30-Day Challenge: Cash Only – Wrap-Up

Phew. It's over. I finished the month of June using only cash and no credit or debit cards. It's a new month, and I am glad to be back to the convenience of plastic.

Raw Numbers

Budget % Spent

Overall, I'm quite pleased how little was spent. My initial budget estimate was pretty conservative, but I spent barely half of even that.

Admittedly, these numbers are somewhat skewed. I went grocery shopping at the end of May, so there wasn't much need for additional grocery purchases; I generally go on a full-out grocery trip every 3-4 weeks, so it averages out over the course of a few months. Also, a friend had a social get-together for which I bought beer, which tipped my alcohol spending above what it would normally be.

My non-grocery food spending was higher than I'd hoped, but still less than previous months. I really should have set the initial budget for that category quite a bit higher.

What I've learned

After 30 days of exclusively using cash instead of my usual debit and credit cards, a few things stand out.

Cash is awful.

It's inconvenient, slow, inexact and bulky. It's hard to keep track of.

I'm used to interacting with the world digitally. I'm used to being able to swipe a card for an exact amount, for that transaction to automatically be tracked by my bank so I can easily check transaction histories and see trends. Cash doesn't do any of that, so that tracking has to be done manually if you want to keep that activity visible.

Planning ahead is great but tricky.

Taking a list with you to the grocery store, that's good planning. Keeping a calendar of your obligations so you don't overbook yourself, that's good planning. Having to decide at the beginning of the day what you will or won't buy so you can carry an adequate amount of cash in your wallet, that's good planning horribly annoying.

Not being able to buy online is frustrating.

Oh, there's a movie streaming from Amazon that I wanted to see, and which Netflix doesn't have! Oh, right, I can't rent it, because there's nowhere to feed cash into my TV.

The upside to that, however, is that it's harder (well, impossible) to fall for one-click impulse purchases. A $10 t-shirt here, a good deal on a movie there, it adds up quickly.

Not everything requires spending more money.

I spent exactly nothing on "entertainment".1 With a bit of creative thinking and a dash of good fortune, nothing I did for entertainment the entire month cost me anything.

  • Sarah and I went to a Brewers game for free, thanks to some tickets my family couldn't use that day. We paid for parking, plus some diabetes-inducing super-ultra flagons of soda, but tailgated with food we mostly already had, so there was no need for a $9 hot dog inside. #sportsball
  • We went to Summerfest for free using tickets our employers handed out; we took a free shuttle from a nearby bar rather than pay absurdly inflated rates to park.
  • Going for walks with the dogs costs nothing.
  • Public parks can be very relaxing.
  • Hanging out with friends is free. If it's not, you have terrible friends. (Obviously, you may choose to go do things that cost money, but that's different.)
  • There are these things called libraries that have books and movies you can borrow for free. Amazon has tons of free ebooks available (you can watch Twitter accounts like @kindleebooks or @HundredZeros for links as they become available) if you have an ereader like a Kindle (true story: I love my Kindle, and I'm not even being paid to say that).
  • Pull out some playing cards. Watch a movie you own. Play a video game. Cheap and easy entertainment, for the unbeatable price of free.

Making food at home might take a little longer and need a little more planning, but it's incredibly cost-efficient. I had been spending $50 or more a month in the cafeteria at work. That's like a $600 yearly convenience fee for food I don't even particularly like. During the 30-day challenge, I went to the cafeteria only once, and it was only because I'd accidentally left my lunch at home.

I saved a ton of money on my car insurance everything by switching to cash

Category % of Previous Month
Food & Dining47.7%
Bills & Utilities90.1%
Auto & Transport81.8%
Health & Fitness53.7%

This table shows my top six categories2 as listed by Mint. Going cash-only for 30 days dropped my spending by over 30% compared to the previous month. Thirty percent. That's a lot. That's my money staying in my bank account.

Even accounting for the fact that some purchases were simply deferred until I could use credit again instead of just cash, the impulse to go be a good little capitalist and spend money starts to fade. The inconvenience of having to deal with cash trumps the inconvenience of not having more stuff.

Think about how much of your spending is really comfort buying.

Ever have a bad day and decide to go buy yourself something? Go get some ice cream, or go buy that movie you wanted, or some new clothes. You didn't really need any of that, but you bought it anyway because you could and because you thought it would make you feel better. Did it? Probably not, but you spent that money and now it's gone.

To make a long story longer

tl;dr: I spent less, saved more, found creative ways to stretch the money I did have, but am quite thoroughly glad to be back to normal.

  1. My monthly Netflix bill was not counted toward Entertainment. Per my first post outlining the rules, recurring, predefined expenses on automatic payment schedules would not be considered part of this exercise.
  2. These numbers include all expenses, including automatic recurring payments.