Personal Finance

What We Learned From Our #SpendingFreeze

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Inspired by this article, several Credit.com staffers tracked their own personal spending freeze on social media. After 3 weeks of trying to scale back spending and save for the holidays, we have a lot to share. We sometimes succeeded, sometimes failed, but mostly learned a lot and have some tips to pass along to anyone who wants to reduce their spending before the holidays.

Gerri Detweiler, Director of Consumer Education

I really felt myself losing steam going into my third week of the spending freeze. However, I didn’t go overboard as I feared I might.

A group of friends and I went to see “Gone Girl,” and I treated my friend to her ticket for her birthday. I also bought a ticket to a different movie for my daughter. Total: $32. (Our movie was well worth it, but my daughter didn’t care for “St. Vincent.”) I also worked on my laptop at a Starbucks one day for a few hours and bought a Chai Latte, even though I probably should have gone for the cheaper latte. That was $3.42. Later I spent another $9.63 at a local dollar store to stock up on movie candy and get shampoo and conditioner for my daughter’s horse.

I am not sure how much I actually saved, because I don’t know how many impulse purchases I would have made otherwise. My main goal was to pay for the medical bills I incurred when I broke my hand over Labor Day weekend, without tapping into savings. I am still waiting for the ER bill to be finalized. I may or may not accomplish that goal, depending on how much of that I have to pay, but so far I have been successful.

When it comes to discretionary spending, the one area I really need to work on is my food budget and meal planning. I’d like to follow my colleague Christine DiGangi’s lead and try to keep our daily spending to $15 or less. Maybe that will be my next challenge!

My #SpendingFreeze Tip:

  • Just wait. During the spending freeze, I added things I’d like to buy to my wish list in Amazon. After this is over, I will revisit my wish list, and I suspect a lot of those items will get deleted. If not, at least I know they are things I really want and am not buying on impulse.

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Bev O’Shea, Editor

The most painful change we made was eating out less (or truthfully, almost not at all). Most days it was not terribly difficult, and with a household of two, we frequently had leftovers. But, we had been accustomed to having take-out burritos for dinner about once a week. I look forward to those. It’s not a big expense (less than $15), and I was never thrilled with whatever we had for dinner instead. Also, I had to plan. Except for one slip-up, there were no, “I’m hungry, it’s late, and I haven’t a clue what we’ll have for dinner” nights (tomato soup and cheese toast became our fix-it-fast staple for such occasions).

I was more grateful when things were inexpensive or free (my co-pay for a flu shot was $0) and more irritated when I realized I could have safely avoided an expense. I also felt more tempted by some online ads I saw, partly because I knew I couldn’t/shouldn’t spend. It was hard when I resisted, but the ads would pop up later, like a little devil on my shoulder. (“You SURE you don’t want this?”) The result was I knew what I wanted to order online the second the spending freeze was over. Because I let items sit in my virtual shopping basket, I did rethink whether I really wanted some things (and left them alone) and in one case read the description more carefully and avoided a return.

One thing I might do differently is plan for take-out burritos, because that, more than anything else, made me feel deprived. I think it would have been OK to cut myself some slack on that, particularly on nights when I worked at a side gig. I did learn I am overstating the hassle and/or impossibility of making something quick and nutritious quickly. For me, it’s more excuse than reality. Let’s face it: I also like it when dinner does not involve dishes in the sink.

While I was not spending, I kind of organized my clothes and did some reading about a capsule wardrobe. Although I am not quite ready to pare down to 33 things, I was intrigued with the idea of having fewer clothes but more outfits. (And so when I ordered new clothes as soon as the spending freeze was over, I knew at least two ways I could wear them and did not buy strictly because it was such a killer deal.)

My #SpendingFreeze Tips:

  • Identify the triggers of mindless spending in your life. Being tired and hungry — and in the car — for example. Seeing an email with a coupon from a retailer I like, and suddenly I “need” stuff, and it’s such a great deal, I’m saving, and on and on. Try to keep them from occurring or stay away.
  • Tell yourself “not now” instead of just plain no. Most things I want will still be there in 24 or 48 hours (or more). And sometimes I will have realized that either I don’t need it or that I don’t actually want it all that much. And some things I actually need, I don’t need to have right this second.

Kali Geldis, Editorial Director

I have to admit, the #spendingfreeze challenge was a lot harder than I thought it would be. It probably didn’t help that I had a vacation previously scheduled that was packed full of activities. On one hand, it meant I didn’t save as much as I could have during the spending challenge, but on the other hand, I definitely would have busted my budget a bit more if I hadn’t made these new spending sacrifices as part of the challenge.

Even though I spent money for my vacation (we rode ATVs, played putt-putt golf and went out to eat at restaurants with good friends), I learned that spending money on experiences that I’ll remember forever is much more important to me than spending it on a coffee I “need” every weekday morning. That realization makes me think about every purchase a little differently. Would I rather pack lunch every day and be able to afford a SCUBA lesson on my honeymoon or order lunch on Seamless and worry about our honeymoon budget? The choice becomes a lot easier to make when it’s put into the context of a specific goal, a tangible purchase I want to make down the road. A lot of that stems from this basic budgeting tenet: When you spend, that money has to come from somewhere else. Your fixed expenses don’t just disappear, but you have the power to make sure your “fixed” costs are truly fixed and not just wants disguising themselves as needs.

My #SpendingFreeze Tips:

  • Saving is a lot easier when it’s part of your routine. I found that making coffee every morning before I hopped in the shower made walking past Starbucks a lot easier. That routine saved me $30 a week!
  • Make rules that work for you. I tend to indulge too often, so I tried to limit my splurging by making a rule — if I can deny myself three separate times, then I can splurge on the fourth time. So, for example, there were a couple of times during the #spendingfreeze that I wanted to take a cab instead of taking the subway. That can add up SO quickly in New York. By making myself take the subway instead of relying on the convenience of a cab, I saved money and it reminded me that I don’t need to take a cab as often as I do. It’s often faster to take the subway, and that change in my perception of convenience vs. cost is what can really be a game changer for your budget.

Kim Como, Manager of Media Partnerships

For me our spending freeze was more about self reflection & self control.

As a mom of two little boys, I am constantly shelling out money to bribe my kids for better behavior. You know, the old “If you’re good, I’ll buy you ice cream” philosophy. During the spending freeze, I tried to say NO to material things and says YES to more things such as cooking a special dessert together, reading an extra book at bed time, or even more play time together.

I also tried to stay out of my favorite stores, knowing that stepping foot inside meant dropping a $100 or more on things that “I wanted” rather than what “I needed.”

My #SpendingFreeze Tip:

  • Think about the future. every decision you make (big OR small) affect your financial future.

Christine DiGangi, Reporter & Editor

I wasn’t as successful as I would have liked to be, but I’m really happy to have cut back as much as I did. It was much more difficult than I anticipated to resist the temptation of spending more on dinner or at the grocery store, but having that on my mind for three weeks has given me a new perspective on such decisions going forward.

Cutting out shopping ended up being extremely easy, because I cut out my weakness: Email. I deleted nearly every sale that hit my inbox in the last three weeks (that’s a LOT of deals), and I easily said “No,” to the relatively few I opened. It must be the high volume that usually breaks me. Looking at my budget, I made no impulse shopping purchases in October (WOW). Delete all the emails. Just do it.

My cravings cannot be so easily suppressed. Under my $15-a-day idea, my husband and I should have spent no more than $315 on groceries and dining out/ordering in during the 21 days of the spending freeze. We spent $600. There were several days we spent nothing. There were many days we stuck to the $15 rule, but we didn’t keep great track, so when we felt we had room to spare, we often didn’t. Sure there were a few times it was inevitable — traveling — or just not going to happen — our anniversary — but oftentimes, we made poor choices. Overall, we made serious improvements to our flexible spending and saved money.

My #SpendingFreeze Tip:

  • Use the buddy system. It was important to me I wasn’t alone in this, feeling like I was missing out just because I had savings goals. It’s a little dorky, but my husband and I sent each other messages like, “I was invited to lunch but I said no and ate the lunch I brought. #spendingfreeze.'” (Yes, sometimes there are hashtags in our texts, and #spendingfreezefail popped up once or twice.) Having someone to hold you accountable and encourage you after a misstep is very helpful when taking on a challenge. Posting to Twitter helped, too. I was with my sister and suggested we browse a running store, and she said, “Wait, can’t you not spend any money?” She knew about my goals, so she wasn’t going to let me slip up. (For the record, I just wanted to window shop.)

Trying something like the spending freeze is all about setting goals that make sense for you — our small group shows you can have the same goal but approach it in totally different ways. Set realistic expectations, but don’t give up when you make a mistake, and always remember that any progress is worth recognizing and rewarding.

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Image: iStock

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