Around New Year’s, I complained to my husband that I felt like I was “nickel and diming myself to death.” What I meant was that my everyday spending habits were preventing me from achieving certain financial goals. About one week later, an email showed up in my inbox inviting me to participate in a 21-day financial fast in order to think about the financial issues in my life. Michelle Singletary, syndicated personal finance columnist for the Washington Post, designed and hosted the fast. She wrote a book about it, too. The book is full of money saving tips and accompanies the fast, one chapter per day.
What is the 21-day financial fast?
The 21-day financial fast is a three-week period in which participants do not make any unnecessary purchases, and use cash (not credit) as much as possible. Fasters cannot buy restaurant meals or clothing, shoes or other retail goods. No movies or nightclubs. Bill paying, of course, is allowed, as are grocery purchases. Charitable donations to the religious institution of the faster’s choice are strongly encouraged. Indeed, the idea for the fast came from the Daniel fast, which Singletary participates in annually with her church.
The fast is billed as “your path to financial peace and freedom,” and it delivers on that promise.
Why I participated in the fast.
I am fortunate to have a good job and to be married to someone who is also gainfully employed. We pay our bills and do not lead an extravagant or wasteful life. In fact, in some ways we are quite frugal. We are big recyclers and the last car we bought was chosen for its outstanding gas mileage. The problem was that I ran out of money every month. I wasn’t falling behind, but I wasn’t getting ahead.
Singletary is extremely conservative with finances, and in the book, she explains clearly why all debt should be avoided. Mortgages and student loans must not be thought of as any better or nobler than credit card debt. Philosophically, I agree, but yet I have a mortgage. I have a car loan. I am not immune to having a credit card balance although I work very hard to avoid it (my typical behavior when we want to travel, for example, is to charge everything and then pay it off rather than save up the funds ahead of time).
My head is above water. But I watch opportunities pass by that I am unable to take advantage of because my finances are not in order. I have debt and I don’t have cash reserves at the level I would like to have. My retirement savings are not on target.
The reason my finances are not in order is that I spend money. I buy things. Again, I’m not talking about extravagant purchases. But at the end of the month, I often see purchases (mostly online shopping and restaurants) that I could have seriously reconsidered, instead applying that money to debt.
My experiences on the fast.
Financial lifestyle changes do not come easily.
Day 1. I withdrew several hundred dollars from my checking account so that I could implement a cash system and avoid using my debit card. Countless studies show that we are less inclined to spend money impulsively when we are dealing with cold, hard cash and not plastic. Singletary knows this. Unfortunately, I’ve been budgeting and spending electronically for so long that I was unable to handle the simple task of switching back to cash and I overdrew my account about a week later. I felt rather ridiculous. Luckily, my bank doesn’t charge me an overdraft fee so long as funds are available in the designated overdraft account.
Day 2. I attended a dinner with friends knowing that I could comfortably socialize without buying anything. In fact, I’m quite good at that. I frequently get together with friends in the evening and I realized long ago that buying something just because I was there was a waste of money (not to mention the unneeded calories). This time, however, my daughter was with me. She cannot (at this time) understand why we would go to a restaurant and not order something (because at age 3, she is already quite comfortable ordering for herself when we go out to eat — this is a rather serious issue that came to light for me during the fast).
So I broke the fast on day two, ordering milk and a snack for my child.
Day 3. Using the one-click purchasing feature on Amazon.com, I purchased a movie for my child and her friend to watch before I realized what I was doing. Whoops! I’m supposed to be fasting! Buying has become so effortless that it often doesn’t even feel like I’m spending money at all. Later, when I logged in to my bank account online, I noticed that my Amazon Prime membership had just automatically renewed. I wondered how many things I’ve signed up for that automatically renew and whether I would be able to make it through this 21 days of no unnecessary spending!
Lessons learned from the 21-day financial fast.
Each faster gains something different from the experience. For me, a main lesson of the fast is that my money is mine, to do with as I choose. The key is that every choice is mine. I can choose to charge something I can’t afford and pay extra, in the form of interest charges, to have it. I can choose to create a comfortable retirement for myself by upping my contributions to my IRA. I can choose to treat myself now with a pair of new shoes. I can choose to shave a few days off the life of my mortgage. I can look at the things and experiences in my life and decide which ones are most worth my money. I can choose to tell myself that I’m saving money when I shop, or I can choose to acknowledge that spending is spending, regardless of the perceived value of whatever is bought. The fast was a beautiful, eye-opening experience. I need only pay close attention to my money to get so much more out of it.
In just 21 days, I was keenly reminded that financial wisdom does not come by magic. It is learned. If I take my child out to eat frequently, if I show her how easy it is to swipe a credit card, if by my example, I show that we buy what we want — whether we can afford it now or not — those will be her truths. And I know from my own experiences that our truths are very, very hard to unlearn later in life.
All of the book’s chapters deserve much more than a half hour of the reader’s time. Each one scratches the surface of a larger financial topic, including investments and long-term care planning. I plan to dig deeper into some of those topics one at a time later this year.
If you would like to participate in the fast, visit https://www.rebelmouse.com/financialfast/ to sign up. You’ll get automated emails each day, plus support from Michelle and the Financial Fast community on YouTube and Twitter.
Kimberly Rotter is a writer and small-business owner. She is a featured contributor on Credit Sesame and writes professionally in several industries, including finance, education, the environment, and health and wellness. Kimberly holds an MBA and has successfully founded and operated two small businesses – a clock company in the late 1990s and a writing and editing service, currently in operation. She is a wife and mom, and enjoys researching and writing about topics that affect parents and families. She always has a new venture up her sleeve and is currently stockpiling content related to preschool and elementary education options. Connect with Kimberly on LinkedIn, Google+ and Facebook.
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