One Year Spending Freeze: 5 Things I Learned

It’s one thing to create a budget to pay bills on time and make sure you’re saving enough for a rainy day and completely another to go on a spending freeze for an entire year.  This kind of an endeavor takes a serious commitment.


5 Things I Learned During a One Year Spending Freeze

A couple years ago, I was in a financially scary place.  My family was living paycheck to paycheck and had nothing set aside for emergencies.  When our car broke down or another unexpected expense presented itself, it turned into a crisis and we had to spend a few pay periods digging ourselves out after dealing with it.  I would have to contact my creditors and make payment arrangements incurring late fees and risking utilities being shut off, etc…

I was tired of working 40+ hours per week and having absolutely nothing to show for it.

I’d had enough of being broke.  So I grabbed a notebook and a calculator and sat down to spell out a plan.  A plan for paying bills, a plan for saving, and a plan for paying off the debt that was drowning us every month.  And I learned quite a bit about my family’s spending habits.

That’s where we drew the line.  My husband and I agreed that we had to stop buying things we didn’t need and stop frivolously spending.  We had to choose our weekend activities more carefully and control every dollar we earned.  Here’s what I learned during our one year spending freeze.

Lesson 1:  I learned that meal planning cut my grocery spending by half.

It turns out we spent a lot more on groceries than we needed to.  Why?  Because I wasn’t meal planning.  And it really isn’t that difficult.  It takes almost no time at all and ends up saving a whole lot of hard earned money to simply plan ahead and go to the store with a list.

You know what else was being categorized as groceries before I started meal planning?  All the other shopping I did during my grocery trip to Wal-Mart. Apparently, I wander.  I could be picking up a bag of cat food and something would catch my eye in electronics. Before I knew it, I would have a new set of earbuds, a stylus, and a new phone case in my cart.  Even with a list I still got caught up in it.  I would go down the shampoo aisle for a small bottle of shampoo and conditioner and leave with that plus a new loofah, shower puff, scented body wash, and some coordinating bath salts.

My grocery bill was often up to $100 higher (or more) than it needed to be because I was buying things that I didn’t really need.  The solution?  I started planning all meals and creating a list of ingredients needed for each along with estimated pricing.  I had been shopping at Wal-Mart for so long that I pretty much knew the prices of the things I bought often.  And if I didn’t know, I estimated on the high end.

When I went shopping, I stopped at the ATM, locked my cards in the glove box, and only took cash inside with me.

That was actually scary.  Have you ever gotten to the register and found your grocery bill was more than you had to spend?  That used to happen to me when I was younger and I was just starting to shop and cook for my family.  With a low income at the time, sometimes we came up short.  It’s a horrible feeling to hear loud sighs of impatience behind you while you try to choose what to remove from the total.  So it was hard to risk that happening now knowing my bank card was right outside in the car.

It actually worked though.  It forced me to estimate everything a little high so I was always spending less than anticipated and it kept me from wandering around tossing random things into the cart as well.  Our spending freeze was working.

I also learned that I can feed a family of four 3 meals a day, buy everyone’s toiletries, and purchase cleaning products for just over $200 every two weeks.  I spend a little more now but at the time, we were seriously getting down to business with our budgeting.

Lesson 2: I learned that great weekends don’t have to cost a dime.

We live in Florida where the sun shines all year long and nature can be experienced free of charge.  Even during rainy season, the sun is out most of the day and the rain only shows up for a few hours in the late afternoon and early evening.  So we planned activities that cost us nothing.

Trips to the beach or the park were just as much fun as the movies or bowling.  And we could plan a picnic lunch from home instead of paying for lunch.  We didn’t have to give up low cost activities altogether either.  We found ways to do those things for free from time to time through coupons or completing reviews or online surveys.  As a matter of fact, the bowling alleys in our area offer free bowling to students all summer long. Jackpot!

Family game nights and movie nights made a comeback.  We spent many evenings playing Monopoly or Clue or watching one of the free movie rentals I received in my email each month from Redbox. And Sunday nights were usually an event in themselves when we started watching Game of Thrones.  My kids’ friends would stop by and we would all watch together.

We colored, did crafts, played trivia, walked, hung out at the library down the street, and my husband and I even played in a free poker league.

Lesson 3:  I learned that unnecessary spending creates clutter and decluttering is a long difficult process. 

Creating clutter is easy.  It’s as simple as tossing a mini hair straightener into your cart while shopping.  Or a candle, photo frame, kitchen gadget, DVD, lipstick, or cute desk lamp.  Anything really.

Every single thing that you don’t absolutely need can create clutter in your home.  It’s kind of like unconsciously gaining weight.  When you finally notice that it’s creating a problem, it’s too late to fix it in a day or two.  Now it must become a commitment to change something inside of you that will allow you to create new habits.  Only then will you be able to lose the weight or in this case, part with the clutter.

Lesson 4: I learned that we have enough.

What makes people want and collect more and more “things”?  We collect electronics, decorative items, gadgets, things that are supposed to make life easier or more efficient. But ultimately just take up more space. We buy cabinets, baskets, and containers to store all of the things we’ve accumulated over the years.  What about cars, boats, RV’s, timeshares, homes?  It all comes with a price and the debt that you are left with controls your life.

After a year long spending freeze, I’ve learned that I actually prefer a simpler life and that I have enough. I don’t need new cars.  My old minivan belongs to me free and clear and gets me from A to B.  I don’t want more things filling closets, garages, or storage units and I don’t want a bigger house or any more furniture.

I actually prefer smaller spaces and I want to have only enough things to fit comfortably into my small space. Don’t get me wrong.  I’m not going to downsize to a “tiny house” (although I think I would be perfectly comfortable in one).  What I’m saying is that I need enough space for my family but I don’t want to add space just because our “stuff” commands it.  That would be another frivolous waste of money when it costs nothing to just part with all the “stuff”.

I’m still struggling with decluttering my home at this point even after a couple years with my new mindset.  It’s an ongoing process.  Like I said, it’s like weight.  It’s easy to miss what’s happening while it’s becoming a problem but it’s a lot harder to take the action needed to correct it.

I saw a meme on Pinterest recently that I fell in love with and I have no idea who said it but I think it may be my new mantra.  “Use it up, Wear it out. Make it do, or Do without.”

Lesson 5: I learned that Cable TV is overpriced and overrated.

One of the first things we did when we started our spending freeze was to shut off our Cable and return the equipment.  Even though I categorized internet as necessary during this freeze due to work, Cable?  Not so much.  4 words.  Internet is your friend.

You can watch almost anything online via streaming services that cost little to nothing.  During our year long spending freeze, we only watched what we could find for free. Which was mostly local networks.  Now we appreciate Netflix, Hulu Plus, and HBO Go but there are still shows that I search online for from time to time.

I can confidently say that I will never have cable TV again.  I still do business with the local Cable company but only to provide internet service.  I’d like to add that we stream everything we watch with a 15 mbps internet connection.  I realize that is the slowest speed most of you have ever heard of but it is the least expensive and it is all that’s needed.  Anything more is just overpriced for my family’s needs.

Even though our spending freeze is now over, we have maintained the positive habits that made our year successful.

Our spending freeze has been over for a while now but I’m happy to report that we have continued to budget every dime and grow our savings every paycheck.  We’ve added a weekly allowance to our budget so that we can each stop for coffee, grab lunch with coworkers, or schedule a date night as we see fit.  But for the most part, we have maintained our new frugal habits.  We question whether we really need something that will take up space before we make a purchase and we have a new rule.  If you bring something new into the house, then something has to go.  And I still meal plan every two weeks.  I even order my groceries online for store pickup to avoid impulse shopping.

Are you thinking about cutting spending?  Comment below.

Related: 5 Minute Meal Planning

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