My No Spend Challenge: How I Bought Nothing for Six Months

This year I decided to take on a personal no spend challenge. I wanted to see if I could buy nothing for an entire year. Six months in, I’ve been successful (and learned a few lessons too).

As I’ve shared my story with friends and blog readers, many of you have asked how to take on a no spend challenge. In our world of buy, buy, buy, where almost anything is available instantly at the click of a button, a year without spending sounds daunting at first.

I’ll admit, I wasn’t sure I could handle the challenge either. Even though I live in a tiny house and follow a mostly minimalist lifestyle, the thought of buying absolutely nothing for a year seemed tough. Now that I’ve been going on the challenge for six months, I must admit, it becomes easier when you start. It was a simple matter of setting up rules and then shifting my mindset. Here’s what I’ve learned about buying nothing in my first 6 months.

Why Try to Buy Nothing?

One of the first questions I get about the no spend challenge is “why?” To be honest, answering the question of “why” was a big part of the process to taking on a year without spending.

What it comes down to is, the no spend challenge isn’t meant to stop people from spending money because it’s somehow bad or wrong to buy what you want. There’s nothing wrong with shopping in itself.

When buying becomes a problem is when we spend money we don’t have on items we don’t need. It’s an issue when we buy items and tell ourselves little stories that aren’t true to justify our purchases. We expect our purchases to bring us happiness, friends, freedom, or other rewards they can’t possibly deliver. Ultimately, we end up less happy because those stories we told ourselves don’t come true and spending now detracts from our long-term goals in the future.

Personally, I have a lot of goals I’m working toward. One of the biggest obstacles to achieving those goals was money.

Spending money on extraneous items was causing me to delay accomplishing my biggest goals. It was creating a barrier to the big dreams I wanted to achieve. Once I realized my “why,” keeping myself focused on my no spend challenge has been much easier. No way am I going to pass up my big dreams for a temporary fix. Spending money now in lieu of a bigger, better future, isn’t worth it.

My No Spend Challenge Rules

I’m not a huge fan of rules, to be honest. In fact, one of the only rules I follow is that it’s a good idea to question everything (including the rules). I apply this “guideline” to my minimalist approach to work, as well as organizing my house.

Still, when it came to the challenge, I wanted to set up guidelines and parameters. Plus, I’m a stickler for semantics so I wanted to clearly define the rules, so I couldn’t exploit any loopholes. So, these are the no spend challenge rules I decided to follow:

1. Food Is Fair Game

Everyone needs to eat and I’m nowhere close to growing my own food at the moment, so realistically food was a necessary expense. As part of the no spend challenge I cut out all fast food and only allow myself to eat out at “sit down restaurants,” on special occasions. This means I’ve cooked a lot more.

2. Everyday Consumables Are Allowed

Consumable products were another necessity–like toilet paper, shampoo, toothpaste, deodorant, soap and other similar items that get used up over time. To make sure I didn’t find a way to exploit this no spend rule, I created an “inventory” before I started. I only allowed myself to keep those items and not add to the inventory list. These household items are super basic and have been reduced to only products I use every day.

3. Medical Items Are Allowed

If I need a prescription or an item recommended by my doctor, I can get it. I limited this to only the directions of my doctor. As a rule, this situation hasn’t yet come up, because I’ve stayed healthy. Still, health is too important to not add this caveat.

4. Only Buy What You Need, When You Need It

When an above-mentioned consumable or food is gone, I buy a replacement. This no spend rule stopped me buying items I don’t use. For consumables I use frequently or go through quickly, I set a number I’m allowed to store in my “inventory.” The rule is I can maintain my inventory numbers, but never go beyond them.

5. Fix First, Replace Second

All I really have in my house are the basics, which means if something breaks, I really need it. So, I said I had to first try to fix it, then if I couldn’t I could replace it. So far, I’ve only had to replace one thing that couldn’t be fixed.

6. Only Digital Version Of Books

I love reading and do a lot of it. One of my main goals is reading two books a month, minimum. So to do this I chose Audible audiobooks downloaded to my phone. In cases where I want a physical book, I’ve started using the library

7. Gifts For Other People

In some situations, it’s necessary to get gifts for other people. In many cases, I prioritize giving experiences over things. When a birthday or special occasion comes around, I may choose to take someone out to dinner, go to an event, take a trip, or another gift that doesn’t involve buying more “things.”

Six months into my no spend challenge, the only item I’ve purchased (besides food and shampoo) was a new bathmat. Unfortunately, the one I had mildewed and became grungy. After washing the grimy mat (following rule the fifth rule), I decided it needed replacing. When I did replace it, I bought a quality mat and threw out the old one. In six months, only spending $20 on a bathmat is a purchase I can definitely live with, so I still consider the no spend challenge a success so far.

6 Lessons You Need to Succeed at the No Spend Challenge

There are six practical lessons I’ve learned from taking on the no spend challenge. As I work toward a year without spending, these lessons have helped me more successful.

Better yet, these lessons will still apply even after the challenge is up. I would say, even if you don’t plan on taking the no spend challenge for a full year or if you set different parameters for yourself or your family, you will still benefit from applying these minimalist lessons every time you purchase.

If you want to buy less, take on a year without spending, or save money and make wiser purchases, use these 6 lessons to guide you.

1. Start with “Why” Before You Buy

As I mentioned before, when I discovered my “why,” taking on the no spend challenge became much easier. It’s the whole “keep your eye on the prize” mentality. If there are bigger goals you want to achieve, focus on the deeper purpose.

Purpose will keep you on track and give you direction. Again, the no spend challenge isn’t about getting people to stop buying for a year because buying is bad. It’s about implementing plans and purchases to ultimately make your life better. If an item doesn’t make your life better or move you toward your larger purpose, then it’s probably not worth the money.

Ask yourself:

  • Why do I want to take on a no spend challenge?
  • What are my larger goals?
  • Why will this challenge move me toward the goals I want to achieve?

Once you’ve discovered those answers, the rest is easier!

2. Do You Have the Money?

Perhaps the most obvious and easiest question to ask is one we often overlook. Especially with credit and “buy now, pay later,” promotions, it’s easy to live beyond our means. When it comes down to making a purchase—any purchase from a steak dinner vs. ramen noodles—as yourself if you can really afford it.

If you don’t have the money, don’t buy it. Plain and simple. If you’re facing a need you can’t afford, look at the other areas where you spend beyond your means. Are you renting a space that costs more than you can afford? It may be time to move. Does your car payment eat up your budget each month? It may be time to trade in for a cheaper vehicle.

A world of credit has skewed our view on what we can and can’t afford. At the end of the day, if you don’t have the money, don’t buy. It’s that simple.

3. Delay Your Gratification

When you’ve convinced yourself there’s a need to purchase something, add it to your list and wait until the next trip to the store. If you’re shopping and you see an item you want to buy (not on the list), wait until your next trip. The majority of the time the urge to buy will pass before you go back to the store.

This approach works really well with online shopping too. Whenever you want an item, add it to your cart and leave it there. Then the next time you shop, if you still want the item it’s there and ready. Chances are, you’ll find a solution to your problem without spending or you’ll discover you didn’t need the item as much as you thought you did. Waiting helps those who struggle with impulse purchases.  After doing this constantly for 6 months it’s amazing to me how often I find I don’t want something, it’s very eye-opening for a person who didn’t buy a lot to begin with.

4. Ask Yourself What You’re Actually Buying

We buy food because we need to eat. We have a biological imperative to get food. For the majority of our other purchases—clothes, decorations, exercise equipment, appliances—we buy because we’re purchasing an ideal or concept.

When you buy a piece of exercise equipment, it’s not simply because you LOVE to exercise, it’s because you want to get the end result: a healthy, fit body, more energy, lower blood pressure, and so on. You’re buying the equipment because you believe the purchase will give you the outcome you desire.

When you decide to purchase, ask yourself: What am I really buying? What do I hope to gain from this purchase? Will my actions result in the desired outcome or am I just telling myself it will?

We should always look at the stories we’re telling ourselves and the narrative we’re inserting into the purchase. I’ve seen this with people who buy RVs, only to find they wish they’d tested it out first. It turns out they aren’t really “RV people” and now they’ve made a huge purchase that’s hard to undo.

On a smaller scale, I ran into this myself last year when I bought a blender (before I took on the no spend challenge). I looked at the $500+ Vitamix blenders because I like to purchase the highest quality when possible. Looking at the price tag, I decided to opt for a $16 blender at Wal-Mart, telling myself if I used it consistently for three months, I’d splurge on the Vitamix.

Well, after a few weeks of smoothies, I discovered I don’t actually like smoothies all that much. They’re okay, but not $500-blender-level okay. By delaying my gratification and not buying the narrative that the new blender was going to convert me into a “smoothie person,” I saved myself $484.

5. Ask How Else Can You Achieve the Purpose

If there’s an item you want or need, such as clothing, books or tools, ask yourself if there’s another way to achieve the same outcome. Figure out how not to spend money, but still get what you need. Could you borrow the item from a friend? Could you somehow find a workaround to achieve the same results?

Oftentimes we purchase before we really explore alternatives. If there’s a book you want, chances are, you could find it at the library. The same goes for movies you want to see and music you want to listen to. For most tools, you can find rental options through home improvement stores.

Other items, such as clothing, appliances, and dishes are found for less at second-hand stores. You may even check Craigslist or neighborhood exchange pages to find the item for free. Barter and trade with others to get what you need without spending. Learn to create: cook, grow a garden, teach yourself to sew and do small repairs.

When we focus on the desired outcome, we may find many means to an end. A treadmill may seem to solve our desire to get in shape, but could you start going for regular walks instead? Is there an indoor track somewhere you could use for free? In the longer term, would a gym membership cost less and end up taking up less space than a treadmill? Simply buying an item won’t give you the end result you want, so you have to put in the effort. Could you get in shape without spending?

6. Ask: What Will This Purchase Replace?

In minimalism, many of us embrace the “one-in, one-out” rule. This, of course, is vital if you live in a small space. But, even if you have extra room, applying this rule will help you minimize clutter and keep excess stuff from taking over your space. Whenever you buy an item, ask yourself what you’re going to toss out to create room.

If you buy a new shirt, let go of your oldest one. New sneakers? Toss out your old smelly ones. New bathmat? Replace the mildewed one (which was the whole need for buying a new bathmat in the first place).

Don’t let yourself hold onto items that end up cluttering up your life and taking up your valuable space. Taking on a year of buying nothing will help you reprioritize and realize what really matters. What items do you buy “just to buy” and what items do you really need?

As you pare down and prioritize, you’ll discover there’s simplicity and beauty in maintaining the number of items you own. If you decide to purchase something new, toss out something old. Be sure the items you hold onto are what you actually need and enjoy—the items that make your life better and move you toward your bigger goals.

A year of buying nothing is a tough challenge, but not as tough as it may seem at first. Once you go through the process of trying a no spend challenge, you’ll be amazed at how your priorities shift. You may suddenly gain several hours a week you used to go shopping, you can now spend cooking a good meal, taking the time with your family, or going for a walk. You’ll move closer to your financial goals and build momentum to keep going.

I look forward to sharing more about how my year of buying nothing is going. I’d like to hear how you’re doing with your no spend challenge, too.

Your turn!

  • Have you taken on the no spend challenge?
  • What’s the longest you’ve gone without making a purchase?
  • What stories have you told yourself when you bought something you didn’t need?


  1. Hi Ryan, I have always been “frugal” and the rule I live by and have taught my kids and others is this. before you buy don’t look at the price as much as ask yourself how many hours need I work to buy this item? It works every time.I have never been a part of this mass consumerism and find it revolting. I love your newsletter and videos. I am well on my way to buying my THOW and achieving my Tiny House lifestyle. Good luck in all you do and for reaching your goals

    • I don’t ask myself how many hours I need to work. That can be deceiving. When you subtract your weekly necessities from your weekly income, you are left with a small amount that is your surplus. Divide the surplus by 40. That is how much you make per hour that can be allotted to extras. Life-changing to discover that I would have to work 2 weeks to pay for a trip to the hairdresser.

  2. With a few tweaks, I could live that lifestyle indefinitely 😉

  3. I work at a library, and we also offer streaming video, downloadable audio and ebooks for our patrons to check out with their library card. The majority of libraries also have digital collections. I thought I would mention this just in case your library has it too.

  4. My dad recommended this article to me. I’m glad he did and it’s going to keep me thinking. I can attest to the delaying gratification section, I always give myself a day or two to mull over an items’ genuine usefulness in my life.

  5. I went through a period where money was pretty tight & I was a few years from getting social security, so I didn’t buy anything I didn’t need. A bike shop refurbished & gave away bikes to people who needed them & since I didn’t want a car, I acquired a bike. For socializing we went for bike rides or walks, had potlucks (again, gotta eat!), etc.; so it was pretty easy. But then, I’ve always been a minimalist: just ask my ex-husband, who was always very materialistic.

  6. The food category is the most confusing and illusive part of this concept to me.

    For example, if you take the concept of not spending anything, but you have to eat, but overlaying that with only buying things you need then does this mean you only buy the food you need? Does this mean no spices, no dessert, no condiments? If the answer is yes, then I would challenge back and ask, “Do you really need that?” You stated we all need food, so it’s non-negotiable, but it wasn’t defined regarding what within the food category is needed.

    This obviously could then spill out to other categories then too. Do you really need shampoo and conditioner? Do you really need a car instead of taking the bus or using Uber or a bike? Do you really need more than one pair of underwear if you could just wash it every day?

    These are the types of questions I find myself asking when I read about a concept like this. Because the rules become grey.

    • Jesse – this is exactly the thing I’ve been struggling with on my journey to live a minimalist lifestyle – perishables management.

      Since overhauling all of my non-perishable items (I got rid of about 2/3 of my wardrobe, sold off $700 worth of stuff at a yard sale, re-evaluated what was left, added more to the get-rid-of pile, and then donated it all) food was the one thing that still made me anxious when I looked at the clutter.

      So, here’s what I’ve been doing: I’ve been slowly whittling away at the food on my shelves and NOT buying any more of anything that could live outside of a fridge until I’ve used what I had, and determined that I do actually need another of what I used. There has been a LOT I decided not to purchase again when I initially bought the item I thought I needed, like pancake mix and syrup, because I don’t enjoy making them.

      But that’s part of the gray area I had to define on my own. I can buy only what I need to survive every day, but I’d be stressed out every day thinking about when I could get to the store. So I plan for what I’ll eat in a week, then supplement what I don’t already have at the store keeping in mind how long it’ll take me to use what I buy. If it’ll sit around for 2 weeks, I better re-evaluate buying it, because that’s the rule I gave myself.

      Given Ryan’s general guidelines and employing a few more definitive rules of your own, the gray area of food can become something well maintained once you know your rules a little better. For me, it’s certainly been a challenge not to buy a ton of junk food — I love chips — but I don’t “need” them, so I limit myself to purchasing a bag every few months.

      My goal is to have less food waste and eat healthier (which, yes, does include spices and condiments, for me), so my gray area continues to be molded to work toward those goals, which will continue to be a work in progress for a while yet.

      • Hey Sarah,

        My wife and I would live what I’d consider a minimalist lifestyle. In April, we traded in my 1,400 sq. ft. 3 bedroom 2.5 bath house for a 1 bedroom 400 sq. ft. apartment. We previously had roommates, but the process of downsizing to such a situation was very difficult, yet cleaning.

        My wife was initially the one that was most intrigued in trying the no spend challenge. Yet, I didn’t think it was something that we would enjoy because of the ‘whys’ we needed to answer.

        For example, it would mean no desserts, no-spend date nights, no-spend travel/vacations, and no-spend fitness.

        These are all things my wife and I equally enjoy any enriches our relationship and individual happiness. Yet, when we look at the crux of the exercise it’s about downsizing to needs. Which means, we don’t need dessert, we don’t need to go out to dinner, we don’t need to travel, we don’t need to travel to or have a gym membership; but we do.

        Which brings up all sorts of philisophical questions like, “If you don’t need dessert then what is the reward for eating healthy and what is considered a treat?”

        “If you don’t need to travel, or want to do it with no-spend, how do you ever see family or get perspective or have a vacation?”

        “If you’re like my wife and swear by a gym as a need, then does it need to be close enough you don’t spend anything on travel or transportation?”

        “If you live in a house, does that mean you should move into an apartment it if you’re in an apartment should you build a tiny because you don’t ‘need’ all that space and that spend is therefore on non-need items?”

        My wife and I believe in doing less with more. We believe in doing our best, being adaptable, and enjoying each other while pursuing our own self worth.

        I personally believe when you head down the path of the ‘need game’ it can be a very slippery slope. Because you could challenge everything you own or do and in some capacity say you don’t need it and/or choose to do/have it because it makes you happy.

        • Jesse-
          No doubt it is a VERY slippery slope! I’d been doing my own (albeit somewhat lackadaisical) version of the no-spend challenge for years (before meeting my soon-to-be-husband, who comes with 5 children). I hadn’t realize that’s what I was doing until learning more about minimalist lifestyle/tiny houses and living with a “less is more” approach, and learning just what kind of money it took to run a household with 6 mouths to feed. It’s no small feat to get to the point you and your wife have achieved – I applaud you for that!

          You’re totally right about when you REALLY dive into this kind of challenge, you’re really challenging every part of your life whether you mean to or not – down to the last drop of gas for your vehicle, or ditching the vehicle altogether. For us, it was challenging space and evaluating what kept us most sane, which is the slipperiest slope I’ve been on, yet!

          I think to continue on the path of a no-spend challenge it becomes more about what the bare minimum is to keep oneself gratified. If a Jell-o cube as dessert becomes the treat you were craving, as opposed to the $12 cheesecake dessert at the Cheesecake Factory or no dessert at all, then I’d consider that a win! Your questions about whether you even “need” dessert, etc., though, are exactly the right kind of questions that need to be answered at the in-depth stage to get the most out of a challenge like this — which is totally up to your wife and you.

          I agree that finding out the ‘why’s’ is the hardest part, but if you got this far and aren’t hating life, or feeling deprived, I think there’s nothing to lose by making compromises with yourself after evaluating all your options and deciding which is best for you. Maybe the first question before the “why” is “Do I want to keep myself happy in this situation, first,” or, perhaps “Will this give me long-term happiness or short-term happiness, and which do I want right now?”

    • Maybe you should look at why you’d want to challenge yourself in the 1st place.

      You can over analyze this kind of thing, and honestly your answers to what’s needed vs not needed will be your own.

      Look at it this way, maybe you don’t cook much now and own salt, pepper and garlic powder as seasonings, but as you explore this challenge you cook more, your confidence and pallet expand and now you are into curries, now additional seasonings would be more essential to you than they were before.

      Just a thought to look at what’s the point not the punishment.

  7. as with any ideal extremes can and always have played a starring role,,, each person will have a limit of how many of what to keep around as well just because you own 50 polos are you a materialist,,, numbers are relative to the situation and guiding those is a personal need/desire to own,,, maybe the yurt/teepee crowd should inherit the civilization,,, opinion only,,,

  8. I’m about to start building my tiny house. I do something’s similar while trying to get everything set up. I’ve given myself a $400 budget to buy any new items for my tiny house that I don’t already have. I’m using IKEA as a sort of baseline for price and making a list of everything I think I need like plates, glasses and silverware. If I find something cheaper somewhere else, I switch it out on my list. And I go to IKEA frequently to look through their as is section. I’m hoping that by the time it’s built, I’ll have almost everything on the list, and what I don’t have will be pushed off for 6 months. Obviously I’ll think of something that I need once I move in, but I have a big ticket item on my list that can be put off.

  9. Thank you all. Your conversations have put my desire to continue making changes easier for me to understand. My family and friends think I have lost my mind. Stupid is the word that has been used most often.
    I started 15 years ago downsizing from necessity but I have spending sprees. I now have a playbook with the No Spending Challenge. I am taking a Tiny House vacation (I must find out if a TH is for me. I followed the 6 lessons and I am spending 1/2 of what I would have).
    Success to us all, no matter how we do this!

  10. I am a HUGE fan of libraries. But I got away from my library the last 18 months (except to giveaway hundreds of books I’d inherited–literally :).) Enjoying “reading” doesn’t seem right if its an audiobook but I listen to audiobooks in my car only!! It’s always great to get these reminders. (I’m glad food is on your list!) Thank you for reminding me, I need to get back to my library!

  11. This is a challenge that I am keen to take on, and my husband has agreed. However agreeing to take it on and getting involved with taking it on are two very different things. We already cook a lot of our own food, but he is slow to realise that he spends a lot on lunches out and coffees etc so I will be the one pushing that ahead. He also spends more than he thinks on clothes etc but as he only spends in small amounts he thinks it is insubstantial. I think setting rules is important so I will take that forward and let you know how we get on with our first month!

  12. I decided to not buy anything personal: clothing/socks/undies/shoes/earring/jewelry for ‘myself’ for Lent, I can go 48 days without.
    I found out that I am good at using clothes and items in different combinations and things I have not worn very often. I have been into stores and I have to bypass the areas I would normally go into. I am going to try and keep up this limitation. I do know I have a weakness for shopping and that its a motive of some other behavior, not that I am ‘out of clothing.’

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