Financial Planning for Geeks

Holiday Hangover? Try Frugal February

- Potpourri

Did the holidays leave you with a bulging budget?

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Did I overdo it, darling?

My husband, Andrew, suggested this month’s topic. He thought it would be interesting to do something like Dry January, when people give up alcohol for the month, except with money.

I was immediately on board, but decided to move the challenge to February for three reasons: first, I immediately came up with a good alliteration for “February.” Second, it seemed really harsh to add a financially dry January to alcohol-free January (for some of you), coming down from the high of the holidays, and getting back into some semblance of a routine. Third, I publish my blog pieces around the middle of the month, and I didn’t want the month to be half over before you had a chance to participate.  

So let’s shoot for Frugal February, OK? If you prefer to do Meager March or Spartan September (it IS a lot of fun coming up with these), have at it. But no matter which month you choose, let’s start by getting clear about what we mean by Frugal February. Fundamentally, the challenge is to eliminate all non-essential spending for an entire month. If you’d rather not go completely cold turkey, you could try cutting non-essential spending in half, or just eliminating one or two types of spending. Make it work for you; I won’t judge.

Once you decide to participate, it’s a good idea to start by thinking about WHY. What are you trying to accomplish? Here are some of the potential goals or reasons you might have for participating (and yes, feel free to have more than one):

1.        To pay off debt. Set a target for how much you’d like to pay off.

2.        To set aside more savings or investment money. Set a goal for how much you’d like to save.

3.        To be more intentional about how you spend money.

4.        To try on the habit of frugality and see how it goes, and then continue in the ways that work for you.

5.        To learn more about who you are as a spender, what matters to you, etc. Maybe you will discover some things you can live without, and other things you can't.

Once you know your why, you’ll need to figure out exactly what counts as “non-essential” spending for you. In general, this is money you spend on discretionary items, services, and experiences which aren’t necessary to survive or meet financial obligations. Non-essential / discretionary spending would typically include entertainment, eating and drinking outside your home, travel, a new pine-smoke-and-fig candle for the den, a pogo stick, and so forth.

In contrast, non-discretionary spending refers to necessary expenses you can’t change easily. For most people, this would include mortgage / rent, utilities, food, and transportation. So, what about Netflix? Well, it’s not easy to make changes to subscriptions, but maybe you could pause or cancel the ones you don’t need or enjoy anymore. There is a fine line between non-discretionary and discretionary spending, but do your best to decide which ones have to go during YOUR Frugal February. Make a list.

Once you know what you’re eliminating, it’s time to implement. Turn off, pause, reduce, or cancel whatever you need to, stop going down to the Hound & Hag every Friday, and tell yourself no when you catch sight of that pine-smoke-and-fig candle in the window of Hygge Hideaway while you’re riding the bus home from work. I won’t mention the lattes, but you know.

Along with implementation comes tracking. Make sure you’re keeping track of how much you’ve saved by not making these discretionary purchases. You can do this with a spreadsheet or with your regular budget-tracking app if you use one. It might also help to pull up the data for a comparable month, maybe the same month from the previous year. That way, you’ll have some points of comparison. I also suggest keeping notes about what you notice about your spending and how you feel about it along the way.

Finally, you will come to the end of the month and the assessment phase. How much money did you save? Where did you see the biggest savings? Which items, services, and experiences did you avoid? Where were you tempted? Where did you give in and where did you resist? What does that tell you? Did you meet your goal(s) for the month? Why or why not? What else did you learn about yourself and any other people in your household? Do you feel the need to go to Target RIGHT NOW to buy something you’ve been aching for all month? Write yourself a nice retrospective so you capture what you’ve learned and remember it for your next Frugal February.

Once you’ve done your assessment, it’s action time. Is there anything you want to do differently now? Are there any changes you want to keep permanently? Or maybe you’d just like to reduce your spending in one or two categories, rather than eliminating it entirely. I highly encourage you to take a few actions based on what you learned from Frugal February, so it can live on as a positive new habit.

Then go again next year! No doubt the challenge and your learning will be different every time you do it, as your life circumstances change and your needs and attitudes evolve. I’d love to hear how it went for you.

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Penny Farthing

I, Penny Farthing (non-wizarding name Kerry Read ), actually have a day job in the world of finance. This blog came into being because of my deep and abiding love for geeks and Personal Finance.