Saving money (and spending it wisely) can get boring. It’s hard to deny yourself all of your wants and to consistently focus on “good” financial behavior. You can spice things up, though, by challenging yourself to improve in any area of your financial life. If you’re competitive, you can even enter into challenges with others. (There are no real winners or losers, here. It’s not a death match, just friendly competition that benefits everyone). The Internet is full of challenges that you can take part in, or you can create your own.
I think there are four basic categories of challenges:
These are the challenges where you try to save $X by a certain date, or to fully fund some project or vacation through your savings. Or, you might try to save more than another person or group. You might also try a year-long challenge designed to get you to save a certain amount by the end of the year. The popular 52 Week Saving Challenge that hit social media earlier this year is an example of a saving challenge.
In these types of challenges, you are trying to earn more money. Maybe you challenge yourself to liquidate your junk by a certain date and (hopefully) earn a certain amount of money. Maybe you set a deadline to try to get a second job, or you challenge yourself to do more online earning activities like surveys.
Spending challenges encourage you to either spend less or spend more wisely. Maybe you challenge yourself to cut your overall spending by ten percent. Maybe you try to live on minimum wage or on only one income. Maybe you challenge yourself to cut all unnecessary expenses such as eating out, cable, or entertainment. Maybe you try to have entire days where you spend nothing at all.
These challenges encourage you to master or improve some aspect of your financial life. Maybe you challenge yourself to read one investing book per month or to finally understand a certain financial concept by a certain date. You can challenge yourself to pay your bills on time every month if this is a problem for you. Or, you can challenge yourself to accomplish a series of goals/overlooked tasks (have a will made, get some professional financial advice, learn how to do your own taxes, etc.) over a period of time. You can also challenge yourself to learn or get better at frugal skills such as DIY, couponing, or gardening.
Within these four main categories, you can challenge yourself to a variety of things. You’re limited only by your creativity and what you hope to accomplish. You may even want to combine challenges to get to your goals faster. For example, saving and spending challenges can work together to get you to your goal faster. Combine a challenge to save $20 from each paycheck in a savings account with a challenge to stop eating out and you’re really smoking.
There are two things, though, that are crucial to your success. First, you must set a time limit for your challenge. You might want to do it for just a month to start. A month is long enough to accomplish something significant without being so long that you get frustrated. For more difficult mastery challenges, you might want to give yourself six months to a year. Whatever you choose, a time limit makes you more accountable than saying, “I’ll get to it sometime.” A time limit forces you to make steady progress instead of saving everything until the last minute.
Second, you need to track your progress. If you have no idea how you’re doing, what’s the point of the challenge? Whether you keep track in a notebook or spreadsheet, or you go all out and create one of those “donor drive” thermometers that hangs on your fridge and climbs until you reach your goal, you need a visual reminder of your progress. You can also more easily see what’s tripping you up. Are there certain days you don’t make any progress? Why is that? To make it more fun, get creative with your tracking.
Also helpful, but not essential, is to let others know what you’re doing. If you’re entering into a public challenge, this is likely already taken care of. But if you’re just challenging yourself, it can’t hurt to mention it to a trusted friend or family member. They’re likely to ask you how it’s going from time to time and you’ll want to have a good answer. When you know you’re likely to be asked about your progress, you’re more accountable than if you only have to answer to yourself.
Challenges can be a fun way to make faster progress on your financial goals. A good challenge pushes you to stretch further than you might if you were just going about your regular life. It’s also good for motivating you to succeed. Often, after successfully completing a challenge, you’ll find yourself wanting to continue the behavior because you’ve seen how successful it can be.