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A ‘no-spend month’ can be a great financial gift
By Aaron Crowe
If you can withstand a financial emergency, give yourself a pat on the back.
Nearly half of Americans are living paycheck to paycheck, and 61 percent don’t have enough money to cover six months of expenses, according to a GoBankingRates survey. And that’s nine years after the Great Recession technically ended in 2009.
The rut of working just so you can cover day-to-day expenses can lead to the worst money mistake of your life—not having an emergency fund.
Without it, you could be forced to go into debt to pay for emergency medical care, a broken car that you rely on to get to work, a busted water heater, job loss, or any other unexpected event. Sooner or later, something will pop up.
A “no-spend month” could help solve that problem so that you’re not part of the 19 percent of Americans who don’t have any money in an emergency fund, or the 31 percent who don’t have at least $500 set aside for emergencies, according to the survey.
Not spending for a month
The first goal for an emergency fund should be to accumulate enough to cover six months of living expenses. After that, work to increase it to a cushion of 18 to 24 months.
To give it a good kick-start, eliminate all nonessential spending for a month. Do this by sorting your expenses into “wants” vs. “needs.”
You know what these are. If you have children, you constantly have to explain these to them whenever you take them to a store and they demand cookies or something else that they want when all you want to do is get some milk and eggs and leave.
“Wants” can include eating out, going to a movie, vacation, a date night, drinking alcohol, shopping, and anything that you can live without, such as cable TV.
“Needs” are pretty obvious. You’ll want to pay your rent or mortgage, buy groceries, get medical care you need, and pay your monthly bills. Don’t live without hot water or electricity just so you can save some cash.
Pay in cash only
The mortgage and water bills can be paid with a check or transfer from your checking account. All “needs” should be paid with money you already have in hand and not with a credit card.
“Wants,” however, are often paid with a credit card and not thought about until a month later, when the bill arrives. For most of these, use cash if you want to take a “no-spend month” at least semiseriously. If you’re really committed, then avoid these “wants” entirely and don’t spend any money on them for a month and see how it goes.
Go to the coffee shop a few times a week? Either pay with cash—not your phone app—or make coffee at home.
The same goes with any other daily living expenses. Leave your credit cards at home for a month and bring snacks and lunch to work. Watch broadcast TV and cancel your cable TV for a month. Go ride a bike for a picnic in the park with your loved one instead of going out for dinner and a movie on date night.
Do whatever it takes to not spend any money for a month beyond the basic necessities.
What to do with the savings
At the end of the month—or beginning if you’re sure your budgeted numbers are correct—move the unspent money to a savings account or another account where you can get the money relatively quickly if needed. The point is to have it set aside for emergencies, which by definition can require quick access.
Hopefully the savings from your “no-spend month” will be enough to cover your expenses for a month in an emergency fund. If possible, continue the no-spend month for another month, or at least cut out nonessentials that you’ve found you can live without. Cable TV may not seem so important after a month away from it.
After that difficult first month, decide how much you can now afford to put aside each month in an emergency fund and have it automatically transferred to that account. You may not feel you need to put aside all of that first month’s savings each month and can add some “wants” back to your monthly expenses.
Security and peace of mind in knowing you can handle paying for life’s emergencies may be worth sacrificing luxuries such as expensive dinners or vacations. If all it takes to beef up your emergency fund is downsizing to mid-priced dinners out and shorter vacations closer to home, then a good night’s sleep and not worrying about paying for emergencies is probably worth it.
Aaron Crowe is a freelance journalist in the Bay Area who specializes in personal finance writing. He writes for various websites and has worked as a reporter and editor at newspapers throughout California. He also writes about his family’s personal finance journey at CashSmarter.com.