What is a spending fast?


We’re all guilty of sometimes mindlessly swiping our debit or credit cards at the register, or hitting “place order” online without thinking carefully about whether or not the purchase we’ve made is a wise one. 

Paying with plastic and digital wallets has significantly reduced the “pain of paying” that comes with using physical cash and, as a result, makes it easier to lose track of exactly how much you’re spending and reduces the amount of time you have to think about whether a particular good or service is worth the money you’re spending. 

After reflecting on my own spending habits, I decided to challenge myself to a three-day spending fast as a way to hit reset on my money habits and, hopefully, make a bit more progress on my financial goals. 

Spending fasts, explained—and how mine helped me cut out unnecessary spending  

A spending fast, sometimes called a spending freeze, is when you vow to not spend any money for a set period of time, usually for the purpose of saving extra money or hitting a key financial goal. Typically, this means eliminating all of your discretionary spending and redirecting those funds toward your savings account, debts, etc. 

I set out on my own spending fast in an effort to make a larger monthly student loan payment. On an average day, I might spend about $30–$40 on a mix of unnecessary purchases like coffee, takeout, online shopping, dining out with friends, and other non-essentials. This means that in an average three-day period, I could easily spend about $90–$100, sometimes more, on expenses that aren’t serving me or helping me hit my financial goals. 

During my spending fast, I went three days without spending. And to my surprise, I found it easier than I had originally anticipated. Before starting my fast, I tried to think through some of my spending weaknesses and eliminate those ahead of time. This includes my morning coffee run and lunch order. Rather than ordering my daily coffee and lunch salad, I stocked up on supplies to make these items at home for the duration of my fast, which came out to a total of about $15, all-in-all. Spending that $15 upfront meant that I could skip my daily orders that usually total around $20 per day. I also skipped dining out with friends, and instead found a way to have that social time without breaking the bank. I opted to make use of some of the food I already had in my refrigerator and prepared a meal for myself and a friend at home. 

Throughout the three-day period, I did end up spending on two different occasions—once to fill my gas tank and a second time to pay for a medical co-pay. I wouldn’t call these instances a failure. For my lifestyle, these are non-negotiable expenses, and I anticipated that I would need to cover these expenses ahead of time, so I set aside funds in my savings account to cover my $50 copay, and the $45 I spent to fill my gas tank 

Why experts say a financial fast works 

A spending fast can certainly be effective, but it may not be the perfect approach for every kind of spender. In the short term, a spending fast can help you save extra money, but the idea is also to hit pause on your spending altogether so that you can better identify which habits are putting a dent in your budget and getting in the way of your financial goals. 

“A spending fast can be an effective tool to temporarily reset your spending habits, gain financial awareness, and achieve short-term financial goals. I believe it can help you save going forward if during your spending fast you can recognize the spending habits that are really providing you great value and others that can be eliminated,” says Cara Macksoud, Certified Financial Behavior Specialist and CEO of Money Habitudes, a system that helps people better understand their money personalities. 

Macksoud does note that this kind of strategy is not sustainable for a long period of time. Instead, it’s more of a financial reset that’s meant to supercharge your savings in a short period of time and help you pinpoint the money habits that are helping or hurting you. 

Setting yourself up to thrive 

If you’re hoping to embark on your own spending fast, there are a few key steps you should take before and after your fast to set yourself up for success and get the most out of your experience. 

  1. Consider your goals. Abstaining from spending is no easy feat, and you may find it easier to stick to your fast if you have a clear idea of what you’re fasting for. Are you hoping to make a larger credit card payment this month? Perhaps you’re hoping to put some extra money into your vacation fund. Having clear goals can help you determine how long you should fast for and keep you accountable and motivated. 
  2. Start small. Your fast is only effective if you can stick to it. And, if you’ve never attempted a spending fast before, or you set strict guidelines for yourself right out of the gate, you could fall off the wagon fairly quickly. “Personal finance is so emotional to begin with, and if you attempt a spending fast without good parameters for yourself that fit your lifestyle you can sabotage yourself, which actually leads to more reckless spending,” says Macksoud. “I always advise people to start small: instead of planning one large spending fast try a really short one—like a day or even during an outing where you know you would often spend unnecessarily. If successful, you can build on those skills for the future and get the long-term results you are seeking.
  3. Make a list of what you will and will not allow yourself to spend on. A spending fast calls for the elimination of unnecessary spending, but necessary expenses are perfectly fine, and what you consider a necessary expense will be unique to you and your lifestyle. Before you begin your fast, make a clear list of what you’ll allow yourself to spend on. That might include gas for your vehicle or any health-related costs. Think carefully about what is negotiable vs. non-negotiable so that you aren’t making spending decisions in the moment. 
  4. Allow yourself time to reflect on your experience. Once you’ve completed your fast, take some time to think about what worked and what didn’t. Did you make an impulse purchase? Did you find that you were more tempted to spend than usual? Should you consider a different kind of saving strategy? The goal is to spend less, and if this kind of method isn’t for you, it may be time to consider a different approach. “A spending fast may not be suitable for everyone,” says Macksoud. “An alternative may be to focus on other budgeting strategies that suit your specific situation or seek financial counseling that will be much less abrupt and more therapeutic. Depending on your personal circumstances there is no one size fits all in getting your spending under control; you may need to try a few options before you find the right method for you.” 

The takeaway 

With a little pre-planning, a spending fast can help you get your financial house in order by helping you identify and eliminate counter-productive money habits. However, the key to doing this successfully is to set clear goals and rules ahead of time, and be honest with yourself about what worked and didn’t work after the fact to help you form healthier habits.

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