For the past six years, Eliza Cross, a professional blogger and freelance writer in Denver, has put herself on what she calls a "money diet."
Not that she coined the phrase. "Money diet" is a term that's been around since at least the 1980s. For a stretch of time, maybe a week and often a month, you spend no money, except on essentials like groceries, gas and medicine. Unlike a food diet, where you want to lose pounds, the goal is to gain money. And if you do it right, Cross says, you should have more money than usual at the end of the month, and you may gain better financial habits as well.
Cross has been putting herself on a money diet every January, for all 31 days. She writes about it and commiserates with her readers on her blog, HappySimpleLiving.com.
And while Cross does it every January – "it's a good time of year when we're motivated to make changes in our lives, and a lot of us have been spending a lot over the holidays," she says – you can obviously go on a money diet any time. That said, some parts of the year are probably more challenging than others, such as the middle of summer, when you may want to do things like go on vacation, visit an old-fashioned ice cream parlor or take the kids to the water park.
It will help your cause if your family embraces the idea of a money diet. Cross is divorced and her oldest child is a grown-up, so that makes it easier for her than someone with an uninterested spouse and seven teenagers (although that hypothetical family would need the money diet more). Cross has a 13-year-old son, Michael, but so far, she says he has hardly noticed the extra-frugal periods.
Want to give it a try? Here's how to get yourself on a successful money diet.
Food means strictly groceries. You have to eat. But in the spirit of your money diet, you want to watch where you eat even more than what you eat.
"We don't pay extra for restaurant meals, takeout or pizza delivery," Cross says.
You'll also want to avoid buying a can of soda at the gas station. Try not to make eye contact when you pass kids selling candy bars for school. You also really shouldn't be going out for a cocktail with friends during a money diet, unless your pals are paying.
Related: The best money tips.
Visit your library. Before you yawn at what sounds like obvious advice, listen to Mike Catania, COO of the retail website PromotionCode.org. He is noticing a trend in which libraries allow you to check out things beyond books, CDs and DVDs.
For instance, Catania says, in California, "The Oakland Public Library lets you check out tools for DIY projects."
In fact, some libraries lend pretty unusual items. The Arlington Public Library, in Arlington County, Virginia, lends American Girl dolls out for a week. The Ann Arbor District Library in Michigan actually has a website titled, "Unusual stuff to borrow," and offers patrons the chance to check out things like telescopes and home-improvement tools like an indoor air-quality meter.
Even if your library doesn't offer anything unique to check out, you can get access to a lot of free entertainment.
Take on some part-time work. Or ask for extra hours. Or put in extra hours if you're on salary, assuming those hours will help you get ahead.
What's the rationale for working harder during your money diet? Well, you have less time to spend money.
Lamar Dawson, an account executive at a public relations firm in New York City, says he took on a part-time job on weekends in January 2014 to pay off student and credit card debt. First, he picked up cash by working in a Spider-Man costume for a toy store in Times Square, and then he became a host for an Italian restaurant, where he still works. And while he killed off his debt by December 2014, Dawson says the extra work inadvertently put him on a money diet.
"I found that it helped me save money because I wasn't at brunch with my friends, who were group texting me to come out for endless mimosas," he says.
Mystery shop. This is only practical if you plan, since mystery shopping gigs often take at least a few weeks to get set up. Nevertheless, what a great way to "cheat" and still completely be within your money diet.
Judy Williams, who works for an emergency fire and water restoration company in Saint Francis, Wisconsin, had what she and her husband called a "no-spend" month a couple of years ago.
During their money diet month, Williams was a mystery shopper, which is a part-time gig in which you're hired to go to stores or restaurants and pose as a customer (you make purchases, but the company hiring you reimburses you and often pays you a little extra).
"Not only did we get to eat out for free, I got paid to do so," Williams says.
Shop at home. Mystery shopping and working more is fine, but really, a money diet is more about not going out, since that can make you feel deprived if the temptation to spend is great. Instead, a money diet is a good way to get to know your home a little better.
You probably own a lot of things you never use, and this is a great time to start utilizing them, Cross says. "Use up the things we tend to hoard in our pantries, garages, medicine cabinets and closets," she says.
Did you discover that you have run out of soap or shampoo during your money diet? Those are essentials, and you can buy them without feeling guilty, but Cross points out that you might want to check first and see if you have some hotel soap or fancy shampoo that someone bought you a while back.
You can even grocery shop at home, Williams points out. During her money diet, she and her husband used many items they had stockpiled in the freezer.
Holly Wolf, based in Chester Springs, Pennsylvania, and the chief marketing officer at Conestoga Bank in Philadelphia, says she lives a frugal lifestyle and often does her grocery shopping at home.
"That mango barbecue that you had to have, figure out how to use it," she suggests. "Ditto for the pickled onions, the 10 pounds of ground chuck that was such a bargain, the frozen strawberries and the soup you froze a few months ago."
One of the side benefits of shopping in your own pantry or freezer, Wolf says, is that it should curb your impulse-buying the next time you're tempted to purchase something offbeat that you're not actually likely to eat.
And just as it's fun to window shop and find something you never would have dreamed of buying, you may end up making a similar "purchase" in your own home.
"One year, in my own house, I found a kit for insulating windows, and so I used that, and I wound up saving money on my energy bill," Cross says. "During a money diet, it's all about getting creative and using what you already have."
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