I have been reading a lot about extreme savers recently.  You know those people that can save 60% or more of their income and give up all discretionary spending usually in an attempt to join the FIRE (Financial Independence, Retire Early) club.  Although joining the FIRE club is not currently a goal of mine, I find its frugal members inspirational.

When I was a kid, saving money was really easy.  Minus the occasional variety store treat, I did not find joy in spending money.  I much preferred watching it grow in little white envelopes I kept hidden away in my dresser.  I used the envelope saving system before I even knew who Dave Ramsey was.

Saving money became a lot more difficult when I hit adulthood and we had a family.  There always seemed to be something that we needed.  And living in the city made expenses even higher.

So now that we have moved out of the city, I decided to challenge myself a bit this spring and give up discretionary spending for a month.  I was ready to take our family’s frugal adventure a bit further and return to my roots of money saving fun.

Saving money is fun? I know what you might be thinking.  But when I can spend it on the true wants of my family (such as traveling or going to local festivals) or investing it to grow my own small business, it really is an enjoyable activity.  I love spending money on those things because they seem so worthwhile.  I am not that frugal because we more rearrange our funds based on our priorities and not completely stash it away.

After reading the blog Frugalwoods recently, I was fascinated by how little extra or discretionary spending they had.  It made their monthly budgeting so much easier too.  They could literally add up on one hand the number of excess purchases they made.  It was absolutely amazing.  Why couldn’t I do that?

So, I thought I would try it for a month and see what happened.

It has been a journey in self-control, asking questions and a few lapses in judgement.

Please note that I defined discretionary spending as anything “extra” that is not a need to our daily life – coffee out (although I already gave that up long ago), mid-afternoon drive through snacks, things for decorating the house, books, unnecessary clothes (not replacing items, but adding to our collections), and toys for the kids (not that we usually get them a lot of extra stuff, but I have a weak spot for yard sales and consignment shops).

Burlap shopping bag with the text overlay "Discretionary Spending - The month I gave it up"

Here are some things that I learned after my month vacation from discretionary spending:

Avoid the Dollar Spot at Target

I know, I’m a huge fan of the Target Dollar Spot too.  But as I discovered recently, if you don’t avoid such shopping traps, you’re liable to bring home a pink dinosaur planter (or make your husband buy it) that you probably really don’t need.

Which is the problem, really.  Target relies on this section of the store for the revenue it makes from impulsive buys.  That’s why it’s at the front of the store.  That’s why they make cute little designs.  Because they know victims like me (and our kids, did I mention they fall for it every time too) will not have the will power to say no and will spend the $5.00 even though they shouldn’t have.

Ban all Discount Stores too

Unless you have a specific need such as diapers, these stores are traps just like Target’s Dollar Spot.  If you want to stop discretionary spending, these are not the stores you should visit.  They are full of wants that will burn a hole right through your wallet.

(Although, diapers are a need, you would be better off ordering them online so you don’t get distracted.)

Willpower is Not Strong Enough

One would think that giving something up for Lent (or any other religious reason) would be enough to stay the course.  Although I remembered about 90% of the time not to spend money on any unnecessary extras, it wasn’t always enough to just say no.

Another part of me thought, we needed something pretty for Easter or that little sweet thing won’t be there for me to pick up next week.   The power of the shopping addiction is real.  Don’t let it win.

Focus on your Hobbies

I found that the easiest time to give up the extra spending habits was when I focused on something else.  My favorites were my hobbies, a family activity or business task.

Find a hobby to distract you from spending.  When I thought most about going shopping, I would bake or read a book.  I’d play a game with the kids.  Or brew a wonderful cup of coffee AT HOME. (Those two perfect words save me almost a hundred dollars a month alone.)

Anything to get my mind off of going out and buying something.

Travel is Really Difficult

Coming from someone who loves to get out of town for the weekend, I found it became almost impossible when we gave up discretionary spending.   And to be honest I do not recommend giving up extra spending if you have a trip coming up.  Curbing it maybe, but not giving it up cold.

Travel is when I need the treats – especially a road trip – or I see a one of a kind item at a vintage shop that is 200 plus miles from my house.  I am not coming back.

If you are giving up discretionary spending, I recommend that you choose a time when you won’t be traveling.  Or take a hiatus during your trip.  Then you will feel less guilty when you return.

Winter is Easiest

Winter is when I want to curl up by the fireplace and knit.  It is my hibernating time when I don’t go outside that much and I learn to love my home and its belongings.  Spring and summer are when it is hard to keep me still.  And I want to do so many things.

I think giving up discretionary spending works best during the cold winter months.  I don’t really want to go many places anyway.  And the mall is full of germs.  (Just keep telling yourself that…)

Woman shopper with bags and the text overlay "The results are in... What happened the month I gave up discretionary spending"

The Results will Surprise You

And still do.  We didn’t actually save as much money as I thought we would.  I was kind of disappointed, but it proved to me that my discretionary spending is not really as out of control as I thought.

The truth is I don’t really like shopping that much in the first place.  Except on vacation.  That seems to be my weak spot.

When you Do Spend Money, Shop Local

Since we aren’t spending much to begin with, we try to keep most of our spending local if possible.  When I do need a gift, I look at our local shops instead of shopping online.  If I need specialty food items, I will swing over to the farmer’s market to purchase from the Amish sellers and support their farms.  It is important to me to have a stake in our community and spending my dollars there is the perfect way to do it.

Final Thoughts…

What I found most surprising about giving up discretionary spending for the month was the lingering effects on our household.  Even months later, I still find myself justifying every purchase, putting extras back and feeling guilty if I buy things we really didn’t need.

If anything, I have kept the same level of spending we had during the experiment or even reduced it a bit more.  The true test will be heading into summer.  We have more play time and I find the spending increasing slowly.  There are just too many fun things to do.

If you are looking for a way to analyze your monthly budget, save money to start your creative business or put a little more in the savings account, temporarily giving up discretionary spending might be a way to achieve it.

The process isn’t as hard as it looks either.  I didn’t even have to freeze a credit card in an ice block.  It just took a whole bunch of will power.  But you can do it.  A month isn’t that long.  Promise.


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