6 Savings Challenges to Jump Start Your Budget & Save Your First 10k
When was the last time you didn't eat for long enough to feel really, truly hungry? If you're like me and millions of other middle-class Americans, then you gratefully have food in your pantry and readily available at the corner store. Chances are that the last time you actually experienced hunger, you were surprised to rediscover that it actually feels different from just cravings. When you crave something, it's usually a specific want: sour candy, sushi, chocolate, a margarita. But when you're actually hungry, your body sends signals for any healthy food: a salad, a sandwich, fruit and vegetables. If you're stuck in an unhealthy lifestyle, it often takes the withdrawal of food altogether for a while to remind your body of what's really important (healthy food).
Why complete a limited-time money challenge?
I talk about diet because personal finance has a lot of similarities. Every day, a lot of us (me included!) are hemorrhaging money on whatever crosses our paths: we swipe our credit cards to get coffee and breakfast on the way to work, we see a friend wearing a pretty scarf and click "buy now" on our break so we won't "forget" to buy a similar one later, and we carelessly go out to dinner after work because we're too tired to meal plan and make our own meals, as if dinner doesn't happen every single day! Like someone stuck in a bad diet, we act like we can't go a moment without that thing we just had a craving for.
And just like when we're eating unhealthy, the effects aren't immediately known. Our credit card balances grow and we're coaxed into making the minimum payment. We slowly feel less and less in control but can't quite pinpoint what's wrong.
That's why I'm a big proponent of limited-time money challenges. Little challenges that force you to think about your spending and saving a little differently. The goal isn't necessarily to stick with the challenge long-term, but to establish (or break) a habit, value your money (and by extension- your time), and change your relationship with money.
Benefits of a 30 day money challenge
- Establish healthy habits
- Break unhealthy habits
- Value your money & time more
- Feel more grateful for what you already have
- Think creatively
You may even use a money challenge as an opportunity to simplify other areas of your life, like cleaning out your closet or pantry.
So without further ado, here are my top 6 money challenges!
Top 6 Money Challenges
1. No-Spend Challenge.
The No-Spend Challenge is all at once the most simple and the most daunting challenge. The premise is simple: don't spend money for a whole month.
Wait, I can't spend money on anything?
Everyone has different rules for their no-spend challenge, but the idea is the same: only spend money on essentials.
When I completed a No Spend month last August, I spent money on rent, gas, insurance, healthcare, and groceries, to name a few. I did not spend money on eating out/takeout, beauty, entertainment, books, products for the home, or clothes/shoes/jewelry.
Needs versus Wants.
A No Spend Month is a great way to remind yourself of what's actually a need versus what's a want. For instance, when we don't pack a lunch for work, our brains whine, "But I NEED food!" Yes, you need food. But do you really need it right now? (Maybe). Do you need food prepared by someone else? Do you need it delivered to your door?
What your brain thinks is a need can be a very slippery slope!
Here is a wonderful article by Kyle Kowalski on his year of no spending on clothing.
And here is an article by Ann Prachett in the New York Times detailing the benefits of a complete No Spend Year.
2. No Drinking Challenge.
"I will not drink with you today.... or the rest of this month."
It's pretty difficult to determine how much Americans actually spend on alcohol (here's why), but most estimates claim that on average, we spend roughly 1% of our annual income on booze. Since everyone's different, however, I highly recommend you check out this alcohol spending calculator for your own reference.
Of course, there are a plethora of reasons other than money to give up drinking for any amount of time. This article by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism details some of the long-term effects of alcohol on the body. These can include damage to the brain, heart, liver, pancreas, and immune system, in addition to a handful of different cancers. That's why it might be a good idea to specify this challenge as "No drinking OR buying alcohol." It's not an excuse to mooch off of your friends at the bar!
In fact, one benefit to making this challenge all-inclusive ("no drinking OR buying alcohol), is that you'll need to get creative for celebrations. No more handing a friend a bottle of wine for their promotion (common as it is, we all know the message that sends) or bringing a pack of beers to a get together. For many of us, our social lives revolve around alcohol and reevaluating that every now and then forces you to be creative.
3. No Credit Card Challenge
Leave the cards at home!
This is an excellent challenge for anyone with a credit card to practice, but it's especially useful for those who struggle with credit card debt.
I say it all the time and I'll say it again: credit cards are designed to get you in as much debt as possible without you completely defaulting.
Yes, I know you can get cash back!
Yes, I know you can "churn" cards for other rewards like travel points.
And yes, I know that it's usually easier to dispute charges on a credit card than it is on a debit card.
But here are a couple of alternative points (that banks certainly are NOT advertising) to keep in mind if you're considering a No Credit Card Challenge:
- According to this article by Fast Company, Capital One conducts 80,000 marketing experiments per year. That's 80,000 experiments to find out how to make you their lifelong customer.
- This article published in Forbes by an employee of MagnifyMoney states that in the last 12 months (since the article was published in 2018), Americans had spent $104 BILLION on credit card interest and fees.
- This article by NerdWallet shows a handful of data and experiments that demonstrate how consumers are likely to spend more money when they're using a credit card as opposed to cash. Sometimes, a LOT more money.
- This article by a previous corporate employee of Capital One demonstrates how a product (consumer debt) is reframed and sold as a solution to unwitting customers. Here's a quote from the article:
"The real question, of course, isn’t whether a credit card with a 27 percent interest rate and a $39 late fee is better than a payday loan. It’s whether Capital One’s marketing campaigns push people into debt who would have otherwise avoided it... Because the ugly truth is that subprime credit is all about profiting from other people’s misery."
The point is that even if you feel like you can use your credit card responsibly, it wouldn't hurt to take a step back every now and then to ensure you're not being too influenced by your credit card company. Make no mistake: debt is a product that's sold to you by a financial institution, just like any other product.
4. Budget Diary Challenge
The Budget Diary Challenge is a fantastic place to start if you want to become more aware of your finances but you don't feel an immediate need to cut back in any particular area.
What is a Budget Diary? Simply a notebook or digital note where you record everything you earn and everything you spend- to the cent. The Budget Diary might not seem difficult at first glance, but it requires a lot of dedication. Most people don't check their account more than every few days, and even then most just glance at the balance and not the individual transactions. During this challenge, you'll need to actively write down everything (yes, apps that do it for you like Mint or Personal Capital don't count!). That means: how much you made at work that day, how much you spent on lunch, the Netflix subscription that came out of your account, gas, etc.
This article by Family Money Values goes into more detail about the benefits of having a Money Diary.
Personally, I think that the fact that this challenge doesn't require you to cut back or reign in your spending makes it all the more powerful. The Budget Diary isn't effective because you're forced to do anything you don't want to, it's actually effective because it gives you the opportunity to embrace your finances as they are and discover which emotions are really driving your spending. One way to instantly make it more effective is to write down what you're feeling at the same time that a purchase goes through. At the end of the month, you can look back and see which purchases were worth it to you and which ones you could do without.
5. Meal Planning Challenge
Similar to the No Drinking Challenge, a Meal Planning challenge can have a range of benefits, such as:
- Saving time AND money
- Reducing your grocery waste
- Reducing the stress about "what to make for dinner"
- Reducing the likelihood of binging on unhealthy foods
Project Meal Plan has some great resources to get started, including recipes, lists of resources, a meal plan template, and advice for your first meal plan.
One thing I love about their approach is to make it work for you. If you want to start by only planning for five days a week- then do that. If you don't care about dinners but want to plan for breakfasts and lunches to avoid the 7/11 by your workplace then go for it! Just make a plan and then stick to it! The biggest benefit might just come from showing yourself that you CAN make powerful, incremental changes.
6. Eat the Pantry Challenge
Ever feel like you have nothing to eat so you go grocery shopping, only to come home and feel like you have NO room left in the fridge, freezer, and pantry to put the new food? You could probably benefit from "eating down the pantry."
An Eat the Pantry/Eat Down the Pantry Challenge is exactly as it sounds: you commit to eating only from your fridge or pantry for a specified period of time. Halfway through the challenge, you might find yourself constructing meals reminiscent of your 1950's grandmother's cooking (canned green bean and mushroom soup casserole?). But by the end of it, you'll have saved a ton of money while also reducing food waste (from back-of-the-pantry foods that are on their way to expiration) and freeing up more space in your pantry, fridge, and freezer.
This article by Organizational Toast describes how to complete an Eat the Pantry Challenge and the benefits that the writer felt from completing hers, including:
- the realization that even when she felt like they didn't have enough food, they always did.
- the discovery that she often re-bought food that she used very little of- or didn't even use at all!
An Eat the Pantry Challenge might help stave off the false sense of scarcity that comes from not having the food that you want on-demand!
Tips for any challenge
- Start with a timeframe that's exciting but not too overwhelming for you. "One day at a time," and "I will not drink with you today," are both phrases used in alcohol recovery groups like Alcoholics Anonymous because they make the goal achievable. Nobody repeats, "I'm never drinking ever again in my life," because that kind of a promise to oneself seems overwhelming. If you're thinking of trying a money challenge but can't stand the thought of doing it for a whole month, then just make it a week. Or hell, even completing a challenge for a single day can open your eyes to some of the benefits!
- Only try one challenge at a time. It might be tempting think that you can fast-track your money goals by taking on more than one challenge, but be careful! Remember- it's better to complete one full challenge than to do two more more of them and give up halfway through. Most of what you'll learn will come from your feeling of accomplishment when the week or month is over.
- Do not try to punish yourself with a Savings Challenge. This is not a cabbage diet. It's not meant to be a long-term solution to your budgeting woes. And if you start any challenge with a self-punishing attitude, then you will most likely fail. The point of a Money Challenge is to shift your perspective to think of your money and budgeting differently and make change from a place of gratitude and abundance- not anger and pain. If you're feeling stressed about your money, maybe take a look at my article about Money Affirmations or follow me on Instagram to engage with a helpful and supportive community.
If you enjoyed this article and want to take part in the Up at an Angle community, feel free to subscribe to my emails or follow me on Instagram, where I'll be hosting regular money challenges for the community to check in with. Thank you!