Friday, August 17, 2012

Low-spend month: The start of a cheapskate adventure

Update: I've decided to rename this Low-Spend Month instead of No-Spend Month, as I think that's more accurate and requires less backpedaling! :)

Sam and I have started a no-spend month low-spend month, from August 15 to September 15.

It's already a combination of adventure and chore.

I'd invite you along, and I do, but I figure you'd have to have a compelling reason to want to join in. For us, it's that we have taxes due at the beginning of October and need to save up as much as possible before then. We decided it was best not to trust ourselves to "cut down" on spending and just nix it entirely.

And that's sort of not true, because we're still spending in some respects. I know some people might think of these exemptions as cheating, but it's our no-spend month, so we can set the standards.

No-spend Low-spend rules

Here are our guidelines for what we can spend:
  • We can pay non-negotiables (mortgage, health insurance, etc.).
  • We can pay off previously spent, billed purchases (credit card bills, diaper service, etc.).
  • We can spend the minimum amount of money necessary to honor previous commitments, such as important outings with friends planned before low-spend month, gifts for a birthday party we promised to attend, or our upcoming trip to visit my parents. (The tickets are already purchased, but there might be travel incidentals.)
  • We don't have to count gas or public transportation as costs. I can't bear to be stuck at home for a month in the summer! With no air-conditioning! This doesn't mean we'll just drive around aimlessly, but that we can go places we need to. I understand a lot of people wouldn't make such a sweeping allowance, but we are.
  • We get $100 a week to spend on all food and necessary household purchases (like the floss we ran out of immediately after declaring low-spend month). This includes groceries and eating out and comes to about $14 a day. As people who haven't budgeted for food for a decade or so, this has been the most interesting part so far. Again, I realize other people are stricter about spending nothing, but we didn't think that was feasible. (See floss example above.)
  • Mikko can still spend his allowance as he wishes.
  • Everything else is off limits. I know that seemed like a long list of exceptions, but I guarantee there's plenty we would buy if these limits weren't in place. We're putting off larger purchases that we'd been considering, cutting out smaller purchases and impulse buys, considering free ways to amuse ourselves, and curtailing treats.

Our budget vs. yours

I know that all discussions of finances are fraught with issues of privilege. Our spending habits and income levels and budgets are going to be different from anyone else's, and I don't mean to make this some declaration of how virtuous we're being. This is just our choice to stop spending so much for one wee month (and then reevaluate), because we're privileged enough to make this choice, and I don't judge or compare myself to anyone else for spending less or more or having no choice but to do a no-spend month because they have nothing to spend. We all live in different locations, with different jobs or no jobs, and having made different choices as well as having non-chosen forces at work in our lives that have helped to put us where we are.

If you're in a category where you could spend less and want to join us in this experiment, feel free. If you want to be stricter or less restrictive, feel free as well. If this isn't an option or a desire of yours, you can just follow along and give us tips for budgeting if you have them!

I know from asking on Facebook that our "reduced" food budget of $100 a week for four people is a lot of people's norm; we sort of pulled that number out of a hat since we haven't budgeted or really inspected our spending for years, so part of this month is testing if it's a sustainable one for us or not.

Thoughts so far

The good: I like that we're doing something concrete to help our financial situation. I don't really want to go into the particulars, because it's complicated and kind of stupid, but it relates to the fact that we have to pay taxes on inventory and our inventory was very high last year. Meaning, we earned what should have been plenty, but we don't actually have that money in liquid cash. No one needs to feel sorry for us financially, but I hope no one feels derisive toward us, either. We're simply trying to keep taking responsibility for our finances, and this month (and perhaps future months like it) will help us beef up our savings and curb any mindless spending.

I've never enjoyed shopping and always feel guilty when I spend money, so for me, taking a dedicated break from having to decide what things to buy is kind of like a vacation. It's an excuse not to have to shop!

I like that we're reassessing all the fun things we know to do that cost little or no money. Just a short list off the top of my head: digging on the beach, playing on the playground, board games and card games, family movie night with a DVD from our collection or the library, reading library books, playing with toys and play dough, creating our own desserts and other fun treats, visiting public places where we have memberships or free entry (child-friendly museums and the like; we got a family coupon to one museum through the summer reading program at our library, for instance), visiting different parks and wading pools.

I like that we're using up food that was languishing in our cupboards and freezer. I like that we're less likely to let perishables go bad. I like that my garden harvests are being put to good use! And I love Sam's cooking, so that's a good thing right there.

The bad: It's really hot for Seattle right now, and I keep wanting to go places with A/C. Unfortunately, good places to go with A/C hereabouts include the mall and bigger chain restaurants, both of which are places you would naturally spend money. That's just one example of how it's inconvenient. Even places we have memberships aren't always that air-conditioned; when Seattle-ites use A/C, they tend to use it begrudgingly and sparingly. I was in the children's museum recently and knew they had some A/C on but was sweating like a pig. (I was heard to moan and wipe my brow several times, for I am a weenie in such matters.)

Another effect of the weather is that we're thirsty when we're out and thirsty when we're working hard (we've been moving stuff to storage), and we'd loooove an ice cold drink, but we have to stick within our $14 daily budget if we buy one. We've been doling these out very stingily as a result. (Oh, I know most of you would just drink water. Did I mention I hate water? I hate water. I'm drinking more of it, but that doesn't make me like it.)

We often have gone out with the boys on excursions — with Sam and me taking turns so the other person can work. Now that we can't eat meals or even buy snacks while we're out, that makes it harder to kill time or necessitates bringing food along and finding appropriate places to eat it.

I keep thinking of things I would buy if I could. Things I'd been planning to buy but had been putting off. And now I have to put them off more. Which is both good and bad (see above).

We've kept finding reasons not to do a no-spend month. This month is a good example of a month that doesn't seem like a good bet — we do have those previous commitments we mentioned, including a friend's visit and our travel to family. Plus, it's hot, and we're irritated by that. But we find good reasons to delay this every month, so we're just going for it and making do as we go along.

The effect on children

Mikko's been a little befuddled by the changes, so we've just been explaining it to him as straightforwardly as we can. We've told him we're trying not to spend very much money for a month so we can save up for taxes. We've told him that taxes are money we pay to the government to spend on things like roads and the fire department and libraries, and to help people who need money more than we do. We've told him our budget of $14 a day for food to help explain why we're buying certain things when we go shopping but not others.

It's actually been a good continuing lesson in math and finances, building off the lessons he's learned so far from having an allowance. An allowance has sort of taught him that we have to budget for fun stuff, but showing him that we have a limited amount of money for everything has been even more enlightening, I think. A lot of times, parents keep budgeting behind the curtain (my parents did, at least, and refused to talk about money with me), so that as kids we grow up thinking that adults can buy anything they want to — after all, they have a house! and a car! and lots of food! and look at those twenties in their wallets that came out of the machine! — but that they just refuse to buy the kids certain things out of pique or something. (Like, why oh why did my parents never buy me a battery-operated ride-in car? Or a horse? Or a battery-operated ride-on horse?) Letting kids in on the fact that you do indeed have limited amounts of money and have to choose what to spend it on, from housing to transportation to food to other non-negotiables and then whatever fun stuff might fit in the leftovers gives a clearer picture of what adult finances look like.

I'm not suggesting Mikko's grasped all of this as yet, just that it's been a positive side-effect to have started anew these discussions.

On the other hand, he's been cranky that we won't buy as many treats as we were wont to previously. For instance, if before when we were out, we'd get all of us a drink, or an ice cream, but now we're trying to tighten up on our $14 allotment, he doesn't necessarily want to pay for a treat out of his allowance instead. Last night we splurged with our final two dollars and all shared an ice cream cone for dessert — but had to keep reminding him we were sharing!

Alrik doesn't care yet. That's my summary of his reaction.

What I wish I could buy

Just to get this out of my system, since I'm researching but can't pull the trigger, here's what is on my shopping list right now. You don't at all need to read this; I'm just letting it out.

We lost our camera's remote control, so we can't take family photos without a photographer. This comes in handy about twice a year, but it really comes in handy at those times. Without the remote, we've been resorting to (and I swear this is true) taking multiple photos with one adult (playing photographer) missing at a time and then Photoshopping together the best resulting images. It's doable, but a remote would be easier. I know Mikko at one point buried the remote in the sand (this is true), but I do believe we rescued it that time, even though we haven't seen it since the rescue. Where is it? Finding it would cut this item off my to-spend list.

Related to this, our tripod is also broken (it's now a bipod). Maybe I could find one on Freecycle, but I don't suppose I'll bother till we have a remote.

My cellphone is wonky. It's two years old, and it bothers me that electronics don't last past two years without going stupid, but such is modern life. It won't tell me if I have a text or voicemail (two essential elements of a cellphone, yes?), and it keeps force quitting all applications, including its internal ones. It has some error message that makes it believe all its memory and storage are full when that is just not so. Our carrier (T-Mobile) didn't seem all that interested in helping us get it fixed or replaced, so I was considering just buying a new one but stymied by what to get. I'd like to switch our plan to a $30 prepaid one offered through T-Mobile and Walmart (100 minutes talk, unlimited texting & data), but it's confusing exactly how to sign up and whether the coverage is reliable, so I'd been putting it off. It would also mean buying whatever phone I decide on for full price, or finding a decent used one. Now that we're in low-spend month, I think (a) I'll do a factory reset again on my phone, even though it was really annoying, because it did make it start working again temporarily, and (b) campaign harder with T-Mobile to fix or replace the darn thing since I was duped into the handset replacement warranty charge.

Pettipants for summer skirts! I wrote so much about this topic it became its own post. I know — exciting! You'll have to hold out.

All right, that's all for now!

Have you done a no-spend or low-spend month before? Any tips? Want to join us in not spending till September 15? Misery Frugality loves company!


Mollyandollie said...

We went cash only in our house a few years ago. Now, we fall off the wagon often enough that I don't necessarily think we've been wholey successful but it has helped. We also use 100 dollars a week for all household needs-food, toilet paper etc. we gave ourselves $20 a week each for spending money. For liitle things like drinks etc. that really helped. Anything else we have to talk about. It's hard but well worth the effort!!!

bitt said...

This is basically my life for awhile since I'm unable to work due to being ill. Only things I buy are the things you listed. Aside from once a month or so eating out, cheaply.

I suggest packing a water bottle with a bit of iced tea or lemon water or whatever you like. Always pack a snack so you don't have to buy the more expensive ones. Especially be mindful of food and packing ahead when traveling.

Wish more people would do this. So important not to be wasteful as you never know when something could happen and you could be stuck without a job or income.

Brittany Thomas said...

We are always on a pretty strict budget but this month I've decided to crack down on my husband's more flexible budget. We have some bills that need to go! We pretty much have no "free" money. Everything goes directly to a bill but we were allotting a lot for "restaurants" basically we could eat out about 4 times a month (at cheap fast food type places) or 2 times (at a nice sit down place) I'm going to cut it down to half! We dont' NEED to eat out that much. It's not good for our budget or our health. My husband thinks it's crazy but I know we can do it. I'm the penny pincher in the family. :)

Fresh and Feisty said...

Congratulations. At the very least, you'll learn something even if it's that you don't really need to worry about things ;) I would recommend for pre-paid phones. It's on the Verizon network and seems to work pretty well for my husband and I. You would still need to find one or two Verizon phones but Craigslist usually has a ton. For our needs, it has been great. But my husband hardly talks on the phone so he has a plan that gives him 250 min. and 250 texts for $12 a month. I have one that gives me 2000 minutes and/or texts (can't remember) and some data but I don't use data for $30 a month. Then, once I got switched over, I started buying the refill things from and they usually have some code to save between 3 and 5 percent each time I buy the cards. My friend has it too and she was the one that told me about it. Worked really easy because we already had Verizon phones. And, while sometimes you have to wait a bit for Customer Service they have been very friendly and helpful!

Kara said...

We have been doing something similar, budget-wise, for the last 5 weeks. Since we are apart most of the day, we've been using an old school journaling system to log our spending and make sure we stay under our agreed upon budget. Saving receipts and physically writing the purchases down has made us both feel more accountable and led to much more dialogue about spending, as well as second and third guessing purchases that we would have previously made without batting an eye.

Lindsay said...

Good luck! I know we spend less money than that on groceries, but when I visited my parents while they lived in Seattle I was amazed at how much more expensive everything at their grocery store was!
We have never specifically done a low-spend month, but we pretty much always watch what we spend and try not to buy anything we don't really need. Fabric and craft things are my biggest weakness-I think because I lie to myself that I will use them to make frugal gifts for friends and relatives (which does sometimes happen, but not enough to justify how much crafty stuff I've accumulated!)

Melissa said...

This is how we live our life, for the most part. We live in expensive Massachusetts, so budgeting is pretty much an absolute necessity, as my husband and I both abhor debt. The most practical part of it is that we do some pretty hard core couponing, and stock up on things when we can get them super cheap or free, so we never run out of basics or are forced to run to the store to buy them for full price. When you mentioned running out of floss it occurred to me that couponing has really helped us with our budgeting. For example, I have about 10 floss containers in my bathroom closet that I have gotten absolutely free. When I run out there's another one right there. Last week I got 3 Dove shampoos and 2 Dove conditioners for $0.20 each. Yes, that's right, 20 cents each. So, yeah. Also, we always pack liter sized bottles of water (we are big water drinkers, but you could mix them with Crystal Light, or pack juice, or add lemon, or whatever) to bring with us anywhere, and always a few snacks like yogurt or apples. We always pack snacks for our daughter, too, so we pretty much NEVER buy food and snacks when we're out, unless that is the goal, like going out to eat, which we also never ever do unless we have coupons or gift cards. We also take advantage of free tickets to museums from the library, discounted movie tickets, or we go the park a lot. We recently discovered how much our 16 month old daughter loves the mall (go figure), so now we bring her there to run around and yell and exclaim about how amazing the world is. But we don't buy anything. No biggie. It's still a fun way to kill time. We make our coffee at home, pack lunches for work, make home cooked meals 90% of the time. It took us a few years to get good at this, but it has helped tremendously in the budget department, and now we're pretty good at it. I don't feel deprived. If I need new clothes I get them. I don't feel guilty about it because I buy clothes so rarely, and hardly ever spend frivolously that buying something new once in a while (on sale, of course, and with a coupon preferably, haha) is no big deal. Smart budgeting means that we can buy a new washer when ours breaks without breaking the bank. It means that we can build a new fence in our backyard without sweating the cost. It means that my 16 month old has almost $5000 in her college account because we can afford to add to it monthly. It makes sense (and cents) and it's easy and you get used to it. Good luck!

Sheila said...

I'm another that follows a similar budget to yours every month. Yes, there are a lot of purchases I'm putting off for a time when we have a bit more money. But even when we do, I think I want to stay as "low-spend" as we can, for the sake of paying down debt (we have a lot from college) and saving for the future.

An important thing for budgeting is to plan for treats. It's easy to not buy treats at the store because we're feeling frugal and virtuous ... and then end up caving and buying them at the drive-thru because you find you really really want them after all. Make or buy at the store things like drinks you enjoy, snack bars, desserts, ice cream, so that when you're tempted to splurge on something while you're out, you can think "ah, but I have my favorite flavor of ice cream already in the freezer and I can eat it when we get home." And keep a few drinks and snacks in the car -- a bottle of Arizona green tea is my favorite drink, and you can actually buy a case of it at the store for pretty cheap. Or do what I do -- make your own with tea bags and honey. You can freeze your favorite drinks and take them with you ... you won't be sweating if you are sipping on a slushy drink that melts as your day goes on.

Don't think "oh, I'll be good and not make cookies" if in the end you're just going to grab some storebought cookies because you crave them so bad. Go ahead and bake cookies if you want cookies!

Just warning you away from some of the pitfalls we fell into at first. Some weeks and months, of course, we have to really tighten our belts and give up ALL treats. But for everyday, it's important not to deprive yourself if you know that's going to end in splurging later.

Omma Velada said...

It's so inspiring to read that you are doing this, and to hear all the tips and thoughts of other readers. I think this is a topic close to a lot of hearts in these tight financial times. I am going to see where we can save a little more, or at least spend less. The idea of going 'cash only' is a really clever one! Thanks for all the ideas everyone.

Emily Stephens said...

This is so inspiring! I'm the frugal one in our family, with my husband the spender. I try to curb his spending, but I haven't been successful. We're fortunate that his salary allows for breathing room, but I'd much rather have a larger amount in savings than dinner out or a new shirt! How can I get him onboard with that?!

Dear Beloved Child said...

I am on a cash budget. I withdraw cash from the ATM each week. Some weeks I can save up a bit for those weeks when I spend a bit more. However, once my cash is gone for the week then my spending stops. We have been able to put a lot in savings with this budget. I am much more conscious of my spending habits!

Inder-ific said...

I think a "no spend" or "low spend" week or month now and then is a great way to increase your mindfulness about finances, whatever that means for you. We have a really hard time budgeting food, too, because we love to cook, and we love to cook delicious food! It's not fun to have to scrimp on ingredients. Although, along those lines, I try to make lots of treats at home, to reduce the need for going out for treats. Kids love to make desserts, too, I find. But this only works if you like to bake, of course. :-)

Lauren Wayne said...

@Mollyandollie: I love your idea of giving yourselves spending money each week in cash. I think that would really help me budget my own treats. I'm not sure if we can do cash only in general, just because we order so much online, but maybe for groceries.

Lauren Wayne said...

@bitt: We used to have a lot of money saved for those what-ifs, and then life chipped away at it. We really want to get back to having that sort of cushion. I'm sorry you're ill — it really is hard when you have no choice.

Lauren Wayne said...

@Brittany @ The Pistachio Project: How's your husband's reaction? :) I guess I'm glad Sam & I are on the same page as far as this goes. In general, I'm the one who's more inclined to spend money (whoops).

Lauren Wayne said...

@Fresh and Feisty: Thanks for the phone ideas! I definitely need to switch off our contract plan (it's expired just now, so I can).

Lauren Wayne said...

@Kara: It's incredible how much just writing something down makes you choose differently, huh?

Lauren Wayne said...

@Crunchy Con Mommy: We continually ask ourselves if we should live somewhere cheaper and have tons of money that way. Housing costs are soooo expensive here (and even worse in some parts of the country), whereas we could live much more easily somewhere cheaper. Always a tradeoff, huh?

Fabric & craft things! And yarn. Oh, boy. Yes, it's hard. I really want someone to teach me how to be frugal by sewing things myself; I always end up spending more money than just buying the thing ready-made.

Lauren Wayne said...

@Melissa: I need a show that's like "Non-Extreme Couponing." Maybe "Reasonable Couponing"? So I can learn without feeling intimidated. Because we don't have room for a stockpile, and I don't want couponing to be my hobby, you know? But that is very impressive what you're able to do, so I should really try to up our deal-finding.

Lauren Wayne said...

@Sheila: Very good point about making your own treats or buying them in advance! We've been considering all the things we can make from scratch for cheap.

Lauren Wayne said...

@Emily: Good luck! I don't know — maybe you could make a family budget, then give him his own allowance to spend apart from the money that's going into savings. And if it can go automatically from his paychecks into an account you don't touch, so much the better!

Lauren Wayne said...

@Inder-ific: Yes, Sam is a fabulous cook, and I know this is cramping his style in some respects. Here's hoping he finds creativity even in this, though. I know he's talked about making more of his own bread again, which he loves to do.

Momma Jorje said...

My 2¢ regarding hating water... kind of.

For a budget to really stick, you should try not to be miserable - if at all possible.

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