I just spent the past month trying to buy nothing. It wasn’t something I had been planning to do. The thought of doing a no-spend month snuck up during the final days of April. The Better By One family had just come back from a trip the previous week and I felt burnt out by the constant spending. The decision to try a no-spend month was mostly an overreaction to how much we had just spent leading up to and during our vacation.
Why do a no-spend month?
I didn’t realize it at the time, but this overreaction is related to an idea I wrote about recently. I began this no spend experiment weeks before writing the Fighting FIRE: Reluctantly Pursuing Financial Independence post. If I had written that before the experiment, I would have recognized what was going on and probably wouldn’t have done this at all. My emotional brain was freaking out over higher-than-average spending. It reacted by jumping to the other extreme and wanted to buy nothing.
There were some other reasons for doing this aside from sticker shock. It was also an opportunity to test out a thought experiment. I regularly compare spending scenarios for financial independence in Personal Capital. This was a chance to do a real-world test instead of just tweaking different scenarios. What would monthly spending actually look like off of paper if we spent nothing outside required living expenses?
Since this came about as a last-minute idea, I spent no time preparing. The experiment was destined to fail from day one. Going into something like this with no plan and no criteria is not something I would recommend. The only real decision I made before starting is that I would have two spending categories that got no-questions-asked exemptions – bills and groceries.
That was it. No thought given to whether a case of wine counted as groceries (it was being sold in a grocery store, after all). No plans to cut non-essential recurring expenses before the month started.
It is now early June, so this experiment has been over for a few days. I am now able to pull out a comparison of what Moneyless May spending looked like compared to the proceeding 10 months from Mint.com.
The good news is that it was our lowest spending in a year, but still not nearly as low as I expected. What went wrong?
- First, we broke the rules several times during the month.
- We are is in the middle of a DIY home improvement project. We stopped by the hardware store to return some unused supplies and picked up something else (unrelated to the project) while we were there.
- Because I put no thought into this plan, I forgot to take into account family birthdays, so there are some gift expenses added into that total.
- Blog hosting expenses at DreamHost. It is another story for another day, but at the end of April I had no idea this blog would launch a little over a month later.
- Federal Aviation Administration testing fees. There is pilot in the Better By One family working on some certificates. We knew this test would be coming up sometime soon, we just didn’t know exactly when.
- Eating out. This accounts for the last three offenses. Not much to say here except sometimes hunger and laziness wins. I’m not proud.
- The next problem was my overly broad definition of bills. Ideally this would be living expenses, utilities, medical bills, insurance, and other unavoidable costs. Thanks to my serious lack of planning, this category also included recurring auto-paid charges that are nice to have but not required for food or shelter. This includes things like Netflix, Spotify, and Care/of (a custom vitamin/supplement service).
- Big bills. On an average month, we do not see charges for auto insurance or medical bills. In May we got both of these, bumping spending in these categories several hundred dollars higher than other months.
Another issue stands out when looking at this spending graph. May’s number looks ultra-impressive when compared to the previous two months. That would be great if those months weren’t also outliers. We booked our April vacation in March. As a result, spending in both of those months is much higher than usual in order to cover flights, Airbnb rentals, restaurants, etc.
Lesson learned: do not do this again right after a vacation. It sounded like a good idea at the time, similar to starting on New Year’s resolutions after an excessive holiday season. While it made May’s spending look low by comparison, it also made it difficult to see real changes.
While it is easy to compare spending by category to the previous month in both Mint and Personal Capital, I can not find a way to easily compare it to another month of my choice. I would have liked to have been able to compare May’s spending with a more typical month like September or January. That would have given me a much better idea of which categories were actually impacted the most. I did not learn much by seeing that high-speed rail travel dropped by 100%.
I consider myself a minimalist and naturally frugal, so I was surprised one day to catch myself wanting to buy something I didn’t truly need. I frequently think of purchases in terms of opportunity cost, or what I am giving up in order to get something else. How many days or years of early retirement am I sacrificing? What experience or vacation could I have enjoyed instead? What else could I be doing right now? I did not need to delay these types of purchases for weeks to know they were passing impulse buys. A one day delayed spending rule would have worked just as well as a one month rule.
The cost of a thing is the amount of what I call life which is required to be exchanged for it, immediately or in the long run.Henry David Thoreau
I also caught myself avoiding spending on items that I did need. Something broke and needed a replacement part. I lost a travel wall outlet adapter in a Brussels airport lounge. Instead of just buying the needed replacements, they just sat in my Amazon cart until June rolled around. The home improvement project also suffered since I was not able to get certain needed supplies in order to make progress. There was no advantage to doing this. I was just trying to stick to the “buy nothing” rules.
Would I do a no spend month again? Right now my answer is no. I see people out there doing true no-spend (not just low-spend) for months and years, and more power to them. You do you. It just does not work for me right now. I do not believe in crash diets or unsustainable behavior changes, and this felt like both.
I do concede that my lack of planning tainted my feelings towards this, but I still do not see how truly buying nothing is possible without being a very dedicated homesteader. Who knows, maybe I’m just not there yet and can try this again in a few more years. Never say never.
There was some good that came out of Moneyless May. It was a reminder of the importance of conscious spending. The goal of spending no money feels arbitrary, self-denying, and unrealistic for my current lifestyle. What we should all be doing more of, however, is being very conscious of what we spend and why. If we trade our hard earned money and life energy for something, it should really be worth it.