What it’s Like to Do the $15 Challenge

It’s been almost two months since I decided to finally get a handle on my out-of-control spending.

Honestly, I was really surprised to find myself spending to zero each month.  As a life-long saver, I’m not talking full-zero.  I have retirement savings.  I have investments.  But the account I use for things like buying groceries, gas, phone service, restaurant meals, clothes, health-related items, supplies, gifts, insurance…. zero.  Even in the red at the end of the month.  While I could always pay my credit card bill (I use credit cards to get free flights) by the due date, I realized there were moments in my life that money in the bank was less than money owed.  That’s bad.  Super bad.

How I Lost My Money Ninja Skills

Two factors contributed to my move from super-on-it financially to hitting zero or worse by the end of every month:

  1. I stopped following a really important life hack – “Decide why you’re saving.”  Thanks to too much travel, I’d gotten into that poisonous mindset of “things will be better when.”  I’d squeezed too many places onto the calendar, giving me no time to think about the big picture of my life.  What’s next?  Not sure.  I’ll figure that out after I get done going to Melbourne, Tasmania, Perth, the Australian countryside, Idaho, Wyoming, Vancouver, Kansas City, Eugene, Alaska, Portland, Seattle, and Honduras.  So… basically next year.  I’ll figure out the big picture, including deciding why I’m saving, “later.”
  2. My money-ninja-skills got wrecked by the most challenging romantic relationship of my lifeMoney habits are a muscle that require major-effort to build and light-effort to maintain.  Just like falling out of the habits of eating well, exercising, getting enough sleep, and staying off Facebook will leave you overweight, out of shape, sleep-deprived, and dopamine-addicted to the internet… falling out of money-ninja habits will leave you without money.
    For two years I dated a man who spent blasphemous amounts of money on things he didn’t need.  A $900 tent for camping.  A $250 night to sleep in a tent with a bed and bathroom while the $900 tent sat in the car.  A $250 kitchen garbage can (that you still had to touch to open!).  I was usually so busy being horrified, I barely enjoyed the luxuries forced upon me by proximity. But I couldn’t fight every single expenditure I didn’t believe in.  At first I tried, but it left me exhausted and depressed.  Slowly I acquiesced.  Eventually dropping $50 at the grocery store on cheese and meats for an appetizer platter seemed “normal” to me.  Going out to $100 dinners?  Yeah, fine.  Whatever.  Paying to sleep in a hotel when we could have camped?  Sure, I guess so.  Buying the very best, most expensive household item?  Okay, honey.  Go for it.
    By the time I finally pulled the plug on the relationship, I’d lost my former ability to automatically sort possible expenditures into “financially healthy” and “financially unhealthy.”  aThis wasn’t all bad.  People who are good with money often unhealthily prioritize it over quality-of-life or important investments in themselves.  E.g. For years I struggled along on a painfully slow, under-powered, ergonomically unhealthy, super-tiny laptop.  Because it was only $300!  But I spend five to ten hours a day on the computer.  While I did grow my patience muscle, there are a whole lot of articles that didn’t get written, research that didn’t get done, messages to friends and family that didn’t get sent, life-maintenance that didn’t get finished.  When my extravagant darling insisted I treat myself to the best laptop money can buy, I reluctantly assented.  The four-figure sum improved my waking life in countless ways, and I never, ever regretted it.  Thanks to those collectively awful years with the bossiest man I know, I can now painlessly and willingly invest in myself.  Worth it?  Suddenly going to the grocery store and spending less than $70 was actually hard work!  Ending up with money leftover at the end of the month no longer happened on its own.  And to top it off, I had no clear idea of where it all went.  Oh no!

What it’s Like to Follow the $15 Rule

  • Makes you admit that many of your “needs” are actually “wants.”  I only want expensive cheese that requires half my allotted $15 grocery budget.  I only want chips to scoop up my egg-avocado-cheese-salsa breakfast, although a spoon will do.
    Now I shop from a grocery list of items I’ve jotted down as “needs,” but at the store I have to fill my cart starting with the item I’d be most sad not to have.  I almost never get to buy everything on my list.  And I discover that I don’t actually “need” all those things!  I get by just fine without following through on my idea to buy berries and yogurt or more pasta and tuna or whatever.  Which leads me to…
  • Keeps you buying only what you need.  You know that box of quinoa, jar of capers, or name-your-unused-item has been sitting in the back of your cupboard for months? Even though you fully envisioned yourself becoming a quinoa-making, caper-using, variety-in-the-kitchen superhero when you bought it?  Well, being limited to $15 at the grocery store forces you to use those items up.  Perhaps the ingredients for a wanted dish are more than $15, so it takes a few trips to amass the needed items.  In the meantime, you buy a cheap bag of carrots, use that half-an-onion in the fridge and the quinoa in the cupboard to make a stirfry + grain.
  • Keeps you using only what you need.  Pre $15-rule, if I went to make a stirfry, I’d go ahead and chop up the whole onion.  I’d probably throw in the whole box of mushrooms.  I’d likely use the entire bell pepper/capsicum.  Now, with grocery-store acquisitions being more difficult to come by, I think twice.  Do I really need the entire onion?  It would be awfully nice to have it to flavor at least one more dish without having to use up some of my precious grocery store budget.
  • Makes you realized “free” isn’t always “free.”  For example, I want to stay in the habit of always filling my tank all the way at the gas station.  To do so, I need to think about getting to the station before I’ll need more than $15 in fuel, which in turn requires thinking about how much gas it take to get to all the places I’m going.  Awareness!  Suddenly I realize that I’m spending money, even when I’m not handing over my credit card (I use credit cards to get free flights, not to rack up debt).  Driving to meet a friend for a picnic, going to the free concert in the park, taking my nephews on a hike… are all “free” activities that actually cost money!
  • Makes you question purchases.  E.g. When I “need” (want?) new black pants and see the price tag is more than $15, I have to decide… Do I really want them?  Enough to break my rule and start down the path back to financial insecurity?  E.g. When I want to buy a friend a gift….  Will they really love it?  Use it?  Or will this just be a pricey “thought that counts?”  E.g. When I want a capo for the guitar or to try some electronic gadget…  Will I really use it?  Will I actually play the guitar more often, use the gadget all the time, etc.?
  • Forces you to come up with alternatives.  Maybe I don’t have to take a friend or family member to lunch and to a museum and to a movie.  Maybe we can still be happy and have a good time together if we pick the paid activity we most want to do (museum?) and then have a picnic and go home and watch a movie using the electricity and media service we’re already paying for?
  • Makes you aware of your values.  This one really stood out when I recently required my nephew to participate.  When visiting my Arizona family for more than 29 days, I set a goal to spend one-on-one time with every local family member.  On my day with the eleven-year-old, I decided to combine his love of trains with my love of travel.  I surprised him with a train trip to the next town where we would spend the day, but set our limits for the day at $15 busually my rule if $15 per cash-register, but I chose to think of our day together as a single spending opportunity lest we rack up a huge bill.
    The options to spend money were bountiful.  Snack bars, museums, thrift stores, cafes, ice cream shops.  However, each time he wanted to spend money I knew he’d regret later, I pointed out the opportunity cost.  “Are you sure you want to spend $1.50 on snack-bar chips?  What if you find a record at the thrift store and can’t afford it?  How will you feel then?”  And, “It’s okay if you want to order hot chocolate with your breakfast.  But did you check on the menu to see how much of your $15 it will cost you?  Would you rather have hot chocolate or get to play mini golf?
    It was great to hear him verbalize his way through a decision, clearly learning the intended lesson.  “I’m *definitely* going to buy three records.  I’ll listen to these for years, and getting ice cream only lasts for a few minutes!
  • Makes you consider growing-your-own.  A box of fresh herbs at the store can be two or three dollars – up to 20% of my budget!  If I spent $15 at the home-and-garden store on a pot, some soil and some seeds, I could have almost endless herbs on my counter, in my windowsill, or out my backdoor. cOkay, as a nomad I don’t have a counter, windowsill, or back door… but I bet you do!
  • Is great for your waistline.  Two factors here.  When I was in my “there will always be more money” (a.k.a “whatever”) mindset, I might just plow through an entire wheel of fancy brie or a half-pound of cashews, because… yum.  Now, however, I don’t just mindlessly shovel chips into my mouth when it means that I might not have the option to make nachos for a week.
    Second factor: variety is the spice of life… and the driver of appetite.  When you suddenly aren’t filling your cupboards with more options that you could possibly eat, you may find your appetite lacking.  E.g. once, on a backpacking trip, we forgot all our yummy, refrigerate-until-the-last-minute food in the fridge.  By the eighth day, I was so sick of oatmeal that I just didn’t (couldn’t!) eat, despite the full-day of hiking ahead.  E.g. right now I’ve had the choice of either salad, fruit & nuts, pasta & tuna, popcorn, or eggs for the last four days.  Sometimes I think I’m hungry, wander to the fridge & cupboards, and discover that it was only my mind wanting to eat… my body isn’t interested!
  • Makes you realize you don’t “need” as much as you think you do.  Sometimes I’ll be a little disappointed at the grocery store when I can’t get something I’m about to run out of.  By “can’t,” I mean it isn’t as much of a priority as the things that brought me up to the $15-shopping-stopping point.  “Oh well,” I think.  “I guess I just won’t get to have nuts on all my salads.” (or mushrooms in my pasta, or whatever).  But then I don’t run out of nuts.  Or mushrooms.  Or whatever.  I do have nuts on all my salads.  I do have mushrooms in my pasta.  Sometimes, by the next time I get to the store, the item has moved up a few spots on the priority list, and I’m still not fully out of it.The important sub-lesson here is an ability to be happy when things don’t work out the way you first imagined.  And to get a little hippie-dippie, “to trust the universe will give you what you need.”  Or something like that.  I discover my salad is fine with or without nuts, and my pasta is yummy with or without mushrooms, and maybe things don’t have to turn out like I planned to be content with life.  You can read a parallel about the stress that comes with trying to control how your needs get met, and the freedom in letting go in Travel Expert Gets Schooled.

What Can You Do?

I hope this article helps you think about whether or not your money habits are helping you get what you want out of life.  If not, are you willing to try the $15 Challenge?  If doing it for a week or a month seems too hard, can you just do it today?  If it doesn’t appeal to you, can you try one of these other life hacks instead?

Happy Life Hacking! ♣


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