I've started and deleted this post a couple times because I'm not even sure it's worth sharing because it's really not that deep, but this is a blog, not a literary journal, so I'm just going to post it anyway.

For the most part, J and I are both mindful spenders. I'm the more frugal one in the relationship, but over the years, making money moves together helped us become super intentional about where each dollar goes. We still splurge. We still travel. We still make room for fun, and there are some weeks where we lose track of the budget altogether. But we make sure to never be in a position where our money is seemingly disappearing and we have nothing to show for it.

December was a heavy spending month. Christmas shopping, unexpected car maintenance, unexpected vet bills, and extra commuting around town all added up. After Christmas, I looked at our bank account and decided we needed to hit the reset button for 2020. On New Year's Eve, both agreed to a no-spend January. I popped a bottle of Prosecco from Trader Joes, and we stood in the kitchen hashing out the terms while making dinner.

The Rules

We called it "no-spend" month, but really we just significantly cut back on all miscellaneous spending. Here's everything we could buy without a second thought:

  • Baby stuff - Food, clothes, toys (within reason), medicine, anything baby needs, he gets.
  • Pet stuff - This mainly left room for food and any random vet visits.
  • Groceries - I loosened the grocery budget so there was more room to satisfy cravings by cooking the food instead of ordering out.
  • Celebratory stuff - Gifts and meals for birthdays, baby showers and things like that were all fair game. 
  • Home stuff - As a homeowner, I always leave room in the budget for things around the house. You never know what's going to break. This also includes things like toilet paper, toiletries, laundry detergent, cleaning supplies, and the like.
  • Helpful stuff - My mom was recovering from a really bad bug and had little energy to run her normal errands. I covered whatever she needed, but she paid me back for the most part. If any other friends or family members needed something, we'd make room in the budget.

J and I both took out a small amount of cash for discretionary spending and for activities like going out with friends. The point was to reset, not restrict. I didn't want the month to feel like one big financial punishment, so it was important we have wiggle room somewhere. Cash made it easy, but once the cash was gone, it was gone. No swiping the card for random items at target or quick coffee runs.

Also, I mentally prepared for us to have at least one family meal out, because some days are just too long to even think about cooking after work.

The Results

Food and drink is the silent killer for most modern budgets in my opinion, and I knew this would be the hardest to cut back on. We ended up eating out three times in January. The first time was at Chick-Fil-A when they were giving away free nuggets on the app. Our whole meal came to around ~$12 total, so I'm not even sure I'd count that one. The second time was one of those evenings I knew would come. Neither of us had the energy to make a proper dinner and clean up after, so we went to Joella's. The third time was for Meredith's birthday brunch, which was already accounted for in the budget. On the evenings J had to work and I was flying solo, I didn't even bother with cooking. I'd have something quick like a salad in a bag or grilled cheese and tomato soup.

Other than that, I (personally) did pretty well. Yes I used my cash for a few Starbucks runs, because apparently I am a fiend, but I didn't blow through it all and made it a habit to pack something for breakfast, lunch, and snacks on those days I went to the office. The thrift store was the only other place I spent any cash. If I had my eye on something specific but didn't want to spend my cash on it, I'd write it on a list in my phone and come back to it later. After a few days I had usually forgotten all about it, which lets me know I didn't really want/need it.

Surprisingly, the hardest part for me was staying away from all the candles everywhere I went. I'm somewhat of a candle hoarder. I light candles around the house every day, and that is not an exaggeration. I put one on the bar in the kitchen, one on the fireplace mantel, one on the desk in my office, one in the downstairs bathroom and one in our bedroom. That means I keep lots of candles on hand. When my stash starts to dwindle, my skin starts to itch, and my shelf was looking dangerously bare!

The Lesson(s)

Planning ahead is thee key to staying within any budget. I believe that everyone, regardless of income, should have a budget of some sort. It may be super lax, but it's difficult to keep if you don't plan your dollars. I once heard someone put it like this (loosely paraphrased):
There are two kinds of people. Some people check the weather ahead of time and see rain in the forecast. They bring and umbrella with them or keep one in the car. Others go with the flow and just buy an umbrella if they get caught in the rain. Those are the people who have 12 umbrellas when they only need one. If you want to stick to the budget, it's important to check the forecast.

That being said, for food, I'd write out a menu for the week based on what sounded good. Sometimes it was super healthy like veggie meatloaf, grilled salmon, and kale salad. Other times it was fast and cheap like air-fried chicken tenders and waffle fries, but I always mapped it ahead of time and bought groceries around the menu. This eased the mental load of having to figure out what's for dinner, especially when our brains were already feeling overworked from all the other decisions we make throughout the day. If I had a specific craving, I'd put it on the menu for the following week. Did my burgers taste as good as Shake Shack? Probably not. Did my tacos taste exactly like my beloved Taco T? Barely. But they were still good.

It's also important to mentally prepare for the work that saving money involves. It's quicker and easier to grab food on the way home than to get in the kitchen, chop, season, and prep ingredients, cook the food, and clean up afterwards. Sometimes spending extra money is a way to save extra time. It's a trade off, and there are instances where it's a worthwhile investment, but if I'm investing fewer dollars, I need to be okay investing more time and energy. Sometimes it makes sense to throw money at the problem if you can. Being tired and feeling burnt-out isn't always worth the few extra dollars saved. Other times I'd probably do well to just get my butt off the sofa and put forth more effort. Finding balance makes all the difference.

Last, I'd like to call out the lack of free public spaces around town. Aside from the library, which isn't the best place to bring an infant, there aren't many places I can go to hang out and have fun without the inherent pressure to buy something. It was too cold for any parks or nature trails, so there were a few days where we were just holed up at home with nothing (fun) to do.

Now that January is over, I look forward to going candle shopping and hitting the checkout button on the handful of items in my online shopping cart(s). I also need to file taxes and work out the budget for some upcoming home renovations. Fun!

Would you consider a no-spend month/week? Do you keep a budget?

Oh, and if you get a chance, please check out this comic about the mental load. It's perfect in every way.

photo source »»