Save $400: Take the Frugal Month Challenge in February

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The holidays may provide a festive reprieve from the daily grind, but as a rule of thumb, they're not good for your wallet. With January comes a return to real life and living on a tight budget as you pay off holiday bills. So here's our February challenge to you: a no-buy month. And if you don't think you can make it a full month, February 23-28 is America Saves Week. The point is to encourage good spending and saving habits that can last year round.

What does this no-buy month or week mean for you?

What Is a No-Buy Month?

As blogger The Frugalista explains in The Washington Post, the idea is to save money by going an entire month without buying anything other than the bare necessities. This means you pony up for your house or apartment, utilities, groceries, and gasoline or public transit, but that's it. No dinners out, no trips to the salon, no shopping, no toys for the kids, no music downloads, no cappuccinos or lattes -- nothing, even if you spot a great sale.

The Frugalista reports that a no-buy month started as a way for her to clear out debt; now she regularly saves almost $400 during the months when she takes the plunge. She notes that February makes a good no-buy month because it has the fewest days and falls early enough in the year to instill good spending habits. The family behind the website Learning the Frugal Life has completed four years of similar challenges and saved up to $754 in a month by forgoing allowances, turning off lights, timing showers, and adhering to other no-buy-month tenets.

For two years now, yours truly has embarked on the Frugal Month Challenge to see how much a family of four can save. The results were surprising: We hit the $472 mark the first year and $328 last year, for a total savings of $800. Savings came from cutting down on grocery spending, not eating out or buying new clothes, giving up date night, waiting a little longer between haircuts, and shoveling snow ourselves.

Sadly, we've also discovered that our frugal month habits don't stick a full calendar year and we usually need a refresher. This past year was our first full year as a family of four, our first year in a new house, and our oldest son started preschool (a good, but pricey investment). As you can imagine, our good spending and saving habits flew out the window. On top of that, we really splurged over the holidays, and we're paying for it now. Long story short, we're in desperate need of a frugal month intervention to help us get back on the good saving- and spending-habit path. We're ready -- are you? Let's go over the rules:

Nothing extra.

For my family, the bare necessities are the mortgage and utilities, groceries, preschool tuition, and gas, but that's pretty much all the spending allowed during our no-buy month. There will be several tough spots for us. We'll have to do without new smartphone/iPad apps and Kindle books and ignore the temptation to eat out. (Honestly, there are days when I just don't want to cook.) Grocery shopping also will be a challenge. We set a budget but always exceed it, and usually not for the sake of necessities. Instead, we fall into the trap of going overboard on snack items and splurging on the kids. Not this month!

Don't overcompensate.

Abiding by the spirit of the challenge means resisting the urge to overcompensate in the days before and the month after. I've already had to remind myself to temper the impulse to buy more clothes this month because I won't be able to pick up anything new next month. And it sure wouldn't do me any good to plan a no-buy month for February and then shop till I drop the first week of March.

Get creative.

You can still live a normal life without spending extra money. The goal is to save, obviously, but also to take stock of and appreciate what you already have. Last year our family practiced borrowing books from the library instead of buying them, packing lunches instead of visiting the local diner, and brewing coffee at home instead of stopping by a coffee shop (my weakness). Budget-friendly activities abound in every community, and recently recommended six cheap indoor activities for kids that can help you all get through long winter weekends.

Use what you have.

This year we're inspired by blogger Frugal Beautiful to take our Frugal Month Challenge one step further. In an effort to save even more and waste less, we're committed to making do (as much as possible) this month with what we have. That means clearing out the freezer and pantry to consume what we have stockpiled before buying more food. It means sorting through closets and clothes, and getting rid of what we don't wear while sprucing up our wardrobe with hidden gems we forgot about. It means cleaning out the piles of discarded kids toys and finding new uses (or new homes) for many of them. It means finishing up old projects that were left undone, reading that book we put down after an interruption, and generally striving to live a less wasteful lifestyle.

Are you inspired to take the Frugal Month Challenge? Check back at the beginning of March to see how my family did.

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