Kali Hawlk

Financial Writer & Digital Marketer

Busted Budget? Try a No Spend Week

The best laid schemes of mice and men often go awry – and that includes the plans we make with our budgets.

Try as we might, even the most financially educated and frugal among us will have a few days, a week, or a month when sticking to set spending limits is hard to do.

A busted budget is no fun to deal with, but the good news is that there is a savings trick you can use to get back on track with your spending: a no spend week.

A no spend week might more accurately be known as a “no buy” period of time. Essentially, this exercise requires you to determine a set amount of days during which you will not buy anything.

You can be a strict as you want with this savings challenge; some people choose to take not buying anything seriously and won’t buy gas or groceries during their no spend week.

I prefer to be a little more realistic when I do this challenge. I need food to eat, and I need the gas in my car to get me to work. What most people mean when they say “no spending” is “no non-necessary spending.”

As in, no going out to eat, no shopping for new clothes or household items, and no going out to movies. It’s a way to cut back on what you consume, especially when it comes to discretionary spending (in other words, what you want but don’t necessarily need).

Some criticize the no spend week for being misleading, since you still have bills that (I assume) you’re going to pay, like the mortgage or rent and the utilities for your home. Critics argue that even if you simply sit at home and twiddle your thumbs for seven days, you’ve still spent money because you’re paying for the roof over your head and the heat you have running.

Or, if you sit around and play cards all week, it’s not really a “free” activity because at one time you paid for the cards. This is a fair point, and one I try to acknowledge. When we try this challenge, our “rules” or guidelines usually look a little something like this:

  • No non-essential spending (alternatively: no discretionary spending). In other words, our bills get paid but the goal is to not spend on anything else.
  • If we need food, we buy food from the grocery store. No eating out allowed! Also, we don’t purposely stock up on groceries the day before the challenge. This would semi defeat the purpose, as it wouldn’t be hard to “not spend” on food (by eating out) if we had just brought in a huge haul from the grocery store. We do make an effort to eat whatever is on hand. This is a good way for us to make sure some of the staple items, like canned foods or pasta, that have snuck off to the back of the pantry actually get used up instead of going to waste.
  • Same with gas – we have to drive to work everyday, so if our cars need fuel we buy gas. Although, like food, we don’t “stock up” right before and we consider any trips with the cars outside of commuting to work as “non-essential.” We can walk or bike if we want to go somewhere other than work.
  • For us, “no spend” means no spending in that week. And, obviously, like the food and the gas, we’re not allowed to gear up for the challenge by going out the day before it starts to buy something that would keep us entertained for the week. The point is to engage in free activities, like walking or playing games, and to use what we have on hand.

I hope this illustrates our reasonable, common sense approach to the no spend week. We recognize that since we have a mortgage with fixed expenses like utilities and insurance, technically we’re spending money every day to continue living in our home with our water, electricity, and heat.

But we do cut all non-essential spending, so a no spend week is still a useful exercise.

With no discretionary spending allowed, the weeks we do this challenge for ourselves call for a bit of creative thinking when it comes to planning activities to keep us busy. It gets harder in the winter, because the weather isn’t so great so going outside isn’t always the best option (especially for us recently – it’s been raining constantly). Here are some of the things we do instead of going out and spending money:

  • Work on our respective projects. Writing, drawing, reading for me and editing the massive amount of pictures waiting to be processed for my husband (who is an excellent photographer).
  • Get productive. We take care of things around the house we’ve been putting off, from some DIY repairs or small improvement projects to some serious cleaning. Not the most exciting stuff in the world, but it is all tasks that need to be done.
  • Play games. I actually really love playing card and board games. I’m the obnoxious person who could spend hours playing the same repetitive game over and over again!
  • Make plans and have some good conversation. In place of going out to a movie or going shopping, during our time at home for the no spend week we often make some tea or coffee and spend time talking about our future plans and talk about what we’re doing, what we want, and where we’re going.
  • Get in a little “veg out” time. We don’t often just flop in front of the TV for hours, so a no spend week is a great time to catch up on some shows (from Netflix, the cost of which comes in the form of a monthly bill). It’s also a good excuse to check out the regular programming we pick up with our antenna (we don’t have cable). Jeopardy! makes me feel okay about watching TV – I have to think to answer the questions, so it can’t be that made for me to watch TV for that.. right?

The results at the end of the time period? We always have a great week, and it often works out to be even more fun and productive than the week or month before where we overspent or had unexpected costs pop up and cause a leak in our budget.

And, more importantly from a financial standpoint, we find ourselves with some extra money to put towards savings. In an average week, we can spend up to $100 in discretionary purchases. By doing a no spend week just once in every month out of the year, we’d end up with $1,200 extra in savings every 12 months.

In the summertime, when the weather’s nice, it’s even easier to spend our time outside – running, biking, camping, swimming, hanging out in the yard and simply enjoying the day – so we could easily do two no spend weeks during those months for even more money to save.

And we can all experience this anytime we choose. It’s a great exercise to use as a remedy to a busted budget, it can help you get in the habit of spending less (and buying less stuff), and it’s a great catalyst for getting creative in several different ways.

Whether you feel you need a no spend week as a emergency measure to rein in spending, or you choose to participate in the challenge as a way to jump-start the month’s savings, a no spend week is definitely worth trying.

Do you participate in no spend weeks? Are there other types of challenges you enjoy that have worked to give your savings a boost?

Photo Credit: Tax Credits on Flickr

41 Comments

  1. We haven’t tried doing an official no spend week. If we have purchased groceries over the weekend though, this normally isn’t a problem since we can pack lunches and cook dinners. Seems like last week still ended up being super expensive though..maybe we will need an official no spend week!

    • It’s actually kind of fun to do once you’re in the habit – it’s like a game, trying to see what all you can come up with to entertain yourself without any discretionary spending. You’ll have to try an official no spend week and let me know how it goes!

  2. I haven’t done an actual “no spend week” but I’ve pulled off many days in a week. I agree with you about not stocking up on groceries before a no-spend week – we’ve survived, and yep, things sometimes got a little interesting, but I can generally turn anything into something edible and tasty. It just might not be the normal recipes we cook over and over again. It’s amazing the amount of food we overlook in our cupboards because the easier things get pulled first.

    Yesterday I ended up prepping two dinners that will serve as lunches and leftover dinners throughout the week. It took a bit more creativity because I refused to buy anything, but I scrounged and made it work.

    • I’m sure you could do a no spend week just fine if you ever “officially” set up that kind of challenge. Sounds like you are definitely already smart and creative with meals! One of my favorite things about a no spend week is that it forces us to use what we already have, be it food or games or anything else – it really makes you realize how much you do have even without spending to buy anything new, and makes you appreciate it all the more!

  3. Hmmm definitely an interesting idea! I’m not sure how well I would do at this challenge. I feel like I would get too frustrated and just cave. I think it’s definitely a great idea and a good way to save some $ if you are regularly spending too much. Maybe a “stay at home” weekend would help too? Like, no going to restaurants, driving to friend’s houses, etc.

    • I think breaking it down into manageable pieces is a fine way to get started – like you said, doing a no spend weekend if you feel overwhelmed by a no spend week. But I’m sure you could survive an entire week! You’ll have to give it a try sometime :)

  4. We’ve done some no-spend weeks, and we always feel great afterwards, knowing that we can indeed survive on less. Great post, Kali!

    • That’s awesome, Laurie! And same here.. we always feel great afterward because A. we didn’t spend anything, B. we were able to truly appreciate what we already had because it wasn’t obscured by shopping for something new, and C. we’re always glad to see just how much it’s possible to cut down to bare bones and still be happy and satisfied.

  5. No spend week…hmm…why not? I think that is indeed a good idea, a great way to reverse the times when one goes over the budget. A little sacrifice can go a long way.

  6. I’ve done this before and have to say that the thing I love about it is that my urges to spend become more apparent. Normally, I don’t think much about going to get groceries or buying a beer, or getting stuff at Target. But when a haitus is put into effect, then the sheer volume of my urges to spend become apparent. It’s surprising.

    It’s a great tactic, too – thanks for the post!

  7. You are awesome for doing a No Spend Week. I’m lucky if I can get in one No Spend DAY a week lol.

  8. I don’t know if I could go a whole week. I admire anyone who can. I have done many no-spend days and they are tough as well. Its all about determination.

    • You could absolutely do it! To me, I think of it more as a game – for some reason that makes me feel less deprived, because I can “win” the game if I complete the challenge! In my experience, once you do one no spend week it makes the next one you do easier because you realize you truly can happily live on less.

  9. I avoided discretionary/non-essential spending for the year (well, 9 months), and it’s pretty eye-opening how mindlessly I spent before. All those $50 here or $20 there leaks amount to a lot, and though it’s sad I didn’t catch it sooner, at least I caught it eventually! I love Jeopardy, as well, though my reply rate wanes in the second half. ;) Great list of ‘free’ alternate activities!

    • Holy moly, nine months?! That is AMAZING. You are my no spend hero, Anna! I was wondering if we’d be able to do something bigger than a no spend week in the new year to really boost our savings – the next logical step would be a no spend month. You’re absolutely right, those purchases really do add up over time, even though the value of the things they buy doesn’t seem to add up at the same rate. I think you’re the final bit of inspiration I needed to try a no spend month, and from there we’ll try to work up to your level!

  10. I’ve never done one of my own, but I would agree that you just want to avoid non essential spending to make you a little more conscious about what you’re buying. For me that almost would include some groceries that are nice to have but don’t need, like my love of kombucha. Tasty, but non-essential. I think my Jan will be more like this as I need to get back on a more strict budget after this month.

  11. Great job Kali! I have some days like yesterday (Sunday) that I have not
    spent any money. I did it subconsciously. I will try the not spending money
    an entire week.

  12. In conjunction with my post-holiday and post-vacation detox, I think I’ll be implementing a spending detox as well.

  13. I don’t consciously have no-spend weeks, but I do cut back when I realize the spending has gone overboard. Decembers are very notorious!

  14. I’ve been “fasting” on spending money on dining out for a short while now, and intend to keep it going for a few weeks. I’ve found that it’s saving money and more importantly, I feel like I have a little bit more energy. Win-win! Plus, there’s that confidence boost when you set goal and conquer it.

  15. I need a no spend week right about now. The past couple of weeks have been really spendy for me. Between holidays, my niece’s birthday, and a broken smoke detector fiasco, I’ve been spending money like crazy. I suspect after all the holiday shopping is done things will slow down a bit (and Jan. is a 3 paycheck month, which doesn’t hurt).

  16. I have no spend weeks, but they’re often natural. I never plan on having one, but I guess I’ve conditioned myself not to spend on non-essentials so much that it’s just habit! I have my mom to thank for that. Even though I didn’t like seeing my family struggle with debt, she knew how much she had in her wallet for the week, and made sure it lasted for necessities like food and gas. I love your ideas for activities to do (board games are fun!), and agree with the guidelines you follow.

    • We sometimes have “natural” no spend weeks as well! I completely understand what you mean – watching family struggle with money in general is never fun, but when you’re close there’s often a lot you can learn from the situation.

  17. I have been doing a psuedo spending freeze on groceries for the month of December. We are going to be heading down to B’s parents for a week soon and I don’t want to get groceries and then have them sit there untouched. So I’m doing the best I can to try and use what we have to get us through the month. It also helps with the savings because my pet budget is busted this month and it’s bad. Yearly check up, vaccines, and getting them fixed was a lot more than I was expecting.

    • Smart idea – we try to do the same when we know we have a trip coming up where we’ll be away from the house and unable to eat a whole load of groceries before we go. Hate to hear about the pets, but I’m glad you were responsible and got them fixed (and vaccinated). Too many people don’t bother. I know it put a dent in your budget but it was the right thing to do!

  18. I not too proud to admit that I have had weeks where I just have to skate by. It happens to the best of us. It’s just time to buckle down, raid the pantry, and make due.

  19. I’m doing this right now for the holidays! It’s been a big help. Eating all the food in house and staying in for me is key.

  20. I’ve never done the no spend week, but think I might try that. One big thing that’s worked for me is adding point values to my goals and what I actually save. Naturally, I want to earn more points. Only, the only way to do that is to save more. It seems to work out well for me!

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