We want to spend nothing for a year and need a plan before diving in!
April 29, 2017 9:51 PM   Subscribe

I read this article and was so inspired by her journey and thought I could do the same. My wife and I are DINKs and have talked about saving more to put toward our mortgage and investment accounts. This no-spending-for-a-year plan could give us some actual structure to that. But we need a plan before we dive in! Your advice needed and welcome.

Right now we put a fixed amount per paycheck into an investment account, we both have retirement accounts through our work, and pay our regular mortgage payment every month. Debt is not a factor for us. I would love to beef up our investment account and pay double our mortgage payment every month to start. I looked this up for advice already on AskMeFi and found this fascinating thread on curbing spending.

Anyways, in the article she talks about biking everywhere, spending 30 pounds a week on food, not eating out, etc. I want to track my expenses better (I'm using an app called Daily Budget which breaks down spending categories into daily amounts which is kind of a cool way to think about stuff but I'm open to new ones, not really into Mint) and just be more cognizant of what we're spending. Eating out and random purchases (new clothes, coffees, drinks with friends, trips) are just random things that add up. I would love to dive into this Year Of No Spending (YONS) (however you define that) but I want to do it in a way that makes sense.

More info about me and my spouse: we work full time, live in a medium sized US city with good public transportation, we can bike or walk to work, we both have cars also, we have health insurance and I would want our gym membership to be a part of the spending portion of the YONS. We cook a lot of our meals at home already so it's not going to be a huge shift, just needs to be more intentional.

Things I would want: YONS means not buying new clothes, not eating out, cutting back on home improvement projects, etc. Putting extra money into savings, short and long term as well as paying extra on our mortgage.

Anyways, advice, people who have done this, or contemplated it, or done some version of it. I'd like to reach Mr. Money Mustache levels but know it take small steps to get there. This may sound extreme to some but I kind of need a kick to get going here. Thank you!
posted by timpanogos to Work & Money (22 answers total) 30 users marked this as a favorite
Well, as far as expense tracking, I've tried a lot of apps but I ended up doing best with my own custom tracking spreadsheet and summary. I now just use Google Sheets. Every single penny we spend is on there, and then I roll up it monthly into categories, and roll that monthly tally up to the year. If you really want to know intimately where your money goes, doing it manually, rather than having an app track it for you automatically, will help.

One thing to do would be to get familiar with what your local libraries offer. No cinema night? The library probably lends DVDs. Audiobooks and magazines, possibly, too. It also may have free museum passes for outings.

If your year typically includes birthday and holiday gifts, plan for that well ahead of time. Are you just not going to do gifts? Make your own gifts/cards? If you plan to make your own gifts that means starting pretty early, so not waiting until the last minute like you can when you just shop the issue away.

If I were to try this I'd probably set up a little discipline like, if I found I needed something, I'd first have to attempt to try to borrow, barter, salvage, or swap for it before considering buying it. Join your local swap groups, like Freecycle and the various Facebook free-swap groups. Just beware, sometimes picking up something that is a project doesn't really save you money, because you might have to spend money to make it work/presentable.

You can bike or walk to work - but do you? Spend some time doing some practice runs before committing for a year. If you don't already walk to work, you may need to work out some hacks that make it truly do-able for you - things like having a pair of walking shoes to swap out for work shoes, and also being sure you have adequate heavy weather gear. Same goes for biking.

Good luck. Great project.
posted by Miko at 10:10 PM on April 29, 2017 [3 favorites]

Sell a car.
posted by aniola at 10:55 PM on April 29, 2017 [2 favorites]

Before the end of your year, sell the other car.
posted by aniola at 10:56 PM on April 29, 2017 [1 favorite]

My life years 4-18 were essentially all "spend nothing" years because I grew up with frugal immigrant parents. For good reason; they started in this country at age 30 from no cash, and were able to pay my college tuition bill.

So I can definitely tell where I've lapsed from maximum frugality -- I will now call Lyft if it's cold and raining out; the correct thing to do would be to pack more layers so that you are never too cold to wait for a bus, at daytime frequencies. I will buy food at a coffee shop, but the correct thing to do would have been to eat enough at the previous meal to not be hungry, or to have packed my own snack.

Cooking at home is good, but there is sometimes room to improve in grocery shopping. Never pay full price -- shop loss leaders, pretty much exclusively. Better yet, don't get groceries at big grocery stores -- figure out where the 'outlet' version is -- these tend to be produce-only shops. Like, $3 per pound of apples is ridiculous, but that's the price at Safeway. If you go to a produce-only shop, it should be closer to $1.

No food waste -- you are going to base your meals on what is still in your fridge and pantry, not what recipes demand. If you see something you might need for a future cuisine, wait for a sale. It really helps if you don't define meals as a slab of protein with some "sides", since that slab of protein is an inefficient delivery of umami. Instead, consider how people use bacon. You scatter bacon bits to deliver flavor to an entire salad. Think of all meat as bacon.

This might be moot if your employer provides lunch, and you might be doing it as matter of fact, but yes, you should pack all your lunches! Either cook enough extra dinner each night, or make one batch per week and dole it out. Of course, you should evaluate if this creates too much social friction in your team (i.e. do I care about 12 months x 22 days x $12 lunch, or the advancement of my career that comes from going along to the stupid food truck with the team? do I have clout to get the team to bring back their food truck purchase while I microwave my meal?).

I guess it could feel like you go all year without "doing anything", but there is usually plenty to do in medium-sized cities that is free. Art walks. Taking the bus to a random neighborhood and exploring it. Really use the classes that your gym provides. Readings. Random festivals. You could also make Netflix / Hulu your entertainment budget, if that floats your boat. Volunteer, and sometimes you get free stuff out of it, e.g. movie passes if you volunteer at a theater. If you social dance, you can usually get into the dance for free by sitting at the door for half an hour.
posted by batter_my_heart at 11:26 PM on April 29, 2017 [12 favorites]

Are you both equally on board for this? Because it feels like quite a jump from "we talked about saving more" to "hey, let's spend nothing for a year."

Like Miko, I found that sitting down at the end of each day and entering receipts for that day's spending into personal-finance software -- a spreadsheet, Mint, whatever; I use an old version of Microsoft Money -- was very useful for getting a handle on what I spent money on. The act of handling the receipt, picking a category, entering the figure is a reminder of "huh, I spent that."

I'm a little skeptical that an extreme "year of no spending" won't be immediately followed by "year of deferred spending." The Esquire article claims not, but also notes that her clothes were "destroyed" by a year of walking and bicycling with no replacements; wouldn't it be better to cut clothing spending back to a sustainable level rather than eliminating it altogether? Similar concerns for car and home maintenance, etc.
posted by We had a deal, Kyle at 11:46 PM on April 29, 2017 [18 favorites]

I also use google spreadsheets but I find that the best way to save money is to make it nearly impossible to spend any. I budget my spending and pay my bills ahead of time all month and then put a lot of the balance into savings. So I only have about $100-150/week in my checking account at any one time. It's too much of a pita to get access to more money for impulse buys plus it makes me feel poor, which makes me live like a grad student which saves $$$.
posted by fshgrl at 11:58 PM on April 29, 2017 [1 favorite]

I think the year of no spending as mentioned in the article is probably quite achievable really given the way most people live.

I'm a reasonably frugal person, and even still I have enough food in the pantry, clothes in the wardrobe and supplies in the garage to last into the next decade.

A real eye opener to me recently was having a spring clean and reorganising my house more systematically - putting all the shirts, books, bottles of toilet cleaner etc together was amazing!

Key to preparation would be having a good sort out at home and working out exactly how much of everything you do actually have, what you need, and what you might be able to get rid of (donate, ebay, etc) so that you can actually get to it.

As for other expenses that come up, it's surprising what you can improvise, reuse or find along the way.

One of the things that might be interesting is trying to grow some of your own food, or certainly some herbs, salad or other stuff if you have any outside space, a bit of compost, a few seeds and you're away! It's free entertainment too!

Another idea is finding new cheap hobbies - one I started recently was learning English Change Bell Ringing which is both fascinating, fun and entirely free, perhaps you might think of something similar?
posted by Middlemarch at 2:19 AM on April 30, 2017 [1 favorite]

Keeping two cars when you can both walk or bike to work seems like a luxury to me, YONS or not.

One of my relatives takes a lot of pleasure in being very frugal, but I can see how his "no spending" sometimes turns into "much more expense at a later date", because he didn't get something fixed before it was too late - especially true for his house. So, I think We had a deal, Kyle made a good point about deferred spending there. I'd keep sustainability and long-term savings in mind first and foremost.
posted by wavelette at 5:48 AM on April 30, 2017 [6 favorites]

You might be interested in the Uber Frugal Month Challenge which is, yes, about not spending money but also about rethinking your relationship to money and evaluating what's important to you.
posted by mcduff at 6:41 AM on April 30, 2017

There was an American woman who did this and wrote a book. It's called "Not Buying It."

I have other book recommendations as well. Amy Dacyczyn is the queen of frugality. See if your library has her Complete Tightwad Gazette. Also, Charles Long's How to Survive Without a Salary is great. Living More With Less is a book of collected suggestions by Mennonites. A lot of the contributors were missionaries and write about things they learned living in third world countries. (I know not everyone is going to love missionaries, but I think the basic attitude is respectful and based on the idea that Americans have a lot to learn from less wasteful cultures.) There is also a More with Less cookbook that collects ideas from Mennonites.

There is also a cool documentary that I think is still on Netflix called Living on One Dollar. It was made by college students who wanted to see what it was like to live like the world's poorest people do. It's not directly applicable to your situation, but it helps to put what we consider "normal" life in perspective.

Finally, if you want to connect with others who are interested in extreme frugality, search for discussion boards with the words voluntary simplicity. I used to be involved with one, but it was a long time ago.

Thanks for posting this. You're inspiring me to get back into it.
posted by FencingGal at 6:47 AM on April 30, 2017 [5 favorites]

Coffee shops are probably our biggest category of "unnecessary" spending. When I was a grad student and had no money, we went to a coffee shop maybe once a year; now it's pretty much every day! This has, I think, three functions, which you would probably want to consider how to replace if you're cutting out the coffee shops:

Sustenance: When I was a student I carried a water bottle when I was out and about, in case I got thirsty. Also snacks. And you may want to think about where you can stop for a bathroom break if needed without buying anything.

Treats for yourself: Not going out for coffee and treats these days would probably make me feel kind of deprived. Consider a way to replace this: bake something special at home, or pick something up from the grocery store, and have it for dessert once in a while with a nice cup of tea/coffee.

Socializing/taking a break: For us, going to the coffee shop is also a social fix (we have a lot of "local coffee shop friends"). If this is a factor in your coffee shop visits, it's probably important to think about how you'll replace this function in a cheap/free way.
posted by heatherlogan at 6:49 AM on April 30, 2017 [2 favorites]

Socializing/taking a break

The most difficult thing for me when I get really frugal with my money is what I call "social spending" situations in which I am comfortable spending zero dollars (maybe) but where there is an expectation and other people's priorities also come into play. A few examples

- you are invited to be in a wedding which requires some sort of samey outfit. Do you say no just so you can buy nothing?
- you are invited to a child's birthday party and everyone else is bringing presents. Do you give the child something "recycled" because of YONS?
- your friends have a regular night out at a local bar. Do you go and drink water?
- you are invited to dinner at a friend's place. Do you ring a handmade "hostess gift" because of YONS?
- you are at a work event and there is a lunch break and everyone else goes out to lunch at a place, do you bring your meal from home?

Obviously these are just examples. My advice if you are serious about this but not doing it because you have a cash-flow problem would be to have a "cheat day" every month where you could do a thing like buy a kid a present or have work lunch with colleagues. You might also want to have some sort of friend do a reality check on whether you're helping curb your spending or being a weird miser about things (it can be a fine line and it's very important that you and your partner share the degree of into-it you are about this endeavor regardless of where you fall)

I second the Amy Dacyczyn books, I found them useful and also seeing if you have friends who are frugal-by-choice. I would also advise you to make sure you're clear on the difference between frugal-by-choice and frugal-not-by-choice. People's feelings on this sort of stuff differ, but being ostentatious about not spending money can sometimes seem, to people without money, like a weird humblebrag, so make sure you're a little mindful about the way you discuss this in the world at large.

I asked a question about simple finance apps a few months ago and would up using Toshl for a good long time. It's a nice and easy to use budgeting app.
posted by jessamyn at 7:08 AM on April 30, 2017 [10 favorites]

My wife and I do something similar to this but not on an annual scale. We do "buy nothing" months where we can't buy any 'things' for the entire month. We still maintain a social calendar with eating out because friends are just too valuable to surrender but we don't eat out anywhere fancy as a couple.

We do it now to increase our savings but in the recent past it was to get out from under massive debt. The most motivating thing is to have a goal that you can track.

When we were in debt we wanted to pay down our principle and limit our total interest payment over the life of the debt. Watching those numbers go down was the principal reward for the frugality.

I also keep a spreadsheet that shows average daily spend by month.

We use the Amazon cart - save it for later for online purchases. Things have to sit there for a while before we buy them so we can make a judgement after the initial impulse to purchase wears off. We use two simple questions for all purchases "Do we REALLY need this?" and "Will this SIGNIFICANTLY improve our lives?".

For the kitchen we really don't work very hard at saving money grocery shopping anymore. The returns for the pursuit of savings were just too marginal relative to the cognitive effort to assess prices and optimize trips to various grocery stores while not having fresh foods go off. There is some videogame-esque maximizing pleasure to be had from it but after a while that fades. Cooking your meals is really the biggest gain to be had. Cooking from scratch is the next level gain. After that cooking with leftovers for lunches or next day dinners in mind. After that - stop, relax and have a glass of wine or beer before you become obsessive.

If your comfortable opening your place up to friends having people over for dinner and drinks is a great way to reel in restaurant expenses.
posted by srboisvert at 10:43 AM on April 30, 2017 [2 favorites]

You can do this on easy mode by just pretending to be poor. What's the poverty line where you are? Live there, or lower. (If housing expenses make that impossible, I'd do some math -- look up the median % of income poor people in your area spend on housing, multiply the poverty line amount to allow that % to be your fixed housing expenses, keep that as a separate amount, scale back the remaining % to poverty line levels.)

There's no "cutting back on home improvement" there -- you sit around and pray that nothing breaks, and if it does, you scrape together the cash for pizza and beer while your friends come over and help you. (Okay, they might not be interested in helping for someone merely playing at poverty. But use things like that as opportunities to school yourself in the art of barter. I also would not drop home maintenance, but, you should spend some time on YouTube and learn how to DIY as much as possible.)

FencingGal's book recommendations are all excellent. If you are on Facebook, join a group called "The Non-Consumer Advocate."

Keep an eye out for items that are still brand new in the box at thrift stores; when you spot one that is actually nice, plonk it in your "gifting stash," and have a rummage through there when you want to give a present. (If you start to thrift regularly, your "stash" here will reach pretty impressive levels.) Gentle hoarding is often key to survival when broke. The Dacycyzn book will explain this a fair bit. For example: the lowest price butter ever hits here is $2.99. I am roughly aware of how often I find it for $2.99. When it is $2.99, I buy enough to get me through to the next sale and chuck it in the freezer. I never go in a store without a quick browse in the clearance section -- a little while ago it netted me about 7 bottles of sunblock for free; they had clearance-priced it at $3-something but then slapped a "$5 off" sticker on it. (Yes, it loses potency over time -- but quite slowly, and I don't care if my free 60SPF ends up being 50; I've never had a problem with expired sunblock.) Speaking of, some things, like yoghurt, actually taste better after the "best before" date. There are a lot of things to be bought on clearance, and, if applicable, tossed into the freezer -- do not grocery shop like a well-off person, and you'll save hundreds. And still eat well.

Do not pass up on an as-new cashmere sweater going for $4 because no spending etc: as others have mentioned, sustainability is key.

If you are playing on poor mode, cheat days are fine, but you should then make up for them -- no fresh food that week; you make do with what's in the pantry. (Which is plenty -- clearance section stuff will abound.)
posted by kmennie at 10:48 AM on April 30, 2017 [3 favorites]

Seconding everything kmennie said.

Also: Take advantage of your neighbors' rampant consumerism! Depending on where you live, the local Freecycle can be a great place for new and nearly new things for the gifting stash, etc.
posted by Tiny Bungalow at 11:05 AM on April 30, 2017

Part of your plan needs to involve the emotional component of this. This is likely to be difficult, and potentially cause stress in your lives. You both need to talk about how you're going to handle this.

I want to mention, as someone who's partner grew up poor, and as someone who went from a middle-class family to poor after leaving home a week after I turned 18, that it's very easy to develop anxieties about money when you live like this. Maybe it's different when you have a choice, but both my partner and I struggle with the idea of spending money on things that make us happy or benefit us in indirect ways.

This can lead to some really unhealthy attitudes towards self care. Obviously you can do self care without money, but there comes a point where you're giving up your personal happiness and wellbeing in the name of saving money. I'm not saying this will necessarily happen to you, but I think you should be prepared for the possibility, and you need to plan for how you are going to handle your emotions and reactions to this project.
posted by brook horse at 11:17 AM on April 30, 2017 [3 favorites]

OK, I am a pessimist. During your year, if it turns out that one person gets more satisfaction from not spending, if one person has more satisfying free hobbies, if the somewhat less frugal person cares more about dressing nicely or giving nice gifts, then this can be the source of a lot of conflict in the relationship.

Sometimes "controlling spending" can lead to controlling how ones partner spends their time and is allowed to do, not just what they are allowed to have. This is why having some separate money is usually recommended as a way to fight less about money. Saying "Hey, let's agree up front on rules" will not actually cause perfect agreement for a whole year about what each member of a couple wants. It's really easy to slip into a 'strict parent' vs. rebellious 'child' dynamic if one person really loves rules. I just see dark clouds and red flags on this path. It's hard to democratically make decisions with only 2 voters. Agreement is the easy case. But what if it's one vote For and one vote Against? I think you really need an approach to solving disagreements when wishes for discretionary spending arise. In addition to an "approach" or system, maybe also an escape hatch or even a safe word. The negotiation can't just be Person (A)"I want it. Person (B) "No, the rules say "no", so the answer is "no.".

Personally, I could do it for a month. And when I have tried it for a month I tried the more positive framing of "Use what you have month" rather than "Buy nothing month."
posted by puddledork at 1:57 PM on April 30, 2017 [4 favorites]

There are lots of "buy nothing" and "free" groups on Facebook etc. and craigslist is great for free stuff. Also there are websites for free activities (google it for your town). But just keep in mind that you will be paying with your time now rather than money - so for example, if you need to replace your shoes, you'll have to be looking for free shoes online and be the first person to hop on it and get out to where the person is asap before others do. So just be prepared to use your leisure time for this.

Also, be sure to wash any textiles (clothing, blankets etc.) that come into your home and dry them on high heat. You don't want to have to pay $1,000 to get rid of bed bugs that came on a free shirt.
posted by Toddles at 5:15 PM on April 30, 2017 [1 favorite]

I agree that navigating the social part of this is tricky. Especially when it's really not buy nothing. You're even paying for a gym membership! It's a reprioritization of spending and if you move social spending to the bottom (never meeting friends except when they're paying/hosting, not exchanging gifts/cards when they/you otherwise would, etc) it's not necessarily easy to not make friends themselves feel moved to the bottom too. To the extent that you're planning of stock up ahead against expenses and compensate after, it really sounds like more of an exercise in logistics. The YONS framing is kind of misleading/gimmicky. If you think a sort of all or nothing approach will be more helpful for you than other approaches for just watching and moderating your spending, or that it will be kind of like those juice cleanses people do that make them feel better or have an easier time sticking to another diet they want to stick to, knock yourself out. But I think that being comfortable with the fact that it's not a real thing but more of a game you're playing with yourself might help figure out/smooth out some of the social tripping points.
posted by Salamandrous at 4:19 AM on May 1, 2017 [1 favorite]

Came to say: sell a car (or both).

I grew up rural and poor in America, so a car was an essential item--possibly the essential item. By age 23, I was sick of the expense and frustration of owning and maintaining a car, insurance, parking, fuel, and so on. I was in a bad car accident that year and resolved to tailor my life around not owning a car. It's been 15 years and I've not owned a car since, including during the near-decade we lived in Los Angeles. The money I saved ended up being my share of the down payment on our house in a city (not Los Angeles) where I never need a car. I walk, bike, or transit most everywhere, with taxis and Zipcar filling in the rest. Talk about reorienting the way we assume money must be spent--strike at the heart of the personally-owned car and see where that gets you.
posted by late afternoon dreaming hotel at 1:56 PM on May 1, 2017 [2 favorites]

Nthing joining a local Buy Nothing group. The great thing about Buy Nothing is you can ask to borrow things from people too, like tools. You don't necessarily have to trade ownership of them. You can also ask your other networks (work, church, book club, whatever) to borrow things, or barter for services.

Nthing making use of the library, for dvds as well as books. Some years ago we gave up DirecTV and got a monthly subscription to Netflix, which we access via a Roku. Since we had kids we got Amazon Prime, which has the added benefit of having online movies and tv as well, which we also access via the Roku.

Nthing having people round to the house for visiting and entertaining, instead of always going out to eat.

One of our greatest ways of saving on grocery costs has been to own a stand-alone freezer (which lives in our garage), and we buy meat in bulk when it's on sale. It's not unusual for us to buy 70lbs or chicken or pork at a time. Of course, you have to have a car to transport such large quantities of things.

If you have the capacity, it's nice to grow your own vegetables. I prefer to grow from seed to keep the cost down; also, you have to evaluate the cost of water in your area, and grow things that are prolific. Some crops can be more expensive to grow at home than to just buy if you just get one or two fruit for all of your hard work.

I have kids and I cannot stomach paying for new clothes for them when they grow out of their clothes so quickly. So I've become, for the second time in my life (the first time being high school) a very adept thrift shopper. I go down and peruse the local Goodwill on my lunch hour once or twice a month, you can find great work clothes if your clothes need replacing during the year. You're saving money and being kind to the environment. (You certainly don't have to go as often as I do, sometimes I just go to kill time but also because with kids I do need to buy clothes more frequently than I need for myself; most importantly I don't always buy something, only if it's a really good label and in excellent condition).

There are tons of FB groups for re-selling whatever you need; clothes, shoes, makeup, etc. As mentioned upthread they kind of take a lot of work so I don't spend much time on them, but they're out there if you have the time and you are so inclined.

If you must have a car, you could consider getting an electric car or a hybrid in order to reduce the amount you are spending on gas. Consider trunk space if you think you will be buying in bulk. Also, be prepared for what your budget will look like in the future, should you need to go back to a gas-powered vehicle.
posted by vignettist at 8:39 AM on May 2, 2017

Honestly I don't think this is a great idea. Zero is too extreme, and you're going to be unhappy and not have any clothes. All things in moderation.

I've been saving and investing more than 50% of my pay for the last 6 years. It's really not a big deal... I just take fewer vacations, drive an old car, live in a somewhat smaller place than I could otherwise afford, and don't eat out often. I go to the super cheap Asian grocery store and buy my clothes on clearance. I've tried giving up driving, growing my own food, and shopping at thrift stores -- but for me, the massive amount of extra time those measures took wasn't worth the fairly small savings.

There's a lot of room for overspending on hobbies. I think some people feel like if they spend $5000 on photography gear or copper pots or whatever, it will be a symbol of their love for the hobby and a statement about who they are as a person. It isn't -- spending money on things doesn't change who you are or make you a better person. I bought a 10-year-old DSLR on eBay for $200 and it still takes amazing pictures. All my backpacking gear cost about $200 combined as well, and it is just as functional for my purposes as if I spent $10K on the latest REI stuff. Same for my road bike, kitchen gadgets, fancy speakers, computer games, and all kinds of other fun toys. I still have all those things -- I just have cheaper versions that are well inside my budget.

My wife is fairly frugal, but not quite at the same level as me. That's OK. I absolutely never tell her what she can and can't buy. I've known some couples where one person controlled the other through money, and I think that's a form of abuse. That said, this whole thing wouldn't work if we weren't partners on this.

I'm no Mustachian but if I keep this up for roughly another 4-5 years, we should be able to retire with a paid off house and enough investments to live off. Although I don't really want to retire, since both of us actually like our jobs. But having that level of financial security would be nice.
posted by miyabo at 8:11 PM on May 7, 2017 [1 favorite]

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