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I tried the '30-Day Money Cleanse'. Here's what I learned about my spending.

After a summer of financial excess, Emily Pandise felt she needed a money detox to rein in her spending. Here's what happened.
Money is similar to food: We feel like in order to reach our goals we have to limit fun, restrict and punish ourselves.
Money is similar to food: We feel like in order to reach our goals we have to limit fun, restrict and punish ourselves.Grafissimo / Getty Images

After yet another summer of over-the-top spending, I was ready for a financial reset. I spent all summer feeling stressed, broke (it’s easy in New York City, regardless of your salary), and wanted to be more free with my money. So I turned to Ashley Feinstein Gerstley, founder of the Fiscal Femme blog and author of "The 30-Day Money Cleanse" for tips on how to detox my money situation — because all of the best budgets are a little like a diet.

“Money is something we don’t learn about or talk about, we’ve got a lot working against us, once we do know what we should be doing, we’re still not doing it,” Feinstein Gerstley says. “[Money is] so similar to food [...] we feel like in order to reach our goals we’re going to have to limit fun, restrict, and kind of punish ourselves into submission. For most of us, that doesn’t work.”

Feinstein Gerstley instructed me to follow along with the book week by week, and keep gratitude in mind and allocate part of my budget for giving. “When we’re giving, we’re signaling to ourselves that there’s more than enough, which is very abundant,” she says.

She also recommends doing the cleanse anytime, even if it feels too busy. She says, “No matter what’s going on with your life, just like an eating plan where you can’t ever leave your house, that won’t be sustainable. The cleanse leads to a new money lifestyle [...] you don’t have to wait 'til you have no plans or you don’t have a lot going on.”

With a copy of her book and these tips, I set out to detox my spending for a month.

Week one: Cutting out frivolous spending

The book's week one prescription is to cut out all “frivolous” spending — meaning whatever spending you decide is non-essential.

I decided to work on really narrowing down spending on dining out (which I only do a few times a month, but can add up quickly) and buying snacks and coffee at work. When every impulse to stretch my legs turns into $7 at a coffee shop, that’s no fun for my wallet. I really wanted to feel free, not limited, by these decisions.

Plans I’d made in advance had me nervous that someone would suggest cocktails and I’d blow the cleanse right away. At the same time, I wanted to keep my dinner plans without spending frivolously. I got a free yoga class and $15 grocery store sushi for one outing, and spent $29 on a beer, a sandwich, and ice cream on a Saturday night. Was it technically frivolous? Maybe. But I was living by the spirit of the money cleanse laws, if not the letter. It was a small price to pay for the hours of free entertainment (fancy exercise and an outdoor photography festival).

At the end of the week, I missed the convenience and variety of buying snacks at work, but also realized that the food that I buy is (mostly) nothing special. I’m a pretty good cook, and subbing a homemade meal for takeout with my partner was really easy. It’s cheaper for both of us, it’s healthier, and he gets to keep the leftovers — a total win. But I did decline an invitation to the movies with a group of friends.

I was seriously under budget that week — almost $40 less than I would usually spend, and I didn’t have to skip out on my social life. The best part about the first rule of the cleanse? It was only a week.

Week two: Figuring out my happiness allocation

For week two, I determined my happiness allocation — looking at all of my annual spending and deciding what things were really making me happy, and which things were not. I thought I wasn’t spending a lot in many “frivolous” categories. When I tallied it up the number was WAY more than I would have anticipated — hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars more.

The cleanse is really specific about letting go of expenses, rather than cutting them out. When you cut things out, you’re depriving yourself. When you let go, you’re choosing to spend your money elsewhere — and I decided to let go of a ClassPass membership, buying coffee, and shopping for clothes every month.

This week, I had dinner plans with my college roommates and an anniversary dinner with my partner. Part of this week’s goal was to find the “fabulously frugal” activities to replace the expenses I was letting go of. I kept dinner with my friends at $22. Was the food amazing? No. Did we have a blast? 100 percent. The anniversary celebration was pricey, but given my new commitment to eating in more, I’m OK with splurging on a really nice meal once in a while.

To keep the rest of my spending fabulously frugal, I spent some time sprucing up my apartment with photo prints from the drugstore ($2) and a new plant in an empty pot I had lying around ($19). Home decor is a trap I can easily fall into, especially at budget stores where everything seems inexpensive. I was proud that I could spend some time repotting plants with a friend and keep things feeling fresh at home on little more than a dime.

Week three: Putting my money where my values are

At the halfway point in the cleanse, my weekly goal was to align my spending with my values by looking at the opportunity cost for my expenses. For instance, if I added back my ClassPass membership, the opportunity cost of that money would be the same amount as a six-week cooking class. I can only spend each dollar once, after all. I also created a value statement for my money life, which I focused on resourcefulness, flexibility and gratitude. I committed to thinking about my happiness allocation and the opportunity cost for each purchase I made this week.

With all of that said, I am only human, and I can’t always resist an Instagram ad. I made a slightly not sober purchase of a crop top Monday night for a concert I had that weekend. When it came time to actually getting dressed on Saturday, I chickened out on donning the new top, knowing I wouldn’t wear it again, and raided my roommate’s closet. I stuck to my goal of being resourceful and returned my purchase. After giving it some thought, it didn’t fit into my happiness allocation or my value statement.

This week was probably my most successful in terms of planning — I knew I’d be spending a lot of money at a big venue concert, so I kept my spending Monday through Friday down to about $15. I was able to enjoy the concert without feeling guilty about an overpriced beer because I’d planned ahead.

Week four: Building my money dream team

In the final week of the cleanse, the mission is setting tangible goals for the future and sharing them with the people closest to you. Setting goals was an easy task for me. The harder task was talking to the people in my life about money.

I talked to my roommate pretty easily — more so than I thought. We spend money on things like utilities and occasional entertaining or home items, less on social stuff. It was way easier to bring up something tangible and specific (cutting the cord, for example) and chalk it up to my financial goals than having a formal talk about it. That one in-person conversation turned into a text with my college friends. They were on board with a brown-bag wine tasting or takeout every other month instead of a restaurant. My partner was already on board with the limited takeout plan, but we also talked about saving to travel together. We decided to go out to eat just once a month to work towards our goal.

After the cleanse: My new money lifestyle

At the end of my 30 days, I didn’t have the usual binge back to my normal spending, the way I have with some of my other experiments. The one habit I really want to keep is the daily money journal to keep things on track. I already feel more empowered to make spending decisions that align with my values. For example, I have been returning clothes and shoes that are not-so-practical for ones that I’ll get a lot of use out of, and trying to swap clothes with friends or shop secondhand.

Per the money cleanse suggestion, I’ve automated transfers into separate savings accounts for my new goals — travel and gift giving. By letting go of expenses through my happiness allocation, I can prioritize what I really want to do with my money. I needed to re-calibrate my budget with some financial changes I’d made over the summer, and I was able to make every dollar start working for me. With a built-in slush fund as a buffer and new accounts for gifts and travel, I will hopefully be dipping into the slush fund less frequently for those things.

And at the end of the month, I found that the money cleanse was fun and easy. I didn’t have to deprive myself of anything I wasn’t willing to let go of, and now I can start feeling better and doing better with my money.

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