As you can imagine, I’m trying to stay on top of everything that happens in the behavioural science x personal finance sphere. I know all the insights to make you spend less, feel more in control, save more and set yourself realistic (financial) goals. I do the same for personal finance as its own field. I know about most, if not every, movement. Think all forms of FIRE and now also HOT.
For some throwing an entire lifestyle overboard is just too hardcore to go. And I get that. Behavioural change, at least consistent behavioural change is incredibly difficult. Which is why some people prefer to take more drastic, albeit more temporary measures. Like a no-buy month.
So what is a no-buy month? Well, that depends on who you ask. Some people argue you should cut out all the non-essentials, but can buy replacements (often also referred to as low-buy). Others argue that you cannot buy replacements either (so if you’re mascara runs out, well your lashes are finished…). There is no real consensus on what it is. The only real consensus is that you need to set yourself an easy enough set of rules, and stick with them!
Now if you clicked any of those hyperlinks you’ll be taken to other people’s experiences and motivations for doing a no-buy month (and for some even a year). The motivations are clear: people need to get back on track financially and are happy taking drastic measures to do it. The main reasons for wanting to get back on track was either (credit card) debt or getting ready for a house down payment. Great motivations! But would a month really cut it?
Now imagine the scenario: you’ve just found yourself motivated enough to dive into a no-buy month. You’ve agreed (with yourself) what you can buy (often groceries and all bills are included in the ”approved” list, but most subscriptions aren’t). When checking out this Forbes article I was surprised that on their list for a no-buy year, holidays and experiences were still on the “approved” list. But that’s for everyone to decide for themselves, and a year is a long time. Ironically, dining out, gifts and online courses were on the “non-approved” list. As I said, figure out for yourself what you’re cutting out.
A good starting point to figuring out what to cut out is to go through your past month(s) of expenditure. You need to know where the money is going. But not only do you need to know the where, you’ll need to know the how, what, with whom, when and why. If you find out that all your social activities involve dining out and drinking out, well, you’ll need to solve for that. A no-buy month is one thing, but a I’m-staying-at-home-without-seeing-anyone-because-otherwise-I’ll-break-my-budget-month is another. The latter might not exactly aid you, especially if you’re a very social, outgoing and extraverted person. This concept should help you save money, not tank your mental health. It’s also possible that your money isn’t being splurged in the social sphere, but in the boring and lonely late night hours where it’s just you, your laptop, a working internet connection and the online shop of your choosing. You know where I’m going with this.
I’ll let you in on a secret: I’m guilty of both.
So what happens next? You decide to cut these spends out. Cool. But that decision isn’t going to sustain itself without some actual changes in the choice architecture. So let’s dive into that.
Changing your choice architecture to change your (financial) behaviour sounds really daunting, but in reality, can be quite easy. It just requires some serious preparation. If you’re the social butterfly I described before, well, it’s time to give your friends a heads-up. They’ll need to know to be able to work with your newly changed financial agenda. Free social activities are your new game, so first, figure out what you can do for free.
And even if it’s not free it doesn’t have to go against your no-buy month. Granted that you’re still able to buy groceries (the no-buys that don’t allow this I find insane, quite frankly) you can picnic. You can potluck. You can have tapas nights at home. Cook for a big group, with a big group. Dinners and drinks in-house should still be allowed.
If the behaviour change is more individual, and as a result likely more insidious, you are going to have to really step up yourself. Take the late night online shopping example. If you’re going to cut this behaviour out, you’ll need to replace it with something else to reduce the likelihood of finding yourself behind your laptop again. Just as with addiction, you’ll need to remove your triggers. There’s a couple of easy to identify triggers: it’s late at night, you’re alone, you’re bored and you’re on your laptop. Now late nights do occur every 24 hours so that’s a bit more difficult, but maybe you shouldn’t be awake around this time anyway. Also, for a good night sleep it isn’t recommend to interact with technology this late either, so replace the laptop with a different activity: yoga, reading or whatever it is that you often feel you don’t have time for: make time for it now. Also, why are you bored? Is there literally nothing else to do? Would you not prefer to do something else? As in the previous point, what do you feel like you never have time for? It’s time to do that now! And if this all doesn’t work, just make sure you aren’t alone. Have an accountability buddy that knows what you’re up to and have them help you out to break this habit.
I’m mentioning the word habit on purpose here. The point of the no-buy month is mainly to identify habitual and almost mindless spending. Maybe it is your every-morning coffee at Starbucks, your take-out lunch at work every Tuesday and Thursday, your drinks with colleagues every Friday, your gym subscription which you don’t really use as you only go twice a month (if it’s a good month). I do think it’s an interesting experiment to cut back to the bare bones and figure out the spending that truly adds to your life, and the spending that just adds up.
Now you might be wondering, would I ever do a no-buy month? I have to say, I have been considering it, but as a result of trying to plan it out, I have found several of its pitfalls. For me to decide to have a no-buy month is a bit of a joke, as I plan everything quite far ahead. As in, most, if not all of my social events for June were booked in early May and most of them were also pre-paid. So for me to have June as a no-buy month is not very difficult, because all the buying happened a month earlier. Sure, I could still not order take-away not have work-lunch out and not do any online shopping, but that to me feels like I’m half-assing it. So because I’m such an organized person who plans quite far in advance, I’d have to pre-plan a no-buy month quite far in advance as well.
But I do think I will do it. I think I will pick August as my no-buy month. Looking at my expenditures (and I have looked at my expenditures due to projects happening at work), what I need to cut out is online shopping, take-away, lunch out at work and spending on social activities like dining out and drinking out. As August is a winter month in Sydney, I do think I can move most social activities in-house: so they become part of my grocery spending. I don’t think that’s cheating 😉
So here is my commitment to the no-buy month to give you a practical rather than a theoretical review of what it’s like. We’ll talk about it again at the end of August!