Anatomy of a No Spend Week: Prep

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I wanted this to be a guide for people who have no clue how to start budgeting and being conscious with their money; something I would have loved to have had when we started out.
When we really want to strip the spending down and purpose our money towards something important (like finishing off my student loans), we do a no spend week. Which sounds really nice. But what does it actually mean? What do we do and not do and how??

Fail to Plan, Plan to Fail.
The first thing I fell like I need to do is to define what “No Spend” means here. A no spend week is successful when you don’t spend any money on anything other than necessary and budgeted for items, like your rent, groceries and electric bill. You can’t very well call your student loan company and say “sorry, I know my payment is due this week, but I’m on a no-spend challenge so its going to have to wait.” No spend is no food other than groceries, no new toys, clothes, housewares, movies, no nails done. If you get sick and have to go to the doctor, go. That’s necessary spending. If you’re sick of cooking at home and go out to eat… not so much.
For a no spend week to work out you need to prep like your life depends on it. If this is your first time, look back at your bank statement from last month and see what you spent that wasn’t bills, savings goals or groceries. What did you buy? What did you buy without even thinking about? Now make a plan on how to not do that.
For me the usual perpetrators are fast food, take out, Target runs of primarily clothes and kid’s stuff. And also online shopping. Shopping online doesn’t even feel like I’m using real money, its just magical that I click and type and the mail brings me gifts. Right around the time when I was getting my credit cards returned to me maxed out, I had my debit card number, expiration date and CVC code memorized so that I didn’t even have to get up and make the long lonely walk to my wallet to impulse buy.

Anyway, the prep I usually do starts with heavy meal planning. I plan all meals and snacks for the week. I get all my cookbooks out, open up my “Budget Meals” board on Pinterest and dig out my plan from last week to see what worked and what didn’t. For more info about this, see my other post about Meal Planning, Even When You Hate It. Add a few alternates and snacks in there too. Do you usually go out for ice cream Saturday night? Plan make at home sundae night instead.

So now that food is covered, what else are we going to be doing except eating? You have to think of some stuff to do to keep away the not-so-emergency Target runs that end up being a two hour aisle-wander with a full cart. For me, the kids are out of school now, so to keep them from catching cabin fever, I have to have something planned.
Luckily, my mom has a pool. Which is awesome, but kind of a pain since I usually end up chasing Ben around the perimeter for a few hundred laps, sweating on the hot concrete.
Everyday I plan something. Kids love novelty, but it doesn’t even have to be as much as a pool day. We can eat lunch outside one day, or visit the playground near the house, or visit the library. Sometimes I DVR a kids movie earlier in the week and we pop some popcorn one night and have a movie night. Tuesdays I deliver for Meals on Wheels and the kids (especially Abby) think we’re just going to visit their (elderly) friends.
If you have a friend who consistently invites you on fun days out to expensive parks and activities, make a preemptive strike and invite them over for a nature hike, Slip N’ Slide party or a move night.
If you crave more than playgrounds and playdates, Google free fun in your area. during the summer, a lot of museums, historical places and some smaller zoos offer one day of free admission. In Massachusetts, its sponsored by the Highland Street Foundation and you can read more about it here.

The last thing I suggest for a successful week of not spending is to remove temptations. Fill your gas tank and then take all of your credit and debit cards out of your wallet. This way, after you’ve recovered from the panic of leaving the house penniless, you won’t accidentally find yourself in the line of Dunkin’ Donuts, or ordering out Tai food at work as your carefully packed lunch sits in the break room fridge.
Go through your email and mark all of those promotional messages as spam. Groupon, Amazon, Wayfair, even my beloved Etsy can go to the junk folder. If you’re not buying anything, don’t even look at it. I also deleted all the corresponding apps, and went into my phones browser and close all the shopping tabs I keep open (because I always have 1,000 open tabs).

Stay tuned for tomorrow as I break down how we put our plan in motion for day 1!

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Behind the Scenes

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Recently I finished paying off one of my remaining two (at the time) student loans. I wanted to celebrate in a big way, so I brought my debt payoff chart out to the backyard and burnt it in the fire pit. The video brought me the most comments on Instagram and the most daily views of this blog of anything else I’ve posted so far.

The day you finally get to burn those loan documents or that mortgage is a HUGE day and I’m so grateful for everyone’s words of encouragement and congratulations. But I do want to remind people who may be struggling, or just starting out on their debt free journey, that the one big day is the result of. So. Many. Small days. So many small choices. There were so many little things going on behind the scenes of that video that were the reasons I was able to pay off $3,200 in 30 days.

So this post is all about “behind the scenes,” so show that it’s not all sunshine and bonfires and precipitously dropping loan balances over here. When I was new at this whole debt paying thing, it was nice to think about getting that “Paid in Full” letter, but like.. what do you actually DO to get there? This is what we DO.

We don’t have huge incomes, we didn’t hit PowerBall, no one died and left us an inheritance. And none of those things have to happen for you either. What we do have to have is determination, a goal, and patience.

Get on the Same Page, Make Goals, and Make a Budget. Everyone in the house that has the power to spend money has to be on the same page with saving it. Jeff knows my game plan: pay off my loans from smallest to biggest, then tackle his smallest to largest. He supports me, me encourages me. Every month when he finishes paying the bills, he lets me know “Babe, we have $xyz left over in the joint account, how much do you want me to send you for your loans?” Or “I got my tuition reimbursement” or travel expenses approved or whatever it may be. We review our budget frequently and make adjustments as we go along (read how we made our budget here). It just wouldn’t work if one of us was pinching pennies and the other one was buying a new iPhone or trinkets and trifles off of Amazon.

Just… No.  The most effective tool we use to reach our goals is just saying no. No I don’t want to go out to eat, no we can’t buy that new toy, no we don’t need a new car. We won’t go on vacation this year, or to Great Wolf Lodge or Davis Farmland or Six Flags. We absolutely will not be at Disney World or on a tropical get away. My kids don’t have a trove of brand new clothes and a hundred pairs of shoes every season and nor do we. We won’t be doing swim lessons and soccer and tee ball and dance class and karate.

Find Free Fun. All these No’s seem like a life sentence of boo-riiinnggggg, but we have plenty of fun. During the summer we use Jeff’s veteran status to go to Blue Star Museums free of charge. The Highland Street Foundation in our state sponsors Free Fun Fridays, where local zoos and parks have one day that is free of admission. We also play outside, set up the kiddie pool and have a “pool day,” go to local playgrounds, have movie nights, set up play dates, visit the lake in town if its not too busy, or do art projects. I might plan a cupcake decorating day or a make your own sundae night and include the supplies into the grocery budget. Kids have fun wherever they are. You don’t need to whip out the plastic to enchant their youth.

Priority 1: Food. I plan the meals and the grocery list for two weeks and buy our groceries from the discount grocery store Aldi (read my other posts about grocery stores here). Actually, edit that: I TRY to. Food (also include here personal care items and household supplies) is the thing that changes the fastest and is the easiest to either reign in or to go completely out of control.
In summary of my other posts, my perfect plan is to 1.) plan out all three meals and snacks and school lunches and all supplies for two weeks, 2.) make the shopping list from that plan, 3.) search for online deals or coupons to get this cost down as much as possible, 4.) try to get as much as I can from Aldi or generic and clearance items at Walmart, 5.) stick with the plan over the two weeks using my meal plan and keeping that actual piece of paper handy to remember what the plan is.
If everything goes perfectly, we don’t get any take out or fast food items.

Utilities and stuff. The idea is pretty easy, the less you have to pay in bills, the less of your income goes to utility companies, the more you have left over to service your debt. We keep the heat at 62 in the winter. We have window unit AC’s that are only on during heat waves and are only on as cool as 70. Some days I feel like all I do is follow people in and out of rooms and turn off light switches. And sinks. Some of this stuff I’ve written before in Little Things.
The best thing we’ve ever done for our monthly bottom line is cancel our cell plans. Yup. We don’t have cell phones. Weird, right? Except it saves hundreds of dollars a month. When I tell people this they get this terrified look in their eyes. “What do you mean you don’t have a cellphone??” Recently I asked the receptionist at my optometrist’s office if I could use the phone. “Um… for what purpose?” she asked.
I still have my iPhone and I use it on wifi. Exactly zero of our dollars go to Verizon or AT&T or Sprint or whatever. At one point I loved my phone. I had totally fallen into the consumerist trap. They told me I NEEDED it and I believed them. It was hard giving it up but I’m so happy I did. And now I fell like I could live the rest of my life without the latest gadget.
Not long ago I was at a party and heard someone totally freaking out about the new phone they had just gotten. Like completely 100% FREAKING out about how amazing it is. It was clear this person wanted everyone to jump right on board and tell her how they have no idea she survived without it for so long. I couldn’t help but feel sad for her. The phone is over $800, or about the same as a month of rent.

Do it (all) Yourself. We don’t have a staff over here. Theres no housekeeper “helping me out” one day per week. There’s no baby sitter so we can go out on a date night. There aren’t any personal training sessions. There’s no hair stylist, no waxer no manicurist. If the kids were old enough for sports, there wouldn’t be any private coaches or trainers multiple times per week. If something in the house needs fixing, we fix it and if we don’t know how, we learn. If a button falls off or a new shirt (or even an old shirt) gets a tear, I fix it. Am I a pioneer woman? Not even close.
A while ago I read an article written by someone recounting how their grandparents lived on basically nothing. Part of it spoke about repairing things as soon as they were broke, not tossing them in a junk drawer to be forgotten, and keeping things in clean working order. These efforts reduce your want for things and keep you on budget. I tried to find it but I can’t remember the name. The tone of it was really simple and inspirational.
A huge part of us staying on track with debt repayment has been learning how to do basic things ourselves. Jeff learned how to do all of our basic home repairs, and some big remodeling projects. He also changes our oil right in the driveway which has saved us consistently. I’ve developed a basic understanding of hand and machine sewing. I can reattach a button, repair a small hole, add a hem. I even made Sam a pair of sweatpants out of green fleece when I refused to pay rush shipping for a Halloween costume. Instead of throwing that buttonless shirt in the donate bin and buying a new one, or doubling the price of the pants by rushing them to the house, we keep everything “in-house.” You can do it too, I promise. Check out YouTube for how to and beginner videos. Be resourceful. And have a little faith.

There are so many things I could write about here. Family finance in a culture of consumerism is a complex animal. Spending without regard to our income is part of our norm now. Friends and relatives will look at you like you’re crazy for being on this journey, and spending for the fun of it is part of our fabric. When we first started it took a lot for me to be able to examine each area of our spending and deem it necessary or extravagant. It’s ok. Good things take time. As does scrapping everything you know about managing money and starting fresh. These points are a good start, and I’ll keep writing. From behind the scenes.