“We’re doing so much better than pretty much everyone else our age that we know.”
“We don’t ever pay credit card interest.”
“We don’t have any expensive hobbies.”
“We like good food and we’re okay with spending more on that.”
“We’re already naturally frugal.”
“I don’t have time to track things so closely.”
I’ve had so many reasons why I haven’t bothered with any kind of “no spend” month until now. Once I paid off my student loans in 2013, my intensity to save as much money as we could let up. We had a baby, I cut back my hours, and generally our focus was less about finances, though we still did save approximately 22% of our income in last year.
What we were lacking over those interim 4 years after student loan repayment was a plan. Handy Millennial goes into great detail in this post if you want to read more about the importance of having specific plans. I wish I’d read this in August of 2013 when I pushed send on that final loan payment. A bit frustrating to think how much farther ahead we could be had I kept up that intensity. There’s only so much worth in looking back though, so I’m now focused on our future.
I’ve written previously on how we don’t want to retire early, but financial independence is a new goal of ours in order to have control over our lives and safeguard our future. In order to get there in the next 15 years or less, my goal for 2018 is to reach a 50% savings rate. Since that more than doubles where we are at currently, I knew I had to take a more serious look at where our money was really going.
That, and we had a last minute trip to Hawai‘i planned for November, so I hesitated jumping into such a focused goal. We planned to keep the trip pretty frugal, but I still expected it to cost too much for a “no spend” challenge month. And then came December and my birthday and Christmas, so I thought that maybe waiting until January and making it a New Year’s resolution made more sense.
Last minute (as in October 30th), I changed my mind. The previous unexpectedly expensive months had really been stressing me out – we do not touch our emergency fund as a general rule, but had to dip into it pretty severely for the first time in years. While we could slowly build it back up with business as usual, I wanted to get things back in order fast. And so I decided to jump on board with a “no” spend month right away. I figured we would likely go over what I expected to be a pretty tight budget, but that we would do much better to just start instead of waiting until things had settled down in January.
I also created a Facebook group to create a community with other people who also wanted to focus on their finances in November, and I have to say, it was a huge motivator to keep myself in check since I was sharing there daily (and on Instagram). I’m continuing the group into 2018, so join us! There’s something extra motivating about knowing you have to share your failures and successes with other people who are working toward similar goals.
This first part of the month was smooth sailing. The only “frivolous” expense was a lunch at McDonald’s. We could have easily gotten home for lunch and eaten a half hour later, but both the kiddo and husband were pretty hungry (and love McDonalds), so we stopped. This is one of those situations where I have in easily. I don’t want either of them to feel like frugality and financial independence are about deprivation. If $11.39 on a fast food lunch makes them both happy, then so be it. I’d much rather focus on the big goals and allow for some flexibility on the way. We’ll all be happier (and will do better over the long run) if there’s a little room for fun. We ended this first third of the month with 5 Zero Spend Days.
November 11-18 (Hawai‘i vacation)
We left for Hawai‘i the morning of the 11th and returned the morning of the 18th. This is the week that I expected would cost a decent amount of money and why I almost held off until we got back. Looking back, I am so glad we didn’t wait. We had a fabulous time and got to explore some really great places. We went out to eat, drank some great beer, had a wonderful anniversary dinner, and used quite a bit of gas while we adventured around the whole island. Spending more money than we did would absolutely not have made the trip any more enjoyable.
However, had we not had a no spend challenge in place, I know that we would have spent considerably more than we did. We would have drank more beer, gone out to eat a few more times, and probably would have given in to buying a few useless trinkets for our son (that would just end up cluttering our lives once we returned anyway). We probably would have spent a couple hundred dollars more than we did. Would that have completely ruined us for the month? No. But would it have brought us any more happiness? Also no. Which is really the point – to spend only on the things that bring real value to our lives. We ended this trip with 1 zero spend day thanks to an airport pickup from my wonderful mother in law.
Returning from a week long vacation and then a busy short week leading up to the Thanksgiving holiday would normally have been a recipe for eating out a lot that week. Really, our food budget is the line item that gets disproportionately bloated whenever life gets busy. Thanks to DoorDash, a restaurant delivery service app, we can easily spend $70 on ONE weeknight dinner. Absurd. We’re both working and earning a decent income, so we had disillusioned ourselves that life was so much easier and more enjoyable to just have dinner delivered.
And then once we ordered that expensive dinner, the restaurant would get busy or the driver would get lost, and dinner would take way longer than expected to get to us. And sometimes it would be cold. Or not very good. We had convinced ourselves that something was a worthwhile expenditure that really wasn’t.
So Thanksgiving week, instead of ordering out, we cooked a lot.
Our son also loves helping on the kitchen, so while it might take longer, we also have a great time hanging out with him, so the time is well spent. We actually get more happiness out of cooking than the false illusion that delivery makes our lives better. Part of why I cut back my hours at work was to do exactly this. Plus, I can guarantee the food is hot and delicious when I make it myself. We ended the month with another 6 zero spend days, to make a total of 12 for the month.
The Power Of Zero Spend Days
Zero spend days were pretty normal growing up and even through college (and after moving to South Carolina because I was working every day of the week). But at some point, we got in the habit of spending at least a few dollars every single day.
Like most things, once you get into a routine, it becomes normal and you don’t think about it. Even $10 a day adds up to $300 a month – $3,650 a year – in mindless spending. By having 12 zero spend days in the month of November, we were able to allocate an average of $83/day instead of $50. Pretty powerful, and it allows for large spends on necessary items. Each time you enter a store (or log in to Amazon), you take away that zero spend day and your budget shrinks for the rest of that month.
Now for the breakdown for where our money did go in the month of November. I will say that this is a somewhat abnormal month thanks to our trip to Hawaii, but a few more months of tracking like this will give us a better sense of where we stand month to month.
Groceries – this includes alcohol and pet supplies and medications, since we get them all at the same places (QFC, Costco, and farmers markets for the most part). We’ve been eating out of the freezer when it comes to meat for a large part since we still have some left from the quarter cow we purchased back in July. When we make another bulk buy, our grocery spending will go up for that month. My in laws took a quarter of the quarter we bought, so we spent $650 on our portion, but this will easily last us more than 6 months (including a few packages of steaks we gifted my dad for Father’s Day).
Eating out – this category is way larger than our new normal thanks to our vacation, but considering it includes a fancy anniversary dinner plus a few visits to breweries, this seems pretty reasonable. December will be much smaller.
Gym – I’m grandfathered in at a super low rate for my gym thanks to sticking out through two ownership changes. Even if I only get to the gym a few times a month, it’s worth it for me. Plus, a new basic membership is at least $29.99 – $39.99/month. The gym is also less than a half mile from our house.
Bus pass – Right now, I only pay for the bus once or twice a week ($2.75 per trip), so I may not have to reload in December. More incentive to run to work and skip the bus on Wednesdays.
Gift – This is a small gift for my sister in law I picked up on Small Business Saturday (my only gift purchase that weekend). Most of our gifts this year are homemade or home grown.
Entertainment – We took the ferry over to the peninsula and got our Christmas tree from a farm outside of Port Angeles. Such a fun day trip that will probably be our annual Christmas tradition from here on out.
Car maintenance – Headlight replacement for my car and some other work on my husband’s truck (don’t remember what it was – but he did both himself, saving us a ton on labor costs).
Medical bill – Payment for a routine appointment I had last month.
Internet – I had forgotten to include this number originally as it is an auto withdrawal. Noticed it when I was going through our credit card statements and am now including it here. We have basic internet and no cable so our cost here stays low (and we don’t have a working television at the moment anyway, just an iPad, which is plenty for the little tv/movie watching we do).
Utilities – I didn’t include this in the $1,500 budgeted for November outside of our mortgage/daycare costs since we had paid the last bills at the end of October and the next bills aren’t due until the beginning of this month. I’ll include the exact amount from here on out. I noted an “average” of $200/month, but it’s considerably less in the summer months.
We technically ended November under my $1500 goal, but I feel I cheated a little because of how the utility billing schedule fell. In order to fully be under this number in December, we will have to do a little better. Even so, using the $1,692.75 number, our savings rate in November was 52%. My big stretch goal for 2018 is to reach a 50% savings rate (compared to our previous 22%), so I’m really excited – and shocked – that we hit that number for November. Maybe our goal is more doable than I first thought.
*I do want to note that we had prepaid for the flights/lodging/car rental for our trip (approximately $1000) so they were not included in this month’s expenses. We will also have some larger expenses from time to time (vet bills, home repair, car maintenance, more travel), but if we stay focused, we will spend only on the essentials plus the things that really bring joy to our lives.