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The Simple Dollar

The weekend money challenge: Can you go two days without spending a dime?

Working to change your spending habits? Try going cold turkey and spending absolutely no money for a few days. It sounds impossible, but it's easier than you think, and the experience will dramatically alter how you think about your financial priorities. 

By Guest blogger / November 9, 2012

A money changer shows some one-hundred US dollar bills at an exchange booth in Tokyo in this 2010 file photo As a tactic for transitioning into better spending habits, Hamm recommends setting aside two days to spend absolutely no money. It's not as hard as it seems, he argues.

Issei Kato/Reuters/File

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If I had infinite money, I can think of a few things I would buy. I’d own some land in the country with a nice house on it, probably with a gaming room and a library (in other words, space for my big hobbies). I’d probably own a newer car than our current Pilot, which is pushing ten years old.

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The Simple Dollar is a blog for those of us who need both cents and sense: people fighting debt and bad spending habits while building a financially secure future and still affording a latte or two. Our busy lives are crazy enough without having to compare five hundred mutual funds – we just want simple ways to manage our finances and save a little money.

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There are smaller things, too. I would buy more original artwork for our walls, for one. I’d probably own more cookbooks and I’d completely re-do our kitchenware, which is still in large part a mishmash of items picked up at yard sales over the years. There are all kinds of smaller things I wouldn’t mind owning.

Right now, I’m in a financially secure place. I could afford to buy most of those things. I don’t.

If you roll back the clock several years, the opposite was true. I was in a financially disastrous place. I reallycouldn’t afford to buy most of those things. Yet, I bought an awful lot of those things.

What would cause such a flip-flop? What would change my mindset so radically? What steps did I take to start shifting that mindset?

I’ve received a lot of emails from people who are in a precarious debt situation, one that was almost certainly created by purchasing far more things than they can afford. They send that email because on some level they’ve realized how precarious the situation is and they want something different.

The problem is that on some level, they’re emotionally tied to buying many of the things they want, and they usually spend a lot of time thinking about the stuff they wish they could have.

You have to break that mindset. There’s no shortcut around it. If you stick to thinking that way, you will never achieve financial security.

So, how do you break it? What do you do when you can’t afford all of the stuff that you want? I usually point people to four specific tactics that worked for me.

Sketch out your future in detail
Where do you want to be five years from now? I don’t mean in terms of your financial state, though that’s a part of it. It’s a much broader question.

Where do you want your career to be at that point? What about your family life? How is your relationship with your parents? Your spouse? Your children? Your close circle of friends? Have you taken a real shot at the big dreams that you have in your life? Where do you live?

Be optimistic but realistic when you answer these questions. You’re probably not going to be insanely rich and famous at this point. However, you can achieve some very impressive progress in each of these areas.

Simply think about where you want to be in five years, then write it down in as much detail as you can. Answer all of those questions above as well as any others you can think of that are important to your life. Try to imagine where you want to be in five years and think about that question frequently.

Journey into a money valley
The next tactic is a straightforward one. You need to dive deep into spending as little money as possible.

I like to call it a “money valley.” Just take a period of time and pledge during that time to spend no money. Nothing. Not even a dime.

Try it for a weekend. See if you can go for two full days without pulling out the cash or the plastic. Eat the food you have on hand. Do things that don’t require any expenditures at all. Only go out if you can do it on foot and are heading toward something with no additional cost.

Two days. Can you do that? Just hand over two days to this challenge.

Likely, you’ll think it sounds really hard. What you’ll find, though, is that it’s not as hard as you thought once you start doing it. It’ll become an opportunity to take care of some things you been meaning to take care of but haven’t. It’ll become a chance to catch up on some hobbies around the house.

You’ve done it once? Try it again in a week or two. Then, build it up to a full week. Can you go seven days without spending a dime?

The goal of this is not to change your lifestyle to spending no money. It’s simply to give your plastic a chance to cool off and, more importantly, to show yourself that there is a life without spending, and it’s a pretty good life.

Filter your social world
When I was overspending, the biggest consistent drain on my money was my social life. I had a circle of friends who went out regularly to expensive places, constantly bragged about and showed off their new possessions, and were pretty insulting toward anyone who didn’t have “nice” things.

When you hang out with people, it’s incredibly easy for their mindset to seep into your thinking. If your friends all sit around talking about how great all of their expensive stuff is and make fun of those who have less expensive stuff, it’s pretty hard to avoid the mindset that expensive stuff is good and anything else is bad. If your friends are constantly spending money by the truckload, it’s pretty hard to not get swept up in it.

Look around your social circle. Do you have friends who seem to spend a lot of money on unnecessary stuff? Do you have friends who make fun of others with fewer or less expensive items than they have (like cars, cell phones, etc.)? Do they have a much higher income level than you and flaunt the extra money in subtle (and not-so-subtle) ways, nudging you to try to keep up?

Most likely, you’ll have some friends that behave like this and (hopefully) other friends that do not. My suggestion is to simply spend more time with the friends who don’t have those attitudes and less time with those who do. Reach out and build up friendships with your more financially sensible and less judgmental friends, and spend a little less time with the big spenders.

Over time, your spending will slowly begin to imitate the spending of those you spend more time with.

Fill your life
This final tactic ties together the three things above. You simply need to fill your life with the things you’ve discovered above.

Take the five year picture. That idea of your life in five years can be – and should be – a source of a lot of goals. How exactly do you get to that point? What do you need to do to make that happen? If you think it out for a while, you can begin to translate that picture into very small steps that you can take today.

Get started writing that first chapter of the book you’ve dreamed about. Spend the weekend getting that basement finished so your house will have a higher sell value. Actually look into graduate school instead of just thinking lightly about it.

Spend more time with your kids, perhaps even setting aside an hour a day to just talk with them, play with them, or help them with their homework. Start an exercise routine, even something simple like jumping jacks, sit-ups, push-ups, and mild jogging. Work on building a stronger marriage with your spouse.

The list of things you can do right now to bring that future into focus is a long one. The vast majority of things people do to build their future costs very little.

At the same time, you can work on building up friendships with your friends who are financially sensible, or even seek out new ones by engaging in groups related to your lower-cost hobbies.

You can also start doing some “money valleys,” starting with a two day trip and eventually building to week-long periods without spending cash. What you’ll find during these periods are tactics that you can carry forward into the rest of your life without skipping a beat (but which save you money).

The end result of all of these things is a life that begins to transform into something different than what you have right now. It’s a life that doesn’t constantly empty out your wallet. It’s a life with stronger relationships. It’s a life that is moving forward toward the big dreams that you have.

How did I change so much about my life? These four steps pretty much describe how I did it, and you can do it, too.

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