Monday, January 3, 2011

January Budget Recovery: How About A Spending Fast?

It's January. I always refer to it as, "the month after".

The month after I ate too many cookies. (Hello, Spandex.)
The month after we wined and dined and had a jolly old time.
The month after we blew our budget.

The budget. Words that immediately come to my mind: Ick. Don't wanna. WAAAAAAAAHHH!

But now that the holidays are over, it's time to get back on track. We've traveled to and from Grandma's house. We've purchased and given out all of our gifts. And, we NEED to get our finances in order, again.

But, how? How do we recover from overspending? How can we kick off the New Year with a resolve to kill the habits we quickly fall into when the "But, it's the holidays" mentality is determined to become the norm?

Well, I've got an "our family tried it and it works" method that's sure to help.

How about a spending fast? How about for just this month of January, you don't spend?

On anything. But bills, groceries, and gas?

At a point in our lives when my husband and I needed to break our spending habits, we went on a spending fast. And, it was one of the BEST things we've done for our marriage and family.

I can't think of a better month to do a spending fast than in January: when the sale racks are brimming with stuff we don't need and temptation is at an all-year high.

Today, I'm posting what we learned during our spending fast in March 2009.

With the hopes that if you want to get your finances back on track in 2011, and while you're freshly motivated to turn over those proverbial leaves, you'll be inspired to try a spending fast of your own this month!

(originally posted May 21, 2009)

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. And, 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, my friends, we did.

And, I have 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. We struggled through this. But, we praise God for placing 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), 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. 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. A big ol' plate 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 reminded me that this wasn't meant to be a legalistic smackdown 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 God has gifted me with a love for the kitchen. 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 my hubby 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 at my leisure.

5. Gray roots are just gray roots. Birthing my sweet babes has done a doozy on my hair - and with each subsequent child, unwelcome shades of gray 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 month 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, gray roots are just gray roots. 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. 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.

And, 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 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.

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 bazillion 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 couldn'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. 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. This might be my very favorite post that you've written. I actually read it again a few weeks ago and proposed that my husband and I embark on a January spending fast. And he said yes! We're three days in and I'm already learning a lot about our spending habits and why we spend. And this is from someone who THOUGHT she was very money-savvy before. I know how to implement all kinds of frugal tips to save money, but in the end, the biggest one is to stop spending.

    Who knows? Maybe we'll make it a yearly tradition. :-)

  2. I enjoyed this post when you originally shared it. I especially agree with eating out for dinner being a double whammy (the cost of dinner plus the cost of lunch the next day). My husband and I both work outside the home and we rely on leftovers for affordable lunch options. Going out to lunch is expensive, takes too long, and isn't always healthy. That alone motivates me to cook.

  3. Great post. One thing that I discovered is that I can do without restaurants but I do love to see a movie in a theater rather than on a computer or TV.

    I love your inexpensive meal recipe.

  4. Ok, so I didn't even get halfway through this post and I was on the phone to my husband, "In February, I want to complete a Spending Fast", he said "You? Queen of spending?" And after I read him your post, over the phone lol, he said "Ok let's do it". I can't thank you enough for sharing this, I believe it's going to be exactly what we need! I'll make sure to give you our results!

  5. I remember your original post about this! We were kind of forced to do a spending fast for most of last year and I encountered a lot of the same benefits. It's not all bad. Great lessons to be learned for everyone!

  6. I remember when you first blogged about this. It was good then, it's good now. We ALL probably need to pull in a lot in January. I know we are. December is always very difficult, money wise, for us with 4 birthdays plus Christmas, plus 2 birthdays on November 24th!!!

  7. Oh I know how it feels to deprive yourself from spending on things that gives you comfort. I do save money for the past couple of years, and still learning a lot from it. It's a good habit, as people in the situation would say. Though, I still apply for cash advances from a payday loan company whenever I need extra cash for emergencies like car repairs, unexpected bills, etc. In that way, I don't have to get anything from my savings account.

    I suggest you continue what you are doing. It might amaze you one day to find out how much you have saved.