Last January, I was walking my 6-year-old to school. On the way he asked if we could go to the dollar store later to buy the bootleg Pokemon cards they sold.
“Hmm, no,” I said, as I took his hand to cross a busy intersection. “I’m trying not to spend money on unnecessary expenses this month. If you want, you can use the money Grammie gave you for Christmas.”
Of course he did not want to use his own money to buy those cards. He was confused by why I wouldn’t just buy them. Wasn’t I always down to indulge in a treat or two, especially something as small as dollar-store trading cards? He was also coming down off of a bad case of the “gimmes” I’ve seen him catch every holiday season. It’s a problem that plagues so many of us — when the onslaught of gifts makes you want more gifts, even when you know in your mind and your heart you really have all you need (and more).
I understood the feeling. Unfortunately, when I go shopping for myself, it’s not for bootleg Pokemon cards that sell for $1.50 a pack, but shoes or sweaters or lipstick that cost a whole lot more. And often when I buy one thing — a new dress, let’s say — I always feel like I need to buy more (shoes to match) and more (a new pair of tights) and more (a blazer to complete the look).
I have always practiced retail therapy — and I come from a long line of women who do the same. Have a bad day? There’s nothing a little treat (or hell, a big treat!) can’t fix. Except I’d been feeling the opposite recently. Sure, I got an instant dopamine hit when I bought a new pair of shoes, but the high wore off quickly, and I was left to face the harsh reality that I was deeply unhappy. Something had to change. And I decided I needed to bring my kid along for the no-spend ride in hopes that I might avoid passing my bad shopping habits onto him.
My New Year’s resolution for 2023 felt so radical I was afraid to even say it out loud: I wanted to quit my job. Unhappy at work, I fantasized about leaving my full-time job to freelance. It had never been something I desired, but after the stress of working a management role through the pandemic, I was tired. I needed a reset. But it was also hard to imagine leaving my well-paying job and how a dramatic change in the way I earned money would affect my life.
It felt good seeing that healthy paycheck land in my bank account every couple of weeks. And while I made sure we were setting aside money for investments, savings and my kid’s 529, I also enjoyed having disposable income to burn. In the fall of 2022, I leaned hard into retail therapy. Bad day at the office? A $13 smoothie will ease the pain. Terrible meeting with management? Drinks on me at the fancy hotel bar around the corner! Feel like crying before going to the office? No worries — new shoes will fix it!
I’m not going to lie: That smoothie tasted delicious, the drinks were cathartic, and I still wear the shoes I bought that fall (though, admittedly, there’s a blouse I also purchased that’s still hanging unworn in my closet). You could argue the money was well spent. But I also knew that I was probably spending too much and could stand to rein it in.
So I decided that going into 2023, I was going to do a Low-Spend January, the lower-stakes version of No-Spend January. Last year, the concept of limiting your spending for a month didn’t have the same TikTok cachet it does now, but after years of writing and editing articles about personal finance, I was intimately familiar with the concept. Alicia Adamczyk, one of the writers I worked with at CNBC Make It, wrote about no-spend months way back in July 2019, and I always liked the idea of taking the time to be more mindful of your spending.
For the uninitiated, a no-spend month is when you try to cut out all non-essential expenses for 30 or so days. You don’t eat out. You skip the morning latte from your local coffee shop. You certainly don’t buy a new pair of shoes. Some people also like to set strict budgets for their essential expenses, such as limiting how much they spend on groceries. Others will allow themselves a small discretionary budget for certain categories like beauty or takeout. To keep yourself motivated, you might also set a bigger savings goal than usual, so you can divert the money you’re not spending on smoothies and shoes to your emergency savings or an investment account, or use it to fund a more expensive purchase like plane tickets or a new sofa.
I’m personally not a fan of precise budgets that dictate I spend, say, $200 on groceries or $100 on lunches each month. I always have a sense of how much is in my checking account and how much I can comfortably spend without overdoing it. Others find comfort in tracking their spending on budgeting apps. Many people love You Need a Budget, an app that assigns every dollar you earn a “purpose.” And then there’s the old-fashioned envelope method, where you put physical cash in envelopes dedicated to certain spending categories and don’t allow yourself to spend more than what you set aside at the beginning of the month. As with all things related to managing money, you need to figure out what system works best for you, whether that’s mapping out a strict budget or following some loose guidelines.
Some people are critical of no-spend months, arguing that it’s a bit like extreme exercise or calorie restrictions — hard to maintain in the long run. There’s always a chance that curbing your spending one month will lead you to overdo it the next. But a no- or low-spend month can also be a smart way to get more clarity on where your money is going. It requires you to think about every purchase. And at the end of the month, it’s important to take the time to reflect on what worked and what didn’t. If you have an off day and spend frivolously, you shouldn’t let that stop you from finishing strong. We’re all allowed to mess up now and then. Give yourself a break and get back on the no-spend bandwagon.
Looking back at my January 2023 credit card statements, I’m not sure I really achieved my goal of having a low-spend month. I took myself out to the movies one weekend when my husband and kid were away and treated myself to a beer and popcorn at the theater. I had dinner with a girlfriend at a rather pricey neighborhood restaurant. And I still probably spent too much at Starbucks. But I also didn’t buy new clothes, which I think is a win. (I’m saying it’s a win.)
In May, I left my job, and my finances did dramatically change, as I went from having a consistent paycheck hit my bank account on a regular schedule to learning to manage our money when freelance invoices are paid out in dribs and drabs. I once again decided to eliminate all unnecessary spending, but more dramatically this time. We skipped stopping for fast food en route to visit family in Cape Cod. Working from home, I no longer bought lunch most days. And when I did get a date with my husband, we opted to grab happy hour drinks and visit a pay-what-you-want museum in Manhattan. (And enjoyed some free babysitting thanks to Grandma!)
While walking to school in June, my kid asked if I could buy him a new video game he’d been wanting.
“Hmm, no,” I said, crossing that same busy street where we’d had a similar conversation just a few months before. “I’m trying not to spend money on unnecessary things right now. You could use the money you’ve saved from Grammie’s Easter gift.”
“That’s what you said in January!” he said in a bit of a huff. “Wait, was there a window when you would have bought it for me? Why didn’t you tell me?”
I had to laugh, while reassuring him that he hadn’t missed any window. I tried to explain that things were changing, that I had a new job and we were going to continue to be careful about how we spend our money. This time, he agreed to use his own savings, which felt good. I knew he really wanted that video game.