How I Totally Screwed Up My Spending Fast


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.