In May 2008, I joined the Women In Red Controlled/No Spend board. I joined amidst the throes of paying off a large amount of debt, knowing that if I didn’t get the little spends under control there would be no way I would get the large spends under control.
The concept of the challenge was simple–aim for as many no spend or controlled spends as possible in a month. A controlled spend, in my definition (one of the beautiful aspects of the board was getting to set rules and define terms for our situation. Since each person is different with different priorities, this works extremely well. It’s hard to give blanket definitions in personal finance), was anything that was either planned (like bills, gas or groceries) or any purchases, planned or unplanned, under $5. This definition worked extremely well for me because it gave me the freedom to buy a song or two from iTunes without feeling guilty but it kept the spending on larger tickets items like books and nail polish under control. Especially since I was reporting in to the “ladies” on my spending.
In the three years I participated in the challenge, I learned so much about my spending habits. I learned where my weakness were. I learned how to plan and budget my money to accommodate little luxuries that make living on a budget not so bad. I learned how to rearrange my spending priorities. I also picked up on some great financial habits such as:
The importance of having a budget. Every financial expert extols the benefits of living on a budget. This is for good reason. Having a budget allows you to see exactly how much money you have coming in and how much money you have going out. It lets you know if you have wiggle room. It lets you know if you can afford to buy that lunch with co-workers or those concert tickets. Living within the budget is key to living within your means. Since my husband and I have a his, hers, and our budget system, the controlled spend/no spend challenge taught me how to manage my own personal money instead of throwing it away on stupid things.
The importance of tracking your spending. This is how I learned where my weakness were. By writing down what I was spending, I was able to determine where I was spending the bulk of my money and figure out why I could never save for the things that I wanted. I was able to figure out ways to tame those expensive areas (like packing lunch every day, substituting library books for purchasing books or asking for gift cards at holiday/birthday time). I didn’t have a fancy system, either. I just wrote it down in my planner. But tracking my spending has been the most eye opening financial lesson I’ve been taught.
The importance of a support network. My family and friends love to spend money. They love to talk about spending money. Spending money is akin to breathing for them. So when I made the choice to get my spending under control, it was nice to have a safe place to go to talk about my struggles with overspending, the guilt and shame of not spending on “fun” activities and items, the frustration with friends and family who just don’t understand. Without the support and encouragement from the other members, I don’t know that I would have been able to make the changes and have the strength to stand up to those in my life who spend money like water.
The importance of accepting imperfections and failures. Budgeting and spending money are not a perfect science. You can start a month planning to watch every penny and then well…Life happens. Murphy shows up and makes himself comfy. The best laid plans take a turn down a bumpy road. In the end, though, It’s OK to fail. . But just like in dieting, one day of failure does not necessarily mean the floodgates are open. You learn to deal with the failure, and rather than make it worse, you pick yourself up and try again next day, week, month.
To make a long story short (too late!), the Controlled/No Spend challenge really changed my relationship with my money. Even now that I don’t participate actively in the challenge anymore, I can’t unlearn what I’ve learned. The ladies are always there, providing guidance, support, and asking “do you really need that”. They’re like little frugal angels sitting not on my shoulder but in my wallet.
And my wallet will never be empty again.