How to Do a Zero Dollar Day—And Why You’ll Want to Try It

Drop your spending to nothing to find out where your money actually goes and start taking control of your finances.

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10 January 2019, 6:03am

Illustration by Daniel Zender

This article originally appeared on FREE in the US.

Spending an entire day without spending a dollar is the antithesis of American consumer culture. We are so programed to spend little bits of money here and bigger chunks of money there that most of us don’t actually realize how much we spend in any given day. But if you really want to figure out why you’re spending so much—and what triggers you to splurge—there’s no better way to identify your financial weaknesses than by taking a break from spending money altogether.

It's not easy. One of the biggest obstacles to zero spend days is how automatic it is for most of us to part with our money. Whether you’re ordering lunch on Seamless or taking an Uber, it may not even seem like you’re spending money. Our money is sometimes so automated thanks to online banking and apps that you might not even touch cash or credit cards. Yet, you’re still spending.

Sure, there are things you have no choice but to spend on—like rent, transportation, and student loan bills. The class of 2016 left college with an average student loan debt of $39,400 and average monthly payments clocking in at $393. Consumer debt is at an all-time high, with people 35 and under walking around with an average of $5,088 in credit card debt.

But do you know where the rest of your money goes? If not, it’s time for a financial reset. One of the most effective ways to get a good handle on where your money goes is to do a zero dollar day, which means no spending for an entire day.

It sounds impossible if you’ve never tried it. And I can’t lie: it is challenging. But after my first zero spend day, it was obvious to me that not only did I have more money than I thought, I spent a lot more money than I realized. There were so many urges to resist. A stop at Starbucks followed by a trip to the vending machine for a soda before lunch out with a coworker. It all adds up when you cut it out. If you’re ready to see where your money actually goes, here’s how to get started with a zero spend day.

Define your zero

There’s no one way to do a zero dollar day. For some people, this might mean not spending any money. No paying bills, no grocery shopping, no nothing. There will be no transactions hitting your debit or credit card, and you won’t be spending any cash.

For others your focus will be solely on stopping your discretionary spending. If your rent is automated for the first of the month and you do your zero-spend day then, that’s fine. What you won’t do is buy coffee, grab takeout, pick up a new outfit, or stop off for a pedicure. There are no extras and no upgrades.

How to prepare for a zero dollar day

Spend time before the day thinking about your normal spending. This might mean reviewing transactions from past weeks or months, or even simply reflecting on your daily routine. Do you grab coffee each morning? Do you already brown bag your lunch? Do you have a happy hour scheduled with friends? Plan ahead to see how you are going to have to adjust your day.

As you’re thinking about each part of your day, figure out which steps you can take in advance to make it go smoother. This could be as simple as dusting off your coffee maker that hogs all your counter space, buying some cold brew the day before, or prepaying any bills that are coming up so you don’t have to worry about them. You might also want to plan a free get together with friends, whether it’s a bike ride or a clothing swap.

You’ll also want to pick an ideal day of the week. If you spend all Sunday recharging from the week and rarely leave your couch, let alone your apartment, that’s not the best day. Instead, you’ll looking for a day that challenges you to be more aware when and why you spend.

Lastly, figure out how to hold yourself accountable. That might mean recruiting a friend to do a zero spend day with you or using social media to document your day. Or it might be a simple as logging into your banking dashboard in the morning and again that evening for a little reflection. No matter how you do it, you must hold yourself accountable.

What to do on a zero dollar day

To have a successful zero spend day, you want to identify some easy alternatives for your spending habits.

Eating and drinking. Sure, there are the typical standbys. Brew your coffee at home, bring a lunch, throw some snacks in your bag for when you’re out and hunger strikes. But how about this trick? There’s a really good chance you have groceries stashed in your kitchen, no matter how small. Reach to the depths of your freezer, the back of your cabinets, the top of your pantry. You’re likely to find at least a few items that you can use up instead of buying.

Making the day fun. You’re allowed to have a life while doing a no-spend day. If you’re someone who usually spends time out and about, find out what kinds of free events your city hosts, from gallery shows to musical performances. Hit up your local library to grab books and movies, or check out some of the free events that they host. Instead of paying a pricey bar bill, invite your friends and open a bottle of wine you already have.

Get things done. When you’re not spending money, you’ve got all kinds of time to do other things, whether that’s tackling a home repair project you put off or just doing the laundry. You can also explore your local Buy Nothing group or check out Freecycle. Both groups are dedicated to helping you find new and used items that people are looking to rehome at zero cost to you. Everything from jeans and jewelry to baby items and furniture, there’s not much you can’t find in these groups.

Carry emergency money. This is a no spend day. It’s a short commitment. Of course, you could try it out for longer, but there’s no need to freeze your credit cards in a block of ice or hide all of your cash to make this single day work. In fact, you probably want to carry some money on you in case of an emergency. A real emergency. Noticing your favorite retailer is having a 50 percent off sale is not an emergency. But needing to swipe a card for a co-pay at the urgent care or some other unexpected event that needs your immediate attention is a valid reason to spend, and you want to be prepared.

What you get from a zero dollar day

A zero spend day isn’t the Frugality Olympics. The purpose of this isn’t to challenge yourself to see how uncomfortable you can be. This is not a stepping stone to a life that consists of rice and beans seasoned with condiments you pilfered from McDonald’s.

After completing a zero dollar day, you will come away with a better idea of how your individual needs and wants influence your finances. It’s true that a big chunk of your income might go toward student loans or other debt, but your love of shoes could be another budget buster. Or this day might help you realize you don’t need to reach for a pint of Ben & Jerry’s every time it goes on sale; dig to the back of your freezer instead.

Don’t get rid of all your wants. Instead, decide which wants matter most to you. After your no spend day, you’ll have an idea about where to cut back on mindless spending that doesn’t help you or make you happier. It can also help you find easy ways to cut back to reach a bigger savings goal and learn how it feels to compromise short-term pleasure for something that really matters. When you spend in the future, your purchases will start to better align with your priorities. That’s the first step in your financial reset.

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