to not bounce a check! :)

    Not that I don't love my Outback... ;)

  18. totally inspirational! thank you for sharing all of this. with the house and the trip, money is flying out of our bank account QUICKLY. i'll have to keep the one month fast idea in mind for when we return. sounds like a great way to get a handle on things.

  19. I really liked this post! Thanks for sharing!

  20. First time commenter...
    I identified with a lot of the things you said in this post. Thanks for sharing your experience. I'm considering trying a spending fast now!!

  21. This was a great post. What a wise hubby you have. When we first got married and for several years after we lived on a strict budget and I totally agree with your statement, that with a budget comes freedom. We budgeted in for eating out and dates so we could do but do it reasonably. We also each had a small "mad money" account to spend on whatever we wanted. Scott often saved his for something he wanted, I typically used mine on Starbucks.

    I must confess while we still have a budget, we aren't as strict and I KNOW, KNOW that we are spending more than we should on fast food. I eat out for the same reasons as you. Scott loves to eat at home, prefers to eat at home. I love the treat of someone else cooking and cleaning up. And often when out with the kids running errands it feels like my "reward". Thanks for sharing you lessons and insights as it gives me lots to think about. I don't want to, but I am thinking we should attempt a spending fast as well at the circus... will bring it up with hubby.

  22. Wow. I take my hat off to you, seriously. I'll be honest. I live in fear of my husband uttering those two words "spending fast", but we could use to do it as well...definitely! Loved reading about what you learned. Awesome!

  23. Let's not talk about the ebay shopping I did today or the Outback to go we had for dinner tonight (seriously!).

    LOVED this that Jason came up with the idea and that God led your heart to agree.

  24. i am impressed. i know that had to be hard. i am proud of you for following your husbands lead.

    i agree with anna - a budget is so freeing and not restrictive. our spending, our giving, our hold on our money changed once we put it in a budget. the disagreements over money are virtually non existent now because the money is dedicated after each pay check is deposited.

    again, agreeing with anna on the cash thing - so powerful. it is painful to spend cash. we pay cash for many things now and i think a lot more about how i spend since i am using cash.

    great post.

  25. This is such a great post! I'm really thankful to have found you online.


  26. Such a terrific post. I was linked to your blog for the giveaway of Jesus storybook bibles, but then I clicked on this post.

    I just started a spending fast for Lent. I have been couponing and deal shopping to the extent that my bible reading and reading with my kids has been suffering, plus, I am always stressing about money. So, I felt God calling me to fast from spending.
    I am spending on gas, and have allowed $20/week for milk and produce. I'm going to have to get REALLY creative by the end of this, but luckily I'm a stockpiler so food for 40 days from only what we have on hand really shouldn't be too difficult.

    My husband is not participating with me, but that's okay. I feel like it's a spiritual disciplinary exercise that I need to do whether or not he wants to partake.

    So thanks for your post!

  27. Hi, Thank you so much for your honesty! I am also a clearance junkie and I have found a trick that works for me. If I find something that I feel I need (need is a strong word) I tell myself I will get it next week if it is still there. Often, I forget or it is gone. I usually then thank the Lord for such obvious direction :) Our budget is pretty limited anyway, but it has helped me. Thank you for sharing all your thoughts!