Why Those “No-Spending” Challenges Are A Total Waste Of Time


I don’t know about you, but I cannot get enough of these lifestyle challenges. A 30-day cleaning challenge? My house has never looked better! Seven days of green smoothies? Hello clearer skin! My sister and I even turned a summer reading challenge into a contest where the loser buys the winner a plane ticket to come visit her. It’s an amazing way to keep in touch and gives us interesting new things to talk about. I know at their core these challenges are just an extension of the myth of instant gratification, but I have been seduced by their sleek layouts and promise of shinier hair.

However, there is one kind of challenge that sets my teeth on edge. That challenge is of course the 30-day spending freeze. This is not to criticize anyone for partaking in the challenge. If it helps you curb your spending, then more power to you. But I admit that when I read about the challenge for the first time, my only reaction was, “Hey, I’ve inadvertently done that challenge before. It’s called being poor.”

There are many valid and important reasons to go on a spending freeze: to pay down debt, to cut back hours, focus on school, and to save up enough for a well-earned vacation. But, these challenges are marketed as self-improvements, and a monk-like commitment to delayed gratification that makes you better than the people around you. Personally, I feel it’s a way for well-off people to congratulate themselves on struggles they haven’t personally experienced.

The issue I have with a 30-day spending freeze is the same one I have with voluntourism. Which, in my mind, is when unqualified college students going to economically-depressed areas to build churches, or spend six hours reading to children because it looks nice on their Instagram. Poor people aren’t making a statement when they don’t buy coffee every morning, it’s simply their reality. It is for someone who doesn’t have to worry about money to do a 33-day no spending challenge — it’s easy to give up buying a new dress for an event when you know that, in a month, you’ll be back to your old spending habits.

I think this challenge also requires a certain amount of financial and/or career flexibility. You have to be able to pay all your upcoming bills before the challenge starts, and then stock up on supplies that you’ll know you need during the freeze. It also helps if you’re able to work from home, so you can save on gas and resist the urge to buy lunch out. It is understood that if an emergency comes up, the challenge will halt, and the expenses will be paid, probably from the money you saved by not buying expensive cheeses. It is reminiscent of the soft news reporters marveling at how much weight you would lose living on $10 a day, a statement that is so out of touch with reality I thought it was a joke.

Sometimes, I wonder if these challenges appeal to me because they do away with the concept of moderation entirely. A spending freeze is similar to a crash diet in that, when it’s over, there is a manic desire to make up for what you missed out on. Real financial change is not that glamorous (or torturous). It requires budgeting, carefully tracking of your spending, and implementing cut-backs that you know you can stick to. Figuring out what you can reasonably remove from your budget should be like a science experiment where you control all the other variables. Don’t cut out everything at once, just cut out coffee first and see how that works. If you can’t part with your caffeine addiction (I am right there with you) try something different the following month. Try cooking at home, and see if that’s a sustainable change.

And, you don’t have to try just financial challenges, try lifestyle ones as well. Meditating for ten minutes a day for 30 days might be interesting, as would spending the year only reading books written by authors of color to make sure you’re consuming diverse sources of entertainment. It’s also useful to tackle and execute one of those guides about cleaning up your digital footprint, which can alert you to things online that may be affecting your employability. Doing something for 30 days is a wonderful way to break old habits and create new ones, but in my opinion, that doesn’t apply to a spending freeze. I feel strongly that when the freeze is over, your old habits will be back since you didn’t replace them with anything sustainable long term.

Ultimately, I know that my problem with this comes down to insecurity. And, to be fair, the dietary challenges are probably far more offensive from a financial point of view (there is a special ring in hell reserved for people who spent upwards of $300 on a selection of pressed juices made entirely of spinach and self-congratulation). I am just not far enough removed from my own times of financial insecurity. While my situation was entirely preventable, and definitely my own fault, that’s not the case for everyone. I waited tables with some of the hardest-working men and women I have ever met, who were born into a system that discriminates against them. I don’t have the patience to hear another person talk about how freeing it was to realize that they, too, can live without Uber. If we romanticize aspects of poverty, a practice that I am definitely guilty of doing, it takes focus away from people’s daily reality. It is not more noble not to spend money, it’s just different circumstances.

Caly is an Austin cliché who is working on her Paralegal Certificate. She has read more biographies of trashy celebrities than any feminist should, and if you have a good one send it her way.

Image via Unsplash

  • Ashley Webster

    Yeah girl!

  • Summer

    I’m with you. I think no-spend challenges are silly, largely because you’re still paying to exist that month regardless of how you frame it on social media. Clicking “submit payment” on May 31st is no different than clicking it on June 1st. Fine, maybe you’ll come out spending less on food that month, and maybe you’ll find there’s just a tiny bit more toothpaste in that empty tube than you thought, but who is doing these challenges and actually spends SO much frivolous money each month that they would notice a significant difference in their account? For many of us, not spending money haphazardly is simply a matter of necessity, not something we do on a voluntary basis for a pat on the back.

  • Audrey

    I don’t really agree though you do make some good points about 30 day financial challenges. Like you, I don’t partake in them because I don’t seem them as a sustantainable habit and I also think moderation is what gets me to my financial goals best. But I think your premise that people who do these challenges are romanticizing poverty or thinking of it as a similar experience to being poor (or at least I’ve never seen it talked about as such) is incorrect. I think most people do these challenges to get in touch with how they spend money, especially in unneeded ways. I know personally as someone who grew up relatively poor, it’s easy for me to forget all the opportunities, experiences, and things I have now that weren’t available to me being raised by a single mom. And I think it’s always a good thing to be reminded that what you want and need are two very different things and if for some people doing a 30 day financial challenge helps them see that, then who am I to judge.

    But yeah, they don’t make you a more moral person and are absolutely nothing like being poor.

    • Caly

      I agree with you that there are positive reasons to do a spending freeze (I even listed several) but I was reacting to the trend that I’ve seen on my social media about “personal growth” through artificial restriction that ends the second the challenge does. It wasn’t my intention to criticize everyone who does them, but I can see how my tone might have come across crankier than intended

      • Audrey

        For sure. I think if anything the title is what is misleading (but I get there’s a good chance you didn’t write that). But I like you phrasing it as “artificial restriction” and that you’re asking people to be critical of the real reasons they do a challenge like such and the limits of what they can get out of it.

        • Caly

          Well my original title was “silly rambling on an obscure social media topic” but I can’t say I would have published it under that name either 🙂

    • Christian Gonzales

      I agree, i’ve never seen these financial challenges being done to know what it’s like to be poor or “slum it”. I see people do them, like you, as a way to get in touch with their financial side and their wants vs needs, as well as take inventory of what their money is going to and adjust the financial sails for their future based on what theyve learned. Maybe this is something the author sees in their own feed, but i’ve never known anyone to do these challenges for more shallow, insta-worthy reasons!

  • Anon

    The only argument I can see is that if you have a long enough moratorium it allows you to reset your expectations and think more mindfully about your triggers for wasteful spending.

    ETA: but, yeah, publicizing it on social media is kind of gross.

    • Winterlight

      I agree, if it’s helpful for you then it’s a good thing. Bragging about it is ooky.

  • nell

    “The issue I have with a 30-day spending freeze is the same one I have with volunteerism. Which, in my mind, is when unqualified college students going to economically-depressed areas to build churches, or spend six hours reading to children because it looks nice on their Instagram.”

    Wait, what? This is a bizarre idea and pretty offensive to the many, many people who power the nonprofit and public sectors with their volunteer hours. My organization certainly could not function without our volunteers, many of whom have been with us for years. I’ve been a literacy tutor with the same student for two years, and have lots of friends who do Big Brother Big Sister over many years, not just a two week project in college.
    Further, this is real and tangible *work* that is worth $184 billion dollars every year. That’s billion with a b. Meals on Wheels? After school programs? Community improvement projects? Red Cross disaster response? All things that you as a taxpayer would pay for if volunteers didn’t do those jobs. Volunteerism is a very real and very essential force in our society and our economy.

    The world is larger than whatever offends you on Instagram.

    • Caly

      Actually the word I used was voluntourism, like when people go build churches in South America even though they have never held a hammer before. I am all for volunteering.

      • Christian Gonzales

        Actually, the word you used was volunteerism in the article!

        • Caly

          I see that now. That was changed after I submitted it probably because it looked like a typo. Maybe I should have just said “privileged college students doing work they aren’t qualified for on spring break instead of hiring people who live in the area they are visiting”

          • Lauren Ver Hage

            See my comment above! So sorry — my mistake.

    • Lauren Ver Hage

      The word usage you are referring to was entirely my mistake! When Caly’s post went from draft word document into WordPress to get formatted for posting, autocorrect changed “voluntourism,” to “volunteerism”… my mistake! I apologize.

  • Keisha

    I think spending freezes are cool lol
    But I think you make some good points. “Voluntourism” is the WORST

  • Jack

    Personally I love the challenges because I still get those spendy urges from back in the day when I got myself into consumer debt.

    I’m currently doing a 90 day shopping ban, and some people I know IRL think it’s silly and pointless, but I LOVE IT because I feel my mindset changing. It also frees up time for me, because I used to browse stores a lot on lunch breaks and weekends, and now I read instead.
    But for the record, I DO see your point, and I know I’m hugely privileged in that my main “problem” is stop spending all the money I’m making.

  • Mj D’Arco

    i think these type of things are like yoyo dieting.. if you starve now, you might binge later.. how about a slow and steady reduction in spending, until you are at the point you permanently want to be

  • Christina Ballengee

    I’ve seen these challenges before and I definitely agree. To be able to do one of these means you need to have access to enough money at once to pay for all of your months expenses ahead of time. This challenge is for those who actually have a substantial savings to start out with, and relative security in their daily life.

    I think the lesson that can be learn is maybe from spending all at once instead of over the month someone can see exactly how much the pay to maintain their lifestyle, especially when that becomes farther the later on they go.

  • Callie Michelle

    I did a two-month no-buy challenge, and I absolutely loved it. I did have many exceptions to my no-buy, which I think made it a lot more sustainable. I could pay bills, I could buy groceries, and I could spend on food and drinks when socialising. What the challenge cut out for me was the mindless purchasing of teas, solo coffee dates with myself, clothes, cookbooks (I’d fallen into the trap of classifying books as an educational purchase), and other random knick knacks. I’m someone who functions best by cutting stuff out completely – I can’t moderate!

    • Love this. I just did basically the same thing (3 months baby!). Cutting out all my shopping for three months reminded me that I can subsist without buying a new blouse every week. In the future it may not be zero blouses ever, but if it helped me go from 1/week to 1/month then the challenge did have an impact. To Caly’s point about it making me “better than thou,” that’s not
      true. But it did make me better than thee (at least the thee I used to
      be). Her issue really seems to be with people who brag about how righteous and perfect they are (totally understandable!!!), not about any specific act they’re bragging about. Unfortunately I think the way she went about expressing that was misguided.

  • Shelly @ Oh, Shells Bells

    Your argument is valid but not necessarily applicable to everyone who does them. I did a 30 day no spend and yes of course I had to pay to live (rent, car insurance, food within reason) but it was a wonderful way to catch my self where I would have usually spent money frivolously. It was also helpful to develop habits I did not formerly have, like packing my lunch for work every day. Some people may treat the no spend challenge like they are holding their breath and cant wait to gasp air immediately after and those people are missing the point.
    Yes I could afford to occasionally to grab lunch out at work and no my abstaining from doing so does not make me a saint deserving of praise. Nor would I dare compare myself to someone who is struggling to make ends meet. But the average American’s savings is dismally low, even for people who aren’t poor, so if this exercise helps people be more mindful of their money then there’s no shame in it.
    But 100% agree, desiring praise for living for a month like some people live all the time because they have to is obnoxious. No argument there.
    And LOL to spinach and self congratulations.

  • Kimberly Ds

    No-spending Challenge?!! This is the first time I’m hearing about this!! I can’t really imagine if or how that would work. But yes, I do love 30 day challenges. Quite some time ago I did the 30 days blogging challenge by Sarah Arrow and really enjoyed myself. But, I realized the best part about that challenge was the community that I got to be a part of. And now I’ve decided to start a 30 day house cleaning challenge of my own where challengers will get to be part of a community that support each other.
    I think that having a great community to back you up at all times can help make a habit sustainable no matter what the challenge! But yes, it does depend on each person and why they are taking up the challenge in the first place!

  • Andrea Frick

    I don’t know why a spending freeze is a bad thing. I find it gives me more time to do projects, spend with my kids, and yes, put aside some extra cash. I typically do it in November, ending with black Friday. I hate shopping during the month of November because no matter where you go the people, streets and lines are crazy, so to buy and freeze ahead of time all the items for Thanksgiving meals, etc is a fantastic idea. PLUS, with 4 children it’s easy to think, “that would look cute on so-and-so” or “they’ll need that eventually” and buy things on a whim. It piles up and then the time comes when they “need” it and I can’t find it anymore! Having a month of no spending each year helps reign in our already tight budget and re-center us for the coming year. We are by no means poor. We have excellent credit, donate a ton of money, and drink Folgers from our cheap ass coffeemate machine. I want my kids to understand that happiness does not come from having things. Also, sometimes “voluntourism” can unleash a new purpose in peoples’ lives. I hope my children are someday involved in traveling the world and realizing how fortunate they are, while possibly helping those less fortunate. 🙂