Once upon a time, in a galaxy not so far away, I was reckless with money. As a Manhattan-dwelling 20-something with a salary that could barely cover rent and utilities, I adopted an “if I ignore it, maybe it will go away” approach to my credit card balance (turns out I had “money avoidance”). I simply didn’t check myself as I piled my Whole Foods cart high with overpriced Icelandic yogurt and added an Alexander Wang clutch to my net-a-porter shopping cart.
Surprise, surprise—this blew up in my face. When I finally admitted to myself that I was in a decent amount of debt thanks to months of sliding by on minimum payments, I decided to get serious about my finances.
I don’t deal well with deprivation (“I’m giving up ice cream” never goes well for me), so after a solid amount of research, I stumbled across the concept of “zero dollar days,” or two days per week when I didn’t spend money. At all. Zero. None.
This seemed like a reasonable challenge, so I decided to give it a try. So, two days a week for one month, I vowed not to spend money. Here’s how it went.
Make sure to accurately prepare for your zero money days
I knew Monday and Tuesday would be the easiest days for me to do zero dollar days, not only because my willpower is strongest after a weekend of indulging, but also because I’m typically so swept up with work and the hectic nature of the beginning of the week that I don’t spend much money anyway.
But that presented a problem: If I didn’t spend that much anyway, would it actually help me pay off my credit card debt and eventually save?
I knew the answer was no, so I settled on Saturday and Monday, as Saturday is when the cute boutiques of SoHo and the bars of the Lower East Side call my name and empty out my wallet. To make the entire experiment simpler, and to save my sanity just a bit, I paired it with Monday as like I said, I knew it would be an easy day for me.
Monday wasn’t difficult to prepare for. All it took was a Sunday morning trip to the grocery store and a little bit of meal prep so I wouldn’t be tempted to buy lunch or any snacks out the next day. But Saturday was a different story. In order to not spend money, I had to really plan ahead to ensure I still enjoyed my weekend.
I scoured the pages of local magazines for fun free things to do in my neighborhood, and I found some good ones: free kayaking on the Hudson River, free concerts downtown and free movies in Central Park. I was set. Once I combined that with fun food-related activities—a bottle of Charles Shaw wine (a.k.a. “two buck chuck”) from Trader Joe’s and a picnic of cheese and crackers that I had purchased on Thursday—I knew my Saturday would still feel like a treat.
Stick to it even on the hard days
Don’t get me wrong—my zero dollar days were no walk in the park, although I did spend a lot of time in the park. Saturday date nights and outings with friends consisted of a lot of moseying, reading books in the park (it’s a good thing the weather was warm!), and aforementioned free concerts, movies and kayaking. While the first zero dollar Saturday was a blast as I excitedly ran through my list of activities, the following week I got antsy as I passed artisan doughnut shops and stores boasting exciting sales.
While Mondays were easier, I still ran into challenges. On one Monday, my cheap earbuds broke, and I realized I wasn’t allowed to get another pair of headphones until the next day, meaning I had a less productive day at work. On another Monday I forgot my lunch, so I ended up subsisting on a few energy bars that were lying around the office. It wasn’t fun.
The main thing that got me through these tough days was the “why.” Why was I doing this? Because I wanted the financial freedom of not having credit card debt so I could start socking away money for things that would actually make me happy down the road.
Here's when persistence pays off
No, one month of twice-weekly zero dollar days was not enough to pay off all the credit card debt I’d racked up from too many expensive impulse buys. But I did put a $500 dent in it after just four weeks, which I discovered felt a whole lot better than a shiny new designer bag.
While I didn’t continue doing zero dollar days after the month was up, I did become a much better saver after completing the experiment. Instead of absentmindedly buying a $4 almond milk latte on my way to work, I asked myself if it would make me any less happy to drink the free coffee waiting for me at the office, and the answer was usually no. The same went for the packs of gum I often bought out of boredom and the pairs of shoes I would buy just because they were “kind of cute.”
Thanks to these new habits, first instilled with zero dollar days, I paid off my credit card debt in six months. I can attest to the fact that paying off that final payment was beyond liberating.
Would I recommend zero dollar days to everyone, whether they’re in debt or not? Absolutely. You’ll learn a lot about yourself along the way and figure out what is truly bringing you happiness and what is simply bringing you clutter.