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My frugal Februarys: Lessons from buying only necessities

You might be surprised by how much you save by curtailing spending in these areas.
St. Petersburg's Pam Haengel, who uses the Web site thegrocerygame.com to track where to get the best deals, checks her top receipts, some of which show savings of $100-plus.
Published Feb. 28

The first time I organized a monthlong "spending fast" with readers, I thought the point was to avoid unnecessary purchases and save money. That happened, but so did a whole lot more.

Spending fasts, if you're not familiar with the term, are when people temporarily halt nonessential expenditures. Each person gets to choose what''s essential and what's not. Many people avoid eating out, stay away from recreational shopping and look for free entertainment options. Some people avoid unnecessary travel or vow to buy only perishables such as fruit, milk and bread.

My first no-spend month was more than a decade ago with users of the MSN Money message boards, which I helped moderate at the time. We picked February because it's the shortest month, and because many people feel overextended after the holidays.

This was in pre-smartphone days, before we could buy anything from anywhere using a device we carry everywhere. But it was still a challenge to avoid impulse spending.

A bunch of us did, though, with occasional slips. Many of us saved a few hundred dollars. We also:

• Started to notice how often we spent because we were bored, unhappy or just wanted a little "retail therapy" hit.

• Discovered ways we spent mindlessly or impulsively, both online and in stores. (As one user of the NerdWallet Community forum put it, "More than a few people have gone to Costco for milk and vitamins and come home with a trampoline.")

• Really thought about what was a "need" (not much, it turns out) and what was a "want."

• Became acutely aware of the relentless barrage of advertising that encourages us to buy, buy, buy.

Today, February spending fasts are common enough that the month has been deemed "Frugal February" by personal finance bloggers — although you can try one any time, for as long as you want. If you want to learn more, check out this thread about our recent no-spend experiment in the NerdWallet Community forum. NerdWallet also has guides on frugal living and saving money to help you rein in spending even if you don't join a formal fast.

Although I've done this before, I'm noticing things I didn't expect — such as how out of control my tendency to "stock up" can be. I hate running out of stuff, love taking advantage of grocery deals and fully embrace emergency preparedness. Yet, sometimes when I buy supplies before we need them, we wind up wasting or donating them. For example, I've bought countless supersized boxes of cereal, in each case right before our daughter decided she was sick of that brand.

I had a related epiphany about meal planning. Instead of choosing recipes and making lists of ingredients to buy, I started checking what I already had too much of and building menus designed to use up that excess. The result: good meals with less waste.

Yet another revelation is how often I'm prodded to a purchase by my favorite design and cooking sites. Taking a break from those sites, and unsubscribing from deal alerts and retailers' newsletters, helps my pocketbook and the planet, since I'm buying less stuff that will eventually wind up in a landfill.

I thought it might be challenging to hang out with friends, since we often meet at coffeehouses or restaurants. But my buddies have been supportive, once I explained how my no-spend month works. They've come to my house for coffee or gone on hikes with me, and at least one is contemplating a spending fast next month.

One final lesson: Buying less has left me calmer. I'm not researching purchases, checking reviews or heading to the post office with returns. Plus, I'm driving less — no restaurants or movie theaters means fewer trips and fewer parking hassles.

Instead, I seem to have more time. I'm reading more library books, taking more walks and spending more time just hanging out with my family. It's a change of pace I could get used to.

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