Could you cut out all discretionary spending for an entire year? Anna Newell Jones did. After a year-long "spending fast," during which she bought only essentials, and a few months on a "spending diet," the Denver-based blogger paid off $23,605.10 of student-loan and credit-card debt. In the process, she cut her own hair, used coffee grounds as a facial exfoliator, made her own laundry detergent, and learned how to distinguish wants from needs.
Jones shared her debt-busting strategies with U.S. News. Excerpts:
How did you come up with the spending fast concept?
At the end of 2009, I had been rolling money from my overdraft account to my checking account just because of my overspending. So every month, $200 to $300 was just continuing to roll back and forth. I'd make a little progress and then I'd get frustrated.
I was thinking about how I felt like I was drowning in my debt. I had a loan out with my parents, and my mom was putting a lot of pressure on me to pay them back. I just kept telling her, "You don't realize, I don't have any money." And looking back on it, it was because I was spending every possible way. After I got a certain amount of debt, I was kind of in the mindset of "screw it, I'll just enjoy myself."
I had tried budgeting. I had tried to get another job to pay off my credit-card debt. And it just didn't work. I would just get frustrated because it was so slow moving. I just hit my financial bottom and decided, "I have to do something drastic. I have got to be done with my debt."
What were the rules of your spending fast?
The rules were that I could spend money only on the needs side of my wants and needs list. It was pretty bare-bones living. I did the spending fast for a year, and then I did a spending diet the second year, because I still had some remaining debt at the end of the first year.
What's the difference between a spending fast and a spending diet?
With the spending fast, I had no discretionary income. If it was a need, I would spend the money. If it's not a need, then I didn't get it. With the spending diet, I gave myself a $100 non-need allowance per month, and I could spend that on whatever I wanted. But the spending diet was way harder than the spending fast.
Why do you think that is?
It went back into the gray area that I had had so much trouble with before. With the spending fast, it was really black and white. But then with the spending diet, I would try to spend normally again and then I would overspend.
How did you get buy-in from your husband and other people around you?
I actually didn't ask my husband. We had only been married for six months, and I was at the point of thinking I had to be done with my debt, because I felt so terrible about myself and what I had gotten myself into. I didn't want to ask him because I didn't want him to say no. Looking back, that was really not the best idea, and I don't recommend that for people because it's way easier if you can get your partner on board.
With friends, since I had the blog, I would just be like, "I'm doing the spending fast. I can't do it, I can't go out." So I was able to kind of blame it on that. And then, once I started telling them why I was doing it, other people started telling me about their problems with money. It started a conversation that I never had with people, and I didn't really know that other people were in the same boat as I was.
What were the hardest things to give up?
Eating out was probably the hardest thing. Then my husband and I had gotten into the habit of going to the mall on Saturdays and wandering around, just to see if we needed anything. That's a really bad thing to do. We hadn't totally changed how we interacted together, so it really impacted his life and how we lived. I was naïve and I didn't think it would really affect him because we didn't share money at the time.
What were some ways you and your husband found to interact that didn't cost money?
I would rent DVDs from the library, and we would go run around the park together, and play Frisbee. We would make food with stuff that we already had in the cupboards, just to use what we already had. Even though I could buy groceries, I'd try to do it as infrequently as possible, and I tried to always buy the cheapest version of whatever I needed.
You mentioned on your blog that you made some mistakes along the way. What were some of those?
I worked for the state and we moved to a new building with a humongous window, and there were no blinds, so I convinced myself that I needed some really good sunglasses. I bought a $200 pair of sunglasses, and then I wore them for a couple of days, and then I got the most horrible buyer's remorse you could ever imagine, [so] I went and returned them. I wasn't perfect and I always try to tell people, "If you're going to mess up, it's not about not messing up, it's about continuing on for the whole time."
What are your current goals?
We're trying to buy a house, and I'm trying to stay out of debt. I'm trying to just not get myself back into my old habits, and that's partly why I'm continuing the blog. And I really want to help other people use the spending fast method, because it was so effective for me.
It's really expensive here in Denver to buy a house, and there aren't many options because things are going so quickly. It's trying to find a balance of, "Do we both want all of our income to go to this house? Or do we want to buy a smaller place and then have a little bit more freedom?"
Any other tips you'd give to readers who are struggling with debt?
Know that there's hope that you don't have to have that debt forever. I thought I would always have the debt, and I didn't see any way out. The one thing with the spending fast I would recommend, if they decided to do it, is to set the time frame and really commit to it because it's a real strain, but it's very, very effective. I found that a lot of people have friends that are in the same situation as they are, and they just don't know it because they don't talk about their debt.
The biggest thing is putting a pause between you and the purchase. Is this item going to add to my life, or is this just going to be another thing that I have to take care of and look at? It really helped me reach the life I want to live.