Could a hip 20-something Chicagoan limit her weekly spending to $100 a week for an entire month? Nicole DiVito set out to find out last month, trying what she called “No-Spend November.” The results were…mixed.
“No Spend November… Good in theory; Mediocre in practice,” DiVito says.
I think she’s being a little hard on herself; she made real progress toward reducing her debt and her spending, so I’d call that a success. And she learned some other life lessons, too (dealing with money always has that effect.)
To refresh your memory, DiVito, 27, who works in public relations, says she’s spent the first five years of her career struggling, and hasn’t been able to save any money for the future. She wanted to change that.
“Why am I doing this? The short answer is to substantially save while still paying down my credit cards,” she said a month ago. “Although I don’t have a history of overspending, I definitely overspent in 2013. By August 1st, I was up to $4,000 in credit card debt, and I knew something had to change.”
DiVito brings home about $3,500 every month. She’s hardly got a lavish life — she lives in the northern suburb of Wicker Park with two roommates, which keeps her rent at a manageable $766 monthly. But other bills add up: cell phone ($140) car payment ($235) utilities ($100) and mass transit ($80) eat up a big chunk of her earnings. Add in other costs, and she was spending more than two-thirds of her income on bills, before food.
“I also haven’t saved much since landing my first job in 2008 because, as many do in my field, you start at a very low salary and work your way up,” she said. Her first job paid $32,000, giving her no chance to save. “Now that I make more, in addition to paying off my credit cards, I’m trying to make up for lost savings by saving a lot.”
So, how did she do?
“There were success and failures,” DiVito told me this week. “I successfully paid off 2 of my 3 credit cards, and my credit score jumped 25 points. In addition, one of my credit cards extended my credit line another $2,000. This is all great, and I couldn’t have done it without budgeting.”
That was the good news. On the other hand, there were some surprises.
“Budgeting is tough. As this was my first time keeping track of all of my purchases (literally writing them all down), it was eye-opening. Grocery-wise, I was pretty close to my goal of $200 a month—I only exceeded that by $24.”
And there were opportunities for fun that were too good to pass up.
“My weekend-entertainment-dining budget shattered. In part because I didn’t adequately budget for two trips in November—one to Milwaukee and one to New York—so I didn’t save nearly as much as I wanted. (Only $230 instead of $680),” she said.
DiVito was very public about her No-Spend November, sharing about it on Facebook, in part because she knew that would help her keep to her budget. She expected others to join her, and repeatedly offered invitations. In the end she was surprised – despite a lot of curiosity about her effort, no savings buddies emerged. She suspects one reason: people are very private about money (and that’s often not a good thing!)
“When I first announced my intention to try this, they were all really interested, curious and skeptical — perhaps rightfully — about my ability to do it,” she said. “But one thing I’ve noticed during this experience is that people are really, really private about money. I had hoped my goal would inspire others to try it with me, but nobody came forward, and no one has really asked me how my experience went. .. Maybe they assumed I had completely failed, so they didn’t want to embarrass me? I can understand that, but overall it’s still surprising.”
She said she didn’t notice any resentment from friends when she turned down weekday invitations for fun to stick to her budget, though there might not have been enough “no’s” to catch their attention during the short November month, which included trips and the holiday.
One really significant change: she was more direct in conversations with roommates about money.
“I did become a little more assertive with apartment costs and making sure that things were being split equally. I used to ‘eat’ a lot of costs—something that wasn’t doing me any favors in the long-run,” she said.
So, was it worth it? Certainly. The simple exercise of writing down everything you spend — even if you don’t change any habits — can be incredibly productive. (That trick also works with eating, by the way).
“I still feel like I got a lot accomplished, and I’m well on my way to paying off my third credit card in December and paying cash for all of my Christmas gifts,” DiVito says. Staying on budget during the holidays is very hard, but cash for gifts is a good idea. “This will ensure that my debt stays off, giving me a clean slate and a lot to look forward to—savings-wise—in 2014.”