Money in hand

I always feel that winter begins after Bonfire Night, because from early November, the night sets in noticeably earlier and so does the chill.

November is also the month when things can start to get really expensive, with Black Friday sales rolling into the Christmas season. And it’s not just the gifts – it’s the pre-Christmas drinks and meals out; suddenly, there’s a pressing need to meet up with absolutely everyone just before the year ends.

This year in particular, things are coming to a head. With soaring energy prices, heating our homes this winter will be more expensive than ever. And of course, we still have the uncertainty of the pandemic fuelling inflation and perhaps interest rates in the near future.

With that in mind, I wanted to look at how you can curb your spending through a no-spend challenge.

What is a no-spend challenge?

It’s not hard to work out that a no-spend challenge involves not spending any money but exactly how you do this varies, and so does the nature of the challenge.

In its frugalist form, a no-spend challenge means absolutely zero spending, and that includes on food. It’s almost impossible to get away with spending nothing on bills and rent/mortgage, but some serious money savers attempt that too.

Most people do a more relaxed version where the challenge only applies to frivolous spending, like your morning coffee from Pret, for example.

Exactly how you structure your no-spend challenge will depend on how long you want to do it for, and what objectives you’re trying to achieve.

You can for example do no-spend days, where it’s easy to spend nothing, including on food.

This can be a nice circuit breaker if you’re finding yourself constantly being drawn in by impulse buys. It’s also easy to do these, say, once or a couple of times a week to slowly shift the way you think about money.

One of the most popular versions of the no-spend challenge is a month-long one, and the length means it’s great for saving money.

Admittedly, sometimes you do just push back a purchase until the challenge finishes but that pause might just be enough to get you thinking about whether you really need to buy something.

For a serious challenge, you can also do a no-spend year.

This one is really about cutting out the frivolous spending, and budgeting for the things you actually need. This is especially useful if you’re paying off a large debt or saving for something big like a house deposit.

My experience of the no-spend challenge

I started a month-long no-spend challenge around this time last year, in part because of the uncertainty of the pandemic.

Because I had a lot of store cupboard ingredients from day-to-day cooking, I decided to use the opportunity to cut my food budget to zero – I could only use what was on my shelves or in my freezer for a month.

It was much easier than I thought food-wise, although by the end of the month, I was really missing fresh fruits.

In the longer term, it got me into the habit of meal planning, which meant less spending but also less waste.

I took a break from the challenge around Christmas and resumed in the new year, when the UK was on its third lockdown. I didn’t restrict myself on the food this time, but everything else was on pause, and I managed a three-month stretch.

Again, it was made much easier by the lockdown; I didn’t need to buy any new makeup or clothes for work, and there was no socialising to speak of.

I stopped after that, and now bad habits are creeping back in.

And that’s the thing – a no-spend challenge isn’t going to miraculously change the way you think about money or how you spend it forever, but it can be a reset button to help you save more money in the short and long run.

The secret of a no-spend challenge

For me, successfully completing a no-spend challenge isn’t really about not spending, it’s actually about planning.

For longer challenges, it’s even more important to plan so your necessities are always covered and you never have the excuse of forgetting and having to make a last minute purchase.

Meal planning was especially useful for me. It stopped me from buying everything I liked the look of at the supermarket without thinking about whether they’ll go together as part of a meal.

This in turn helped me to waste less food and cut down on the clutter in my home. And as an added bonus, it also stopped me from eating the same meals on repeat.

You can create a digital meal plan for free but I actually bought a magnetic whiteboard from Amazon*.

It made it much easier for me to see at a glance what I’m planning to have for lunch and dinner each day throughout the week, and the ingredients I needed to buy. Before I go to the supermarket, I take a photo of this so I know exactly what I need to pick up.

Other ways to stop spending

A no-spend challenge is different for everyone so I asked a few people who have done their own for their tips on making it work.

Ruth, who did a no-spend year to pay off some debts, said: “Clearly define your goal for the no-spend challenge. Saving money is great, but having a date, an amount and a clear purpose will help you to stay on track.”

Accountability can also be important for helping you to stay on track.

Claire, who has completed lots of different savings challenges, said: “Always make sure you inform your friends and family of your no-spend challenge in advance.

“People will respect your decision more and be less inclined to try and guilt-trip you into going out for drinks/food and celebrations if they know you’re serious.”

It can also help if you make spending money just a little bit harder, says Naomi, one half of money blog Skint Dad.

She said: “It’s so easy to pay for something without even needing to reach for your bank card, but you can remove any temptation of spending by deleting any cards you’ve set up with Apple or Google Pay.”

And if you need some more tips on not spending, Andy at Be Clever With Your Cash has a bountiful on his latest podcast.