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Could you go a year without spending? These roommates are trying

Kristin McGrath

October 4, 2013

Spending fasts” and no-spend challenges are a staple of the personal finance advice world. The idea is to cut down on discretionary spending for a certain amount of time (often as little as a day) except for  necessary bills. When done regularly, no-spend challenges can give your wallet a break, help you bulk up your savings and help you build up the willpower to say “no” to small incidental purchases.

Yet it can be difficult to keep up your no-spend endurance for more than a couple days at a time — which makes what these two Canadian roommates are doing all the more impressive. Julie Phillips and Geoffrey Szuszkiewicz, both of Calgary, have embarked on a veritable no-spending marathon that requires them to give up spending over the course of a year.

They’ll be easing into their zero-spend goal gradually, however. They started the project about two months ago and have divided their journey into three phases:

Phase 1 (Aug. 3, 2013 to Nov. 3, 2013): No consumer goods (for example, clothing and home furnishings).

Phase 2 (Nov. 3, 2013 to July 3, 2014): No services (such as meals out, gas and transit passes).

Phase 3 (July 3, 2014 to August 3, 2014): No food. For the final month of their experiment, Phillips and Szuszkiewicz will not be purchasing any food. They will eat what they can recover from supermarket dumpsters, what friends offer to cook for them and what they can grow themselves.

“Well good for them,” you might think. “But I’m not dumpster diving.”

Even if you’re not willing to go as far as these two, their project’s website is rich in tips you can use in your own (much less exteme) spending fasts. In fact, the entire framework of the plan is based on established behavioral modification techniques that can help you embark on the occasional spending fast or even talk yourself out of the occasional impulse buy. Here are a few you might want to borrow:

  • Ease in: Remember those phases from above? If you’re looking to trim your budget, don’t hack off all discretionary spending in one chunk. Instead, borrow Phillips’s and Szuszkiewicz’s phase method. Perhaps you can’t stop yourself from buying new clothing and eating at restaurants at the same time. Consider restricting clothing purchases one month, and then concentrate on cooking and planning meals the next. By dividing a large goal into small but clearly defined steps, you’ll gradually build up the strength and endurance necessary to accomplish it.
  • Reinforce good behavior: Rewards enforce behaviors. For example, when you go out to eat with friends, Phillips and Szuszkiewicz point out, you’re rewarded with convenience (you don’t have to cook) and good company, making you more likely to repeat the behavior. So, as the roommates explain, you need to make not spending rewarding, too. List the rewards you’re getting from not spending. Cooking at home, for example, makes you a better chef and helps you eat healthier. Walking to work instead of using gas helps you stay fit and soak up some sun.
  • Get social support: Phillips and Szuszkiewicz are blogging about their endeavor, and the media attention their story is getting has given them a sizeable audience that’s rooting for them. That means lots of support — and lots of accountability. So consider telling others about your no-spending goals, asking a friend to keep you company at home on a no-spending day or encouraging your family to cook meals with you. Loneliness can increase the desire to shop — and a lack of accountability can increase the chance that you’ll break down and do it.
  • Accept and commit:  Phillips and Szuszkiewicz say they’re using a psychological intervention technique called “acceptance and commitment based therapy” (ACT) on their journey. The center of ACT is mindfulness — accepting negative thoughts (which will undoubtedly occur when you can’t buy food) and then recommitting to a lifestyle that reflects your values. The acceptance factor goes even further, the roommates explain. In addition to accepting the emotional lows, they will accept whatever help is offered to them by others.

Similar mindfulness techniques have been getting buzz for a while now in both the frugality and addiction realms. Acknowledging temptation and pausing to reflect on it can help you refocus your energy on your goal — not the mindless purchase you’re about to put in your shopping cart.

Have you ever undertaken a no-spend challenge? What’s the longest you’ve gone without spending? If you’re about to try a spending fast for the first time, prepare for your journey with these tips from personal finance bloggers.

Krystal Yee of Give me Back My Five Bucks describes her plan for 10 days of no spending — and the amount of planning necessary to pull it off.

Well Heeled Blog has a list of the pros and cons of no-spend challenges.

I Will Teach You to be Rich recommends setting aside one day a week as a no-spend day.

When Life Gives You Lemons Add Vodka points out that no-spending days help only certain types of people — and don’t do much for others.

Lindy of Minting Nickels describes how she made a six-month spending fast realistic and sustainable.