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What Is a Spending Ban – Rules, Financial Benefits, Pros & Cons

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It has been popping up on the Internet for years now. Known variously as a spending ban, shopping fast, or spending diet, it has countless bloggers singing its praises. They claim that drastically cutting back on purchases helped them get their financial lives in order, pay off debt, and achieve other important goals.

Looking at the success of others, you might wonder whether a spending ban is right for you. Would cutting out all wants and only putting your money toward things that you actually need help you reach your financial goals? Or would you feel needlessly deprived and end up spending more on impulse purchases in the long run?

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As with any drastic measures, from crash food diets to extreme exercise programs, there are benefits and disadvantages to dramatically cutting back on spending or shopping, even for a short amount of time. If you decide to ban shopping or any spending, it helps to have a clear set of rules, to understand why you’re doing it, and to have a solid plan for success.

Understand the Rules of the Ban

A spending or shopping ban doesn’t eliminate all forms of spending – just the non-necessities. Non-necessities vary from person to person, but you can generally place anything you don’t need to survive or do your job in this category, such as magazines, a new piece of clothing, or decorative home items.

Before you begin your ban, tally up the cost of your essentials for each month. These can include your mortgage or rent, utilities, groceries, medical costs, and insurance. Transportation, whether by car or public transit, is another must-have. If you have debt, include the minimum payment in your list of essentials. You might want to have an emergency fund set up before you start your ban – and if you don’t, consider stashing money into an emergency fund during the spending ban.

Once you have compiled your list of essentials and their total monthly cost, compare the amount to your monthly income to get a sense of how much you’re able to save. For example, if your monthly take-home pay is $2,500 and your monthly essentials cost $1,500, you could potentially save $1,000 during each month or your spending ban. This sum can then be put either toward various types of long-term savings, such as a college savings account or a retirement savings account, or put toward reducing and eliminating credit card debt.

Before you start your ban, write out the rules and keep them in a visible location, so that you have a constant reminder of what you’re working on and why.

  • Pick a Length for the Ban. It helps to start small when doing a spending ban – for example, by undertaking the 21-day spending fast. You can always continue your ban if you find that it works for you, but it can be disheartening if you’re overly ambitious and plan too long a ban to start. Beginning with a short ban also means you can schedule around months that necessitate more spending, such as those that include holidays and birthdays.
  • Choose What You’re Allowed to Buy. Make a list of the essentials you can purchase, such as groceries, gas for your car, and clothes for your children. And, if you like, determine whether you can make additional cuts to these costs. When considering groceries, look at past receipts to see if you can substitute or cut back on the most expensive items, such as meat or alcohol.
  • Decide What to Do With the Money. Instead of letting the money you save sit in your bank account, assign it a purpose. For example, you can increase your emergency fund, apply it to debt payments, or boost your retirement contributions. Setting a specific goal helps you stick to your spending ban, even when there’s temptation to give up.
  • Figure Out How to Handle Unexpected Events. Have a plan so that you may handle any surprises or emergencies during your ban. For example, you may decide to use part of your emergency fund to cover the cost of replacing or fixing a broken appliance, or to pay for an unexpected medical bill.

Handle Unexpected Events

Advantages of a Spending Ban

Part of the appeal of a spending ban is the challenge of completely changing your habits for a set amount of time. For instance, if you often spend your weekends buying things at the mall, you’re now forced to find some other way to spend your time without spending money. If you and a partner or friend are doing the ban together, you can create a shared document listing fun, free activities, such as enjoying a concert in a park, visiting the library, or going for a walk or bike ride. Then, see how many of those things you can do over the course of the spending ban.

While this can make the ban more appealing (or at least more tolerable), there are numerous benefits that are even more rewarding – and can make a major positive impact on your finances:

  • Reduces Impulse Buys. Many people have at least a few possessions that were bought on impulse and go unused. Eliminating impulse buys not only saves you money, but it can also give you back space in your home for items you actually do use.
  • Reduces Waste. A spending ban requires you to make use of what you already have. If you’re eliminating takeout food or meals at restaurants with your ban, you’re forced to confront what’s in your pantry or refrigerator. Instead of ordering a pizza for dinner and letting fresh produce languish, you end up making use of the veggies before they need to be discarded.
  • Encourages You to Work With What You Have. Instead of buying a new outfit for a wedding or special event, a shopping ban makes you work with what’s in your closet – and when you have to use what you’ve got, you can take part in your own fashion challenge to put together a fantastic look without buying anything new. During a fashion challenge, you try to make new outfits from the clothing you already have, or think of new ways to wear the items you own (such as wearing a pajama top with a skirt or wearing a dress over jeans). A ban also helps you work with what’s in your kitchen and pantry, especially if you focus on buying only fresh foods. And instead of purchasing new books or DVDs, you have a chance to read or watch the ones you already own.
  • Saves Time. Ultimately, doing a shopping or spending ban can save you time, both in the short term and in the long run. Buying fewer things not only reduces the time you spend shopping online or at brick-and-mortar stores, it also reduces the time you spend cleaning, organizing, and de-cluttering your home.
  • Helps You Kick Bad Spending Habits for Good. After living without impulse buys for some time, you end up learning to think twice before making random purchases. Cutting out unnecessary spending for even just a month or two can help you alter your long-term spending habits, by putting thought and consideration into every potential purchase.

Disadvantages of a Spending Ban

While a spending ban can help you work toward financial goals and help you stop making impulse buys, it’s not without potential drawbacks.

  • May Encourage Overspending Before It Begins. In an effort not to spend money for a month (or six), you might feel you need to go on one last shopping spree before your spending ban begins. However, going on a “spending bender” defeats the purpose of the ban. Resist the urge to splurge, and trust that you can get the things you absolutely need during your ban.
  • May Encourage Overspending at the End. At the end of an extreme diet, some people race to the nearest fast food restaurant to overindulge. The same is true of a shopping ban – after a month or more of highly controlled spending, you might hit the mall and snatch up whatever you see, completely defeating the point of the ban. To avoid overspending afterwards, try to focus on the things you already have, instead of things you want. Or limit yourself to one modestly priced reward.
  • Might Create Tension in Relationships. If you have friends who are spenders, you may experience some tension or peer pressure to spend. Your friends and family may assume that you expect them to buy things for you, or might feel guilty or uncomfortable spending money in your presence. You may have to turn down invitations to dinner, happy hour, or the movies. One way to handle such situations is to explain why you’re doing the ban, and offer assurance that you don’t expect anyone to buy your dinner or pay for entertainment. You can also suggest alternative activities that are free, such as watching a movie at home or having a game night.
  • Can Cause You to Ignore Certain Needs. You might become so involved in your spending ban that you avoid purchasing things you really need during or after it. Part of the goal of doing a ban is to learn to separate wants from needs – for example, fancy lingerie is a want, and new underwear to replace a worn-out pair is a need. Always be sure to give yourself some room for buying items that you truly need.

Ignore Certain Needs

Get the Most Out of Your Spending Ban

A spending ban is only worthwhile if it helps you make lasting change to your financial habits. Otherwise, you’re effectively yo-yo dieting – but with money.

Here are a few ways to ensure that you make a lasting change in your habits once your ban is over:

1. Identify Your Triggers

Think of the times you bought things you didn’t really need. What made you want to buy those items? What were you thinking or feeling when you did?

One of my personal shopping triggers was receiving promotional emails from retailers. I’d open the email, merely intending to browse the deals, and then find myself adding clothing and accessories I didn’t need (nor really like) to an online shopping cart – all because they were 40% off. Scrolling to the bottom of those messages and clicking “unsubscribe” has helped me cut back on making impulse purchases online. If you get a lot of promotional emails to your inbox, use a free tool like Unroll.Me to easily unsubscribe from everything at once.

Find your triggers, and figure out how to eliminate or avoid them, whether that means unsubscribing from email lists, unfollowing retailers on social media, or not wandering around stores without a clear shopping goal in mind.

2. Take a Look at What You Own

A shopping or spending ban enables you learn to get along with what you have – while also helping you identify what items you own but don’t actually use.

One way to stick with the lessons learned from your spending ban is to reduce clutter in your home. Clearing out clutter can be an eyeopening experience, especially if you take the time to add up what you spent on the things you now consider junk. This can help you think more carefully before purchasing new items that might meet a similar fate in a few months or years.

3. Focus on Your Long-Term Goals

After your spending ban is over, reflect on how it helped you accomplish certain goals. For example, perhaps you were able to put an extra $1,500 toward a student loan. Or, maybe you simply increased your savings account by that same amount. Focusing on your improved financial situation can help you make a responsible decision the next time you’re in a store wondering whether to buy expensive new clothing or electronic gadgets.

Final Word

Whether you stop shopping for a month or a year, a spending ban can help you get your finances in check and teach you to better manage your money. It’s not the perfect solution for everyone, but if you’ve found yourself prone to impulse purchases and have had trouble reining in your spending, it might be that going to extremes is just what you need to adjust your habits.

Have you tried a shopping ban? Do you think it’s helpful?

Amy Freeman
Amy Freeman is a freelance writer living in Philadelphia, PA. Her interest in personal finance and budgeting began when she was earning an MFA in theater, living in one of the most expensive cities in the country (Brooklyn, NY) on a student's budget. You can read more of her work on her website, Amy E. Freeman.

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