What I Learned From A Two-Month Spending Fast

Photo: Lumina

What do I really need to spend money on? That's a question I asked myself when I decided to embark on my first-ever spending fast two months ago.

The idea of spending only on the necessities was a scary one, but I was determined to try it. I've been in a financially stable place for the past few years, but my early 20s were characterized by expensive bags and ridiculously pricey (albeit very soft) cashmere sweaters that I couldn't afford. I remember all too vividly waking up in the middle of the night in a cold sweat thinking about my credit card bills.

My anxiety levels have leveled off since those days, making me a big proponent of financial wellness. I'm now proud to report that I spend within my means, but thanks to aforementioned 23-year-old mistakes, my savings account still isn't where I would like it to be. A quick way to get myself on track, I'd learned, was a spending freeze.

So I took a deep breath, tucked my credit card into the back of my wallet, and froze my spending.

My spending fast rules.

A couple of clicks around the internet and a few nights spent paging through personal finance books told me I could set the rules of my spending freeze, which made the process less daunting. Some things were obvious: There was no question that I had to pay my rent, electricity bill, refill my subway pass, and pay for my Wi-Fi. And of course I could go a couple of months without buying new clothes or shoes, even if that made my life slightly less exciting.

Food was more difficult, though. Yes, I had to eat—but I didn't need to go to the most expensive grocery store in town, and I certainly didn't need to eat lunch or dinner out. And while I love a bowl of ice cream once in a while, it doesn't have any nutritional value, so I don't actually need it (my taste buds think otherwise). Exercise was another tough one. There's nothing I love more than a yoga or group fitness class, but technically I'm completely fine running and walking outside, and as a certified yoga instructor I have no problem putting together yoga sequences at home.

So I froze my yoga and gym memberships and limited my spending to the necessities and nutritious food from Trader Joe's, which is typically a lot less expensive than other grocery stores.

What purchases actually make me happy?

While the first couple of weeks were full of moments spent daydreaming about what I couldn't have, by Week 3 the things I actually missed became more clear. Yoga was a big one. My flexibility and strength hadn't taken a hit, but I missed the community feeling of moving and breathing with my fellow yogis, and I had to avoid the street my yoga studio is on, so I wouldn't get too sad (really!). Another thing I missed was going out to dinner, drinks, and coffee with friends. It was less about the food, as it turned out, and more about sitting down with a friend and catching up. I was able to remedy that one by suggesting walks or hanging out in the park (it's a good thing it's summer), and after a few raised eyebrows, most of my friends happily agreed.

Another interesting thing was how much I missed spending money on other people. Studies show that spending money on others makes us happy, and I found this to be very true. When a friend was having a particularly bad day, I desperately wanted to get her flowers to cheer her up or offer to take her out for a drink, but I couldn't. When another friend had a birthday party and I showed up empty-handed, that didn't exactly feel good.

The main thing I noticed was that the only time I missed spending money was when it had to do with other people. Skipping a new pair of summer sandals for a couple of months took no toll on my happiness whatsoever, and that realization was actually really liberating.

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What my spending looks like now.

My spending fast ended a couple of weeks ago, and although I'm definitely glad to have the freedom to spend money again, I'm a lot more mindful with my spending. Will that four-dollar almond milk latte really make me happier than the free coffee at work? Do I really need that T-shirt right this instant, or can it wait until fall?

For the most part, the answer is no, or that I can wait. After years of feeling like I had no control over my finances, this is one of the most empowering feelings I've ever experienced. And my savings account looks ridiculously good.

Intrigued by the idea of a spending fast? Read up on the habits of debt-free people.

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