No Spend Challenge? This is Why It Won’t Work

Are you thinking of doing a no-spend challenge in the form of a no-spend day or no-spend week to help you save money?

I don’t recommend them because they don’t work. You need to change your habits to make the long-lasting change you need.

Why No Spend Challenges Don’t Work

We like to think that making big, bold moves will help us. We like to imagine ourselves doing a complete overhaul of our lives within days. TODAY I will change. TODAY I will become the person I want to be. I will become more organized. I will be more on top of my finances. I will be more mindful. I will become a better person etc. We want to be all those things, and we WANT IT NOW! We usually feel like this after a particularly motivating experience. A motivating experience can either be something positive or negative that convinces us that we must change our behavior.

The problem with motivational experiences is that they give us a temporary “high.” We get all gung-ho to change and improve, but then the high wears off, we face an obstacle, fail at what we are doing, and give up.

Motivation is temporary. As Zig Ziglar so famously said, “People often say that motivation doesn’t last. Well, neither does bathing that’s why we recommend it daily”. It’s a good quote and true on many levels. The problem is that unlike bathing, we can’t just jump in the shower every time we need a good dose of motivation. It has to come from somewhere, and sometimes even our trusty sources of motivation let us down.

Motivation is like a shower that only works sometimes when we least expect it, and sometimes the water is cold, and sometimes the water doesn’t come at all- even if we are standing and screaming at the showerhead. So the metaphor doesn’t totally track, but the point is that motivation wears off, and then you are left with what exactly? The high is gone; the purpose is gone-we are only left with the actions that we have taken so far.

What is a No Spend Challenge or a No Spend Day?

A no spend challenge or no-spend days or spending fasts or cash diets are times when you make a promise to yourself not to spend money on certain days or certain periods of time. They are all different words for the same basic ideas: taking a specific amount of time to not spend money (hence the no spend).

Some people find these to be very effective.

Case in Point:

A Year of Tracking No Spend Days (and the privilege of doing so) by Tread Lightly, Retire Early.

How I Bought No Clothes For Over A Year & Lessons From My Clothing Ban by M @Radical Fire

If you have tried these and they work for you, then great!

But here is why I advise NOT to do a spending diet and no-spend days:

Have You Ever Physically Fasted?

I am Jewish, so I have done my share of Fasting. I, and many others, have the routine down pat. Before the fast, I drink a lot of water, cut down on coffee, and eat a large supper or breakfast. I eat healthy food that will digest slowly and make sure I am full. Then I fast for however long. Then I eat a huge meal (cinnamon buns, soup, and bagels- always!) afterward. If the point were to lose weight or enforce good eating habits, it would be a bust.

Good thing it’s not about that. It’s about the moment of fasting. In that sense, fasting works. When you are doing a food fast, it gives you time to focus on spiritual matters beyond eating. It takes away something that you do often- that we take for granted and forces you to focus on something else.

If you want to approach a spending fast the same way- go ahead. If you feel that your whole being is consumed by shopping, this might be the right tactic. But for most people, it’s not about the drastic measures of fasting. In fact, fasting just makes us load up on the opposite before and after.

Fasting is Not Sustainable

What do I mean? If I am not eating on Tuesday,  I eat more on Monday and Wednesday to make up for it. What’s more, I am putting a lot of energy and effort into a NOT SUSTAINABLE behavior. Unless you are a super committed minimalist or living off-the-grid, you are not stopping to shop and spend money, and you are not eschewing all materialism (if you are: you can stop reading. I’m not talking to you).

So if you don’t spend money on Tuesday, you are just pushing off your spending to Monday and Wednesday, AND you are putting a lot of effort and energy into an unsustainable behavior.

I will assume that you, like me, have limited reserves of effort and energy to put forth. Like me, you want your actions to make a really big difference and actually get you to wherever you want to be. If you want to change- then the actions you do should lead to change. You don’t want a quick-fix that won’t last. You want real, lasting change.

No Spend Challenges Don’t Bring Meaningful Change

I don’t recommend not spending money or not going shopping. This also goes if you enjoy shopping. If you really enjoy the shopping experience or the hunt of the deal- why should you take that joy out of your life? Why should you forbid yourself that enjoyment?

You should try to reconcile the two things that you need (or want) to do with your need (or want) to save money and make better financial choices. What you need to do is to be able to make a change that can last and make a real difference- not bounce back and forth between extremes (I ranted against extremism before. Extremism is bad, and you should be wary of those preaching extremism in personal finance).

Change Your Lifestyle

This brings me to my point- don’t put yourself on a fast or a diet. Don’t try no-spend days or a no-spend month. Don’t waste your time trying to challenge yourself to not spend money in a no spend challenge. Put yourself on a “lifestyle.” You know those annoying people who preach a certain diet or whatever by saying, “It’s not a diet. It’s a lifestyle”? Well, I’m stealing it. Change your whole lifestyle- not one day.

How? Why? Why is it easier to change your whole lifestyle as opposed to committing to something for one day? Well, it’s not easier. I never promised easy. But it is effective. Do you want the easy way or the way that works? Well, this way works. You don’t get the same type of awesome feeling at that moment, but you WILL see change. Those changes will be more effective in the long run because they will be consistent, and they will LAST.

Now I am leading up to the big reveal, and it’s going to be disappointing because it’s not a trick or hack or anything like that. It all comes down to budgeting. Disappointing, right?

Just like when it comes to eating healthy. The best way to approach a healthy diet (except in particular circumstances) is to eat healthy ALL THE TIME and occasionally indulge in a treat. Fasting or cleansing doesn’t really work. Eating healthy every day works.

No Spend Challenges Don’t Work:

Why No-Spend Days and Weeks Don’t Work

Fasting or binges doesn’t work. This is true for personal finance as well. Sticking to a budget works. Your budget should include the shopping you need to do and the occasional treat. To put this in perspective: saving $5 every day for a month will get you more than saving $100 one day. This is especially compounded if you get in the habit of saving every day instead of randomly every so often.

Make a budget, stick to it, and you will see results.

I told you it wasn’t so exciting. The things that work very often are not exciting.

What Do You Want?

Do you want to get your financial life in order?

Do you want to finally be responsible about your money?

Do you finally want to start saving money for emergencies, life events, and retirement?

Do you finally want to start paying down debt?

Then- no gimmicks, no tricks, no “no-spend days.” Basic budgeting. Take a pen and paper, figure out where you want your money to go, and then follow it. Make a budget and stick to it, and then you can do all those things.

My very first piece of advice to anyone looking to get their financial life in order is: MAKE A BUDGET.

Here is my Basic Guide to Budgeting to help you get started.

Good luck!

Hi! I am a millennial mom with a passion for personal finance. I have always been “into” personal finance but got inspired to start my blog after a period of extended unemployment. That experience really changed the way I viewed my relationship with money and the importance of accessible personal finance education.

9 thoughts on “No Spend Challenge? This is Why It Won’t Work”

  1. I 100% agree! I was going to use the dieting/fasting example but you hit the nail on the head. People who do crazy diets lose weight quickly but because they haven’t developed a unsustainable diet they start eating unhealthily again as soon as the diet is over and so put all the weight back on. I think these mindsets are unsustainable and unhealthy!

  2. Great thoughts here and I agree 100%. It reminds me of something ESI wrote recently on why you shouldn’t always just lend out money to a friend of family member in debt. They got in debt for a reason, and a one time fix won’t solve the root cause of the issue. Just like 1 day of not spending money won’t fix any deep rooted budgeting issues! Thanks for sharing.

  3. Thanks for putting this message out there! I agree that we need to get rid of head games if we want to make long-lasting changes in our lives. That being said, I’m also trying not to buy clothes for several years. However, I know it’s a weakness of mine (clothes-buying) and I want the challenge.

    If people want a random challenge to get them started and exercise a muscle for the first time, that makes sense. I just hate the idea of someone staying home or away from friends because they don’t want to buy a coffee or something that day. Go out with your friends. Just learn how to spend sustainably and not treat money like a punishment.

    • I think that cutting down on spending and shopping can be really good for people who shop too much. I linked to a few posts where people found that a no-spend challenge really helped them. I think that in order to make lasting changes you have to change your behaviors and not focus too much on quick fixes.

  4. What I view as a problem with no spend days is that you may either end up with a no spend day where you NEED to buy something – which will bring you into trouble. Or you end up with a day where you don’t need to buy anything – and that is too easy.

  5. I don’t do the no spend day challenge. What I did to save money is to avoid wasting food and buy only what I need. I don’t do it in one day but I do it everyday.

  6. this was a great post.i come from an african country where being frugal is amust be frugal i walk home everyday for almost everyday(about one hour ten minutes).we do have buses here but then again why would i want to spend an equivalent of $20 each month when i could just walk and benefit from the exercise


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