How I’m Saving $18,432 With The Zero Day Challenge

zero day finance how I'm saving $18,432 with the zero day challenge

I’ve had a spending problem for the past few years. Like the majority of Americans, I bought into the whole consumer lifestyle and bought “stuff” to make myself happy. I came to realize, though, that spending money doesn’t make me happy. It satisfies my short-term wants, but at the end of the day, it’s just “stuff.” I started the Zero Day Challenge to help combat my spending problem and achieve my goal of reaching financial independence by age 40, and early retirement by 45. I never imagined that I would decrease my spending by more than $18,000 per year.

Zero Day Challenge

Before I get into how effective the Zero Day Challenge is, I need to describe it and why it works. “No spend days” are fairly common in the Financial Independence Retire Early (FIRE) crowd. People will sometimes do a 7-day no spending challenge. This means they will try and survive 7 days without spending any money.

This is a great way to reduce spending, especially if money is scarce. It forces you to efficiently prioritize how you buy food. It forces you to find a sense of fulfillment outside of buying things. These no spend challenges come and go — but why not make them part of your everyday routine?

Doing a year-long or even life-long no spend challenge is ridiculous. Typing this, I know somebody has either already done it, or will now try it. By restricting yourself to not ever spending money, you are doomed to fail. But what if you instead turned not spending money into a game? That is the Zero Day Challenge.

In the Zero Day Challenge, we gamify these no spend days. I refer to them as “zero days.” Every day, you track your spending. If you didn’t spend any money, it counts as a “zero day.” You track how many zero days you earn per week, per month, per year. As a competitive person, I always want to improve my numbers. This means the better I am with the challenge, the less money I spend.

6 Months Of Progress

I’ve officially been tracking my spending in the Zero Day Challenge for the past 6 months. At this point, I thought I would be on my own, but a few other people have joined me (I hope you share your experiences as well!), which is incredible! I can tell you that the challenge works.

It hasn’t been easy. Last year, my discretionary spending was upwards of $3,000 per month. Can you imagine spending $3,000 on food, entertainment, and shopping? I can’t even tell you what I spent all of that money on. At first, spending less money on “stuff” made me a little depressed. I was so attached to spending money that it affected my emotional state. But as the days and then weeks went by, something amazing happened.

I started going outside and found ways to have fun on my own. I stopped relying on spending money to give me happiness, and started drawing it from creating things. I spent more time with other people, and enjoyed nature. As the months went by, I stopped buying the crap that had previously been controlling me. Now, I only really buy things as gifts for other people. At this point, the following two things have happened:

  1. I significantly decreased my monthly spending
  2. I realized that buying “things” makes me less happy

Significantly Decreased My Monthly Spending

When I say that I have significantly decreased my monthly spending, I am not being hyperbolic. I decreased my monthly spending by $1,536. It takes $1,500 per month to max out your 401(k). I’ve managed to save more than the maximum contribution and it only took me 6 months to change my ways. If I invest this money in the stock market for 42 years and earn 7% post-inflation returns, it will be worth $4.6 million. Given my Financial Independence (FI) target date of 2030, it will be worth closer to $415,000. This may be enough to push me over the FI hill.

I base this calculation on my 2016 Spending Analysis. To give you a TLDR: I spent about $57,000 in 2016, which equals $4,750 per month. For the past 6 months, I have spent a total of about $19,000, which is $3,170 per month. This is where my savings comes from. Yes, my spending was ridiculous and it is still very high. But I’ve decreased my spending by about 33%. Decreasing my monthly spending by 33% is absolutely massive. In fact, it is life changing.

Imagine having 33% more money at the end of the month. You can put this towards your consumer debt, car payment, or even your mortgage. You can use it to add a very large cushion to your retirement accounts. Finding an extra 33% of income is absolutely huge, I cannot stress this fact enough.

Buying “Things” Makes Me Less Happy

I don’t mean this as a negative. I don’t go to the grocery store, lament the terrible prices and weep in my car because I spent $120 and lost out on a zero day. What I mean is that I no longer find myself swiping my credit card in an attempt to solve my problems and unhappiness. In my first trimester summary, I talked about how I was getting depressed. Loneliness sucks. (Thankfully, I’ll be with Zero Day Financée in September.) But over the past 6 months, I’ve tried breaking out of my shell, doing more social activities, and overall, finding more meaning outside of consumerism.

I no longer have the urge to buy random crap to make myself feel better. I’ve completely stopped online shopping (except for when I need to buy gifts). I don’t really derive value spending money on useless crap. Six months ago I would have, but now I don’t. And that’s the point of the Zero Day Challenge. You do not need to be a slave to consumerism. You don’t need to ruin your financial future just because marketers at mega corporations tell you to buy their product daily.

Numbers And Trend Lines And Graphs, Oh My!

Okay, I’ve talked the talk, now it is time to show you that I’ve walked the walk. I’m not going to post my credit card statements here for obvious reasons. However, I will show you what my Zero Day Challenge spreadsheet looks like. If you are interested, sign up for my mailing list and I’ll send you a copy!

Below you will see screenshots from this spreadsheet. I’m color blind so I might not get the colors right, but the blue line is my actual spending. The orange line is my projected spending to hit my monthly spending goal of $1,325. This does not include my rent and car payments, which are $1,625 total per month.

January 2017 Zero Day Challenge Spending

January was my first month of the Zero Day Challenge. I wanted to set a very high bar for myself! I basically lived in my apartment and did nothing. This was pretty boring. The weather didn’t help — it was really difficult to go outside for a walk. Plus, exploring D.C. can be a pain in the ass because I live on the Red Line, and with the current repairs, you’re lucky if you get a train. As a bonus, I did stay significantly under my spending goal.

February 2017 Zero Day Challenge Spending

February was a little easier for me. We can see that three or four fairly large expenses pushed me way over the trend line, and I never recovered. This was equipment for my bug in bag. (Basically a physical emergency fund that you can rely on in the event of a disaster like an earthquake or an extended power outage.) I didn’t hit my goal, and I didn’t have many zero days either; however, I was definitely a little happier, which was a huge plus.

March 2017 Zero Day Challenge Spending

Let’s just say that March was an expensive month. I bought Zero Day Financée a Nintendo Switch. I also got birthday gifts for my sister, and spent a few hundred $$$’s on new work clothes. Those are the three large expenses that you see on the chart. If I hadn’t made those expenses, I probably would have saved about $1,000 or so. I obviously didn’t come close to meeting this goal. Again, I was still happy which is good! The other good thing is that without those expenses, I would have been under my goal spending for the month.

At this point, we can start to see a trend. I’ve successfully eliminated a lot of those small, random expenses that creep up quite quickly. All that’s left are bigger expenses that I actually really enjoy. I’m glad that I made my fiancée and family members happy. It was worth every penny in my opinion, and I will gladly do it again.

April 2017 Zero Day Challenge Spending

April is a month where I came very close to hitting my target. I started off the month with a very large expense for my mother’s birthday gift. Then I spent another few hundred on my father’s birthday gift. Other than that, my spending was extremely good. Excluding those two events, I would have spent less than $1,000. I would definitely repeat them again, though.

Here is where things get very clear. I’m not really spending that much money anymore. Most of my expenses have evolved into small, necessary ones like food and gasoline. The large blips are for people other than myself, and I have no problem spending money on them. I will say that my dad’s birthday dinner was awesome.

May 2017 Zero Day Challenge Spending

May was another victory for the Zero Day Challenge! My spending will always start above the trend line because that’s when my car insurance hits. However, I stayed below the entire time, and even dipped down because I returned some stuff from Amazon. The interesting thing about May’s spending was that the previous two months are almost identical if I remove buying birthday gifts for my family members. I’m more effectively spending money on things that make me happy, though, which is the point.

June 2017 Zero Day Challenge Spending

June is a slight blip. I basically stayed over my target spending for the entire month. This month included purchasing my fiancee’s birthday gift and paying a ridiculous $180 E-ZPass toll fee. (I don’t understand why they can’t just charge your credit card when you go through — they must always pull large amounts of money in a single pass.) If I removed the birthday gifts + stupid toll fees, I would be very comfortably underneath my goal spending. Another almost victory!

First 6 Month Summary

This is my high-level summary for the year so far. My spreadsheet calculates all of this automatically — it even knows when there isn’t any data so it doesn’t award me successes for months that haven’t happened yet. I’ve hit my spending goal in 2 out of 6 months. I am way ahead of my targeted spending for the year, and I honestly don’t think that I’ll be able to recover. I’ve spent $9,144 so far and my goal is $15,900. I’d need to average $1,100 per month in spending to hit this. Not impossible I guess, but we’ll see how it goes.

Keep Calm And Take The Zero Day Challenge?

If you are like most people, you spend money unnecessarily. There are a bunch of little expenses that you probably don’t even know about. Courtney from Your Average Dough just showed her friend that she spends nearly $1,000 per year on coffee. Is the expense worth it? Maybe, maybe not.

zero day challenge

Join me in the Zero Day Challenge! I’m on track to save more than $18,000 this year, a 33% lower spend rate than last year. Do you want to retire early? Do you want to control your spending? Are you drowning in consumer debt? Help solve your financial problems. All it takes is about 1 hour a month and a little determination. What do you have to lose?

And don’t just take what I say for granted, see what others have to say about the Zero Day Challenge as well!

Good Hunting,

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47 Responses

  1. Lance @ My Strategic Dollar says:

    Love this! I too practice a similar method to saving and investing. If I make it a challenge, it’s incredible easy to reach the goal. Just think what people would be worth if they invested $50 a day or so instead of spending it!

  2. Amy @ LifeZemplified says:

    Congrats on the savings thus far David! I love this “I no longer find myself swiping my credit card in an attempt to solve my problems and unhappiness.” Golden!

    • David says:

      Thanks Amy!

      It has definitely had a huge impact on my mental health. Pushing my FI date up also gives me more time to enjoy life

  3. Sarah (Smile & Conquer) says:

    Wow well done on your first 6 months! I like the idea of a zero day challenge as opposed to a longer term challenge, which can be hard to stick to. In the end the results seem similar but you avoid that splurge that seems to happen so often after withholding spending for s significant period. Good luck on the next 6 months!

    • David says:

      Thank you Sarah!

      It’s really helped me out. I’ve always been competitive, so it was a natural fit. I also don’t get super stressed about every single expense which is a bonus.

  4. Mrs. Adventure Rich says:

    This is amazing savings, I’m really impressed! Keep up the good work, I may need to be taking the Zero Day Challenge soon…

    • David says:

      Thank you! Let me know if you wanna try, I’ll make sure you have my spreadsheet which helps keeping track of your zero days (and created all of the graphics in this post)

  5. Dave @ Married with Money says:

    I want to try out what I am calling “Spendless September” which is basically extending this concept to an entire month, with an exception of rent and utilities. I think if we plan out August enough with food we can make it work. It’ll probably end up evening itself out with the food purchases….but all the other stuff like extra coffees on the weekend, things like that, would be fun to try!

    • David says:

      It’s a good exercise to see if you can do it. No spend challenges are super hard to accomplish because things always come up.

      You could go the early retirement extreme and buy 30 pounds of rice, 30 pounds of beans, and then just live off that for a month but what’s the point. I never really bought into that extreme level of frugality.

  6. Kris @ says:

    Good job man. Keep maintaining the zero spendings days around 10-15 a month. It also reminds me to create a graph on my monthly spendings.

  7. Robert says:

    Congrats David!
    Love the concept! First time I read of the zero day challenge. I will definitely try it! I am already on track to save a good chunk of my salary but this is a new approach and who knows, maybe a can get a few extra bucks saved while having some fun with this.

    • David says:

      Thank you Robert!

      The strategy really helps me eliminate unnecessary spending that I didn’t know about. Even if you are good at sticking to your budget, it helps you holistically look at your spending and determine whats worth it. Let me know how it goes!

  8. Rusty Zappo says:

    Good read bro!

  9. Xyz from OurFinancialPath says:

    We first started no-spend-days when learning it from reddit FI sub, it’s a great exercise to save a lot.

    • David says:

      r/FI and even r/pf are great subs to start out on and ask questions, but they get crazy quickly. “What do you mean you spent $150 on food last month? You should eat rice and beans every day, sell your home and camp out in the wilderness for the rest of your life.”

      But seriously incorporating zero days into my daily routine for the past 6 months has helped me make tremendous progress.

  10. Divnomics says:

    Wow, this is truly amazing David! I think many FIRE people can relate to this as it really affects your mindset in everyday spending. We actually started out saving more money because each time I wanted to buy something, I asked myself if it was worth spending the money on. Nowadays, it creeps up on me that I’m spending with more ease again, but did catch myself thinking a few weeks ago that I’m having no spend days as well after reading your blog!

    I think it triggers a great feeling that you can achieve something small every day, which can have a major impact later on in life.

    • David says:

      Thanks! I didn’t realize how much I was saving until I ran all of the numbers. For most people to achieve FIRE, they need a different mindset. It’s so easy to spend everything you have, and the math behind FIRE just doesn’t work if you do this. Determining the value of everything that you buy is worth it because you get to enjoy what you buy more, and you also get to enjoy seeing your investment account grow.

      I also feel great knowing that all of these small sacrifices are helping me achieve my goals, and I’m finding out that they aren’t really sacrifices anyway.

  11. Gwen @ Fiery Millennials says:

    Why do you pay car insurance monthly? You can probably get a discount if you pay in 6 or 12 month chunks!

    • David says:

      I don’t get a discount if I pay my car insurance annually or semi-annually. At least it’s only $100 per month, as a 26-year-old male in a fairly new car, that’s cheap!

  12. Mrs. Picky Pincher says:

    Ooooh, this is such a fun idea! I love the idea of gamifying no-spend days. Somebody needs to make this into a legit smartphone game so we can all compete. 🙂

    • David says:

      Thanks! Playing games is always fun, saving money is even better! A leaderboard would be really cool, I’m going to set that up as a website (for now). My spreadsheet will calculate your zero days so you can push yourself, but let’s see how much website integration I can get…

  13. Erin Baynham says:

    I absolutely love this. I eat out so often (for no reason- I love cooking!), and I waste so much money on frivolous things. I am really considering leaving my credit and debit cards at home, but I’m so scared to leave without them. I’m not really sure what could happen without them, but I guess I just need to learn discipline. : ) Thanks for the inspiring post!

    • David says:

      Thank you Erin!

      I used to be just like that. I would get $50 takeout 2x a week, go out to a restaurant which in D.C. ends up hitting $100 pretty easily. But I love cooking! It’s relaxing and I get to make tasty food that is also good for me. One of the things that helps me control my spending is text message alerts. I carry a single CC (my Visa), and it texts me every time that it gets charged. I won’t read the texts on purpose, and at the end of the day I use it to track my spending. Plus it lets me go over everything that I bought to see if I didn’t really need anything, plus it helps reduce fraud.

  14. Erin @ Reaching for FI says:

    I love this idea! I’ve been considering lately tracking my spending by writing it down in addition to using Personal Capital, and now that I finally got my new daily planner yesterday (am I the only one who gets super excited about planners?), I think I’m going to do that and start this challenge too. Congratulations on all the savings!

    • David says:

      Thanks Erin!

      I use personal capital too, it’s a great tool to get that high-level view of your NW. I was never great at tracking spending, I used to have the Mad Fientist FI spreadsheet, but I got too lazy. Now I just fill out my dry erase board at the end of the day, which makes tracking super easy.

      If you want, you can join my mailing list and you’ll receive a link to my Zero Day Challenge tracking spreadsheet. You enter your spending for the day, and it’ll make some graphs for you and automatically track progress towards spending goals. Tracking in planners is also super fun, I have at least 3 or 4 sitting in my apartment right now.

  15. Miss Balance says:

    I’ve had a no spend week! Mostly because it was my birthday so I had lots of free food vouchers and other people offering to pay.
    I should get a little desk calendar and start to mark my days each month and tap into my competitive side too!

    • David says:

      Nice! Free food is always great 🙂

      That’s why I use my dry erase calendar! It’s so easy to keep track of my spending, and I’m much more of a visual person which helps me too.

  16. Reid @ Wealth Rehab says:

    This is awesome! I have a family of 4 so no spend days are difficult, lol.

    • David says:

      I was talking to my mom about this last week. She said no spend days are hard because there are so many bills. The way around this is to exempt parts of your spending from the calculation. For example, you might track your spending only on “discretionary” expenses and ignore rent/mortgage, utilities, etc.

      • Military Dollar @ says:

        You could set up your bills so they pay out on the same day of the month, too! That’s how I have it set up. For instance my rent, mortgage on rental property, HOA, property management, and cell phone all get paid on the 1st. Then all utilities and insurance is between the 6th-8th, and my investments are on the 17th and 22nd, I think. Only 5 days of non-discretionary spending instead of…12? I’d have to count to be sure.

        • David says:

          That’s a good idea! I can’t change some, and don’t include rent and car payment as part of my tracking, but I can probably schedule Comcast on the same day as car insurance

  17. Dividend Diplomats says:

    I mean, what more is there to say other than this is amazing/unreal. I’m happy you realized that stuff didn’t make you happy and that you were able to kick the habit of buying, consuming, etc., and turn the money spent into a WAY more productive asset in your 401k. Those graphs speak for themselves.

    I love the premise of the zero day challenge. It is an awesome goal with a sick metric used to measure your progress and results. I wonder how many zero days I would have if I started tracking this? This article gets me fired up and has me ready to roll today. Thanks for starting me off well this morning! Take care.


    • David says:

      Thank you!

      It all hit me when I looked at my spending, realized how much I spent, and couldn’t list 5 things that I bought which brought me enjoyment. Spending money was almost like a drug, I got all of the short term benefits of “getting high,” but nothing stuck.

      Now I get so much more enjoyment out of free stuff. Right now, I’m sitting on my balcony in the (blistering) sun enjoying blue skies while blogging and listening to a podcast. I may not be on a beach, but it feels like vacation.

      If you start the Zero Day Challenge, let me know! I’m in the process of creating a leaderboard so people can track their progress online, and we can all push each other.

  18. Dave says:

    Great job. I am going to start to track zero spending days. That is such a great way to reduce spending.

  19. Connor Sheldon says:

    Hello David,

    Thank you for sharing. I love the concept of zero-spend days.

    Can you share your excel template?

    Many thanks!

    • David says:

      Hi Connor! You should have received the budget template when you subscribed to my mailing list. It sounds like this might not be working properly, I should have everything working by Wednesday.

  20. Sarah says:

    I’m not understanding what counts as a zero spending day. Does that mean absolutely no outflows? Does that include necessary expenses such as automatic bill payments, groceries, gas, etc.? I would love to try this but am not understanding the guidelines and what constitues a zero spend day. Thanks!

    • David says:

      Hi Sarah,

      Very good question! The answer is really up to you. Budgeting is a very personal thing, and everyone does it slightly different. I’ll give you two examples, the first is what I do, and the second is what my mom does.

      I count a day as a “zero day” when the net spending on my credit card is less than or equal to $0 that day. I or ey every single bill with my credit card, except for my rent and car payment. I configured text message alerts for my Fidelity Visa, so I get a text message every time that it is used. At the end of the day, I read through my texts and write down all of my spending on my dry erase calendar. If the net spending is less than or equal to $0, then it’s a zero day. Otherwise, it isn’t. I say “net spending” because I include returns in this as well. So let’s say that I spent $50 on an extremely fancy brunch, but returned a product worth $150. My net spending on that day would be -$100, so I personally count it as a zero day. Some people wouldn’t, but you just need to stay consistent.

      My mom’s finances are much more complex. She uses several credit cards and has many bills to pay. What she does is track her discretionary spending. This includes shopping, buying groceries, eating out for lunch, gasoline, etc. She makes sure to put all of these expenses on a single credit card so that it’s easy to track. Unfortunately, she can’t include all of her spending in the Zero Day Challenge, but does what she can to help reduce waste.

      In the end, the definition of a “zero day” is up to you. Like I said, budgeting is very personal. Everyone does it differently. The most important part is that you develop a system that you can stick to, and then see what happens. Good luck!

  21. Bradford says:

    We are practicing financial fasting starting on the days after the 28th of each month, if there are any, until the last day of that month. That results in at least 28 days of financial fasting each year. In other words we “try” not to spend any money on any days of the month after the 28th.

    • David says:

      That is a very good strategy for a few reasons! First, if your average daily spending is say $20, then by not spending money on 28 days, you’re saving a solid $560 per year. In addition, it forces you to plan ahead and really evaluate what you are buying which helps control spending in general.

      Great job, let me know how it goes!

  22. This is awesome! I think I’m going to give this a try

  23. Happy Camper says:

    Gifts are the killer aren’t they? With no friends it’s not so difficult for me to avoid buying gifts for anyone. Princess Muffins and I exchange the same hundred dollar bill back and forth for each of our birthdays just to stick it to the man. “See that?! No taxes!”

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