How I Totally Screwed Up My Spending Fast

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This year, I kicked off the spring by spending an absolutely bonkers amount of money.

This was mainly due to a few big expenses. I was moving into a new apartment, which meant paying a hefty broker's fee, and I also needed to buy a bed, which ran to $800 between frame and mattress.

But that wasn't the end of it. Around that time, I also had to pay a tax bill, the result of spending several months freelancing last year. I went to a college reunion at the end of May, which cost me a few hundred dollars. I was spending way too much on clothes. And because I'd declined to get cable at my new place, I found myself running up tabs in sports bars so that I could watch the Stanley Cup playoffs.

When I checked my net income on at the end of April, I found myself a few thousand dollars in the red. May was better, but I still had a lot less money to my name than I did at the outset of spring.

So I decided that in June, I wouldn't spend any money.

I'd heard of people using "spending fasts" or "no-spend challenges" to help get out of debt, and decided to try it out. While essentials like rent, utility bills and food are permitted, all discretionary spending -- including clothes, bars, restaurants, parties and new furniture -- is off-limits for the duration of the fast.

I thought it would be relatively painless. I was wrong.

A Series of Unfortunate Decisions

It started out well. I stayed away from restaurants, and while I didn't completely shake my habit of going out for lunch during the work week, I did a better job of getting to the grocery store so I could make cheaper meals at home. I made one trip to Target that set me back more than $55, but that was for essentials like soap and shampoo. I wasn't exactly on a fast, but I could defend all of my purchases, and I was spending a lot less than I had been.

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But halfway through the month, things got a lot harder. Friends came to visit from out of town, so we went out to eat. A few nights later, I went out to eat with a different group of friends. Then I got a long-overdue haircut. Then I went to Home Depot to buy some shades for my apartment. Then I went to see the new Superman movie.

At the end of the month, I added up my spending. Excluding rent, subway fare, bills and other fixed expenses, I wound up spending $1,062.11 in June.

Everything I Did Wrong

So how did my fast turn into another month of big spending?

To find out, I turned to a couple of budget bloggers who have pulled off spending fasts with more success. In speaking to them about their own experiences, I came to realize a few ways I screwed up my own challenge.

I set too short a time period. Budget blogger Anna Newell Jones went on a year-long spending fast to dig herself out of debt. In her view, committing myself to just a month was probably a mistake.

"I definitely recommend, the longer the better," she says. "If you do a month-long [fast], it's great and I think there's benefit, but the more you do it, the more those habits get changed."

She says people tend to run into trouble in those first few weeks, and the key is to get past that initial difficulty and then develop better spending habits that will stay with you. By limiting myself to only a month, I didn't give myself time to work past my early difficulties and get into a groove.

Doing it for only a month created another issue: It meant that it was fairly easy for me to just put off purchases until the fast was over. Had I set myself a longer goal, I would have been forced to actually go without those purchases, rather than merely postponing them for a few weeks.

I didn't set clear rules. Food, of course, is considered an essential item. But what kind of food was a necessity, and what kind was a luxury?

Were restaurants and delivery always a luxury? Did I always have to pack my lunch, or could I sometimes go to a sandwich or salad shop? And if I was cooking at home, did I always have to stick to the cheapest possible option, or could I cook a fancy dinner that required some pricier ingredients?

There's no universal rule about what food is and isn't allowed during a spending fast. But the important thing is to put your own rules in place before you get started and stick to them. Jones says that before she started, she divided everything into clearly-defined categories of wants and needs.

In my case, I probably should have decided in advance that I was allowed one or two restaurant nights, but that going out for lunch during the work week was just a "want" born out of laziness. Instead, I left it as a grey area, so I didn't have firm rules to stick to.

I did it during the summer. While there are a few ways to keep summer fun from totally busting your budget, it's a difficult proposition. So it was probably a bad idea to try to cut off all discretionary spending in June, when everyone wants to go out and enjoy the warm weather.

With that said, it's not impossible the maintain a fast through spring and summer.

J. Money of the blog Budgets are Sexy did his first no-spend challenge for Lent one year, and the fast actually wound up lasting about a week beyond that initial 40 days. He says one thing that can help with the social spending is having friends that will support you.

"A challenge is one of those things where friends want to help out with it," he says. "For me, I feel like it's better to put it out there and make it a thing."

Tell your friends what you're doing and why, and they might be more likely to throw potlucks instead of going out to eat, for instance. And in cases where they definitely want a night out on the town, they'll be more understanding if you want to skip the evening (or just meet up later in the night).

Still, if I ever try a spending fast again, I'll probably aim to start things off during the winter, when staying in and cooking is more socially acceptable. And by the time the warm weather comes, I'll hopefully have enough momentum to keep things from totally falling apart.

Matt Brownell is the consumer and retail reporter for DailyFinance. You can reach him at, and follow him on Twitter at @Brownellorama.

Why Your Bank Thinks Someone Stole Your Credit Card
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How I Totally Screwed Up My Spending Fast

One reason why Marquis' gas purchases might have triggered a fraud lockdown? Filling their tank is a common first move for credit card thieves.

"Some of the things they look at are small-dollar transactions at gas stations, followed by an attempt to make a larger purchase," explains Adam Levin of Identity Theft 911.

The idea is that thieves want to confirm that the card actually works before going on a buying spree, so they'll make a small purchase that wouldn't catch the attention of the cardholder. Popular methods include buying gas or making a small donation to charity, so banks have started scrutinizing those transactions.

Of course, it's not a simple matter of buying gas or giving to charity -- if those tasks triggered alerts constantly, no one would do either with a credit card. But Levin points to another possible explanation: Purchases made in a high-crime area are going to be held to a higher standard by the bank.

"It's almost a form of redlining," he says. "If there are certain [neighborhoods] where they've experienced an enormous amount of fraud, then anytime they see a transaction in the neighborhood, it sends an alert."

(Indeed, Erin tells me that one of the gas purchases that triggered an alert took place in a rough part of Detroit, which she visited specifically for the cheap gas.)

People who steal credit cards and credit card numbers usually aren't doing it so they can outfit their home with electronics and appliances. They don't want the actual products they're fraudulently buying; they're just in it to make money. So banks are always on the lookout for purchases of items that can easily be re-sold.

"Anytime a product can be turned around quickly for cash value, those are going to be the items that you would probably assume that, if you were a thief, you would want to get to first," says Karisse Hendrick of the Merchant Risk Council, which helps online merchants cut down on fraud. Levin says electronics are common choices for fraudsters, as are precious metals and jewelry.

Many thieves don't want to go through the rigmarole of buying laptops and jewelry, then selling them online or at pawnshops. They'd much prefer to just turn your stolen card directly into cold, hard cash.

There are a few ways that they can do that, and all of them will raise red flags at your bank or credit union. Using a credit card to buy a pricey gift card or load a bunch of money on a prepaid debit card is a fast way to attract the suspicions of your credit card issuer. Levin adds that some identity thieves also use stolen or cloned credit cards to buy chips at a casino, which they can then cash out (or, if they're feeling lucky, gamble away).

When assessing whether a purchase might be fraudulent, banks aren't just looking at what you bought and where you bought it. They're also asking if it's something you usually buy.

"The issuers know the buying patterns of a cardholder," says Hendrick. "They know the typical dollar amount of transaction and the type of purchase they put on a credit card."

Your bank sees a fairly high percentage of your purchases, so it knows if one is out of character for you. A thrifty individual who suddenly drops $500 on designer clothes should expect to get a call -- or have to make one when the bank flags the transaction. If you rarely travel and your card is suddenly used to purchase a flight to Europe, that's going to raise some red flags.

Speaking of Europe, the other big factor in banks' risk equations is whether you're making a purchase in a new area. I bought a computer just days after moving from Boston to New York, and had to confirm to the bank that I was indeed trying to make the purchase. Levin likewise says that making purchases in two different cities over a short period of time raises suspicions.

"I go from New York to California a lot, and invariably someone will call me [from the bank], " he says. Since one person can't go shopping in New York and California at the same time, any time a bank sees multiple purchases in multiple locations in a short period, it's going to be suspicious.

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