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Monday, December 1, 2008

10 Lessons Learned from No Spend Month

This is the last post in a series on budgeting, check out the rules, week 1, week 2, week 3, and week 4. This post is longer than my usual posts, but it's a wrap-up.

What kind of sound does a credit card make when you swipe it? Well, that is a sound I have not heard in a month. This past month, I took on the personal challenge of significantly limiting my spending. I was inspired by the No Spend Month series on Small Notebook and, allocating only $300 in cash to spend on anything for myself and the household, I wrapped my credit card in paper and sealed it with tape. My allocated budget included gas, food, clothing (of which I bought none), and entertainment (of which I had very little).

Here are 10 lessons I learned during No Spend Month:

Lesson #1: Curbing your spending can require choosing between shopping close to home and traveling to find better deals. I live in a somewhat remote area – the nearest Trader Joe’s, Food 4 Less, or Target is 20-40 miles away. Each trip to “town” costs $5 to $10. When I run out of staple foods like eggs, milk, and bread, I pay 10% more to buy them in my town than in next town over. During No Spend Month, I opted to shop at the local grocery store rather than travel to town for just a few items.
Goal: Ultimately, I would rather take the bus, but where I live the public transportation system is pretty limited. The next best thing is to combine shopping and errands and to plan ahead.

Lesson #2: Saving money sometimes requires choosing between supporting local businesses versus shopping at chain stores. During No Spend Month, I started window shopping for holiday presents. I prefer to buy gifts from the local stores – they have many unique handmade items (like purses, jewelry, and pottery), but the department stores have similar items for almost half the cost. I decided this year I will shop locally and opt for slightly smaller holiday gifts.
Goal: Support local vendors by purchasing items that are less expensive, such as flowers and produce at Farmer’s Markets.

Lesson #3: Living on a budget can mean choosing between buying in bulk versus buying what you can afford. I found a great deal on a 24-pack of light bulbs, but even at a low price I only use a few light bulbs in my house per year. And, there are things I need more than light bulbs. There are lots of items that come cheaper in bulk, such as canned foods and toiletries, and if you can afford to buy them in bulk you can surely save several dollars. However, during No Spend Month, I opted to only buy what I needed for the month (and that did not include light bulbs).
Goal: Find a friend who is willing to split bulk items.

Lesson #4: Organic and healthy foods cost more. It is clear why low-income families struggle with poor nutrition – healthy food is more expensive than processed food. It was tough to spend a few extra dollars on items that looked virtually the same, but I opted for the organic produce whenever there was an option.
Goal: Research which types of foods have the highest levels of pesticides. For example, peaches and apples rank highest, while onions and avocados rank lowest. Information is available at

Lesson # 5: Meat is expensive. Our family eats meat at every meal, and it is a significant portion of our grocery bill. I spent $25 on meat for one week (ham for breakfast, turkey for lunch, chicken and beef for dinner).
Goal: Try to find tasty, filling, less expensive alternatives to meat (any suggestions?).

Lesson #6: Utilities and bills can take a large percentage of your budget. Even though I only spent $300 on groceries, gas, and personal items, our bills still totaled $450 (for water, trash, internet, cable, phone, gas and electric, not including our mortgage payment) for the month. I was proud to say I stuck to my budget, but the reality is that I didn’t cut back in many areas.
Goal: Find ways to reduce recurring bills. Many utility companies offer online programs that break down your bill to help you understand how you can cut costs.

Lesson #7: Buying baby items, even secondhand, adds up. I found a great deal on a used high chair on craigslist. I know my parents would have gladly bought us a new high chair, but they wouldn’t consider a “used” high chair as a gift.
Goal: Ask my parents to consider contributing towards a baby fund, separate from a college fund, during birthdays and holidays. If you don’t have kids, consider setting up your own “fun money” account for graduations, birthdays, and holidays – just be sure to thank Aunt Betty for the DVD “she” bought you!

Lesson #8: Use student loan money for being a student. I received a student loan earlier this year. Like many students, I used some of it to buy a couple new outfits. During No Spend Month, I had to purchase school supplies and pay fees. While I didn’t go over budget, it was still a reminder that those funds were designated for school related expenses.
Goal: Reserve designated funds for their purpose. Even if you aren’t a student, the same goes for an emergency fund or credit card – only use it for true “emergencies.”

Lesson #9: A homemade sandwich is as good as one from the deli. One afternoon I had to ask my sister for a favor. Normally, I would have offered to buy her lunch, but instead I offered to make her a sandwich and bring it over.
Goal: Find more opportunities to use food and items I already have on hand.

Lesson #10: Living on a tight budget leaves little room for error. It can be difficult to stretch every dollar. So many people are living from paycheck to paycheck, and a minor financial setback can be extremely stressful. When I had to make additional purchases that I had not anticipated, I became anxious about exceeding my monthly allocation. Luckily, this was only a personal challenge, but in many cases running out of money can mean there will be no meal on the table.
Goal: Be more patient and compassionate towards others. You never know another person’s personal circumstances.
photo by _ES

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Rachel said...

Great lessons to learn, Joy, and I like your goals for each one. (Especially #10 - you just never know what is going on in someone else's life.)

For a meat alternative, I always suggest beans and eggs. They are inexpensive whole foods that are so good for you!

Nicholai said...

I'm with Rachel. Black beans are a buck a pound, and along with some flour or corn tortillas, tomatoes, cheese and cumin makes enough to feed two people for three dinners.

Lentils are also really cheap. Throw them in a slow cooker with finely chopped carrots, onions, celery, curry powder, water and chicken broth and you have a delicious Indian-style Dal. Make some homemade crusty bread to go with it and you have dinner for two-three nights.

gonzomama said...

we use tempeh as a meat alternative quite often. it's good on a sandwich, in spaghetti sauce, scrambled with eggs, any way you can think of.

Denise T said...

You know, I just finished my own No Spend Month and I agree. We had many of the same challenged. It's been a great experiment. We have changed our money habits, and are now following a spending plan/budget, for the first time in our 7 year marriage. we're hoping to beef up our emergency fund. I just posted my end of the month post on

Just Plain Joy said...

Thanks for the great suggestions! I will check out some new bean and tempeh recipes. We do eat a lot of scrambled eggs and omelets - yum!

Nancy said...

Hi. Just found you via simplenotebook. I'm always intrigued by others no spend months. I have yet to officially do one of my own but I think that will be a goal for 2009. Some suggestions for cutting back on your meat costs. I try to incorporate beans into our diet, not so much in place of meat but rather as an addition to. For instance, I might make taco meat using 1/2# of ground beef and adding black or refried beans to it. Tastes the same and the husband and kids don't even mention it. Also, I roast whole chickens and stretch them for 3 meals. First meal might be chicken served over rice or mashed potatoes with a gravy or sauce, 2nd might be chicken salad sandwiches and 3rd might be chicken soup or stir-fried rice with a bit of chicken in it.
Sorry to be so lengthy.

simplenaturalnourishing said...

That's great that you got so much out of your no spend month. Thanks for posting this. I am learning a lot from our no spend months as well and am really encouraged by your post. Oh, and we are eating tons of beans over here (so much so that my husband actually asked for LESS), so if you need some ideas let me know!

Peggy. said...

For a quick no meat meal my family loves a quick soup. I chop celery, carrots and potatoes drop them in a pot of water with a big spoon of chicken soup paste. Boil it for 30 mins or so until veggies are tender and then dump in some instant rice or noodles. Quick, easy and so yummy.