A month after we got married, my husband and I sat down and had a meeting about money. We had just been through the financial wringer after months of last-minute, unexpected expenses, and we were ready to get back on track. After scrolling through several months’ worth of spending habits and discussing what we discovered, my husband and I then worked on budgeting for the month ahead, as well as a few individual and shared savings goals for the future. On a whim, I also suggested we calculate how much we had spent on food delivery so far that year. I knew the number would be high, but the final (four-digit) number was more than a little surprising.
Despite trying to live within my means as an adult, the audit was perhaps the first time I looked beyond that daily snapshot of my checking account and toward the big picture. I had always considered myself fairly stable and independent when it came to money, and luckily hadn’t racked up credit card debt, saved money from every paycheck, and lived within my means. (Of course, my financial security is also due in part to other factors, some of which are matters of privilege: I have a partner to share expenses with, minimal student debt, and parents who supported me throughout college.)
I knew the basics about my banking account, but the basics were really not enough if I wanted to save more money in the future for, say, a down payment on a house. It was time to buckle down when it came to money, and I figured a “no buy” month would be a good way to start.
Though I had heard of the concept of a no-buy month (or no-buy year) before, I never thought that something so stringent could work for my life. I couldn’t imagine weeks without buying groceries. In fact, I didn’t know how that was even possible. And besides, I would ask myself, couldn’t I will myself to save money without putting myself on such a strict regimen? Once I did a little research, though, I discovered that most no-buy months don’t mean spending no money at all, but instead buying only the essentials, in addition to key bills, such as rent and credit card statements.
I decided that, for me, the rules of the no-buy month meant that the only things I would spend money on would be weekly, budgeted groceries and healthcare costs (therapy, medicine, etc.). This meant no eating out, no shopping, and no random purchases. The only exception to this was if I had a gift card from somewhere (though, if you wanted to be super strict, you could definitely eliminate this caveat). I also tried to go into this challenge with an attitude of curiosity, and told myself that if I felt like I truly needed to buy a non-essential or there was a particular experience that I would regret saying no to, I wouldn’t deprive myself. I also decided to start my challenge on June 1, a few weeks after my husband and I returned from our honeymoon. I told myself I’d use the weeks leading up to that kickoff, I’d ease into the project by simply spending less. This turned out to be the most helpful thing I did throughout the experiment.
First, I tried to break one of my biggest spending habits: purchasing coffee outside the house in addition to making it at home. I love coffee so much that I don’t ever see myself permanently giving up this habit, but our financial meeting had made me realize that I had gotten into the habit of stopping by our local coffee shop every single day, whether I really wanted the coffee or not. I knew this added up, so I purchased cold brew in bulk and a reusable stainless steel cup that mimicked the feel of the cup I got at coffee shops to help my new habit stick.
Next, my husband and I committed to only ordering food to be delivered once per week instead of two to three times a week. Finally, we put ourselves on a grocery budget and set aside a specific amount of money for groceries each week based on recipes I had planned for the week ahead. Before this, we had gone to the store once a week, but with no real plan in mind. Every time, we ended up spending more than we needed to, and wasting food in the long run.
These three changes alone helped me to get into the mindset of being intensely critical of how I was spending money. I quickly found myself thinking of other ways I could spend less, like packing snacks for traveling so I didn’t impulse-buy them at the airport. These few shifts in spending didn’t make the no-buy month easy, but they did make it feel a lot less jarring.
For the first week of the no-buy month, the novelty kept me going. I watched how much money I was saving and it felt exciting. But I also noticed other things, like how much I found myself craving the momentary dopamine boost that comes with buying something new every time I felt anxious or a little sad — but doesn’t actually address my feelings.
By the second week, my compulsive spending habits were becoming increasingly clear. Each time I had the impulse to buy something, I was forced to ask myself if that thing I wanted to spend money on really served me. Would I really want that dress in a week? Would numbing out with delivery in front of the TV really calm me down more than cooking a meal would? Was there something similarly quick, easy, and comforting I could make from what I had in the fridge? What did I really need, and what purchases was I craving for a quick serotonin boost? What was worth it?
As I started to notice myself wanting to buy things more and more, I made a point throughout the month to keep a running list of items I wanted to buy. At first, this was to remind myself to buy them once the month was over, but eventually it became a way of seeing how quickly I lost interest in most of them. Spoiler alert: I’ve already forgotten about half of the things on my list entirely. The other half are things that I now know I’m seriously interested in owning, and I feel good about investing money in.
Over the course of the four weeks of only spending money on essentials, I did have to buy things, such as cough drops and over-the-counter medicine for an annoying chest cold. I also purchased a bottle of water after forgetting to refill my reusable water bottle once on a road trip and a $5 card to celebrate my cousin’s graduation. The biggest expenditure was a last-minute meal and drinks at a restaurant with a friend who was unexpectedly in town — depriving myself of the afternoon out felt like more of a loss than spending the money would be. I don’t feel remotely bad about any of these purchases, but the month also taught me that all of them were avoidable with a little bit of planning and creativity.
What the few purchases I did make during the no-buy month taught me the most is how much I didn’t need to buy things. I had anticipated I’d save a lot of money (nearly three times as much as I saved in the previous month), but also that I’d spend a lot of the experiment feeling deprived, bored, or unfulfilled. And while there were activities I had certainly missed, there were many more things that I didn’t miss at all.
I had imagined that at the end of my no-buy month I’d readjust my food delivery habit to ordering once every other week, maybe. Now, I have no intention of ordering food regularly if I can help it. I’ve been reminded that I enjoy trying out new recipes, and I’d rather splurge by eating out at a nice restaurant, or on a piece of clothing that really makes me happy. I also have the time and privilege of being able to cook regularly, so why not embrace that as much as possible? I know that there will always be nights where cooking something ourselves just isn’t feasible, and when that happens, I will feel no shame in ordering in from our favorite local restaurants — but I also don’t expect that to be my default dinner choice anymore.
I also find myself thinking differently about clothes after the no-buy month, and no longer feel the urge to impulse-buy clothing during trips to Target or late-night online shopping sessions. Though I don’t plan on giving up buying new clothing altogether, I’ve been brainstorming different ways to spend less on the habit. I’ve started selling old clothing regularly on Poshmark and using the money I make toward other pieces I want. I also plan to keep up with my monthly habit of keeping a running list of monthly “wants,” and assessing at the end of the month which are actually worth it.
This act of critically thinking about each and every purchase is, more than anything else, why the no-buy month was the single best thing I’ve ever done for my finances. Sure, the money I saved is nice, but it’s the mindset shift that feels truly impactful. I spent a month asking myself questions about every single thing I had the impulse to buy, and I plan on asking myself the same questions going forward, whether I’m doing a no-buy month or not.