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No-Spend Challenges and the Promise of Decluttering Your Life

Not spending money—outside of essentials—is one of many self-deprivation challenges having a moment on Instagram and Facebook

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After spending hundreds of dollars on Christmas presents in 2010, Anna Newell Jones says she hit her “financial bottom.” “I had been lying to my parents about how much money I had, or didn’t have. I wasn’t telling them about trips I was going on,” she says. “My whole life felt like a lie.”

Jones knew that budgeting her money or merely curbing her spending weren’t options for her; she needed an extreme. With $23,605.10 in debt, she decided that she wasn’t going to spend money—for a year. There were obvious exceptions, like rent, bills, and groceries, but there would be no just-for-fun Target trips, online shopping sprees, or fancy dinners. Within 15 months, she had eliminated her debt while living on a $33,000 salary.

Jones, who at the time was 29 and had gone to school for photography but was working as a state clerk, started the blog And Then We Saved to write about her “no-buy” method, created a Facebook group for spending fasters, and, in 2016, published a book about her journey to debt freedom. She still documents her saving skills on Instagram. Since 2010, this extreme savings method—commonly referred to as no-buy/no-spend challenges or spending fasts—has grown in popularity. “I notice a big correlation between the spending fast and the minimalism trends,” she says. “I think people are just feeling more empowered and they just kind of want to have a different quality of life.”

The concept (if not the execution) is simple: First, create a list of essentials, like car insurance, doctor’s visits, and even, if it’s necessary for you, the gym. You decide what “essential” means, but be honest with yourself: It probably doesn’t include wine bars or mindless Amazon shopping. Otherwise, don’t spend money for a week, or a month, or even a year. Save money. Announce—and then attack—your debt.

One of the most popular online debt fighters is Kate Kingsley, who runs a blog called Living That Debt Free Life, as well as its corresponding Instagram account @thatdebtfreelife, which has 55.7K followers. In 2014, her husband had recently lost his job, they had a small son, and they had moved in with family to cut costs. They budgeted and watched their spending, and paid off $48K of their debt; but Kingsley still had $105,000 in student loan debt. She felt overwhelmed by the amount and by how slowly she was paying it off. Kingsley began her quest to get to zero debt on January 1, 2017, and in February 2018, she started documenting the process on Instagram. Over the next year, she cut $50,000 off her debt.

“To watch someone doing it right before your very eyes and to see their debt decreasing I think really captures people’s attention, and gives them hope,” Kingsley says. “Inspiring or helping others never even occurred to me, honestly.” But people were interested; they DMed her for advice, and asked for tips on how she was attacking her debt. Her openness about exactly how much money she owed and how much she’d paid off resonated with her followers.

Kingsley does a no-spend challenge every month, attempting to spend nothing on nonessentials for at least 15 days. Some months are easier than others: In January, she made it 24 days.

Save for a short period when I didn’t pay off a credit card in full and a relatively small car loan I paid off in time, I have never encountered debt. I consider myself incredibly lucky to have made it this far in life unencumbered by that financial weight, but that might have made me even more afraid of it. I haven’t had to restrict myself as intensely or follow a plan to pay something off to the point it affected the rest of my life. But then last week, I bought a house.

Now I have debt—a lot of debt. A terrifying amount of debt. The fact that I will eventually have equity in this home is reassuring, but it doesn’t eclipse the fact that I essentially signed away my bank account.

For these reasons, the no-buy challenge appealed to me, so I embarked on my own a couple of weeks ago leading up to closing on my home. My rules were fairly lax: groceries and the coming mortgage were OK, buying clothes was not. Birthday gifts and dinners with friends I’d already scheduled were also acceptable. Even still, the challenge was harder than I had imagined. The peer pressure to have just one drink is always hard to say no to, and the accessibility of Venmo makes it too easy for friends to spot you—which just indebts you to your social circle instead of credit cards (there’s no APR, but still). But what was most difficult, which is hard to admit, was denying myself the simple pleasure of new things I wanted, food I didn’t make, and services like Netflix (I forgot to pause my account). All wants, no needs.

I followed a handful of no-buy accounts and used their tips and tricks to see how long I could last; I’m proud to say I made it six days. (Should I be ashamed to say I’m proud of that? In my defense, moving expenses add up!) The mental exercise of self-denial made more of an impact for me than the dollar amount did. I saved money, even though I didn’t follow an extreme regimen. But I forced myself to take an extra minute to think: Why did I want to spend money? Did I actually need to spend money? Was there another way to get what I wanted? Now I’m less quick to throw down a credit card or browse Amazon, and I’m better for it.

Erin Lowry, a financial consultant who wrote Broke Millennial Takes on Investing, is well aware of the internet’s fixation on saving challenges; she’s even done them herself. Lowry says they tackle the hush-hush-ness of debt of all kinds, which is still thought of as an unmentionable topic--a stigma that does those struggling with their finances a disservice. This new wave of announcing (and hopefully cutting down on) debt could help people change the perception that debt should be kept a shameful secret. “Hopefully the next generation won’t have to incur the same levels of debt because we’re talking openly and honestly early on about the challenges that that causes,” Lowry says.

In fact, Lowry created a private Facebook group for a no-buy challenge and a lengthy Google doc of guidelines in February. (“Yes, deliberately the shortest month of the year.”) Her challenge’s rules are less strict than some. “A lot of the versions of a no-buy or no-spend challenge are quite restrictive,” she says. “Sometimes that works well for people, but a lot of times that kind of sets you up for failure.” Bills, rent, mortgage, loan payments, and the like were OK, and so were things that not everyone would consider necessities. “My husband and I use a laundry service each week because it saves us about two hours of time on the weekends,” she says. “And NYC living means no washer-dryer in our apartment.”

Self-deprivation challenges are having a moment, whether it’s a spending fast, Dry January, Whole30, or especially KonMari. “The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up certainly took the personal finance world by storm,” Lowry says. Marie Kondo mania, renewed by her 2019 Netflix series, sent hordes running for their wardrobes, Instagramming heaps of clothes headed for the discard pile. But KonMari didn’t have an effect only on closets, it got people thinking about where their money was going, as well. While these challenges are trendy, many argue they might not be all that effective when it comes to permanently changing behavior. They can certainly kick-start a new attitude for those already on the cusp of a lifestyle shift, but throwing yourself into such an extreme challenge may not have lasting long-term effects.

For this reason, Lowry encouraged participants in her group to also track every penny they spend, which could be incredibly helpful, although tedious. Lowry’s group also started tracking other characteristics of their spending, and the channel became something of a support group. “People started to post when they felt an impulse to make a purchase and actually writing that down,” she says. That helped people analyze their purchases, and the underlying factors--emotional or otherwise.

The other caveat with extreme internet challenges and the social media frenzy they encourage is that it can make it seem like someone else is always succeeding where you’re failing. To combat this, Lowry used Instagram and Facebook stories to announce her failures. “The first time I copped to it, somebody actually responded and goes, ‘Oh, I didn’t think you would admit it when you failed.’ I was like, ‘Are you kidding?’ This was part of the point. You need to know that even people who are quote-unquote ‘money experts,’ we’re going to slip up too. And I think that’s important.”

There is, of course, a certain amount of privilege required for the “no-buy challenge” to even be an option for people. As a Financial Diet writer put it:

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.” … 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.

Many people involved in the debt-free community are taking part because of debt incurred through education or because they had considerable spending problems—things that, in many cases, require a person (or their families) to have money in the first place. There is a kitsch factor to setting lifestyle limitations. I personally identify with the trendiness of no-buy: The reason I became interested in the challenge was because I was about to buy a home, an incredible privilege that I don’t take lightly. Yes, I’m now very, very in debt, but the fact that the financial situation I’m looking to improve is debt incurred from home ownership is not to be ignored. And yes, going to college can imply some degree of wealth, but the student debt crisis is not to be dismissed.

The most popular content form in the debt-free community is a simple text-only post stating dollar amounts of debt remaining, cut, and/or dollars saved. Some people share their identity to help them stay accountable with family and friends, which is not an option everyone has, or even should take for financial security reasons. “I’m not entirely sure yet what the implications of that will be,” Lowry says. “I’m not sure that anyone really does.” A financial adviser has told me that publicizing your finances on social media could come back to haunt you; you never know when future lenders, landlords, or employers could look it all up.

There is another wrinkle in using the internet to combat over-spending. Social media, particularly Instagram, is something of a strange place for a savings club to emerge. Consumption is king on the platform; it feels like every fifth post is yet another promoted ad for sunglasses or skincare or mattresses. Instagram claims 130 million users per month click on product tags. The platform also recently launched Instagram Checkout, an in-app checkout service, that’s projected to become worth as much as $10 billion. Facebook’s peer-to-peer shopping service, Marketplace, had 800 million users as of May 2018. If you really want to feel bad, here’s how you can see how much you’ve spent on Amazon. Somehow, despite the online shopping mall that social media has become, people use these very platforms to fight that buy-buy-buy mentality. “The idea that someone could be happy or fulfilled without spending seems so counterintuitive to everything we’ve been told our whole lives,” Kingsley says. She still admits there is temptation. “Even if it’s not advertising, the desire to buy is still so prevalent. That’s only natural when you are flooded with images of someone’s lavish vacation, or new outfit, or beautifully decorated home. When you see those things, repeatedly, it’s easy to think, ‘I want that too.’”

Despite its drawbacks, Kingsley says the debt-free community is an antidote to this spend-happy atmosphere. “Instead of surrounding yourself with people who are simply trying to ‘show off’ on social media, the key is to surround yourself with like-minded people. People who are committed to paying off debt, to becoming financially secure, who understand the value of budgeting and saying no every once in a while.” No-spenders find joy in sharing their no-spend days and budget pay-off statuses instead of photos of expensive vacations and elaborately plated meals. And of course, their posts are always no filter.