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Should You Go on a Financial Fast?

Susan Johnston

As countless Americans resolve to spend less, save more or get out of debt in the new year, some will try so-called spending fasts, during which they cut out nonessential expenses to build up a financial cushion and rethink their money habits.

Michelle Singletary, a Washington Post personal finance columnist and author of "The 21 Day Financial Fast: Your Path to Financial Peace and Freedom," will lead a 21-day nationwide spending fast starting Monday. The fast is based on her book and includes daily exercises that involve abstaining from credit card use and only buying necessities. "Fasting allows you to take a step back and look at how you handle money," she says. "People unconsciously spend and pay their bills, but they don't really know what their financial values are. Are you matching how you spend your money with your values?"

For some people, a financial fast may have financial and emotional benefits. Jessica Dunlop, 32, from western North Carolina, started a spending fast in May after blowing through an inheritance and realizing she didn't have anything to show for it. "I was compulsively spending before I'd even gotten that money," she says. Her therapist suggested that she only use cash and only buy things she absolutely needed.

[Read: How One Family Paid Off $118,000 in Debt.]

As part of her newly downsized lifestyle, Dunlop sold her possessions and moved into a camper. "I can't buy things because I don't have anywhere to put it," she says. Since she works in a restaurant, she even tried eating discarded food instead of buying groceries, but returned to her vegan diet and buying her own food for health and hygiene reasons. Overall, though, Dunlop says she feels more in control and plans to stick with this new approach to money. "It's been this game where I save money, and it accumulates fast," she says.

It may sound like a drastic lifestyle shift, but even those who don't need a major spending overhaul could benefit from a short-term fast, according to Singletary. "It's also for people who are doing a pretty good job with their money, but they're always worried that they don't have enough," she says.

Katy Reiber, 28, of San Diego, started a monthlong spending fast in April and planned to use the cash she and her husband saved to go on a trip to Disneyland. Instead of buying groceries or eating out, they cooked at home using eggs from their free-range chickens and food that was already in the pantry. Then, two weeks into the fast, when their car needed a new battery and their dog got sick, Reiber says they ditched the fast and resumed eating out as a "coping mechanism" to deal with the stress. She says they hope to try another spending fast this year but would allow themselves to "'pause" the fast if something stressful comes up instead of abandoning it altogether.

[Read: 14 Ways to Slash Your Expenses in 2014.]

Just as giving up sugary or fatty foods isn't easy, neither is cutting out excess spending. "We don't realize how much unconscious spending we do," Singletary says. "People have to deny themselves, and we don't like to deny ourselves." She suggests trying a fast with a partner who can hold you accountable and keep you motivated and on track.

Still, some experts worry that an all-or-nothing approach like a fast could prove too extreme. "It's hard enough to change behavior and use force of will, but it's harder when people are making changes all at the same time," says Gary Belsky, coauthor of "Why Smart People Make Big Money Mistakes and How to Correct Them." "Generally, the best way to make long-term progress on financial goals is through incremental changes that accrue over time."

If you think you have a spending problem, Belsky suggests automatically redirecting funds to an account you don't have easy access to, so you won't be able to spend that money mindlessly. "Send money to another account, and very quickly you will stop thinking of yourself as having that money to spend," he says. "A year later, you'll have a whole lot of money that you'll consider savings."

[See: 10 Ways to Cut Your Spending This Week.]

Belsky uses another strategy to curb mindless spending: If you see something you want to buy, allow yourself to buy it the next day if you still want it. "You can imagine that nine out the 10 things that I think I wanted, the next day I think, 'I don't need this,'" he says. "The key is to not tell yourself 'no,' but 'not today.'"

Dietary fasts are sometimes touted as a way to drop weight quickly, but Singletary sees a financial fast as a starting point rather than a quick fix. "You didn't get into debt in 21 days, and you won't get out of debt in 21 days," she says. "The most successful diets are the ones that are about changing your lifestyle. A diet will help jump-start you, but the true test is have you changed things so that you can do with your money what you say you want to do with your money?"

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