I Tried a No Spend Month, and Failed. Here’s What I Learned.

By Ruth Lee

Vice President, Sustainable Business Consulting

Hi, my name is Ruth and I’m a shopaholic. Yes, even sustainability professionals have their vices! It’s hard not to be, in a world where Amazon Prime is now one-day shipping and retailers have the ability to fine-tune their marketing algorithms to cater to each person individually – ever thought about something only to have a relevant ad pop up in your internet browser?

But the consequences of consumerism and fast fashion aren’t pretty. In the US, more money is spent on fashion accessories than college tuition, 85% of textiles end up in a landfill, almost 40% of food goes to waste, and in 2014, enough K-Cups were disposed that, if lined up, they’d circle the earth over 12 times. Yuck.

That’s why I decided to try a No Spend Month to take a spending fast, reset and become less reliant on stuff. I’ll be honest, it was really hard and spoiler alert: I failed. Although I wasn’t perfect, I did learn a lot about my connection to spending and social expectations through the experiment.

The Rules

The first thing I did was lay out expectations for myself and identify where I was cutting back and what could stay in my budget. This list was my guide for the month:

  • No extraneous purchases unless it’s to replace an item that has been used up
  • Only eat out for three meals during the month
  • Limited budgets for transportation costs and groceries
  • Entertainment including Netflix and TV were left out because let’s be honest, a no TV month is a whole other challenge onto itself!

How Did it Go?

I had assumed going into the experiment that sticking to the no-shopping rule would be the hardest part, but I quickly learned that the most challenging part of this was avoiding dining out, largely because of social pressures. Case in point: on the second day of the experiment I took my Mom out for lunch and already used up one of my three meals out for the month.

Friends asked to make dinner plans or lunch and it was always awkward because I didn’t want to say no to hanging out, so most of the time I said yes – dining out fail. We’re so socialized to spend and consume as a way of connecting with others, that when a coworker suggested we all take a walk together, ultimately ending up at a pastry shop I strangely felt out of place not being able to buy something when everyone else did, and was met with a lot of “Oh yeah, I forgot you’re doing No Spend!” and “Let me just buy that for you!” so I caved and ended up buying a small croissant because it felt odd to be the only one not partaking.

No Spend Champions in Corporate Sustainability

The reality is, our rate of consumption is completely unsustainable. Although it’s not realistic to try doing a No Spend Month every month, we should all be trying to reduce our consumption and spending in small, imperfect, but still meaningful ways. There’s certainly a movement of companies embracing a zero-waste approach to doing business by cutting down on consumption. Nada Grocery is a zero-waste, plastic-free grocery store that makes reducing plastic easy and fun. There are also unlikely zero-waste champions: 96% of Subaru vehicle components can be recycled or reused, and they work to share a zero waste methodology with other companies. Estee Lauder’s 23 owned manufacturing and distribution facilities send zero waste to landfills, and recycled almost 90% of their materials.

Beyond reducing waste, companies are also leading by asking consumers to invest in high quality products that will last, rejecting fast fashion principles we’ve grown with. Patagonia’s “Don’t Buy This Jacket” campaign became known as a corporate response to consumerism and reducing your environmental footprint. H&M has launched a program to recycle unwanted clothes for a discount or a new purchase at the store, creating a trade-in option that reduces the amount of “stuff” we have, and Eileen Fisher’s Renew website buys back and resells gently worn clothing to reduce waste and overall consumption of items.

Individual action is a great place to start but a terrible place to stop. We need corporate action on a wide scale, embracing the no spend, no waste mentality, for a sustainable shift in our spending culture.

Tips for Consuming Less

Although supporting companies like these are a great way to reduce waste, the best way to reduce is by cutting down consumption. If you’re interested in finding ways to consume less and save money along the way, here are some tips that helped me!

Dining

  • Keep your pantry well stocked so cooking at home is easy
  • Take time to plan your meals for the week
  • Challenge yourself to a Chopped-style pantry clean out and cook with what you already have
  • Get creative and make your favorite restaurant meal at home

Shopping

  • Shop your own closet – Organizing my closet helped me find items I had forgotten about!
  • Opt out of retailer emails – I deleted apps such as Amazon, Postmates and Uber eats
  • Adopt a Capsule Wardrobe and only purchase items that can be mixed and matched to create a variety of outfits

Socializing

  • Find free things to do in your area – Here’s a guide for Seattle
  • Host a potluck at your home with your friends instead of going out for dinner, or cook a meal together
  • Opt for a hike or outdoor outing instead of drinks
  • Tell your friends ahead of time that you’re committing to a No Spend Month so they can help you reach your goals or even enlist some friends to try it with you
  • Host a board game night at your house
  • Take a social media cleanse to avoid unnecessary FOMO