Last month, my wife and I challenged each other to a “no money weekend”. At first glance the rules were simple: survive from Friday night through Sunday night without opening our wallets. Of course, there were some questions to work out. Did driving count as spending money if we were going to a free event? What about gift cards – were those cool? This sums up a lot of truths about money: the concepts are simple but the implementation is…complicated.
But in the end, we ironed out some rules and I’m happy to report that we met the challenge. We took our daughter to a new bike path we hadn’t used before. For dinners, we got creative, cleaning out the fridge for a stir fry. When it came time to relax with a few beers, I dug up some old ones that had been left behind by friends: Yuengling and Coors light instead of the hoppy stuff I usually go out and buy.
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Now, we’re certified cheapskates, so this wasn’t like going from being couch potatoes to running a 5k race. But though we’ve built our frugality muscles over time, the no-money weekend still took real planning, and the payoff felt good. Nonetheless, I couldn’t shake a vague feeling of impotence. It came and went over the weekend, manifesting itself as a voice in my head that would enter in quiet moments. It said: “You know – there is no such thing as a no-money weekend.”
The voice was right. Maybe if we lived on a homestead we could truly spend no money. But if you own a refrigerator, I’m sorry to tell you that you’re spending money while you sleep. This got me thinking about all the ways we spend money without consciously handing over cash. The results surprised me. It turns out that our baseline spending matters much more than our discretionary spending. I bet this is true of most people, and it’s a good lesson in personal finance: work on lowering your spending baseline first.
Here’s a tally of money we actually spent during our “no-money weekend”. For monthly expenses, I took the total and multiplied by 2/30 to get the cost of two days of spending.
|Electricity and Gas||$12.25|
This is how most money leaves our lives, as a kind of financial background noise, which, like the hum of an air vent, we rarely notice. My family’s estimate looks to be roughly $80 per day in automatic expenses. And while it’s a little depressing to know that we can never actually spend ‘no money’, $80 is not so bad by American standards. I’m particularly proud of my wife’s ninja-like grocery skills ($14 per day for a family of three!). We don’t have car payments or student loans (anymore), don’t rent a boat slip or a storage space. But this $165.34 is much more than we would ever spend on discretionary weekend fun, and if we had to tighten our belts, this would be the first place we’d look.
Try doing this exercise yourself. Use my list and add anything else you can think of. Picture yourself sitting on your bed, silent and still. Think about your refrigerator, and your dehumidifier humming in the basement. Think about your cars in the driveway and all the expenses they rack up even when not in use. Try to come up with an estimate of your “background noise” spending on a per day basis. If you couldn’t hear it before, you can now. And you can do something about it.
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