When I was first learning how to be frugal and save money, I used to do monthly financial challenges all the time. I’d pick a goal, like cut down or eliminate eating out, and pursue it with gusto for a whole month. At the end of the month I’d tally up my savings. Usually it added up to quite a bit.
As I got better with money, I got away from the monthly challenges. Lately, though, I’ve gone back to them. We’ve had a couple of expensive months around here with doctors bills and other issues, so we needed to scale back a bit to bring things more in line. While we’re not anywhere near destitute, the monthly challenge helps me to refocus and rein in spending in areas that have gotten a little lax. You can make a monthly challenge out of almost any financial goal. For example:
- Can you go a month without eating out?
- Can you find a way to save an extra $100 this month?
- Can you cut your grocery bill by $50 this month?
- Can you live for one month if you increase your 401k contribution by two percentage points?
- Can you drive less and lower your gas bill this month?
- Can you go one month without TV?
- Can you go one month without buying anything new besides groceries and absolute necessities?
- Can you spend only cash for one month and not use a credit card at all?
Whatever you need to accomplish, you can probably create a challenge around it. What makes a monthly challenge so effective is the time limit. A month is long enough that you can see real changes in your habits. When you restrict yourself for a month, you can see the impact on your budget. You can see what not eating out for a month or shopping recreationally has saved you, for example. When you get to the end of the month you have a bottom line number to look at and say, “Hey. That’s a lot of money.” Armed with that information you can judge whether the restriction is worth it for you. If you only saved $10 with coupons in a month of trying hard, that may not be worth it for the time you invested. However, if you saved $300 by not eating out, that might be something you want to continue in some form.
A month isn’t so long, though, that you end up frustrated and hating life. You know it’s only for a month so you can gut almost anything out for that long. If it were to drag on for a year, you’d likely get fed up and quit. But a month? That’s easy. You can try anything for that long. At the end of the month you can reassess, and if you’re miserable you can make some changes.
You can use your creativity to make a challenge more fun. Maybe you can create a fun tracking poster or calendar on which you note your savings. Or you can create fun ways to remind yourself of your goal, such as putting your savings in a jar decorated with a picture of the car you want or the destination you want to visit. Or you just call it, “Money I didn’t spend,” and let it accumulate. If you’re competitive, find other people with the same goal and do the challenge with them.
You can also have fun finding replacements for what you’re giving up. If you’re giving up TV, make an effort to find great free entertainment or create your own. If you’re giving up coffee bought from Starbucks, get creative making your own at home by experimenting with flavorings. If you’re giving up eating out, Google your favorite recipes from your favorite restaurants and learn to make them at home. There are plenty of ways to make the challenge more fun.
They say that it takes between twenty-one and twenty-eight days for a new behavior to become a habit. Who knows? In one month you may create a new habit of eating at home or not shopping that you want to keep. After the initial month is over, it’s much easier to keep it going because it’s now an ingrained habit. And if you want to forget the whole thing, you can do that, too, secure in the knowledge that you at least tried something difficult.
(Photo courtesy of Ken Wilcox.)