Just after the 2016 holiday season passed, recent empty-nester Laura Vondra, 49, from Black Hawk, Colo., realized she was at a new financial crossroads — after struggling to make ends meet for 30 years as a single mother of three, she was finally going to learn what it felt like to have wiggle room in her budget.
To jumpstart her new financial lease on life, she decided to try a spending freeze. Spending freezes are fairly straightforward but difficult to execute: for a set period of time, you stop spending money on anything that is not essential.
For Laura, a spending freeze would allow her to take full stock of her financial picture. At the time, she had over $110,000 in debt — a combination of student loans and credit card debt.
Her goal was to start a 30-day freeze beginning January 1, 2017. When the big day arrived, the registered nurse set the ground rules: she’d spend money only on gas and food (for herself and her trio of beloved cats, Baby Girl, Matilda, and Poppy). When she wasn’t shopping for essentials, she left her debit and credit cards at home.
At the end of the month, the results were undeniable: Laura had saved roughly $3,000 — one-half of her monthly earnings. She used the funds to completely pay off one of her credit cards.
“Before, I always felt like I was broke, I was poor. This month showed me ‘no, you're not.’ I could easily live off of what I make,” she told MagnifyMoney. “[I realized] I could actually live off of half of that.”
How to Do a Spending Freeze — the Right Way
The goal of a spending freeze is to reign in all unnecessary spending and help to jumpstart your savings goals.
While a spending freeze requires you to not do something, not spending money isn’t always the easy choice in our consumer-driven culture. Here are a few tips to steel your resolve when faced with the inevitable ad for something you really, really, really
Set a time limit and stick to it.
Committing to a certain time frame will help you remember that your frugal period is only temporary, and prevent you from binge-spending when you get weary of sticking to your budget.
Everyone has a different frugality threshold. The spending freeze can help you test your limit. Start off with a shorter freeze, for maybe about a week, then extend it if it feels tolerable, and learn new financial habits along the way. Eventually you’ll be able to handle a no-spend month or even a year or two like some extreme budgeters have done.
Clemson, N.C., couple Jen and Jordan Harmon have gone on a 30-day spending freeze every January since 2014. For the parents of three, it began as a way to recover from holiday season spending.
“Christmas was awful [that year], and we had spent so much money. We were just miserable,” says Jen. Her father had passed away in early December 2013, and on top of those costs, the family had spent money on holiday gifts and fast food during the chaotic month.
Make a list of things that really matter.
Laura says her spending freeze was a way to take stock of what she really needed to spend money on — and what she didn’t. She began “spending [her] money on things that matter and on things that last, not just a dinner out or to get [her] nails done.”
She’s since focused on taking care of some things she didn’t think she would have been able to afford without going on the freeze, like eliminating her debt.
Set yourself up for success.
The more you plan ahead for your spending freeze, the easier it will be for you.
Laura, for example, planned ahead by brewing her own tea at home and bringing tea bags to the office to replace her daily $25 Starbucks habit.
The Harmons prepared lunches in advance so that Jordan wouldn't feel pressured to spend money for food on his lunch break.
“It's the convenience that really gets you,” says Jordan. “Once you break that habit, you realize going out to lunch may only be $5 a day, but it adds up.”
Tell EVERYONE and get them to join you
Telling your friends and family about your spending freeze is a great way to garner support for your no-spend trial as well as help you stay accountable.
When the Harmons announced their freeze on Facebook by making a spending-freeze group their friends could join, Jen said she was a little nervous, thinking, “What are people going to think?”
“I was surprised at the general positivity from friends. I thought one or two would sign up. It was like 20 people in the final group, which was more than I thought it would be,” says Jen.
You can also join groups like The Epic Spending Freeze Challenge and Bells Budget Spending Freeze on Facebook for support. Or, invite a friend or family member to join you. If your debt situation is complicated or you think you may need stronger debt support, groups like Financial Peace University and Debtors Anonymous can be good resources.
Laura joined a couple of spending-freeze groups on Facebook to keep herself motivated throughout the freeze.
“I remember talking a picture of my breakfast one morning, thinking ‘this is my last egg, I won't have another egg until the end of January,’” she says. She says the image received several comments in the group from others who shared their final mid-month rations too.
Don’t be too rigid.
While social events can often come with a host of unexpected costs, you don’t have to avoid them altogether to have a successful freeze. Sometimes it just takes getting a little creative. You can look for free events in your area or plan nights in with your family or significant others.
Also, remember it’s your freeze, so you can bend the rules slightly for your sanity. When Laura received invites to hang out with friends at a local bar, she compromised — she ate a meal at home and purchased only drinks at the bar.
“I didn't want to stay all month at home and be antisocial,” she says.
She made one more break for social life. In the final week of her freeze, Laura let her boyfriend — who was otherwise forbidden to spend money on her during the freeze — take her out to dinner using a buy-one-get-one-free coupon, so her meal was free.
Set a purpose for the money you’ll save.
You should be able to get a good idea of the amount of money you’ll save over the period when you first go over your spending-freeze budget. Give it a purpose. At the end of the freeze reward yourself with that thing you always wanted but could never find room in your budget for.
The Harmons said they are able to save a couple of hundred dollars each freeze, helping to boost their savings, and they’ve gotten into the habit of adding in the occasional no-spend week when necessary. So much so, that they were able to start saving to pay cash for a new family car. In 2016, the freeze helped boost their savings to buy a Prius that February. They say they would have financed the vehicle had it not been for what they learned practicing the spending freeze.
Hide the money (from yourself).
If you think you’ll have serious trouble keeping your hands off of your money, you could try hiding it from yourself to get that “out of sight, out of mind” effect. Transfer all of the money you won’t need to cover the essentials (or an emergency) to an online savings account or one-month CD with another bank.
When you check your main checking account and don’t see much money there to spend on impulse buys, you might be prevented from spending. On top of that, if you need the money, you’ll have to wait or work to get access to it since it will likely take a day or so for the funds to transfer. The wait may give you the time you need to think about the purchase before you buy.
A final word.
Generally speaking, just about anyone can benefit from a spending freeze or no-spend period. The challenging spending break can help you develop a better mindset about how you use money and have lasting results on your day-to-day spending habits.
For example, Laura hasn’t tried another no-spend month, but now she’s found the money in her budget to pay $500 toward her credit card debt each month. She says once she eliminates $9,000 in credit debt, she’ll start making headway on about $100,000 in student loan debt.
She says the freeze helped her learn to spend her money on things that matter, not just on lifestyle perks like going out to dinner or getting her nails done. Building that mindset is the whole point of going on a spending freeze.
MagnifyMoney is a price comparison and financial education website, founded by former bankers who use their knowledge of how the system works to help you save money.