SO. I took the Zero Day Challenge in August, and now I’m sharing my results with you guys. Yes, everyone likes results. Results party.
If you aren’t familiar with it, this is a monthly challenge where the goal is to rack up as many “zero days” as you can.
A zero day occurs when you go an entire day without spending any money. The less money you spend, well…the more you’ll have leftover to spend next month when you’re not doing the challenge, right?
An Obvious Loophole
Well, most people can see that cramming your spending into 10 or so days a month doesn’t necessarily equate to savings. This isn’t like intermittent fasting where you take advantage of the fact that it’s tough to eat a day’s worth of calories within a 6 hour window.
Unlike your stomach, your bank account and credit cards (especially) are not subject to time-based/physical limitations. You can drop $500 over 30 days, or you can do it in 10 seconds.
But does this little loophole ruin the challenge? Nope. I’ll explain in this post.
Our Expenses Happen all throughout the Week
We are a standard family of four humans + two pets:
a millennial wife/husband, two daughters, a dog and a cat.
Depending on if you are single, in a relationship, or have kids, there’s a big difference in the flexibility-of-timing and the frequency of your expenditures. Our experience has been very different throughout each of these stages of life.
Children have added to the unpredictability of our life, no question.
For example: If Alison or I forget something at the store, or realize we need something on short notice, we can typically do without it, or force ourselves to wait until a different time to make a purchase.
With kids, this isn’t always possible, though we try our best:
- Trips to the doctor for sickness
- Trips to the zoo, park, library, museum during the week (depends on weather, our sanity levels, kids’ energy levels)
- Bills of all sorts: weekly preschool or extracurricular activities
- Other incidental and unplanned expenses
So how would we participate competently in a no-spending challenge where it’s all-or-nothing to score a zero day?
Another question I had was, “well, what if we limit our spending days, but just stack all of our expenses into one day per week?” Is this just a way to game the system?
Would we really be saving any money? Maybe a negligible amount. Our budget is so intensely focused as it is… But there had to be an area where we could be challenged to get better.
Instead of gaming the system, we modified our challenge.
So we narrowed the scope of our Zero Day Challenge to focus on an area where we have a lot of control, but don’t exercise it well:
fast food and restaurants
Our budget for these areas are as follows:
- Fast Food: $33
- My Fun Money: $50
- Her Fun Money: $75
- Total: $158
Here’s the thing. Our “fun money” is meant for anything and everything. But it does end up getting spent mostly on food because we like to eat delicious food, and I love a good craft beer once or twice a week on tap for lunch.
If I spent less on eating out, though, I could more easily afford the finer things…cigars, Kentucky bourbon and video games.
We have a dedicated grocery budget ($395) which should allow us to cook all of our meals at home. This brought up another question:
Will eating out less translate to a higher grocery expense? Is $395 enough?
We had 24 zero days and spent $111.10 of our budgeted $158.
Here’s the graph generated by the Zero Day Challenge spreadsheet you get when you sign up:
The orange line represents our budget. The blue line is our actual spending.
You can tell that we started out strong. We literally at every meal at home during that time. There were many times where we discussed what to do for lunch or dinner, and participating in this challenge kept us motivated to say “nope, we can figure this out.”
Finishing Strong is Difficult When You’re “Starving”
We ate plenty of food, to be clear. 😉
As the month pressed on, our fortitude began to wane.
I think we could have been more successful overall if we had treated ourselves a bit more in the first 20 days. I’ve talked about this concept before. Completely starving yourself of pleasure can make it tough to keep going.
So – If you guys are out there paying off debt or being intensely focused on a financial goal, be careful of fatigue. Plan and work-in some breaks to keep yourself sane and energized so that you can go longer and harder.
The Grocery Budget Did Just Fine
Our grocery spending ended up at $372 of the $395 budgeted.
A couple of things we did that helped:
We bought less tortilla chips and dip. Normally, we buy two bags on Grocery Day, and then go back to grab a couple bags half-way through the week because the original two are gone already. I distinctly remember Alison saying, “Well, once they’re gone, they’re gone!” So snacking less was not a bad thing.
We bought less bread, and made our own instead. We’ve been baking our own home-made bread for months, but we are accustomed to buying a sourdough loaf (mostly a breakfast staple) and maybe a french loaf to have with cheese and olives on Cheese Night. We just cooked more of this delicious+cheap homemade bread at 50 cents per loaf.
Some of Our Go-To Convenience Meals Were:
- Homemade pizza (using our own dough!)
- Bread & Cheese: Homemade bread, a few different types of fancy cheeses, couple different types of olives
- Burrito Bowls: White rice, avocado, black beans, leftover meat from some other meal, tomato, cheese
- Pasta dishes
If you’re interested in the recipe we use for our cheap+delicious+convenient bread, you can either find it at your library, or grab it here:
So ours (shown below) isn’t as beautiful as the one on the book cover, but it tastes magical. The other thing we like is just how healthy it feels eat bread that’s simply water, flour, yeast, and salt…no preservatives.
The way we do it is to make our dough in a large bowl (keeping it in the fridge until we need it). Then when we want bread, we take some of the dough out, put it on a cutting board to rest for 40 minutes, then put it in the oven for 30 minutes.
The advantage of this recipe is that you only have to think about it an hour before you need it. We haven’t encountered a bread recipe yet that was this convenient. So give it a try. It’ll become a life-long go-to staple.
We’ve been done with the challenge for almost a month, and it’s helped us as most diets do.
I think you just become aware of all the ways you spend money when you don’t really need to. We’re eating in a lot more, and finding ways to keep the challenge alive.
I think we’ll do this challenge again in a few months as a refresher. Maybe we’ll pick a different area to focus on, or combine a few different areas.
Thoughts on Not Doing The Standard Challenge
I think breaking the mold and focusing on a problem area worked out great for us.
We already live on just 22% of our income, and live 100% debt free. At this point, we’re just being geeks. And we love it.
50 cents bread, people. You gotta try this stuff.
If you’re automating your savings by removing it from your checking accounts as soon as it comes in, you can squash down your spending pretty quickly, and it shouldn’t matter which days you spend money.
Apathy Ends has a pretty solid post on this topic.
However, the challenge adds a different dynamic. It was a fresh way which encouraged us to find other ways to get what we needed without spending money.
Also, some folks really struggle with budgeting and not spending money, so this challenge is great for those cases. So if you’ve tried many different methods and failed, this might do the trick!
Give It a Shot
I recommend taking the challenge once or twice a year at least. In fact, if you’re reading this in time, you may not be too late to sign up and take the challenge in October. They’re doing some serious cash prizes for entrants.
If you decide to take it, let me know in the comments. I want to hear how about your results and thoughts once you’ve completed it. Same goes if you’ve already taken this challenge.