Do you try really hard to spend within your budget, only to find that you go over every month? I thought that I was doing a good job at budgeting. I tried saving money every month, but in the end lifestyle inflation caught up to me. Instead of taking responsibility, I blamed random expenses that came up.
Reflecting on the past few years, I’ve never been great at controlling my spending, and now I see why. Last year, I spent $20,000 on the combination of food and “other expenses” which is way too much, and is slowing down my progress towards financial independence. I know for a fact that I can do better.
In general, Americans suck at saving. Since 1959, the average savings rate has decreased. At its high point in the 1960’s, it hovered around 13%. Currently, it sits around 5-6%. Even when the average American was doing their best, saving only 13% of your income is a great way to guarantee that you will have to work until you are 65 before you have a chance at retirement. For some people, that is perfectly fine. For me, it isn’t.
Do you want to fall into this category? Do you fall into this group now? How does your savings rate compare to the current average of a little less than 6%? Our lack of saving guarantees us 40+ years of working during our most valuable years. Advertising and society have taught us that consumerism will make us feel better. If we are sad, go buy something. Lack of education has caused us to become slaves to our credit card debt and purchase houses we have no business owning. There’s got to be a way to escape this cycle. And there is: we need to control our spending.
But how do you control spending?. I bet that most people know how much money they make per month, but do they know how much they spend? I wouldn’t take that bet. Of the people who know how much they spend, how many of them actually have a budget? And how many of them actually stick to their budget? For the past few years I was in the last group, but no longer. I refuse to be a slave to consumerism. I understand how easy it is to spend my money and wonder where it went by the end of the month. The Zero Day Challenge will help you identify and control this rampant spending, so you can take control back of your life.
The Zero Day Challenge
The Zero Day Challenge is simple: track your spending, and count the number of days when you spend $0. It’s that simple. Every day/week/month, go through your spending, and record it. For every day you don’t spend any money, you get a “zero day.” The more “zero days” that you have, the better. As you progress through the Zero Day Challenge, you try and increase the number of zero days per month. The more zero days you have, the less your spending will be.
Ideally, you should spend 5 minutes at the end of the day tracking your spending. If you did not spend any money, it is a “zero day.” If you did spend money, try and determine if the spending was necessary or not. You’d be surprised how quickly those little, non-necessary self-indulgences cost you over the course of a year. As you progress through the challenge, hopefully you start to recognize the actual benefit from buying things. Is it really providing you with happiness? If yes, that money was well spent. If not, maybe don’t buy it next time.
This is how I track my spending. I have a (snazzy) dry erase calendar, and I write down my spending for each day. If I don’t spend any money, I get a big fat 0! At the end of the month, I count them and see how I did, and figure out a plan to do better next month. This month wasn’t that great, I only had 9 “zero days.” I get better every month and my spending has gone down!
I’ve also started tracking my Zero Day Challenge progress using a spreadsheet. I created it specifically to track zero days. At the end of each month, I fill in my spending (takes about 5 minutes). The spreadsheet then makes a graph showing my progress versus a goal spending amount. It also counts zero days, and creates a yearly summary. This a screenshot of my current yearly summary. You can see that I’ve hit my spending goal twice, and missed it 3 times. I’m also almost halfway towards my yearly spending goal and it’s only been 5 months so far, so I need to do better!
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How Do I Do It?
Having a system to track your spending and reduce waste is great. But how do you actually do it?
Everyone’s situation is different. Mine is extremely simple. I only pay for things with my checking account (rent + car payment), or a single credit card. I track every expense that goes on my credit card in the Zero Day Challenge. Everything else is a shared obligation and I don’t track it. Your situation will obviously be different.
Step #1: Figure Out What To Track
Embarking on the Zero Day Challenge is a really fun experience! But it can be daunting figuring out exactly how to do it. Regardless of your situation, the first step is to figure out which expenses to include, and which to ignore. I exclude rent and car payments because they are identical every month, and represent a shared expense with my fiancée. You might want to track all of your expenses, or only some of them. Regardless, pick which ones you will track and actually do it.
Step #2: Figure Out How To Track
After you decide what to track, figure out how to track. I prefer physically writing down my expenses. It forces me to see what I’m spending money on at the end of each day. I also really like my dry erase board. I spent a solid $30 on it from the container store (the best test of your relationship with your SO), so I need to put it to good work. You can also use the Zero Day Challenge spreadsheet, or even build your own. Pick a method that you will be able to stick to.
This is the most important aspect of the Zero Day Challenge. You need to pick a tracking strategy that you will stick to for awhile. It must be easy and descriptive. I like my dry erase board because it is a calendar (giving me dates) and there is enough room to write down the expenses, and where I spent them.
Step #3: Review Your Data
At the end of each month, review all of your tracking data. I highly recommend using the Zero Day Challenge spreadsheet for this process. It will automatically calculate zero days, draw a graph of your actual spending vs. your ideal spending, and show you goal progress. Whatever your method, calculate your total spending and your zero days. Write the result somewhere, in a text document, a post it note, or even publish it on your blog. If you really want to do well, hold yourself accountable.
Regardless of how you track your data, make sure you spend at least 30-60 minutes per month going over you data so you can see what you spent money on and determine if it was “worth it.”
Step #4: Continuously Improve
As you go through the Zero Day Challenge, you’ll get a lot of data. Your average monthly spending, what you spend your money on, and how many zero days you earned. Keep improving. See if you can decrease your spending, only spend money on things that make you happy, and see if you can increase your number of zero days. Knowledge is power, and you’ve got a lot of it.
The real benefit of the Zero Day Challenge is that spending money becomes an uncommon event. Hopefully spending money becomes the exception, not the rule. Everyone likes to play games. How many zero days can you get in a month? The challenge forces you into a game where you minimize how much money you spend. Every time you whip out your wallet, you will weigh the pros and cons of the purchase which hopefully leads to more responsible decisions.
You will always need to pay for your rent / mortgage, car, and food. Expenses like that will always be there. However, do you really need to go out and spend $10 for lunch and $5 for Starbucks, every single day? The answer might honestly be yes, but it also might be no. If you removed those two expenses, you would save $3,750 a year which, if invested, would take years off how long you need to work to retire. In fact, your fancy lunch habit might actually cost you more than $1 million over the course of the year.
My goal for 2017 is to save 56% of my income, that way I can retire by the time I am 40. Without actively tracking my spending, I would never be able to save this much. Even after doing the Zero Day Challenge for a few days, I have seen my discretionary spending plummet. In just a short week, I have seen incredible results. Hopefully you will too if you stick to it.
After writing this post and saving $9,000+ in the first 6 months of this year, I realized that having a single post dedicated to the Zero Day Challenge simply wasn’t enough. Because of this, I created a new website entirely dedicated to the Zero Day Challenge. If you are serious about taking the Zero Day Challenge, subscribe to my mailing list, and visit the official Zero Day Challenge website. There you’ll find a ton of resources, financial tools to save you even more money, testimonials from people who are successfully using the Zero Day Challenge everyday, plus articles tailored to help you save money on your quest towards financial independence.
So, are you ready to save hundreds, even thousands of dollars per month? Trying out the Zero Day Challenge is 100% free, and I’m here to hellp you every step along the way. So what are you waiting for?