Last Saturday, I was cleaning out, organizing, and taking inventory of our freezers. I had been meaning for some time to do a so-called "pantry challenge" - seeing how long I could go using almost exclusively foods I already have in my pantry, fridges, and freezers.
Because we buy most all of our foods in bulk or by the case, we have more food in the house than the average family. Of course, we go through tons of food each month, but it's a revolving inventory that never gets depleted.
I was inspired to do a "pantry challenge" partly because it would force me to use up random odds and ends that have accumulated over time, and partly because it can never hurt to save some money (even if it is more of a "cashing out" of our items in stock, rather than reducing our overall consumption). We would really like to pay off the medical bills that we are still making payments on before the cards they have been charged to start accruing interest. Thanks in no small part to the many who have so generously donated to our medical fund (honestly, thank you SO MUCH, we truly appreciate every single donation!), we have been able to knock out one bill after the other. Just this month, we were able to pay off one of the two remaining massive hospital bills. By reducing our spending this month, we could increase our financial wiggle room again, since it was pretty much wiped out by paying such a large sum at once.
As I was thinking about this, it occurred to me that I would like to try and cut out just about ALL spending this month. There are no holidays, no birthdays, or other major events that would really suffer if I implemented a "zero spending" policy for myself. We are well stocked on food, and most basics like toiletries. Not spending any money on clothes, entertainment, hobbies, books, dining out, field trips, etc. will likely be painful at times, but we certainly don't NEED to have any of those things this month.
Later that same day, I was thrilled to find that one of my friends on Pinterest had just pinned something along these lines - what a wonderful resource to stumble across! Plus, it really validated my idea as something that was possible, and had successfully been done before by many others.
This no-spend challenge is called "31 Days of Living Well and Spending Zero," and is hosted on the popular "Living Well, Spending Less" web site.
I was so excited to find this just in time, and to get started right away! Saturday happened to be March 1st, so I jumped into Day 1, "The Ground Rules" Obviously, like most people, we have monthly bills for mortgage, utilities, etc. that we will still have to pay. In addition, there are other exceptions that everyone needs to decide for themselves what they will still need to spend money on.
Below are my ground rules, complete with exceptions:
Grocery and other items I may buy this month:
- milk, cream, cheese (and possibly other essential dairy products): these are items that have a short shelf life, so we do not keep more than a week's worth in stock. Being pregnant and having lots of kids at home, I do not feel it would be beneficial to our health to cut these out for the remainder of the month once we run out. However, I should be able to make most of our dairy products like kefir and yogurt myself from the milk and cream. I will try to reduce spending even on these items by not buying more until what we currently have in stock has been used up completely. We have chickens for fresh eggs, and plenty of butter already in stock.
- produce: Like fresh dairy, this only keeps so long. Poor baby Stephen can't go for weeks without his daily allotment of bananas! However, I will again try to reduce spending on this category by using up the abundance of frozen and home-canned goods we have in stock, as well as taking advantage of any free produce that comes my way. Some of my friends share the abundance from their gardens with me, and free citrus is everywhere this time of year in Arizona.
- animal feed: I only ever keep one month's worth of feed or less in stock, so we will need to buy some more before the month is over.
- essential toiletries: while we do have a generous stock of most items, those that are bulky we keep in smaller quantities. I may still buy: TP, tissues, diapers (I would use cloth, but don't have any in Stephen's current size), wipes, laundry soap, and whatever other essential staple we may run out of.
- any medically indicated expenses: really, the only thing I could think of would be an unexpected doctor visit. We already have plenty of supplements and a well-stocked (natural) medicine cabinet.
- gas, vehicle repairs: We are down to one vehicle for our family, but to think we can go an entire month on what is left in my tank is not realistic. However, I will again try to reduce spending in this area. Not going shopping should help with that! :) Seeing as our van is still very new and under warranty, I don't expect there to be any repair expenses. I do need to take it for an oil change this month, but we still have a free one from the dealership left.
Things we have already committed to paying for this month:
Just our mortgage and regular monthly bills for utilities, phones, my insurance, etc.
Things I may absolutely NOT spend money on this month:
- groceries beside exceptions listed above
- toys, clothes, dining out, books, entertainment, hobbies, any household items or furniture, gifts, field trips (unless they are free), convenience items such as paper plates (ouch), etc.
- services such as hair cutting, car wash (not even the $5 self service we always use), etc.
- Pretty much anything not listed in the exceptions above
Unlike just doing a "pantry challenge," cutting all spending on the above actually WILL reduce our overall spending, as these are not items that will need to be replaced or made up for at a later time (unlike an empty fridge). Only three days into the month, and I have already turned down two books I really wanted, as well as a great clearance deal on some maternity items I would like, but definitely don't need. Tomorrow, we are going on a field trip (tickets for which were purchased last month, whew!), and I will be extra careful to pack a very generous sack lunch for us all, as we will not be buying food out if I don't bring enough.
- This challenge applies only to me, not my husband. He is not a big spender anyway - I buy most everything we use in our home.
- I will not send my husband to the store to have him shop for me "by proxy" to get around my zero-spending policy.
- I will track all spending through an app on my phone.
- In mid-March, I may order from Azure Standard whatever I will need for April 1-14. Their delivery in April is not coming until the 14th, so if I skip the March order and delivery, I would have to keep the challenge going for 6 weeks. I will limit myself to absolute must-haves that cannot wait until the delivery in mid-April.
These are just my ground rules - what works for me may not work for someone else. The idea is just to have a frame work of what is and is not allowed, when the temptation to buy something is strong.
The challenge for Day 2 was to organize my pantry. I had already organized the freezers the day before, and since my pantry gets organized every month when Azure delivers, that was all that was necessary.
Today's goal was to come up with meal ideas. While our regular dinners won't need much tweaking (yet?), I figured since I am already on a "reduced spending" and "simplify life" kick, I need to tackle our breakfasts while I am at it.
Typically, our family eats a cooked breakfast and a cooked dinner each day. Lunch is leftovers from the previous night's dinner (I always cook a double batch for dinner to make sure there are enough leftovers). As much as I love a good breakfast, they can be time-consuming and expensive. For the month of March, there are only two options available for breakfast each day: oatmeal, or eggs. Both are cheap and nutritious, and can be prepared in a variety of ways to mix things up a bit. I may make an exception on the weekends and make a special breakfast if there is time, but if there isn't, that's okay, too.
For lunch, to cut costs, I will only serve dinner leftovers from the night before if we had a relatively inexpensive meal, such as soup or a casserole. If, on the other hand, I served something that was very heavy on the meat side, I will only make enough for that night's dinner, and then serve one of the following simple, inexpensive, yet nutritious lunch options that can be prepared by one of the kids if I am short on time: sandwiches/wraps, salad, Mexican food bean burritos or quesadillas, etc. Again, there is much room for variety here. Some sandwich ideas are: PB&J, tuna, cheese (grilled or not), ham or turkey, egg, cucumber, etc. Since I am not buying bread, this means I will need to stay on top of baking bread each week from grain I already have in stock.
Soooo... three days down, 28 to go! Have you ever done a challenge like this? If so, do you have any advice or insight to share? If not - do you want to join me in this challenge for the rest of March???!? Please chime in below!