The fiscal fast: how it’s done and a diary of how well I did on it

For some people, not spending a dime in a week is no big deal. For others, their absence from their usual spending might prompt Starbucks to form a search party. I fall somewhere in the middle; I’m prone to grabbing lunch at the food court, picking up a few small, impromptu “extras” when I pop into the drugstore, and if I happen see a great kitchen gadget on sale, I have a hard time resisting giving it a fabulous new home on my counter.

But because I want to replenish my emergency fund and throw more money onto my mortgage this year, I need to curb my spending and up my savings. To kick-start this financial goal, I decided to take on one of Pat Foran’s money tips for starting the new year off right; namely, go on a fiscal fast (I upped the ante just slightly and did it for six days instead of the suggested five. Bask in my bravery.)

What is a fiscal fast?

A fiscal fast (or a “dollar detox,” if you want to make it sound sexier) is when you decide to not spend any money – not on food, not on gasoline, not on entertainment – for a set period of time and make do with what you already have. Many people who live outside of our First World Comforts call this “life.” It’s a fantastic way to:

  1. Save a bit of money
  2. Use up things you already own (maybe even clearing up some space for more kitchen gadgets)
  3. Become more aware of your consumer habits

Here are some general guidelines, but feel free to adapt them to your own situation:

  1. Try to pick a week or time period when bills aren’t due or automatic payments aren’t already scheduled – you’ll likely get more out of this experiment if there aren’t any transactions going on in the background.
  2. That said, never avoid or put off bills, rent, mortgage payments, investments, etc., if they’re due or scheduled during your fiscal fast. The same goes for elements in your life that are quite necessary, like daycare, therapeutic and medical costs, or even the dog walker. This is really about consumer spending, after all.
  3. Before starting the fast, go through your home and get a sense of what you have. You can go for one last-minute shopping trip for things that you’ll need that you’re running too low on. Do NOT do a full grocery shop! Rather, simply make sure that the very basics are in place, such as bathroom tissue, leafy greens and fresh fruit, milk, coffee and, if applicable, pet food, infant care products and/or prescription medications. Depending on how you get to work, you may want to top up the gas in your car, pick up a transit pass or make sure there’s air in your bicycle tires (that last one is obviously a tip for the spring and summer months).
  4. While you’re technically not spending money by using gift cards and previously purchased group coupon deals, try to avoid using these during a fiscal fast. Part of the point is to take a break from shops and the consumer mentality.
  5. There’s a good chance that you’ll be eating more packaged foods this week as you use up stuff in your pantry and freezer. If you’re concerned with what this might do to your waistline, consider using a free online nutrition tracking program so that you at least don’t exceed your caloric needs.
  6. No matter how bare your pantry gets, under no circumstances should you resort to making sketti. Seriously.

I chose to conduct my fiscal fast from Sunday to Friday. Here’s a quick diary account of how it went:

Sunday: day of the hostess gift

The weather is awful, so staying in (and away from the shops) isn’t a problem. The day is mainly spent cleaning, catching up on email and keeping the dog from chewing furniture out of boredom. I have plans to go to a friend’s for dinner. That sure makes a fiscal fast easy – mooch your meals! However, there’s a catch: I hate to be a guest who arrives empty-handed, but my usual gift of a bottle of wine is a no go as I can’t just pop into the LCBO and pick one up. I do the unthinkable and actually make something I saw on Pinterest: a dessert that involves taking all the random cookies and chocolate in your pantry, mashing them up, melting them together and then freezing them into diabetes-inducing squares. Not only is it easy, but it allows me to get rid of diet-busting foods by shuffling them over to my friend’s home (mwuahahaa!). Transportation there and back is covered by my existing public transit pass.

Meals:

  • Breakfast – oatmeal and the last of the fresh strawberries, coffee
  • Lunch – canned tomato soup and a grilled zucchini and cheese sandwich
  • Dinner – at a friend’s!
  • Treat/snack – homemade chocolate and cookies freezer squares

Money spent this day: $0

Monday: day of the old-school exercise

I arrange to work from home on Monday; the decision lets me cancel the dog walker for the day and save a bit of cash. The lack of commute also affords me some extra time in the morning to work out and hopefully burn off the chocolate creation from the night before. Paying a drop-in fee at the nearby yoga studio is out, so I instead turn to my abandoned DVD collection of exercise videos. Why, hello, Billy Blanks! It’s been a very (very) long time. I barely get through the workout, as my Tae Bo skills have not been tapped since Ross and Rachel were “on a break.” Cost? Only my dignity. The rest of the day is busily spent working on a presentation. My fridge is still decently stocked, and the meals I make are pretty standard fare. In the evening, I stay in and watch a silly reality show. Cost? Only my brain cells.

Meals:

  • Breakfast – a smoothie from leftover yogurt and frozen fruit, coffee
  • Lunch – a “heat and eat” vegetarian Indian curry that had been sitting in the pantry for months, rice and a cucumber salad, tea
  • Dinner – green salad, topped with a defrosted ground turkey burger and cheese
  • Treat/snack – crackers and tea

Money spent this day: $0

Tuesday: day of the shady breakfast and missed sales

I wake up and am glad that I made lunch the night before but wish I had thought to prep breakfast as well: an app on my phone tells me that the public transit system is massively delayed. If I want to get to work by nine, I need to leave the house immediately; taking my time and calling a cab is obviously not an option on a fiscal fast. For breakfast, I grab what is most portable to eat in the office – an orange and a mini box of cereal that was leftover from a camping trip. When I finally get into work, I’m cold, grumpy and hungry. Oh, how a warm breakfast sandwich and latte would hit the spot! Instead, I settle for (free) office coffee and shamefully take a few extra milk pods for my cereal (sorry, environment!). I vow to plan breakfasts better.

All is normal in the office until my manager comes back from lunch, bags in hand, crowing about the amazing shoe and boot sale happening at the nearby department store. I perk up. In my haste to get to work, I forgot to bring my indoor pumps and have had to walk around the office in my waterproof hikers – a look I can safely say will not catch on in 2014. I’m tempted, especially when she mentions that a particular brand is 60% off. I stare hard at my hiking boots … and decide to stay in my seat. I am officially The Saddest Woman on Earth®. The rest of the day goes off without a hitch.

Meals:

  • Breakfast – rice cereal, orange, office milk, office coffee
  • Lunch – green salad with canned tuna, apple
  • Dinner – a Moroccan-inspired stew made of veggies, canned chickpeas, couscous, and a frozen “veggie chick’n breast” from those 4.5 days in 2013 when I tried to be a vegan
  • Treat/snack – whipped topping (there was just a bit left in my freezer, figured it my duty to finish it) and berries

Money spent this day: $0

Wednesday: day of cheap entertaining

My day at work is typically busy – but I’m happy to have arrived on time and with a prepared breakfast and lunch from the night before. Also, the free office coffee is growing on me, and I’ve really started to appreciate the teas, too. At lunch, I stay at my desk and read rather than window shop at the nearby stores. The day zips by, and before I know it, I’m headed home where I’ll be hosting a friend for dinner.

I’ve decided to make pasta (a fiscal fast staple!) with defrosted sausage and spinach, some garlic and the last of my tomatoes, paired with a green salad. It turns out surprisingly well. For dessert, I “fancy up” some vanilla ice cream by adding a shot of espresso to it (I mentioned my love for kitchen gadgets, right? Hence the espresso maker.). We forgo the classic “dinner and a movie,” as ordering a pay-per-view film would cost me $6. Instead, we play cards and catch up on each other’s lives. It’s a good night – and completely free!

Meals:

  • Breakfast – “overnight oatmeal,” office coffee
  • Lunch – leftover Moroccan stew, tangerines
  • Dinner – whole wheat pasta (finishing off an open box) with sausage, spinach, tomato and cheese, green salad
  • Treat/snack – affogato (ice cream with a splash of espresso)

Money spent this day: $0

Thursday: day of boredom

Another day, another dollar (not spent), and I have to admit that it’s starting to feel monotonous. Sure, Billy Blanks got my heart rate up again this morning, and that’s sadly the most exciting thing scheduled for the day. It turns out that staying at my desk for lunch isn’t all that fun – but with the weather being less than kind and the stores being a bastion of temptation, I’m not sure what my other options are.

I’m starting to realize that perhaps I use shopping to pass the time and need to find others ways to get a midday break. A quick Google search reveals that the Canadian Opera Company puts on free noon-hour performances… on Wednesdays. Ah well; it’s in my calendar for next week. Meal-wise, in my desire to cook the rest of the opened pasta the night before, I ended up making too much, so pasta serves as both lunch and dinner this day. Poor, poor Jane.

Meals:

  • Breakfast – overnight oatmeal (I made more than one, of course!), office coffee
  • Lunch – pasta leftovers, tangerines
  • Dinner – more pasta leftovers, green salad
  • Treat/snack – crackers and cheese

Money spent this day: $0

Friday: day of the girl’s night in

It’s TGIF – but in this case, it stands for Totally Gloomy in Fridge. I’ve managed to eat all of the fresh vegetables and fruit I have except for one lonely lemon in the crisper. Condiments, anyone? My pantry, however, is still surprisingly stocked. I make a mental note to not buy any packaged food until at least half of this stuff is eaten.

Today is the first day I’ve had to pull out my wallet, and it’s to pay the dog walker – a planned expense. Coming home to a happy, tired puppy and no “surprises” on the floor is money well spent, in my opinion. The workday flies by and before I know it, it’s the late afternoon and I’ve received a text from a friend asking if I want to grab a drink after work. The idea of going to a bar and just drinking water while eyeing other people’s appetizers is too depressing. I rain check and instead go home and have a relaxing night in: a soak in the tub, a manicure, a movie on TV, and some air-popped popcorn from my all-but-forgotten popcorn machine.

Meals:

  • Breakfast – hard-boiled egg, toast (last of the bread), office coffee
  • Lunch – soup make from blended frozen peas, frozen broccoli and broth
  • Dinner – more of that soup, grilled chicken breast (last one in the freezer!)
  • Treat/snack – popcorn

Money spent this day: $80 on the dog walker (for a week’s service), $0 on consumer spending

The results

With the exception of the planned expense of the dog walker, I successfully didn’t spend any money during the week and was pleased as punch to see my account balance untouched. To understand what a difference the six days made, I took a look at how much I spent in a comparable week earlier in the year: $235 – mainly on groceries, lunches out, dinner with a friend and minor retail purchases. Wow! I also came to realize that perhaps I shop to entertain myself – a habit I’ll aim to get out of.

And an unexpected bonus? By knowing exactly what I ate (because it was all homemade) and tracking it, I dropped 2 lbs. Sweet!

Have you ever tried a fiscal fast? Let us know about your experiences in the comments!

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