This Holiday Season, Challenge Yourself To A Zero Dollar Day

With just a few weeks left until the end of 2018, this is the time year when you might need to do a little financial damage control. According to a study by the National Retail Federation, consumers spend an average of $1,007.24 during the holiday season — and for some, this can mean waltzing into the New Year with a pocket full of debt.
But before you go selling your Christmas gifts for cash, there are life hacks you can implement to combat the holiday season's inevitably hefty price tag. Step one: Consider doing a zero dollar day, a.k.a. 24 straight hours without spending a penny. Daunting, yes, but totally doable. And we're here to tell you how to do it.
While it's not as easy as hiding your wallet for a day (although, that would certainly help), with the right preparations in place, zero dollar days can be your saving grace this holiday season.
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That means five zero dollar days should drop my overall spending for the month to $585.

Think about your bottom line

First things first, figure out how much you typically spend in a day. Of course, doing a zero dollar day is great, but it's even more meaningful when you realize that you're saving $40 that you would typically spend on any given weekday. And keep in mind that just because you're doing a zero dollar day, doesn't mean you can spend double what you normally would the next day and call it even. The point of doing a zero dollar day is to help your bottom line, not to help you feel less guilty about splurging later.

In preparation, Alison Norris, a CFP and advice strategist, suggests doing a deep dive into your last three months of spending. (This is a good exercise even if you don't do a zero dollar day.) From there, break everything out into categories (food, entertainment, beauty, etc.), and ask yourself which expenses you can live without. This will help you paint a clearer picture of the areas where you need to curb spending and be especially cognizant on your zero dollar day.

Bonnie, who recently challenged herself to #NoSpendNovember, adds: "It's important to think about your budget as a whole.... I look at my typical spending — if I normally spend $700 a month on groceries and dining out, then this works out to about $23/day. And that means five zero dollar days should drop my overall spending for the month to $585. If I don't accomplish this, they aren't truly zero dollar days!"
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The first step is to make what you already have on hand work for you.

Avoid over-buying at the grocery store

Food is the expense most likely to foil your zero dollar day. According to a 2017 survey conducted by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, food accounts for nearly 13% of total spending in the average American household. The problem is, we don't always spend money on food wisely. According to a report by the Natural Resources Defense Council, the average American household throws out $1,800 worth of food over the course of a single year.

So how does one go about prepping for a zero dollar day when it comes to food?

According to Norris, the first step is to make what you already have on hand work for you. That means opening your fridge and pantry and reacquainting yourself with the stuff you forgot you bought (as long as it hasn't expired). Maybe you tossed a few packs of ramen into your cart on a whim during a shopping trip a few months ago, or maybe you have a few cans of tuna that will make for a quick and easy lunch on crackers. Not only will this help mitigate food waste — it will help you save.

Once you know what you're working with, make a plan — meal prepping is key. And if you need a few items to fill in the gaps, head out to the grocery store — just as long as it's in advance of your zero dollar day.

Bonnie says that frequently cooking with a Crock-Pot has helped her on zero dollar days: "It allows me to purchase a cheaper cut of meat, because it still cooks beautifully in its own juices. Then I add a mix of dried spices and whatever random unused vegetables I have. It turns into a great dish that can be served on its own, in tortillas, or on top of rice or potatoes. I can usually make a Crock-Pot meal for under $20 that's delicious and will last me 6+ meals. And if I'm missing an ingredient, I search online for substitutes I may have lying around."

(That's $3 a meal, FYI.)

Norris also notes the importance of bringing a water bottle with you wherever you go on your zero dollar day so that you won't be tempted to pay for a drink.
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This is just as much an exercise in organizing your expenses as it is in saving.

Remember, it's all about the little things

Norris recommends using physical reminders to help you stay focused on your savings goals. That might mean a motivational Post-it note on your mirror to greet you when you wake up in the morning, or a picture on your computer's desktop of the dream home you're saving up for. When you remind yourself of why you're eating a sad desk salad instead of going out for poke bowls with your coworkers, it's easier to stick to your goal.

Of course, life gets in the way sometimes and can throw a wrench in your spending when you least expect it — or budget for it. So it's important to get a handle on what you do have control over while you can. If you're planning a zero dollar day make sure it doesn't coincide with when your rent or monthly gas bill is due.

Beyond food, you'll want to do some other preparation. If your gas tank is nearing empty or you're on the last day of your unlimited MetroCard, make sure you top it off before your zero dollar day begins. Same goes for your toiletries and laundry (if you don't have your own washer and dryer). Make sure you're good on toothpaste and clean underwear (seriously!) so that you don't have to spend anything on the day of. This is just as much an exercise in organizing your expenses (and filtering out needs versus wants) as it is in saving.

Also, if you do find yourself dealing with an unexpected expense in the middle of a zero dollar day, don't use that as an excuse to chuck the whole experiment. Pay the bill, and then recommit yourself to finishing the day without spending any more money.
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Consider offering to host a potluck instead.

Make it social

Bonnie admits that zero dollar days can be tough, especially when it comes to maintaining relationships. "It's hard to miss out on a social engagement because you're budgeting. Be up front with people [about your limitations] so they know and aren't pushy. "

One of the best ways to avoid awkwardness is to get your friends and family involved in your zero dollar day. Plus, when you pool all your resources together, you might wind up with a dinner more exciting than just plain PB&Js. Assign a different task to each person (as long as no one has to shell out any cash), and voila — an all-expenses-paid girls' night in for the books!
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