Have you ever thought, I have oh so much cash. If only I knew what to do with it? If you have, please stop reading this article and make a check out to Amber Petty. DM for more detailed personal info.
More likely, at the end of the month, you’ve probably thought, Holy God! Where did all my money go! In this era of gig economies, side hustles, and working round the clock for just over minimum wage, a lot of us are dying to find ways to save a couple dollars. Luckily, there are lots of ways to save cash, and with a little preparation, you could go a whole month without spending a dime on additional expenses.
Now, I’m not talking about actually spending $0 for a whole month. There’s rent, gas, groceries, and medical bills that can’t be avoided. Would I love to tell my landlord that I can’t pay rent because I’m participating in a “no-spend” month? Yes. Would I promptly be removed from my home and told to go screw myself if I did that? Also yes. But you can reduce all extraneous expenses to zero with some planning, discipline, and advice from budgeting experts.
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If you don’t have a plan for your no-spend month, you’ll start with good intentions but end your day buying Chipotle and drinking a Frappuccino. But if you make a plan, it will be much easier to avoid temptation.
First, make a list of things you normally spend money on. Again, basics like groceries don’t count, but eating out, going for drinks, or buying the new lipstick you just saw somebody wear on Instagram does. So write out all extra things you spent money on last week, and you’ll probably find a spending pattern. Now you’ll know what to avoid and how to get around your typical spending traps.
Also, pick a month where you probably won’t have to spend much. For example, December is a bad choice. With all the parties, travel, and presents that are expected, anyone’s lucky to get out of the last month of the year spending $1,000 extra dollars (though if you do a $0 December, good for you, you are a gem). Instead, pick a month that’s pretty light on birthdays, holidays, and weddings. It might be impossible to avoid all three in one month, so just do your best.
Food is usually one of the biggest expenses every month. But if you stock up on easy, non-perishable items on your next trip to the grocery store, you can save a ton. Dustyn Ferguson, personal finance whiz and creator of Dime Will Tell, says you’ll save a lot by “moving a cost tier down in grocery stores.” Basically, if you shop at exclusively at Whole Foods, you don’t need to abandon all that for the Dollar Store. Instead, move down a tier. Go from Whole Foods to Trader Joe’s. You’ll still find things with the quality you’re used to, but you’ll save a little cash.
Stock up on cheap, good-for-you ingredients.
Think items like rice, beans, pastas, canned tomatoes, broth, and frozen vegetables. All that stuff is as cheap as it gets and could possibly take you through the month. Of course, you’ll buy some fresh fruits and vegetables during your no-spend weeks, but if you stock up on fairly healthy non-perishables, you can eat well and spend much less.
This might sound like the old college days of ramen and mac and cheese, but you can eat a wide variety of rice and legumes for dirt cheap—and yay for chili!—and not feel like your diet is made of sodium and preservatives.
Also, make sure you buy easy stuff you can take for lunch.
Cans of tuna, bread, soups, stuff like that. Sure, maybe you’ll make some roasted pork with saffron-infused quinoa to take with you to work. But more likely, you’ll be running out the door with about two seconds of food-prep time. In that case, it’s much better to have some Campbell’s soup you can throw in a bag to bring with you, instead of getting to work and realizing you’ll have to shell out $10 for the crappy lunch salad at the place next door.
Be realistic with yourself.
Do you know you’ll miss going out for a drink with your friends? Stock up on a few bottles of Charles Shaw’s finest. Have an inkling that you’ll want to order pizza? Get a reasonably priced frozen pizza for when the craving hits. The more you know yourself and your spending habits, the more easily you’ll be able to go a month without shelling out extra money or feeling deprived.
Use a cash-back app.
To save even more on your grocery stock-up adventure, “use a cash back app like Ibotta to get money back on things you’d purchase anyway,” Ferguson says. “If you do it right, an app like this could easily give you back 10, 20, or even 30 dollars every single grocery trip.” Ibotta is a free app that offers coupons and deals to a wide variety of stores. Just scan your receipt, and Ibotta gives you money back. Once you’ve made $20 or more, you can get cash deposited directly into your Paypal or Venmo account. If you use this app just for essentials, it’s kind of like getting free money. Now, don’t expect to offset all your costs with this, but it’s not bad for some bonus savings.
Last stock-up tip: coffee.
Yes, buying Starbucks every day gets expensive. We all know it. And normally, I’d say treating yourself to a fancy coffee now and again is totally fine. But for a no-spend month, it’s off-limits. Instead, get yourself a coffee you like. Are you a flavored coffee person? Buy flavored syrup. You can often find these at the dollar store, or if that freaks you out, they’re pretty reasonably priced at the regular grocery.
Here’s my personal favorite coffee tip: Make your own cold brew. It’s easy as hell and cheap as all get out. Buy this $10 cold brew maker from Target (not a sponsor, just a legitimate thing I bought and use every day). All you have to do is put some coffee grounds in it, fill it with water, and put it in the fridge overnight. That’s it! Yes, you have to remember to do it the night before, but I think it’s way easier than getting up extra early to make a fresh pot of coffee in the morning.
Plus, the cold brew tastes super rich and smooth. My husband usually drinks his coffee like Jeff Goldblum in The Fly, and now he uses half as much sweetener because the cold brewing process gets rid of so much bitterness. Sure, my cold brew enthusiasm is a slight tangent, but it saves a lot of money when you DIY everyday.
Get Free Stuff
After you’ve stocked up, we get to the magical no-spend itself! Hooray! Luckily, you don’t have to sit around your house in silence to avoid spending cash. There’s a lot of free stuff out there, so you can maintain your wardrobe, be entertained, and maybe even take a vacation—all while your credit card stays at $0.
“One of my favorite ways to find free clothes is to host a clothing swap,” says Ashli Dawn, owner and founder of Moolah Mogul. “I recommend posting in a local Facebook group and getting a bunch of people together.” Make sure you have a couple items to give away and ask your friends to bring a few items of their own. Then, set all the stuff out and let everyone choose a new, free item to add to their wardrobe.
This is especially good because it’s a free way to get together with friends, and you can get a few items out of the deal. Since it’s a clothes swap, don’t worry about having food and alcohol for your guests. Most people will expect to just look at clothes, talk, and enjoy getting something for free. But if you really want to be sneaky, ask your friends to bring a simple snack. By the end of the party, you’ll have free clothes and chips, you devil (cue an evil laugh). Honestly, this is a great way for people to recycle stuff they don’t want and to scratch any shopping itch you might have.
Facebook and Craigslist
Nowadays, few good things come from Facebook and Craigslist. But when it comes to free stuff, they can be a goldmine. “I’ve personally used Facebook Marketplace and Craigslist to get a free queen-size bed frame, cat food, and a jacket,” Ferguson says. “You’d be surprised by the things people are willing to give away just because they have no use for it and want it gone.” Look for Facebook Marketplace groups and join to see what’s being given away. You usually have to reply pretty quick to score something good, but it’s a nice resource at the wonderful price of $0.
The Freecycle Network
If you need something specific during your no-spend month, check out The Freecycle Network. People post things that they’re giving away, but you can also request items. The site strictly forbids any selling or bartering. It’s all free, all the time.
I checked out the Glendale/Burbank section to see what they offer. Turns out, I could get moving boxes, vinyl records, and doll clothes all for nothing! But there are also big-ticket items like a full bedroom set of furniture, so I highly recommend giving this site a try whether you’re doing a no-spend month or not.
“Community gardens are usually free to participate in, and often members are allowed to take a portion of what they grow,” Dawn says. You get to be outside, commune with nature, and sometimes take home some produce! Not bad for a free afternoon. The American Community Gardening Association can help you find the garden nearest you.
Libraries are a haven of free stuff! Obviously, you can get books. But when you’re not in the mood to leave your home to get reading material, the library still has you covered. Most public libraries use Overdrive, an app that lets you access tons of free e-books and audio books. You can even send them right to your Kindle so you don’t have to squint over your phone to read Anna Karenina.
But there’s so much more than books. Most libraries give you access to Kanopy, a streaming collection of classic cinema, documentaries, and my favorite movie of the last 10 years, What We Do in the Shadows. Honestly, if you just watch that fake documentary about vampires sharing a flat in New Zealand (starring Jemaine Clement of Flight of the Conchords), you’ll have a very happy no-spend month.
Maybe you’d like to use this $0 month to learn a new skill and improve your resume? Well, lucky for you, your library card gets you access to Lynda, a site that streams all kinds of courses from internet marketing to crochet 101.
After you’ve listened to an audiobook, read a lengthy ebook, streamed a doc, and learned a new skill, you might want to leave the house. Make sure to check out the events within your local library system. There are always activities for kids, but many also offer concerts, talk backs, book clubs, and other fun stuff for adults.
I’m a little spoiled because I live in a very large library system (also the library near me is an old Spanish style mansion, so I know this isn’t normal). But the public library offers a MakerSpace with sewing machines, computers, jewelry-making tools, and three 3D printers! Plus, they have audio equipment and a VR station. It’s all free to use with a library card (you have to sign up to reserve a spot, but still), and they offer free workshops to help you use all those interesting tools. Again, I know not all libraries have this much stuff. But every library hosts interesting events, and they’re usually great options for free, enlightening entertainment.
If you’re near a city, there’s something free to do. Check out the TimeOut nearest you and look through their “Free” tab. Usually, it’s everything from improv to art gallery openings. Pro tip: As a person who’s done years of improv, that free improv show will be a real gamble. Just a warning. Speaking of art galleries, they often hold free openings that involve wine and a snack or two. So, you can look at pretty stuff, get some free booze, and feel cheap and classy at the same time.
If you’d like to try to turn your free month into side hustle month, Jen Hayes of Smarty Pants Finance suggests becoming a mystery shopper. “It is a 100-percent legitimate source of income and free things,” she says. As a mystery shopper, you’re told to go into a certain establishment, make a purchase, then write a report about the experience. Companies use these shoppers to find out how their stores are running. It’s like Undercover Boss but with less crying.
“Just this month, I have mystery shopped at restaurants, smoothie shops, a shipping center to mail a package, a beauty counter to get $30 lipgloss, a kitchen supply store, sports clothing store, toy store, valet parking at a mall, and a high-end hotel!” Hayes says. “My grocery budget is next to nothing when I line up restaurant mystery shops each day.” I’ve been a mystery shopper for bars and restaurants. Don’t expect much cash to come your way, and it’s a little bit of a hassle, but you do eat for free and get a little extra for your troubles.
You can find mystery shopping opportunities online, but be careful. There are a lot of scams out there. But the FTC has a helpful guide for sussing out a scam, and if you follow its recommendations, you should be fine.
Free Vacation (Sort Of)
If your no-spend month has you feeling cooped up, why not get out of town? If you don’t mind getting your hands dirty, you can volunteer to work at farms around the world. Every day you’re there, you work a half day and get free room and board. You can commit to as little as one day or stay for months—it’s up to you.
Now, you will be working on a farm, which many might not consider a true “vacation.” Also, there’s a $40 annual fee to access the system. But the site does let you check out full farm listings before you purchase, so you can see if there’s anything you’re interested in before putting in your credit card. If you like the idea of getting away from it all, doing a little work, and spending less than a night at a hostel would cost, this could be a lovely way to take a trip.
All it takes is a little planning, cleverness, and a library card, and you can have a pretty fun no-spend month. Even if you can’t quite break your Starbucks habit for a month at a time, these tips should save you some money all year round.
Amber Petty is an L.A.-based writer and a regular contributor to Greatist. Follow along as she shares her weight-loss journey in her new bi-monthly column, Slim Chance. You can also take singing lessons with Amber at Sing a Different Tune, check out her awesome podcast about The Masked Singer, and follow her on Instagram @ambernpetty.