It started when I was reading a $6 yoga magazine at an overpriced French diner in Los Angeles. Yes, of course there are things like French diners in L.A. My then-husband and I were having dinner before couples counseling, which we'd been going to for awhile. The fact that I was reading a magazine while we ate was a really good sign of marital health. This was before you could avoid your partner with your cell phone.
"We should do this," I said to him. I was reading an article about a woman who'd gone a whole year without spending money. I mean, she ate and she had a home, but any extraneous spending went out the window. No gifts, trips, new clothes, anything.
Between the two of us, my ex and I made six figures at the time—which in L.A. does not make you rich, certainly, but we made enough. Yet at the end of every month, when the bills were paid, we were at zero and waiting for our next paychecks to come. My husband was our household's bill-payer.
"We're living exactly within our means," he said.
Our therapist nearly burst into song, so excited was she that we were considering going a year without spending.
"You'll do this TOGETHER!" she enthused. "You'll be a TEAM!"
I think she was saddest of all when our marriage eventually failed.
At the dawn of 2007, we started our year of not spending. We'd pay our rent, of course, and take the cats to the vet if they got sick. But we'd have to remember to bring lunches to work, make gifts with our not-remotely-crafty selves, cook at home with our not-remotely-knowing-how-to-cook selves and worst of all for me, buy the cheapest grooming products available.
Before this little plan, I'd been buying this white truffle shampoo that cost $52 a bottle. I am in complete agreement of every judgmental thing you are thinking right now. I have angry Irish hair, and didn't know from the Curly Girl method yet (a method I highly recommend).
At the start of my no-spend year, I was allowed to use up all the products I already had, but once I ran out, could not replace anything that wasn't needed. I did have to wash my hair, so I went to the grocery store and came home with some $1.49 Suave.
It wasn't long before we both began looking like hell. Pictures from that time kill me. I was dying my gray roots ("You covering that gray is a necessity," my ex insisted) with dye from a box. We gained weight from cooking at home, because all I wanted to learn how to cook were things my grandmother used to make: meat loaf, chicken casseroles, mashed potatoes.
People always had 735 questions about our plan, and it's funny how they immediately stampeded to weird emergency-related questions instead of wondering about the everyday. "What if you get sick?" Well, we'll just die. We're doing an experiment. I mean, what do you THINK we'll do?
And here's what I have to tell you. It was boring sometimes, it was time-consuming sometimes (I literally got hives at Christmas, from trying to make gifts), people got mad at us (us not being able to go places got old for our friends). But also? Every month, we saved about $2,300.
TWO-THOUSAND THREE HUNDRED DOLLARS! I'm not kidding you! The we-live-exactly-within-our-means duo, over there, was in fact spending $2,300 on extras!
That happened to be the year we left Los Angeles for my ex's job, and we ended up needing that money for moving expenses, money we would not have had had we not done our experiment. We continued the plan in North Carolina, and after the year was over, we had enough money to put a down payment on a house—a house I still own.
It doesn't feel like that was eight years ago, but what do you want from me? I'm old. Time moves quickly now. That husband is gone, and for the first few years that I was on my own, I was dead broke. Paying the mortgage by myself, getting laid off twice ... it wasn't pretty.
But I'd lived that year without spending. I knew I could live on $1.49 shampoo. I knew if I couldn't afford to go out to eat, I could invite friends to wander the farmers market with me and come back to my deck for coffee, and that that would be enough. I knew, when the ex took the dishes, that I could buy a case of Mason jars rather than fancy new drinking glasses from Crate and Barrel. It was almost like that year of not spending was a dress rehearsal for the real, not-fun life I was living for awhile.
This past year, I've moved in with the man I'm dating, and my money sitch is way better. And not only am I the unlikeable kind of person who says things like "sitch," I also have to admit these past six months, I've spent like a man who just got out of prison or something. I hadn't had new jeans in years, and any shoes I had were flip-flops from Old Navy. But as the thrill of having extra cash wears off, I'm remembering how safe it felt to have all the money in the bank, that year I was spend-free, and I'm starting to put a little away again. I come home for lunch and spend that hour in the sun with my dogs.
My spend-free year didn't make me thrifty and wise, exactly, but it did make me see I don't have to throw money at every problem. That sometimes a homemade gift means a lot more than hurriedly buying a candle before a birthday brunch. That a quiet deck can be a lot more intimate than a crowded restaurant.
And that with the notable exception of a really good lipstick? The best things in life are, indeed, free.