personal finance

How’s Your No-Spend January Going?

Photo-Illustration: by The Cut; Photo: Getty Images

Rebecca Sowden, a self-described “recovering super-spender” with over 65,000 followers on TikTok, has a theory about why no-spend January has become a full-blown phenomenon this year. “We’re all coming out of COVID with really bad shopping habits,” she says. “We were so bored, sitting at home scrolling on our phones, that we got too used to buying stuff. It’s an easy, attainable way to feel productive.”

Sure, inflation has also played a role in why we’re all feeling so broke lately. But Sowden, who is 26 and lives in Southern California, believes the real reason is simpler — we’re spending too much. “Everyone’s always complaining about the economy, but the bigger problem is that they’re still leaning on shopping to fill the void,” she says. “We don’t have the tools to say no to ourselves anymore. We forgot how to stop.”

Whatever the reason, #nospendjanuary, a monthlong challenge to cut out extraneous purchases, has reached a fever pitch on TikTok in the past few weeks. There’s no hard-and-fast program, but most participants confine their spending to nondiscretionary “essentials” like groceries and transportation. They also make (and share) specific lists of what they’re allowed to buy and what they’re not. Some cap their spending at a certain amount per week.

“People want a total reset, a fresh start,” says Sowden, who posts regularly about her own no-spend rules (she’s sticking to a weekly “allowance” for food and transportation; clothes and beauty products are off-limits) and how she sticks to them (frequent journaling to self-regulate, muting influencers who encourage spending). “Everyone’s finally realizing, ‘Okay, I’ve bought all the things and I don’t feel any better, so maybe I’ll try buying less.’”

Shopping bans, spending fasts, and other financial “detox” programs have been around forever (I’ve tried a few myself, with mixed results). In many ways, they’re just a rebrand of the same old slog — spending less on crap you don’t need, putting yourself on a budget. Still, no-spend January is attractive for a reason: It works, at least temporarily. Rules, guidelines, and collective momentum are often helpful when you’re trying to make a new habit or change your behavior. One potential downside, however, is that strict financial resolutions can encourage yo-yo spending habits in the long term. (Of course, they also assume that you have enough money to spend less in the first place.)

Georgia Lee Hussey, a certified financial planner and the CEO of Modernist Financial, is skeptical of the trend. “Rather than establishing restrictions around the way you spend for a month, maybe look at the way you spend more holistically,” she says. “What were you doing in December that made you feel like you had to cut back so much in January?”

She also believes that no-spend January gives people permission to spend more outside of that time frame. “People feel like they’ve ‘earned’ the right to overspend, or they tell themselves it’s okay because they’ll make up for it in January,” she says. “That doesn’t look at the root of the issue, which is having a more thoughtful, sustainable approach year-round.”

Some people do find that no-spend periods can jump-start a better relationship with shopping, but it takes longer than a month. That was the case for Christina Mychaskiw, a pharmacist in Toronto who tried her first no-spend challenge in 2019, when she was struggling to pay off nearly $90,000 in student loans (around $65,000 in U.S. dollars). “I was feeling broke because of my student debt, and then I would cope with that money stress by shopping more,” she says. Desperate to break the cycle, she Googled “how to stop shopping” and came across Hannah Louise Poston, a content creator who was documenting her “no-buy year” on YouTube. “That got me inspired to do the same,” Mychaskiw says.

At first, it felt good to take drastic measures. Mychaskiw swore off nonessential shopping of any kind and shared her progress online. “I was super strict and stoic about it, and that worked for a while,” she says. But then, about six months into the process, her dog died and she went on a freewheeling shopping spree. “I felt like I failed, and it was catastrophic,” she says.

Still, Mychaskiw — who is better known as @christinamychas on TikTok and YouTube, where she now has a quarter of a million followers — was able to get back on the wagon. A few weeks after her slip-up, she created a new, slightly more forgiving no-spend program that allowed for some exceptions, like books, tailoring for clothes she already owned, and replacements for products that she wore out or used up. Eventually, she reached her goal of paying off her student loans in 2021. Now, she does no-spend or low-spend months several times a year as a form of maintenance to keep the shopping itch at bay.

“I’ve learned that you have to know your ‘why,’” she says. “Of course, you can be motivated to save money and change your spending habits. But the simple act of not shopping and making rules about what you cannot buy probably won’t stick in the long run — at least, it didn’t for me.” Instead, she reframes it as part of a larger exercise in taking stock and evaluating what she already owns, not focusing on what she can’t have. “That detox from shopping is just a tool to help weed out the noise, look at what I’m using, what I want to keep, and what I want to get rid of.”

Hannah, a 26-year-old who lives in New York and has been chronicling her first-ever no-spend January on TikTok as @thehanniediaries, points out that it’s much easier to shop less when everyone else is doing it, too. (I can relate; I’m practically doing dry January by accident because so many of my friends are.) Plus, it helps to have a cohort to keep you accountable. “It’s fun to have a community of people that I’ve never met who are trying to do a similar thing, and we’re all rooting for each other,” she says.

I asked her if she ever felt like cheating. After all, who would need to know? “I actually did just buy some new face exfoliator because my skin was so dry,” she says. It was technically on her “no-spend” list (no new beauty products, clothes, Ubers, or Doordash), and her husband said it could be their secret. “But I think it’s important to be honest,” she says. She posted about it a few days ago. “I think it’s more relatable to show that you can mess up than to be like, ‘I had a stellar no-buy January,’” she says. “If anything, I got a lot of positive comments about it.”

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How’s Your No-Spend January Going?