Editor's note: This article originally ran on the personal finance blog Get Rich Slowly. It has been reprinted here with permission.
I’m not usually a fan of gimmicks. But if the sole purpose of a gimmick is to save some extra cash, I guess I’m OK with it.
We talked about this recently, but there seems to be a heightened interest in frugality lately. Maybe that’s why I’ve noticed a whole crop of money-saving challenges popping up all over the Internet, from personal finance blogs to Pinterest.
And then, the other day, my boyfriend asked: “Have you heard of this thing called the 52-week challenge”?
I was a little surprised. My boyfriend doesn’t spend much time on the Internet and he doesn’t keep up with personal-finance trends. Turns out, a friend of his mentioned the challenge during a recent hangout, as he and his wife are giving it a go.
It looks like the latest frugal gimmick has transcended the Internet and made its way into my real life. And I’m all for it.
Why I like money-saving challenges
I know, I know. These challenges are, as I said, gimmicky. And gimmicks are usually passing trends. As financially savvy people, we’re supposed to focus on slow and steady, not new and trendy.
But the topic of personal finance could use a little more attention. Our culture could stand to be a little more aware of frugality and our finances. So if it takes a gimmick to get people to realize saving is important, I’m OK with that.
Another reason I like these challenges is they promote accountability. A lot of people who take on the challenges share their progress online, or they take them on with a friend. We’ve mentioned this a couple of times in the past: Keeping like-minded company is important on the road to financial security.
So I welcome these money-saving challenges. And, as a frugal geek who enjoys looking for new ways to save, I have to admit, they are kind of exciting. I have my conservative saving habits, sure. But what’s so bad about adding a little fun to saving? And maybe even saving a little extra in the process?
The jar challenge
Growing up, my parents kept a water cooler jug full of spare change in their closet. I have no idea where the jug came from, because we never owned a water cooler. I think it was a leftover from my stepdad’s bachelor apartment.
Anyway, all three of us — my mom, stepdad and I — would feed this jug all of our extra change. It took years to fill it up. Well, maybe not years. Time moves slower when you’re a child, so maybe it was more like months. Whatever the time frame, it was a challenge in patience to wait for that jug to fill up. My parents always said we’d use the money to buy something special. But, for me, the reward wasn’t even what made it fun.
Truthfully, I have no recollection of anything special we bought with that money. But I do remember coming home from school, excited to roll quarters and nickels and dimes, and then do the math. Hundreds of dollars. For that brief period, I felt like we were rich.
Pinterest is rife with creative spinoffs of the jar challenge. And, of course, Bank of America has an automatic program for this — Keep the Change. You can easily replicate Keep the Change by using only bills to pay for your expenses. When you get change back, put it in a jar.
You can give yourself a time-based goal — How much change can I save in three months? Or you can give yourself a visual goal, like we did with the water cooler — How much will I save when this puppy is full?
Buy nothing year or month
My mom was inspired by the story of Julie Phillips and Geoff Szuszkiewicz, two Calgary roommates who resolved to buy nothing but essentials for an entire year.
After reading my interview with them, my mom made it her New Year’s resolution to only spend money on necessities.
“I just want to see if I can do it,” she said. “And I’m curious to see how much I can save.”
I talk to my mom at least once a week, and at least once a week she tells me about some shopping item she was tempted to buy but didn’t.
“I found a gold tray at Ross,” she told me. “It was in the shape of a squirrel. I was going to buy it for you. But I decided not to.”
I was profoundly disappointed about not having a gold squirrel platter, but I was proud of my mom for sticking with her resolution. So far, she’s probably saved over a couple hundred bucks only buying what she needs: food, toiletries, gasoline, etc. Most people would probably save more than that. My mom just doesn’t buy a lot of stuff to begin with.
A couple of years ago, a reader shared her own version of this challenge. She called it Superfrugality Month:
“Every year in February, once the holidays are over and life is slowly returning to normal, my boyfriend and I undertake a project that helps us stop lifestyle inflation and save on the order of $300 each for the month. We call this exercise ‘Superfrugality Month’ and the rules are pretty simple.
"We don’t spend any money on non-essentials during the month of February. Once March first rolls around, we can spend money on wants again. That’s it in a nutshell.”
It’s simple, but I like this challenge. I like the idea of challenging yourself to a life of bare necessities. Yes, it’s probably an unrealistic long-term habit. But I think it’s a good experiment in making yourself a more mindful consumer. When you’re forced to resist your shopping urges, you think more about your spending habits. The more aware you are of your spending, the more control you have over it.
There’s nothing wrong with spending; but I, for one, could use a little more controlled spending.
The 52-week challenge
This one seems to be the most popular, and I’m sure most of you have probably heard of it. But I mentioned it above, so I figure it deserves a quick recap:
You start saving at the beginning of the year. You save according to what week it is. So the first week of the year, you save $1. The second week, you save $2. On the last week of the year, you save $52. And, by the end of the year, you will have $1,378 saved.
Sure, you could just save your money and put $1,378 in your savings account at any given time. But where’s the fun in that?
Another thing I like about this challenge is that it gives you a weekly, recurring savings goal. It might be small amount, but it’s a great way to save when you don’t have much to save. It’s also a great way to save if you’re new at saving or aren’t particularly good at it. You gradually become a better saver.
Anyway, I know not everyone is a fan of these monthly challenges, and I understand that long-term habits beat fads. On the other hand, these challenges make us question our limits, they make us question our spending and they boost our savings routine.
But what do you think? Do you approve of money challenges? If so, what are some of your favorites?