Well, here we are—the last day of the 21-Day Financial Fast. I remember writing in my original post that it probably wasn’t going to be “fun,” but I have to admit, I was wrong. I truly enjoyed the Fast and felt all throughout that the benefits far outweighed the challenges. Of course, you might not feel as perky about the Fast at first, if impulse spending is one of your personal hurdles. But I really believe that, as is the case with working out, you’ll feel great after you get it done! Here’s what I see as the upside of doing the 21-Day Financial Fast, now speaking from experience:
- It’s an exercise in gratitude. As I mentioned last week, my main tactic for avoiding an impulse purchase—like an on-the-go bottle of Fair Trade tea or a take-out meal—was to focus on how lucky I am to have what I do. You can’t help but fully embrace your family, your health, your home, and your life when each day includes a meditation on what you’re grateful for. And, I found, once I count my own blessings, it's much easier to turn my focus away from any unneeded purchases I was tempted to make. The daily gratitude meditation is a practice I’ll continue, even when I'm not about to buy something.
- It really does change habits. One of the reasons that I wanted to get Michelle Singletary’s 21-Day Financial Fast into the Green American is that I’ve had success with a type of financial fasting in the past. A few years ago, as part of my spiritual practice, I gave up buying books for 40 days—books being my primary financial vice. In that 40 days, I wanted to figure out a free way to get my new-to-me book fix, so I organized a book swap with a community group, started using PaperbackSwap.com (an online book swapping service), and got reacquainted with my local public library. Since I took that challenge, my book spending improved and stayed that way. I still organize book swaps with friends, continue to trade books via PaperbackSwap.com, and remain a loyal patron of my local library. That said, I do slip up sometimes (as I discussed on this blog), so the Financial Fast was a great way to shift back to my more sustainable habits.
- It forced me to redo my budget. It’s important to revisit your budget every few years, to see if you can rein in some unnecessary spending, get or stay out of debt, and save more for retirement and other important goals. Part of the 21-Day Financial Fast calls on participants to create or revamp a budget, so I did just that. Without the Fast, I would definitely have kept putting it off, as revamping a budget is about as fun for me as sticking something in my eye. After retooling my way-too-old budget, I found I could put more money into my savings accounts, so I arranged with my online bank to automatically siphon money from my checking account into savings as soon as a paycheck arrives. I will also celebrate the end of the fast by increasing my contributions to my retirement accounts, as soon as I finish this blog entry.
- Paying with cash helped me better understand that I was trading "life hours" for my expenses. As Singletary points out, paying with cash instead of credit cards makes spending money more “real.” You can see the number of bills in your wallet dwindling, whereas if you swipe a credit card, it doesn’t look or feel like you’re spending anything—and you’re more likely to spend more than you would otherwise. I did forget sometimes during the Fast and hand over my debit card at the grocery store, but the process still worked for me. To paraphrase Vicki Robin, co-author of Your Money or Your Life, you trade your life hours at work for the cash you’re spending, so it's a very good idea to make what you buy worth the precious time you spent earning that money--time you could be spending with people and activities that matter to you, if you needed less. Paying with cash helped me visualize this message even more.
- The Fast even made me rethink my eating habits. When you focus on spending only on the things you need, it requires a certain mindset that doesn’t go away when you enter the grocery store. So when I did my food shopping for the week, I found myself saying no to a lot of my usual snack foods—pretzels or Fair Trade chocolate, for example—because they weren’t necessities. If it wasn’t a super-healthy option or needed to complete a dinner recipe, it didn’t go in my shopping cart.
Singletary herself does the 21-Day Financial Fast each year, to keep her spending in check and to go over her personal finances, ensuring that she remains in the most financially healthy place she can be. I plan to do the same.
How did the Fast help you? Did something not work for you? Will you do the Fast again next year?