Challenges are a great tool for testing behavior change. Whether you’re trying to eat clean, meditate every day, or be more active, 30 days is enough to test your willpower without breaking it.
No spending challenges is an increasingly popular version of this idea, and September is the month when it’s most commonly attempted. We’ll explain what goes into the no-spend challenge, why it’s worth trying and how to tackle some of the most common obstacles.
What is the no-spend challenge?
The no-spend challenge is more like a detox than a diet. Instead of going to budget where you still allow yourself to buy non-essential items, the no-spend challenge means eliminating discretionary spending altogether.
The rules for the no-spend challenge are personal and depend on your specific goals. The challenge can last as long as you like and include as many – or as few – categories as you want. Some people do year-long no-spend challenges, while others stick to a month-long cleanse. You can cut off all non-discretionary or nonessential purchases, or only specific categories such as apparel or take-out.
The no-spend challenge should reflect the areas you are struggling with. For example, when I tried to enforce a shopping ban last year, I focused on clothes, self-help books, and office supplies. This year, I may focus on skin and hair care products, sportswear, 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 the most from?” Show them that you won’t be offended by their response.
My strategy for finding my problem areas is to tidy my bedroom and office to see what I have a lot of. Next, I write a Google Note with a list of these items to help me remember.
Why the no-spend challenge?
Banning shopping can help you reset some bad habits and impulses. In practice, if you’re trying to refill your emergency fund, save for vacation or pay off debt, the no-spend challenge can help you save more money quickly.
Alyssa Davis was banned from shopping for Mixed Up Money for a year in 2015 after noticing that she was buying new clothes every week. The challenge made her realize that she doesn’t really enjoy fashion and putting together different outfits. She was shopping for the outside validation that shopping provided, not the joy or creativity she felt when matching clothes together.
“It’s much easier to say, ‘Oh, I bought it because I thought it was cute,'” she said. “”It’s much easier saying, ‘Oh, I bought it because I wanted people to think I looked cute.'”
Davis recommends writing down how you feel throughout the shopping ban. When you feel like buying a training book or another productivity book, how do you actually feel? Are you bored, anxious or stressed? Why do you want to buy it? Just writing a diary for a few minutes can illuminate the real motivation behind the 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 will avoid buying. Remember to focus on items that you buy in person often, or else the challenge won’t have a lasting effect on your spending habits.
Pro type: You can join the Mint app spending challenge to help you get started.
The most common categories include:
- clothes and accessories
- Make-up and skin care
- Books, video games, and other media
- Furniture and home decor
- Restaurants and takeaways
Decide whether to make your challenge public or private. If you publicize your spending challenge, you may find support and external accountability from friends and family. You may also feel more pressure to keep the rules.
Davies offers downloadable spending trackers on their website, where you can add emojis for the days you bought something. You can share these profiles on your social media sites 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 each day you keep the ban. Seeing a series of successful days will inspire and motivate you to stay strong.
According to James Clear, author of Atomic Habits, one of the main ways to get rid of this unwanted habit is to make it more difficult to achieve. If you’re trying to stop shopping, make shopping more difficult. Go to your internet browser settings and remove your saved credit card information. If the information is saved on retail sites, visit each site and delete your saved credit card information.
If you’re like me and keep your credit card numbers in memory, you can go as far as canceling these cards and mailing replacements to you. This strategy may require you to update your billing information, such as whether your gym membership was saved on your previous card. But it may be useful if you need another barrier between you and your spending habits.
If you are shopping in person, avoid any tempting places. If you need to buy razors and body lotion, get them at the grocery store instead of going to Target.
When you feel like spending, add the item to a special list or folder in your browser. Then, when the shopping ban ends, you can review the list and decide if you still really want the item.
What happens if you break your challenge?
Breaking the no-spend challenge is like breaking a diet: It’s inevitable. Nobody is perfect, and keeping the shopping ban in place, even for a week or a month, is very difficult in a consumer society.
When you buy something by mistake, Davis recommends writing a diary about the feelings and situations that led to the purchase. Did worrying about a job offer lead you to buy a new suit so you could feel more prepared? Worried about a date and emptied of makeup to feel more attractive? This type of question can help you find out why you broke the ban.
“Every part of how we spend is a reflection of our mood that day,” she said.
Don’t pressure yourself to break the rules, no matter how much you spend. Instead, offer yourself grace and kindness. Talk out loud to yourself the way you would a friend, and reassure yourself instead of judgment.
Take a picture of yourself as a child and think about how you want this child to feel when they make a mistake. Remind yourself that buying something once – or multiple times – during a no-spend challenge is still likely an improvement over the previous month.