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Buy-nothing month yields unexpected results

Alex Floersch and financial advisor Alicia Kellebrew just completed a buy nothing month.David Samson / The Forum1 / 2
Alex Floersch and financial advisor Alicia Kellebrew just completed a buy nothing month.David Samson / The Forum2 / 2

FARGO — After much planning (and mental preparation), financial counselor Alicia Kellebrew of The Village Financial Resource Center and I set out to try the buy-nothing month challenge on March 1.

We carefully laid out the steps, rules, resources and worksheets for anyone who might be brave (or crazy) enough to try it with us.

Now that the 31 days is over, I'll be the first one to tell you we both survived. In fact, I've never felt more financially secure in my entire adult life.

Leading up to the challenge, we both filled out the financial assessment worksheet. After calculating fixed expenses, variable expenses and a $50 "cushion fund," Kellebrew predicted she would save $559 over the course of the month.

She was wrong... in the best of ways.

Though she overspent her cushion budget, she underspent in other categories to save a grand total of $784.68 — 36 percent of her net income and $225 more than anticipated.

Upon first calculating my fixed expenses, plus $265 for specified budgets to cover groceries, household, gas, cushion fund and more, I expected to save $675 during the month. Unfortunately, I, too, went over on my cushion fund but reduced spending in other categories, coming out $54.10 ahead (not including savings).

Having worked an extra couple jobs during the month, I had less time to spend money and more income coming in. Much to my surprise, I saved $2,322.99 in 31 days. Even without the extra income, I would have saved $1,025.24 or 47 percent of my net income.

Proud moments

Kellebrew's goal was to save money by meal planning. She opted for leftovers at home and took walks with her fiancé during lunch instead of eating out.

"I beat my own record for consecutive days packing lunches," she says. "It was nice to have extra time with him and felt good to find a different solution to the lunch situation."

For me, the ultimate win came from resisting the temptation to spend money by finding creative ways to get what I wanted. Take a Tuesday afternoon, for example. I was craving a Diet Coke but didn't have one with me at work. After asking around the office, I found the front desk had an extra ... for free.

I avoided happy hours and eating out and, to my surprise, friends and family were more than supportive, keeping me accountable and cheering me on along the way. By the time St. Patrick's Day rolled around, my cushion fund was down to $14.01, but I managed to keep my bar tab at $12, walking home a champion having not broken the budget.

Free fun

Throughout the month, Kellebrew utilized her gym membership to stay busy and active, hitting her 12 punches to get the $20 health insurance reimbursement. "We took many walks downtown exploring and taking in the sights," she says.

Warning them ahead of time, friends and family were prepared to have fun in the cheapest way possible. I grilled out with friends (each contributing groceries to the meal) for card night. I saved and used gift cards for coffee, movies and other activities and, instead of Saturday nights on the town, March meant evening sunsets over a bonfire.

On two occasions, my fabulous co-workers treated me to pie (for National Pie Day) and lunch for St. Patrick's Day, wanting me to tag along without the cost. Thanks to family and our significant others, neither Kellebrew or I were deprived of drinks or dinner out for the entire month. (And yes, I told the boyfriend I'd pick up the tab if he decided to embark on the buy nothing month challenge next time.)

Faced with challenges

We won't lie, the challenge wasn't a cake walk. (Though it clearly wasn't impossible either.)

During week three, Kellebrew was unfortunately in a car accident — not injured thankfully — but knew the money saved would be dedicated to her insurance deductible.

Fighting temptation was inevitably difficult without a car. "I have been under a lot of extra stress lately which leads to poor planning, more eating out and more junk food out of the vending machine," she says. Yet, Kellebrew still managed to stick to budget.

For me, coffee cravings were strong. But somehow the challenge of not spending money fueled me more than my addiction to $5 iced lattes. Kellebrew and I both found that once we tapped into our gas, grocery and household funds later that first week, it became harder to not spend money. We also found it challenging not to use our cushion fund for things that weren't absolutely necessary.

Lastly, we both used other resources (our significant others) to fund activities we would pay back come April 1.

"I wasn't sure that my hockey team would make it into the West Regionals in Fargo so that was an unexpected expense but an experience that doesn't happen often so I went with it and cut other categories accordingly," Kellebrew says. Subtracting the $104 for hockey tickets still left Kellebrew with a savings $680.68 or $121.68 over her initial goal.

Motivation from the challenge for me came from paying off debt and saving for vacation. Utilizing a 72-hour Allegiant sale, my boyfriend booked us a 4-day vacation in Las Vegas starting April 2 (over my birthday). Before this month, a birthday vacation wasn't realistic. But now, I've been able to pay car insurance in cash, save for two summer trips, add to my emergency savings and pay for vacation in full — not on credit.

Not being able to spend money until April 1 reduced spending on clothes, shoes and other items before my trip.

Challenge accepted ... again

When people ask us if we would do it again, the answer is obvious: Absolutely!

In fact, our brains are already turning for how we can adapt this for every month or even just a "crunch month" a couple times a year, reducing budgets considerably for a short time.

"It feels good to challenge yourself to something like this and manage to be successful at it," Kellebrew says. "It also eases some financial worries knowing that I can make it okay should I need or want to do this again to save up money."

Not only did this challenge help me to save money, it made me realize I can live without buying coffee and many other purchases I deem "necessary" throughout the month. For me, this was truly a life-changing experience. Flying to Las Vegas immediately after taught me how good it feels to save vs. spend money. I was in shock over the amount of money we had to spend and will be much more careful in choosing a vacation destination next time.

Having an accountability partner and an end in sight made the challenge possible. Kellebrew and I recommend the challenge to anyone — whether in a financial crisis, looking to reduce debt or save money. In the past, Kellebrew has recommended a similar strategy to clients in which they respond there's no more room to cut in their budget.

"Now that I have lived it and survived I can say it is possible," Kellebrew says. "Was it fun every step of the way? Maybe not, but we would all be surprised by what we can do if we put our minds to it."

Alexandra Floersch

Alexandra Floersch has worked for Forum Communications since February 2015. She is a content producer and photographer who enjoys writing about finance, fashion and home.

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