Challenges are a great tool for testing out a behavior change. Whether you’re trying to eat clean, meditate every day, or just be more active, 30 days is just long enough to test your willpower without breaking it.
No spend challenges are an increasingly popular version of this idea, and September is the month where it’s most commonly attempted. We’ll explain what goes into a no spend challenge, why it’s worth trying and how to deal with some of the most common obstacles.
What is a No Spend Challenge?
A no spend challenge is more like a detox than a diet. Instead of going on a budget where you still allow yourself to buy non-essential items, a no-spend challenge means eliminating discretionary spending altogether.
The rules of a no spend challenge are personal and depend on your specific goals. The challenge can last as long as you want and include as many – or as few – categories as you want. Some people do year-long no-spending challenges, while others stick to a month-long cleanse. You can cut all non-discretionary or non-essential purchases, or just specific categories like clothes or take-out.
Your no-spend challenge should reflect the areas you struggle with. For example, when I tried to do a shopping ban last year, I focused on clothes, self-help books and office supplies. This year, I might focus on skin and hair care products, work-out clothes and nail polish.
You can discover your problem areas by talking to people close to you. Ask your friend or partner, “What do you think I buy too much of?” Make it clear that you won’t be offended by their response.
My strategy for finding my problem areas is to declutter my bedroom and office to see what I have too much of. Then, I write a Google Note with a list of those items to help me remember.
Why Do a No Spend Challenge?
Going on a shopping ban can help you reset some bad habits and impulses. More practically, if you’re trying to restock your emergency fund, save for a vacation or pay off debt, a no-spend challenge can help you save extra money quickly.
Alyssa Davies of Mixed Up Money went on a year-long shopping ban in 2015 after she noticed she was buying new clothes every week. The challenge made her realize that she didn’t actually enjoy fashion and putting together different outfits. She was shopping for the external validation that shopping provided, not the joy or creativity she felt when matching clothes together.
“It’s just so much easier to say, ‘Oh, I bought it because I thought it was cute,’” she said. “It’s a lot harder to say, ‘Oh, I bought it because I wanted people to think I looked cute.’”
Davies recommends writing down how you feel throughout the shopping ban. When you feel like buying another work-out tank top or productivity book, what are you actually feeling? Are you bored, anxious or stressed? Why do you want to buy it? Just journaling for a few minutes can illuminate the real motive behind a purchase.
How to Set up a No Spend Challenge
To set up a no-spend challenge, start by creating some rules. First, decide what you’re going to avoid buying. Remember to focus on items that you personally buy too much of, or the challenge won’t have a lasting impact on your spending habits.
Pro-tip: You can join a spending challenge in the Mint app to help you get started.
The most common categories include:
- Clothes and accessories
- Make-up and skincare
- Books, video games and other media
- Furniture and home decor
- Restaurants and take-out
Decide if you’re going to make your challenge public or private. If you announce your spending challenge, you may find support and external accountability from friends and family. You may also feel more pressure to uphold the rules.
Davies offers downloadable spending trackers on her website, where you can add emojis for the days that you bought something. You can share these on your social media profiles every month.
If you don’t want to share your shopping ban publicly, you should still track it privately. Get a calendar and mark an X for every day that you maintain the ban. Seeing a string of successful days will inspire and motivate you to stay strong.
According to James Clear, author of “Atomic Habits”, one of the key ways to eliminate an unwanted habit is to make it harder to achieve. If you’re trying to stop shopping, make it harder to shop. Go to your internet browser settings and remove your saved credit card information. If the information is saved on retail websites, visit each site and delete your saved credit card information.
If you’re like me and have your credit card numbers memorized, you can go as far as cancelling those cards and having replacements mailed to you. This strategy may require you to update your billing information, like if you had your gym membership saved on your previous card. But it may be worthwhile if you need another barrier between you and your spending habits.
If you typically shop in-person, avoid any tempting places. If you need to buy razors and body wash, get them at the grocery store instead of going to Target.
When you get the urge to spend, add the item to a special list or a folder on your browser. Then, when the shopping ban is over, you can review the list and decide if you still really want the item.
What Happens if You Break Your Challenge?
Breaking a no-spending challenge is like breaking a diet: it’s inevitable. No one is perfect, and maintaining a shopping ban, even for a week or a month, is incredibly difficult in a consumerist society.
When you accidentally buy something, Davies recommends journaling about what emotions and situations led to the purchase. Did worrying about a work presentation lead to buying a new suit so you would feel more prepared? Are you anxious about a date and splurged on make-up to feel more attractive? These kind of questions can help you figure out why you broke the ban.
“Every single part of how we spend is a reflection of our mood that day,” she said.
Don’t beat yourself up for breaking the rules, no matter how much you spend. Instead, offer grace and kindness to yourself. Talk aloud to yourself the way you would talk to a friend, offering reassurance in place of judgement.
Hold a picture of yourself as a child and think about how you would want that child to feel when they made a mistake. Remind yourself that buying something once – or a few times – during a no-spend challenge is still probably an improvement over the previous month.