Free up some instant cash: Go on a 5-day financial fast

Posted by Shelly Eweka.
Something seemed different about my coworker. For a start, she no longer spent her lunch break shopping online, and instead of takeout tapas ($20, including delivery), she brought in homemade chicken ($4, give or take). What’s more, she appeared less preoccupied, more focused than before. Far from deprived, her plate was full. What was her secret? I was dying to know.
You may have heard of 16-hour fasting, where you eat during an eight-hour window—say noon to 8 p.m.—and abstain for the rest of the day. Well, it turns out that my colleague was on a five-day financial fast. The idea was simple: You can only spend money on two days out of the seven. And for the remaining five days, you’re on a strict dollar-free diet.
During your spend-free days, you can’t lay a finger on cash or card. Or even the PayPal app, for that matter. Weekdays worked best for her because Monday to Friday she was too busy making money to go shopping (online outlets notwithstanding). While leaving her wallet at home five days a week was traumatic at first, it ultimately did wonders for her well-being, and her wealth (saving $80 on lunch alone).
People often scoff at extreme diets, especially if they are naturally thin. Unnaturally thrifty, I nevertheless grasped the value of her “dollar diet” instantly.

Use age-old fasting principles to fatten your principal

When you overeat, the results are plain to see; overspend, and it’s not always obvious that you have a problem. Your lifestyle has a way of creeping up to match, or exceed, your income. And there’s nothing to really stop you until one day you get laid off or retire, or find yourself belly-deep in debt. You don’t always have control over life’s ups and downs, so in order to survive the downs, you need to trim your spending during the ups. Only then can you fatten your principal—that is, the amount you put into your retirement and emergency saving funds.
If, like my coworker, frugality isn’t in your DNA, and you’re up for the challenge, here are her top five tips to help you through the first five days:
  1. Stock up like there’s a snowstorm coming. Before embarking on your dollar-free diet, take an inventory to see where you’re running low—on milk, toilet paper or toothpaste, and buy the items you’ll definitely need, in advance. Prescriptions, gas for my tank (but only for journeys that couldn’t be walked, biked or hitched with a friend instead). Pay your bills ahead of time and stock up the fridge beforehand with basic supermarket-brand supplies, like you would before a snowstorm. I bought my food in bulk, cooking vast quantities of stew to pack for lunch during fast days.
  2. Plan ahead for pleasures. Financial fasting simply means going without cash, not grimly denying yourself the things you want. Frame it like that and life will be a lot easier. For example: Can’t go without your morning coffee? Buy a filter coffee machine (not the kind that uses expensive, wasteful capsules), coffee beans and thermos on a spend day. If you’re a serious coffee fiend, the investment will likely pay for itself within the first month.
  3. Schedule your social calendar accordingly. Having your spend days on the weekend makes sense when you consider that social gatherings tend to happen then. If someone’s birthday falls on a Wednesday, though, you might have to switch up your spend days that week to coincide: Remain flexible and always keep your goal in sight. If your goal is to fast for five days per week, it doesn’t really matter which ones.
  4. Remove temptations. Just like calorie counters should take a detour away from fast food joints on the way home, so must the financial faster block her favorite brand websites from her computer and smartphone (for example, you can enable restrictions on your iPhone by going to Settings).
  5. Get creative. When you do a physical fast, your body starts burning up excess fat. During a financial fast, a similar thing starts to happen—you find yourself using the food stockpiled in your kitchen. Leftover lasagna you’d forgotten about, chicken legs from a month ago, who knows what ancient treasures you will unearth from the icy depths of your freezer? See how creative you can get with the freebies that life offers. Does your kitchen at work provide perks like bread? If so, bring an inexpensive package of sliced turkey and cheese to make a sandwich for lunch. Is fresh fruit supplied? Add some Greek yogurt, from the large tub you bought on Sunday.

A boost to your wealth and well-being

Write down in a journal how much you spend each day—or better yet, sign up for an app or website that will automatically track your spending for you. And compare that to what you’re spending in an alternative universe, where you continue frittering your money, as before. That way, you can calculate how much you saved at the end. This sum should be treated like a bonus or tax refund: Invest a third in your emergency fund (up to six months of salary, and once you have those ducks in a row, move onto your IRA), use a third to pay down debts and splurge the rest during spend days. It’s only traditional to end your weekly fast with a celebration; Easter comes after Lent just as Eid follows Ramadan. Surely that defeats the purpose, you may be thinking. Two days of splurging can easily undo five days of gains. In practice, extended periods of fasting tend to reduce overall consumption of money—as with food—even when you allow for bingey cheat days.
Fasting: It jolts the body into hunting mode and concentrates the mind. It’s teaching my once-profligate coworker that the best things in life really are free: Volunteering at a rescue mission, inviting friends and family over to cook, enjoying the great outdoors. Before, she went through life suspecting that her happiness was conditional on how much money she had, what she could afford. Financial fasting has done away with this fallacy. As she pointed out: “It’s liberating to realize, after all these years, that most of the things I spend money on, I don’t really need.”
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February 26, 2019