Money

I tried the trick that helped one 27-year-old save thousands—and it was a total flop

Emmie Martin | CNBC

As much as I love shopping, few things feel as exciting to me as getting a good deal or saving a few bucks. Whenever I learn a new tactic for increasing my savings, I'm eager to put it to the test.

Back in July, I first read about 27-year-old personal finance blogger David of Zero Day Finance, who commits himself to at least one "zero spend" day per week, during which he actively avoids buying anything, even a morning coffee or something from the drug store.

David tracks his progress with the challenge on his blog, where he "collects" zero spend days and pushes himself to fit as many of them as possible into a week. By gamifying his spending, he stays motivated to save.

The strategy has worked out for him: Within six months of starting the challenge, David had saved $18,432, cutting his monthly spending from around $4,700 a month to $3,170 a month.

So when David put out a call to his readers to join him for a monthlong challenge of no-spend days in October, I decided to try it out for myself. However, I kept my perimeters wide and made a few exceptions to the no-spend rule: Any fixed costs, such as rent and utilities, didn't count toward my daily total. Medical costs, such as copays for doctor's appointments or for prescriptions, didn't count either.

And I was off.

I started out strong, planning ahead to prepare my own breakfasts and bring my lunch to work. I even avoided popping into Dylan's Candy Bar for a Sunday afternoon pick-me-up to satisfy my sweet tooth, which had become a weekly habit.

But my enthusiasm started to wane. Once I fell off the wagon by making a single purchase for the day, what was stopping me from continuing to spend? A pre-work CVS run for toothpaste gave me license to stop by Chipotle for lunch or browse Amazon for a new way to organize my earrings.

By Oct. 18, when I hopped on a plane to Burlington, Vermont, for a weekend getaway with college friends, the challenge had been pushed to the back of my mind. Although I wasn't spending any more than I normally would in a month, I wasn't saving any extra. And I certainly wasn't being intentional about increasing my savings.

The problem: I didn't create strict enough boundaries for myself. While the thrill of the game serves as enough motivation to keep many savers on track, it wasn't a strong enough "why" for me.

I'm motivated by working toward a specific goal. Do I want to add an extra $1,000 to my savings account by the end of the year? Am I challenging myself to stay under $500 for the month? Are my extra savings going toward an upcoming trip? The ambiguity of having more spend-free days on my calendar wasn't enough of a draw to keep me from the small impulsive purchases that drain my bank account.

My total failure doesn't mean the Zero Day Challenge isn't a viable route for saving money. The winner of David's October challenge was able to keep $192 in her pocket. But it is a good reminder that, when it comes to personal finance, what works for one person may not work for another.

As David points out, though, this challenge isn't about spending as little as possible, it's about making thoughtful and conscientious purchases. That's a worthwhile goal.

"It isn't designed to make you not buy something you really want or need," he writes. "The Zero Day Challenge has you think about your purchases before you buy them. Maybe you really don't need to spend that $20 or $30 right now. Maybe it won't really make you happy."

So, despite my October failure, I'm not giving up. I'm planning to try the challenge again in December, this time telling myself that anything I save I can put toward a trip to Denmark next summer. Wish me luck!

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