Chelsea Wahl realized she had a money problem in 2016. It all started when she fell down a YouTube rabbit hole.
The now-28-year-old was a few years into a PhD program at the University of Pennsylvania, and to cope with stressful days, she began mindlessly watching makeup tutorial videos after classes. Soon, she was routinely buying eye shadow palettes and new blushes to try the looks herself, stretching the money she was earning as a graduate teaching assistant to its limit.
"If you've ever walked into an Ulta, budgeting isn't really a concept," Wahl tells CNBC Make It, with a laugh.
It seemed harmless at first, until Wahl calculated how much she was actually spending. By the end of 2016, she had purchased $842 worth of makeup and skincare products, almost as much as she had spent on groceries (she frequently eats out, she admits, and doesn't spend very much on groceries). That, coupled with the awareness that she had more student loan debt than savings, inspired Wahl to take charge of her spending behaviors.
Though she knew changing her spending habits would improve her life, it wasn't until she discovered the concept of a No Spend Year (via a different YouTube rabbit hole) that she finally found the motivation to follow through.
The challenge appealed to Wahl, and she embarked on her own No Spend Year in 2017, during which she challenged herself to only replace makeup that ran out. This year is the third in a row that she's engaged in No Spend practices, and she says it's had a profound impact on her life, "rewiring" her thoughts and behaviors.
"Before the No Buy Year, I would definitely downplay how much I spent, because it was embarrassing," she says. "That's a sign that you yourself are aware that there's a problem."
Wahl's No Spend strategy is popular on social media sites like Reddit and YouTube, and Ande Frazier, CEO of myWorth, tells CNBC Make It that it's a smart way for impulse shoppers to change their relationship to money and spending. Setting strict spending rules on discretionary purchases for an entire month, she says, allows individuals to "adjust their whole mindset" about their true material needs and wants.
"It's really hard, but it's a powerful exercise," says Frazier.
Though such a stunt won't necessarily work for families already budgeting down to the last penny, instituting "No Spend" rules changed Hailey Evans' life.
The Ontario-based makeup artist tells CNBC Make It that at the end of 2018, she realized she needed to change her spending habits, particularly related to makeup. Evans enjoyed reviewing new palettes and products on her YouTube channel but with a five-week trip to Greece on the horizon and a desire to switch careers, she could no longer afford to spend hundreds of dollars each month on makeup.
Inspired by fellow YouTubers who chronicled their No Spend journeys, the 31-year-old set some strict rules for herself in January 2019 to curtail her impulse purchases. She could spend money on replacement makeup and virtually any experience, but she could not buy new makeup or skincare for personal use (as a makeup artist, she needs to buy some products for work). Clothes, accessories, takeaway coffee, books, magazines, house plants and housewares were also on her do-not-buy list.
Not long after she started her No Spend journey, she was experimenting with new cooking techniques and baking her own bread; eventually, she learned how to garden. The exercise soon became about much more than saving money on blush and eye shadow; instead, she says, it's changed her entire mindset about spending and consumerism.
"I got excited and happy about making purchases, and I realized that that's not good for me, that's not good for the environment," she says. "It's only helping massive corporations that don't need my money."
How much money someone saves during a No Spend month is, of course, dependent on a host of personal factors: How much you routinely spend to begin with, what categories you're cutting out of your budget, whether you stick to it, how long you keep up the No Spend routine and on and on.
Wahl says in 2016, the year before her first self-imposed No Buy Year, she spent over $800 on makeup and skincare. So far in 2019, she's spent just $135. The total has steadily decreased each year.
For Evans, the savings were far more dramatic. Because of her YouTube reviews, she says she was spending $600 CAD "at the very least" each month on makeup alone. Combined with savings on clothing, home goods, fast food and takeout coffee, she estimates she's saved $10,000 CAD so far this year, $2,000 of which went to her trip to Greece.
Whether you want to save $10 or $1,000, the first step in any No Spend journey, Evans says, is understanding why exactly you want to do it.
"Get your values straight, and live your life according to those values," she says.
In a popular TedTalk on the subject, U.K. personal finance writer Michelle McGagh, who cut out discretionary spending for a year, explains that in order to succeed, you first need to think about the areas in your life where you waste the most money or could cut the most spending easily. She suggests asking yourself what it is you'd like to accomplish in your life that might be hampered by your current spending.
Picturing that long-term goal — maybe it's quitting your job to write a book, finally taking a dream vacation, retiring early or simply building up your savings account — will help you decide whether short-term spending is worth it. Write down that long-term goal, and then decide on your No Spend rules. What categories are you trimming? What spending is allowed? Write it all down in your financial journal (more on that below), or another place that's easily accessible.
Once you've established why you want to participate in No Spend November, you can get started. Here are some other strategies to try throughout the month.
Start a financial or product journal
Throughout her No Spend journey, Wahl kept a journal in which she logged each beauty product she used every day, how she felt about it and any other thoughts she had while using it. She also wrote down her general thoughts on spending, as well as a list of things she had an urge to buy as she came across them.
"That's been a surprisingly helpful tool to see what I used the most, or what I didn't like or didn't really work for me," says Wahl. "That's been a good tool for self-reflection. My research-y side comes out, I'm collecting data on myself. It's been useful to see how my feelings have changed."
Frazier, MyWorth's CEO, agrees with Wahl about keeping a journal, and also suggests creating a voice memo in moments of weakness, or immediately after a purchase. When you next find yourself with the urge to buy something, replay the voice memo to remind yourself how you felt last time you broke your rules, or stuck to them.
Every time you do buy something, ask yourself how it aligns with your goals and values. How someone spends their money, Frazier says, offers deeper indications of how they view themselves and the world, and could point to larger issues at play. What are you lacking or missing in your life that you think buying something will fix?
"If you want to look at what a woman values, look at her checkbook," says Frazier. "If you're spending a lot of money on clothes and makeup and things that make you look a certain way, maybe you have some self-esteem issues, and you could do something else to improve your self-esteem."
Track your progress
Use an app like Habit, a wall calendar or your finance journal to track your progress. Make sure it's easily accessible so that you can get inspired any time you feel your motivation slipping.
If you're artistically inclined, you might track your progress via a Bullet Journal, a specialized practice of journal-keeping with a lively community on sites like Instagram and Reddit. You can find popular and easy-to-use money templates by searching the #BuJo hashtag, or going on Bullet Journal's official website.
You can also keep track of things you did not buy, along with the prices, to add up how much you've saved at the end of the exercise.
Use what you already have
One of the many problems with consumerist culture that Wahl has been trying to correct in her own life is the constant need for "more" and "new." Before her No Spend experiment, Wahl bought the "newest" blushes and palettes only to realize she already owned similar shades that she hadn't used yet. Grocery expenses, too, could be cut down if she took a few minutes to log what was already in her cabinets and pantry.
Now, she makes an effort to "shop" her closets and products before she buys anything.
"In a broader consumer culture, there's nothing holding you back from buying something, but there's rarely a suggestion that you should use what you already have," she says. "We need to look at how to reuse and reduce."
Scale up gradually
When Evans started her No Spend Year, she says she cut out virtually all superfluous spending all at once, "cold turkey." But after about six months, she'd had enough and decided to ease her own rules.
She still considers the experiment a success, particularly given how her mindset about money and spending has completely shifted. But advises others to ease into it to build better spending habits over time.
"You need to learn how to exist in the world, learn how to do that in a way that's good for you," she says. "If I were to do it again, I would set out a more scheduled routine of slowly cutting back the things that I wanted to cut back on, instead of all at once."
If a complete No Spend Month or Year is unrealistic, you can always try a Low Spend experiement, by setting a lower budget for your problem spending areas.
Find a new hobby
Like Wahl mentioned above, one of the keys to success is finding something to fill the time when you might be tempted to shop or spend money. Wahl had her journal, and she was also busy planning her wedding; Evans took on cooking and gardening.
Practice saying 'no'
One of hardest things to do, Frazier says, is saying no to friends or family who want to do some sort of activity. Rather than make up an excuse about why you can't do something, she encourages people to be straight forward.
"Be honest and say that 'I can spend time with you, but I also want to make sure I secure my finances for the future, and this doesn't fit in with what is important to me in the future,'" suggests Frazier.
Find a supportive community
Though Evans and Wahl both acknowledge that YouTube played a major role in sparking their over-spending, they also say that it has helped them temper their shopping urges of late, and introduced them to new people and concepts who are also encouraging more conscious consumption. Subreddits, like r/MakeupRehab or r/NoSpendNovember, can also be helpful.
Evans says there are countless blogs, social media groups and podcasts that promote healthy spending habits, if you look for them.
Don't take it to the extreme
While online communities can offer valuable support, they can also instill bad or potentially harmful habits. One Reddit thread, for example, explained why the user didn't actually need to buy fresh produce for a month. Anything taken to that kind of extreme, Frazier says, should be avoided. Remember, your physical and mental health and well-being are more important than a few extra dollars in your savings account.
Go easy on yourself
If you're not perfect from the get-go, that's okay. Give yourself the flexibility to break your rules, set new ones and start over, if you need to, says Evans.
"It's a lifestyle change that has rippling effects on all different aspects of your life: mental health, physical health, cultivating a better relationship with your life," she says. "I'm more proud of the life I live now, instead of feeling ashamed."
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