When you’ve committed to a month of no spending, the scariest sound in the world goes something like this: glug, glug, gorgle, glug, followed by my wife saying, “Oh, God. Honey? We need to call a plumber!”
Our experiment in money-free living had been cruising along beautifully. We were happily eating our way through the pantry, borrowing instead of buying, and feeling the burn from our free seven-day trial gym membership. But now-and on a holiday weekend at 11 p.m., naturally-a grotesque and putrid black ooze began mushrooming up from the shower drain, which could mean only one thing: an overtime service call from the Roto-Rooter guy.
“Think!” I thought as my wife, Ruth, rummaged for the plumber’s business card. “Think.”
I was still a no-spending newbie, but already I was one with the Zen of money-free living. Take a deep breath. There’s always a way around opening your wallet.
The idea to stop spending had been percolating for a while, but it was a trip to Target one afternoon that finally broke me. With our four-year-old, Sebastian, in tow, Ruth and I loaded up on packs of underwear, bath mats, barbecue gear, Spider-Man toys, kitchen gadgets, and a plug-in thingy guaranteed to kill mosquitoes. As we approached the checkout aisle, I thought, We don’t need any of this junk, and we abandoned the cart (after distracting Sebastian with ice cream), saving a good $300.
That got me thinking about all our pointless expenses: DVDs by mail, lunches out, car washes, “bargain” toys, fancy coffee drinks, and just about everything I’ve ever bought on eBay and Amazon. Especially given the current economic climate, not to mention the state of our landfills, it all suddenly felt like excess. With a promise that we’d stop if it was killing us, I convinced the family to take the giant leap into frugality.
The rules were that we would buy nothing for 30 days except absolute essentials, like fresh milk and fruit; and even there, after one too many “essential” trips to the market those first few days, I capped expenses at $100 for the rest of the month. A handful of key outlays like our mortgage, utilities, and Sebastian’s preschool tuition were excused, but restaurants, parking, clothing, toiletries, Internet access, babysitting, and, yes, gasoline, were now in the no-buy zone.
So were overpriced plumbing repairs, if I could help it. Unfortunately, taking a plunger to the shower drain only served to anger the sewage gods, and I watched the muck grow thicker. Searching online (thank you, dear neighbor, for not using password protection), I read about poor souls who’d paid $200, $400, and even $1,500 to have this exact problem fixed. That’s when I stumbled onto the Dawn brigade.
On a website called thriftyfun.com, thousands of users posted tip after penny-saving tip on conserving cash. There wasn’t a crisis on earth, it seemed, that couldn’t be averted with some combination of baking soda, white vinegar, lemon juice, salt, and a certain dishwashing liquid. I squirted a shot of Dawn in a kettle of boiling water, poured it into the shower, and the goop slrrrrged down the drain. Materials used: 10 cents. The look on Ruth’s face after I actually fixed something: priceless.
I realize many people live like this all the time, by necessity, not by choice, and I anticipate letters saying, “Boo hoo! You had to give up your decaf Frappuccino.” But this wasn’t an exercise in “playing poor.” Our month of no spending was a financial wake-up call, a chance to recalibrate our relationship with money at a time when everyone I know has money on the brain.
Do we really need all the things we buy? Does acquiring stuff have actual value in our lives? Can’t we be just as happy—or perhaps even happier—living on much less?
Our adventure kicked off with a rousing start. After that first day, I wrote in my journal: “Feeling supercharged. We have so much. What could we possibly need to spend money on?
“By 9 a.m., Ruth had already made compote from old strawberries and picked flowers I didn’t even know we had in the garden. I cleaned the car by hand for the first time in years, then found a mother lode of black beans in the back of the cupboard. Woo! Oh, and I read and returned the neighbor’s newspaper before he woke up. Total spent today: $0. This is going to be fun, fun, fun!”
Then came Day Two. A rich person once told me money is important only if you don’t have any. I suddenly understood that when it was my turn to entertain Sebastian. Normally, we stop at the comic book shop and the frozen yogurt place and maybe the bookstore, spending all the way. Now we weren’t allowed to even feed the parking meter. Sebastian was starting to lose it, but then inspiration struck.
“Hey, Bubba,” I said. “Do you wanna ride in a silver carriage and see cool stuff and eat junk food?”
“Yaaay!” he screamed.
Okay, so getting pushed around in a shopping cart isn’t exactly Space Mountain, but Costco does have cool stuff and something even better—free samples. For an hour, we munched on chicken sausages, cheese ravioli, franks-in-jackets, raspberry fruit twists, cranberry lemonade, and chocolate pudding (nutrition goes out the window when you’re eating anything you can get).
What was remarkable was how liberating it felt to be at a cathedral to consumerism like that and not spend a dime. I’m always confused when people rave about how much they “save” at warehouse club stores. In my experience, I can’t get out of Costco or Wal-Mart for under $200. You want to talk savings? Try going in without your wallet.
One of the unexpected benefits of no spending is that it brings you closer to people. There’s a stigma in our culture about discussing money, but the mere mention of our project prompted friends, neighbors, and even strangers to really open up, mostly about how cheap they secretly are.
The advice was great: Use an Internet application like Skype for free phone calls. Ask neighbors with gardens for extra vegetables and herbs. Look for unclaimed funds under your name at missingmoney.com (I actually found some-interest on an old bank account I’d forgotten about!). Make the public library your first stop for DVDs, music, and books. Answer online surveys at reputable sites like mysurvey.com for free products and cash bonuses. My favorite tip: Fill out the order forms in catalogs and see if you still want the stuff a week from now. You won’t.
Online communities like Craigslist and Freecycle have enough free stuff to clutter a small country. Cameras, couches, skis, reptiles, “clean dirt,” everything. One guy was giving away a brand-new 52-inch plasma TV so his ex wouldn’t get it in their divorce (it was gone in less than 60 seconds). I landed a stack of financial magazines (did you know the world’s richest man doesn’t use a computer?) and then relisted them. Two weeks into our spending fast, Ruth scored a free haircut from a stylist looking to build clients at an upscale salon.
As days turned into weeks, we became so skilled at living lean, it was scary. We started riding our bikes to save gas. Sebastian’s finger paintings were recycled as gift wrap for the homemade presents we gave my dad on his birthday. We figured out the perfect time to show up at our farmers’ market for giveaways. Ruth turned stale bread into French toast and staler bread into bread crumbs. Sebastian and I had a perfectly wonderful free lunch one day at the local Hare Krishna temple.
At a certain point, though, the rush wore off and reality set in. Having just enough just isn’t enough. I love my iPhone. Ruth loves our gleaming stainless steel refrigerator. Sebastian loves his sneakers that light up.
It’s pathetic, I know. I came to the sad realization that spending tricks us into believing we lead meaningful, successful, exalted lives. Take that away, and what do you have? I suddenly wasn’t sure.
With only $8.72 left for essential expenses heading into the final week, I was feeling sorry for myself—and a bit cranky. I almost strangled a visiting friend when she poured heaping glasses of milk that we were trying so hard to conserve. Ruth and I started bickering after she bought sponges—not a necessity in my book—at the 99-cent store. And on one of our Costco runs, Sebastian cried when someone beat him to the last sample of dinosaur-shaped chicken bites.
A therapist I’ve seen agreed to a session in exchange for my running errands. (How did that make me feel? Boy, he pays a lot for organic salsa!) He listened and then smiled warmly and told me, “Go home. Play with Sebastian. Tell Ruth how much you love her and think about ways to help other people.”
What a novel solution. Gratitude. Service. Duh. I felt like an idiot. Fortunately, all those hours away from restaurants and shopping gave me time to do exactly what he said. I pedaled home and invented an outer-space-themed card game to entertain Sebastian (Jupiter and comets were wild in the homemade deck we played with for hours).
Ruth and I, meanwhile, spent our last few days volunteering at the Bread and Roses Café near our house in Venice, California. Since 1989, the café has been serving 150 people in need each morning in a restaurant setting. Ruth passed out plates of pasta and poured coffee, and I assisted the chef at the stove. Between courses, we met folks making do on the barest of resources. “This place means everything to me,” a homeless vet told me. “Anytime I get upset about my situation, I think, Things could be a lot worse. At least I’m around people who care. It helps to think like that.”
It was probably the best advice that I got all month, and it was absolutely free.
In the end, we saved more than $2,000 by not spending for a month. When we began, I imagined we would rush out the moment we were done and stock up on groceries after breakfast at our favorite pancake place. Then maybe hit the mall or go to the movies. Instead, we stayed close to home and played outer-space poker, and I wrote out a check for Bread and Roses.