How Zero-Dollar Days Made Me More Mindful Of My Money

Photographed by Rachel Cabitt.

When I first moved to New York, I was a 22-year-old intern at a news website making $10 an hour plus overtime. Despite the low pay, I worked in that position for six months knowing it was the only way to get hired for an entry-level position at this particular companyand I did eventually get that full-time offer. My rent for a fourth-floor walkup (where the kitchen I shared with my roommate was actually a hallway) and living expenses added up to approximately $1,700 a month, which I often couldn’t achieve on my own with my intern salary. I was lucky enough to have some assistance from my parents, which made me feel guilty (and still does).

To make sure I wasn’t overspending, I started a Google doc where I dutifully recorded my daily expenditures, logging grocery purchases, rent checks, bills, social expenses, and everything else. On the days when I didn’t spend any money, I highlighted the row green and added a smiley face. It became a challenge: How often could I go through a day without spending at all? And so, “zero-dollar days” were born.

I learned to plan ahead for maximum no-spending success. If I meal prepped on Sundays, I could avoid the lure of the delicious falafel place near work. If I snagged some extra wine bottles during my weekly grocery run, it would be easy to invite friends over for a drink rather than meet them at an expensive bar. I didn’t plan ahead which days would be no-spend ones, but basically tried to approach each weekday with that mentality. I regularly racked up three or four zero-dollar days a week.

It became a challenge: How often could I go through a day without spending at all?

As I progressed in my career, my income increased significantly and lifestyle inflation crept in. I got lazy about packing lunches and more prone to impulse spending. I also met my now-fiancé. When we first started going out, my social spending increased by a lot, between drinks, snacks to share, and late-night cabs. When we moved in together, my rent went way down, which in turn made me indulge in lifestyle inflation more because I suddenly had all this extra cash even after contributing to my 401(k) and savings account.

Along the way, I kept up with the detailed spreadsheet tracking my spending. But for the past couple of years, the tracking has sort of made me hate myself. Why did I buy high heels when I never wear them? Was that third Cosmo on a Tuesday night entirely necessary? Did I really need to take a taxi home from a dog wedding? (True story.)

What I found to be less soul crushing practice — and ultimately more productive — is to track my zero-dollar days (purple highlight, smiley face) instead of listing every single purchase to scrutinize and feel guilty over.

I’m certainly not the only person who needs to remind themselves not to spend money every day, or who spends cash on unnecessary things. According to Gallup, the average American household spends $102 a day, not counting household bills or the purchase of a home or car. While much of this spending can be attributed to necessities like groceries and gas, consumer spending is on the rise again after the recession. A 2015 Butterball study found that Americans spend an average of $1,100 a year on online takeout alone — an expense that can easily be avoided with some planning ahead. And clothes shopping, my personal kryptonite, comes at a price. A 2016 survey done by ING Direct and Capital One asked women their reasons for “going on a spending spree and spending more than I should.” Women cited wanting to cheer themselves up as the number-one reason, followed by wanting to treat others, feeling confident, feeling low, and feeling happy.

Translation: I’m not the only woman who shops for emotional reasons rather than necessity.

My zero-dollar days help me step back and question why I want to impulse buy certain things. It helps me with exercising willpower and restraint: If I’ve committed to a zero-dollar day, I’ll manage my Diet Coke cravings and ignore the siren call of Sweetgreen. If I pass a store window and see something I like, I’ll make a mental note to think about the item and come back to it later. Sometimes, when I’ve thought about a purchase for a while, I’ll decide I don’t need it after all. Other times, it makes finally buying that handbag I’ve coveted for ages feel even better.

But it’s far from perfect. A binary of “I’m spending money today” and “I’m not spending money today” leads to a lot of mental gymnastics. For example: Since I already bought a $3 coffee this morning, I can’t list this as a zero-dollar day, so it doesn’t matter if I online shop. I’m also aware of my privilege here: For me, no-spend days are a choice. I’m not restricting my spending due to necessity or lack of money.

I also can’t say how much money zero-dollar days have saved me. But it has helped me resist impulse buys, a skill that’s saving me money all the time. And altering my plans to fit the zero-dollar day schedule, like skipping to after-work drinks, gives me a reason — however arbitrary and randomly selected — to say no.

We’re surrounded by media messages about “treating yourself” to all manner of luxuries, it’s easy to justify spending money because you deserve it. Choosing to actively avoid spending for certain days helps me circumvent that mindset.

I recently left a lucrative job to pursue freelance writing full-time, and I’m doubling down on zero-dollar days. Now that I no longer have a regular paycheck, every purchase comes under intense scrutiny, and zero-dollar days help me cut down on the mindless spending I indulged in during my lifestyle inflation. In some ways, it’s easier than before. Since I’m working mostly from home, I make the vast majority of my meals and can snack on whatever I have at hand instead of buying something. But I’ll often want to get out of the house to socialize — or just be around other people at a Starbucks — and planning my spending around that has been hard.

I did cheat recently, when I’d committed to a zero-dollar day but was desperate for a cookie and something to drink at 10 p.m. So I asked my fiancé to grab groceries on his way home, and felt terrible about it for a week. The system isn’t perfect, and neither am I. But for the most part, zero-dollar days are an exercise in mindfulness and restraint that has led me to better spending habits. So for now, they’re here to stay.

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