Good for her, I thought when I read Ann Patchett’s 2017 article on her “Year of No Shopping,” but no way could I do that. I’ve never been drawn to extremes, and I didn’t have extra money for fun stuff at that time anyway. My second child was not yet a year old and my husband and I were spending most of our “discretionary income” on childcare.
But still, that article stuck with me. Patchett and others who had participated in “no-spend challenges” had only good things to say about their experiences.
I began to wonder if taking part in a challenge like this was really such a bad idea.
How I Knew I Was Overspending
I’d developed some pretty bad spending habits in just a few years.
It all started when I found myself working a full-time desk job for the first time. After identifying as “broke” for so long, and as a new parent trying to grow a freelance writing career, I was finally a “real” adult who could afford to replace things and upgrade from time to time.
Suddenly, I went from feeling like I had a little extra for household items and necessities to feeling like I had a little extra to shop and splurge. This new state of being snuck up on me. Just as quickly as my life had changed, so had my spending. Before long, I was making impulse purchases on the regular.
My spending might not have been considered “out of control” by my friends and family, but I knew I couldn’t keep buying at this rate. It took me a while to realize that my spending habits didn’t align with the life I wanted to live.
I was supposed to be a serious person, a critical thinker who was wise to advertising tricks. Instead, whether out of boredom in the middle of a Wednesday afternoon or because I read an article telling me I needed something, I was buying without hesitation.
Did I want that stuff? Maybe, but that wasn’t the point. The fact that I could afford these indiscretions didn’t comfort me either. I remembered the “Year of No Shopping” and decided to try it out with a “Buy Nothing” in September. I could stand to save more and free up cash for more important things. I could get myself to start thinking about each purchase I made again.
Related: When It’s Ok To Spend Money
What Is Buy Nothing Month?
Buy Nothing Month is inspired by a holiday that’s been around since the 1990s. Invented in September 1992 by journalist Ted Dave, Buy Nothing Day started as a way to protest overconsumption and really think about how you shop.
Eventually, people started expanding the idea to a no-spend challenge that lasted a month, six months, or even a year. But instead of just a protest, the challenge became an opportunity to get your priorities in check, limit unnecessary spending, save money, and reduce your waste.
You may have also heard this month of not spending called the “Buy Nothing New” challenge or “No Spend Month.” The idea behind it is not to be able to brag to your friends that you went a few weeks without buying items you didn’t need. It’s to help you reset your spending and start using your money for the things that really matter to you and the life you want to live.
Buy Nothing Month can help you course-correct if you’ve gotten off track with your personal and financial goals. Whether you want to focus on paying off your debt, saving money for your child’s future, or just consuming on a smaller scale, doing this can help.
My Rules for Buy Nothing Month
Every diet needs rules, including a diet from shopping. I modeled mine after Ann Patchett’s guidelines, which she describes as follows:
“I wanted a plan that was serious but not so draconian that I would bail out in February, so while I couldn’t buy clothing or speakers, I could buy anything in the grocery store, including flowers. I could buy shampoo and printer cartridges and batteries but only after I’d run out of what I had. I could buy plane tickets and eat out in restaurants. I could buy books because I write books and I co-own a bookstore and books are my business.”
Basically, you buy only what you really need and put the rest on hold. The rules look a little different for everyone. Some people exclude certain items from the challenge and others create whole spending categories they don’t restrict.
For my own no-spend challenge, I gave myself the following exceptions:
- I can buy replacement items for things I use frequently if they break or get damaged.
- I can buy my kids what they need, like school supplies on their class lists and shoes or clothes they outgrow.
- I can buy food like I normally do (including takeout).
Finally, I dealt with any potential FOMO by keeping a list of things I wanted to buy during the challenge. I’d review the list after my Buy Nothing Month was over and, if I still had the burning desire for a particular item, I could buy it then.
What I Learned From Buying Nothing
I came face-to-face with some hard truths after completing my month of buying nothing. Here’s what I learned about the purchases I was making.
Priorities Are Everything
Maybe it’s already painfully obvious, but your time and energy are limited. Every decision you make, however small, about how you spend your time and energy impacts your life.
So, every minute I spent reading about the best sheet set, sifting through reviews for exercise equipment, shopping for clothes, or putting items in my cart without ever buying them was a minute I wasn’t spending on the activities that actually reflected my values and larger goals.
Before the challenge, I didn’t have my priorities straight. I wasn’t getting any closer to the life I wanted to live with most of my purchases. When I was forced to spend and shop less, I felt like I had a lot more free time and energy to think about how I was using my money.
Related: How To Prioritize and Save for Multiple Goals
Decision Fatigue Is Real
Decision fatigue is the idea that making decisions gets harder and harder the more we do it. It can lead to unnecessary stress, impulse purchases, procrastination, and overall bad decision-making.
I was suffering from decision fatigue before my Buy Nothing Month without even realizing it. I noticed that my personal inbox was just a list of decisions that were draining my mental energy and willpower. When I decided not to spend, I started unsubscribing from newsletters and email lists that were just trying to sell me things.
Before the challenge, I had a habit of leaving tabs open in my browser to avoid making decisions. This looks intriguing, I’d think, but I don’t want to decide right now if I’m going to buy it. If I wasn’t waiting to decide, I was waiting for a sale, refreshing my shopping cart as if it was a slot machine to see if the price was different.
Although my strategy of pushing all shopping decisions to after the challenge could be construed as “avoidance behavior,” it felt liberating. I wasn’t making individual decisions to delay but issuing a blanket ultimatum to myself. Once I decided not to decide, to simply make a list and not check it until the following month, I had less desire to buy.
I also felt free from the stress and anxiety that surrounded these individual decisions. Do I really need this? Will it actually make my life better? Am I a bad person for buying stuff? Am I contributing to the eventual environmental destruction of the earth? And so on.
It’s Supposed To Be Easy To Spend Money
I work in digital marketing and have good critical thinking and media literacy skills. Before my experiment, I would’ve considered myself savvier than advertising. Now I see that’s not true. All of us are swimming in advertising and much of it is integrated into the things we enjoy every day (podcasts, anyone?) that it’s difficult to tune out completely.
We all see thousands of ads per day, whether we’re trying to or not. We even subject ourselves to ads through social media. In part because of the Internet’s “everything is free” mentality, content creators rely on advertising and affiliate marketing to make a living off of blogging, podcasting, etc.
I find myself particularly susceptible to podcast advertising. Although I don’t listen to many shows, I greatly admire the podcasters I do follow. So when I hear them give a testimonial, in their own voice, for the latest recycled shoe company, the world’s most comfortable bra, etc., I’m more tempted to type their “special link” into my browser and check out the product.
Related: How Much Should You Save Every Month?
How I Changed My Spending Habits To Match My Values
I enjoyed my buy nothing month so much I wanted to do it again in January after the excesses of the holiday season. But even when I’m not actively avoiding shopping, I’m shifting my attitude toward purchases to better reflect my values. This is an approach I took from the book Don’t Overthink It by Anne Bogel, who writes:
“When we harness a values-driven decision-making process, we can proactively allocate our resources for the things that matter most to us.”
Here are some personal examples to help you think through your own buy nothing month or values-based approach:
I Value Travel
This is a value I lost sight of after having kids, both for practical reasons (it’s harder and more expensive to travel as a family) as well as general tiredness. But the pandemic has given me a visceral desire to see the world again. From now on, I will set aside money for big trips instead of spending it on smaller things.
Related: How To Travel for Cheap: 7 Ways To See the World for Less
I Value Small, Local Businesses
When shutdown orders were issued in March 2020, I felt fortunate that my husband and I could continue to earn our living working from home. But what about all the small restaurants and retail stores I’d enjoyed visiting in the pre-pandemic world?
For a while, I regularly ordered puzzles and craft sets from my local toy store, books from the local bookstore, and takeout dinners. Yes, this was money I didn’t need to spend, and I could’ve gotten many of the same items cheaper online, but I had no regrets or anxiety about living my values in this way.
I Value Giving Back
On a similar note, I knew that nonprofits would also be hurting while facing increased demand for their services. I set up a recurring monthly donation to the biggest food bank/charity in the region and sent out more checks than usual at year-end to our local animal shelter, library, etc.
Related: You’re Not Too Broke To Give to Charity (And 4 Other Reasons To Give)
I Value Books and Fashion
In terms of things I buy just because they give me pleasure, I’m making peace with books and fashion. I always dreamt of having a home with built-in bookshelves and now that I do, I love having my library on display and to reference when needed. Even my “to be read” pile gives me a certain pleasure in possibility.
As for clothing, I have been working from home for nearly a year and it’s likely to stay that way. I could wear the same sweatsuit every day and no one would really notice or care. But I enjoy fashion as a creative expression, so I’m giving myself permission to add a few new items to my wardrobe each season.
I Value Quality and Meaning
Finally, my overarching principle for shopping is to buy less but buy better. I’d rather have one nice cashmere sweater than four cheaper ones that add up to the same price. The same thing goes for furniture and just about everything else.
Interestingly, doing a Buy Nothing Month also helped free me up to enjoy the holiday season. I realized I enjoyed spending money on gifts and seasonal items like decorations, cards, and family photos. On the other hand, I didn’t care about replacing our thrift-store artificial Christmas tree. Even its gap-filled branches have become a sort of tradition.
Of course, all of this spending is predicated on having room in our budget to do so. Some people may prefer to simply allocate a certain amount toward their favorite spending categories. I find it more helpful to give myself a rule, such as “one ___ per month” and budget that way.
Related: What Does a Realistic Budget Look Like?
How To Track Your Spending and Save Money
To really make the most of Buy Nothing Month, it’s important to take the time after completing the challenge to update your budget.
Before I started tracking my spending, I didn’t have a good sense of where my money actually went. Any negative feelings I had about a purchase, such as guilt or anxiety, were just feelings, not based on fact.
After I signed up for You Need a Budget (YNAB), I felt better just by getting clear on how my money was already prioritized. If these choices didn’t reflect my values, it was easier to make adjustments with the big picture in front of me.
YNAB is a budgeting app that shows you your finances on a granular level. It uses the strategy of giving every dollar a “job,” a strategy called zero-based budgeting. You just link your bank accounts and split your entire paycheck across all of your different envelopes, assigning different amounts to different envelopes based on your priorities.
YNAB can help you do everything from building a food budget for the week to creating savings goals for your family.
Start budgeting with YNAB or read our full YNAB review.
By the time I reviewed my list of possible purchases in October, the initial rush of enthusiasm I’d felt for each had faded. I did buy some records from artists I enjoy; as with small businesses, I wanted to support independent musicians during the pandemic. But just about everything else I’d earmarked no longer seemed important. Clothing items that were on sale had sold out or gone back up in price and I didn’t care.
I think I’ll continue to do the occasional Buy Nothing Month as a kind of deep cleaning for my finances. The rest of the time, I’ll make sure my spending reflects my values — and doesn’t bust my budget. As for those moments of boredom at my desk? Now I get up and walk around or do a quick chore instead of turning to online shopping for distraction.
Will you try a Buy Nothing Month or even a whole year like Ann Patchett?