I Spent a Week Learning to Do a Spending Fast

by Rebecca Lake October 19, 2018

Every summer, I make a bucket list of things to do with my two kids. This year, our plans took us on five incredible road trips, but it was a budget stretch, too.

We collected amazing memories exploring the Appalachian Mountains, touring Colonial Williamsburg in Virginia and relaxing at an all-inclusive resort. But when the summer ended, budget reality set in.

To get back on a smart money routine, I decided to turn down the heat on my finances and embark on another journey: a one-week spending fast.

"A spending fast is a commitment to stop all unnecessary spending for a set period of time," says Megan Robinson, a personal finance expert at DollarSprout.

I'd heard about spending fasts before, but the idea of cutting out all non-essential spending seemed extreme. After all, I wasn't chronically overspending or skipping out on budgeting. I'd just overdone it a little on our summer travel.

Once I started researching, however, I realized that a spending fast can work for any financial situation. It's a great way to hit the reset button on your finances, put spending in perspective and instill some financial discipline.

"The best part about freezing spending for me is that saying 'no' becomes a no-brainer," Robinson says. "I also realized that there were areas in my spending plan I previously thought were fixed, but that were actually very flexible."

Here's what I learned from putting my spending on pause for a week.

A successful spending fast starts with a plan
 

As I researched spending fasts, I learned that it won't work if you don't lay down some ground rules.

When I consulted Robinson on how to get started, she stressed the importance of identifying necessities. "The difficult part, for many, is determining what's necessary from what isn't," Robinson explains. "A good rule of thumb is to go back to the basics — if it isn't food, shelter or water, then you probably don't need it." Phil Risher, founder of Young Adult Survival Guide and a spending fast enthusiast, told me that he also includes transportation in the basic-expense category.

If you're confused about what's a need versus a want, think of it this way, says Daniella Flores, a personal finance blogger at I Like to Dabble. "You need to pay the mortgage but you don't need to stop at a coffee shop for a cookie."

Here's how I divided up my expenses into two categories: essentials and taboos.
 

  • Essentials: Mortgage; groceries and pet food; car insurance; cell phone bill; gas; life insurance; water and electric bills; internet; estimated taxes and health insurance.
     
  • Taboos: Eating out or ordering food in; entertainment like movies or concerts; new clothes, toiletries or haircuts; and non-essential kids’ things like toys or video games and any shopping or gifts.


Flores shared a pro tip for making your spending fast work that I hadn't thought of: leave room in your plan for the unexpected. "Sometimes emergency spending arises because things happen that are out of our control," she says. "Be prepared during a no-spend week for these surprises and don't beat yourself up about it."

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You need to pay the mortgage but you don't need to stop at a coffee shop for a cookie.
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Timing matters
 

One big question I had when starting my spending fast was how long it should last for.  Robinson clued me in. "If you've never done a spending fast before, setting an ambitious goal of a month or longer could feel overwhelming," Robinson says.

She suggests starting with a week, then working your way up to longer stretches. "There's no shame in moving slowly," she says. "The less drastic it feels, the more likely you are to stick to your spending fast."

Squeeze maximum value from a spending fast
 

A spending fast sounds good in theory, but I soon found that sticking to my no-spend vow was tougher than I thought. There were two things that helped me stay on course:
 

  • Keeping a diary to record my daily reflections on how the fast was impacting me financially and mentally.
  • Using a budgeting app and banking alerts to track my spending (or go old school and do this with pen and paper).


Writing down my thoughts was a way to explore how I felt about spending and my financial situation in general. For instance, I was carrying major guilt about spending several thousand dollars on trips over the summer, but I realized the memories we created were invaluable. And when I look at my finances as a whole, I'm happy with the progress I've made this year.

Flores doesn't keep a diary for her spending fasts but instead, she uses a "before and after" approach to get perspective. "What I like to do is take a budget tracking sheet during a normal week and fill it out, then do the same for a no-spend week and at the end, compare the two," she says. "This provided much more insight to my spending habits than anything else has been able to."

Save even as you fast
 

My main reason for the fast was to curb spending, and maybe save a little money. One thing I should have done (but didn't) was set a specific savings goal. 

For example, you might want to save $500 over the course of a two-week spending break. That's a great goal to have, Robinson says, but it's only meaningful if you know what the money will be used for. Maybe you're saving for a big purchase or trip. Maybe you're paying off debt. Maybe you're simply building up your emergency or savings account.

"The more clear you are on the purpose behind your spending fast, the more motivated you'll feel to follow through and accomplish your goal," Robinson says. The next time I decide to embark on a spending fast, I'll do it with a specific goal in mind.

Keep the big picture in sight
 

My one week spending fast flew by. I did manage to save a few hundred dollars by not going out to eat and not giving in to my kids' requests for extra treats at the grocery store, but that wasn't the biggest payoff. The true reward has been a positive shift in my overall money mindset.

I learned that keeping a lid on spending doesn't have to be restrictive or make you feel deprived. I now see a spending fast as the financial equivalent of a detoxifying cleanse — sometimes it's just necessary to flush out the bloat in your budget.
 

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The true reward has been a positive shift in my overall money mindset.
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There were definitely moments where I was tempted to splurge, and you might be, too. Delaying gratification and accepting what you can't afford in the moment in order to reach your longer-term goals is the heart of the spending fast struggle, according to Risher.

But, "the good part," Risher says, "is that you learn to live a more minimal and deliberate life." And in the long run, that's priceless.

Rebecca Lake is a burgeoning travel enthusiast who plans to show her kids the world — on a budget, of course. Her work has appeared online at U.S. News and World Report, CreditCards.com and Investopedia.

 

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