By Theresa Bailey
Learn more about Theresa on NerdWallet’s Ask an Advisor
Back in September 2012, I was awarded a fellowship to become an Accredited Financial Counselor. Just prior to this, my husband, who is in the military, had received orders that required us to move. As a result, I had to leave what I considered my dream job, which was in forensic mental health.
Even before the fellowship, I was pretty much a tightwad with money (or at least my husband always tells me so). So this new opportunity fell right in line with my personal passions. To get in gear, I called a family meeting to sell a little experiment I had been thinking about. I wanted us to agree to spend no money, except for a specific amount on groceries and gas, for 30 days.
I met some resistance from my husband (a perpetual toy buyer), my teenage daughter (need I say more?) and my Lego-obsessed 7-year-old son. But by the second week, everyone was into it. We walked more, rode bikes instead of driving, spent more time together, learned valuable lessons on needs versus wants and, in the end, saved about $650!
It wasn’t easy, though. It's amazing how easy it is to spend — just a buck here or there — without thinking about it. I always thought I was good about that stuff, but through this experiment I learned how much I still needed to learn. If you dare attempt this on your own, I can offer some survival tips.
Planning is a must. Discuss the plan with the whole family. They may not be jumping to get started at once, but you all need to be on the same page.
Be clear what you will spend on. Not spending is the whole point, of course. But some things you simply can’t do without. So set a budget. We still needed to buy groceries and put gas in the car. But we set dollar limits for both, and then we lived within the limits. With transportation, for example, we walked when we could, or rode bikes (until I got a flat one day and a new tube wasn’t in the budget). I bundled car trips or just didn't go places unless it was necessary.
Set an end point. If you say you’re going to do it for a week, then do it and be done in a week. Don't say, "Hey, we did great! Let’s try for one more week."
Celebrate reaching your goal. Whatever it is.
Be prepared for things to come up. You’ll have to get creative at some point. We had to fashion a gift for a 6-year-old boy when we got invited to his birthday party. Another example: I never buy ice cream at the grocery store. But I did so once during our month so the kids could have it as a treat. (By the way, we still have some left in the freezer!).
Find coupons to help. I used free smoothie coupons, free granola bar coupons. I made it fun for the kids to go to the store, pick out a granola bar and take up their coupon to pay for it. I even used a massage gift certificate during the month. If you absolutely need something, don’t just buy it; look for bargains.
Be creative with entertainment. Movies from the library are just as good those from Redbox, On Demand and so forth. Break out the board games, make some popcorn and enjoy. We even implemented a “quiet time” so they could remember what it was like to play and be alone once in a while with nothing scheduled. It was fabulous!
Be prepared for questioning looks. The hardest part for me came when friends invited me out for dinner and drinks. I didn't share with them what we were doing until after we were done. I had to be subtle and or just plain say “no” a lot. Once I got away with saying, "let's just hang out at my place and relax." But that didn't fly all the time.
Remember, it's needs versus wants. I canceled my hair appointment. The next day my flat iron broke. I looked like Roseanne Roseannadanna for the better part of 3 weeks! I wanted to look good, but I didn't need any of that stuff. It's OK to make lists of what you want to spend money on when you’re done. We made a family list, and it was surprisingly small ... which tells me the experiment worked.
Now it’s 2015, and I’m planning on pitching the experiment again for the month of December. Hey, we’re a military family. We’re always up for a challenge!