Money challenges: Why I’m OK with them, and a few of my favorites

I'm not usually a fan of gimmicks. But if the sole purpose of a gimmick is to save some extra cash, I guess I'm OK with it.

We talked about this recently, but there seems to be a heightened interest in frugality lately. Maybe that's why I've noticed a whole crop of money-saving challenges popping up all over the Internet, from personal finance blogs to Pinterest.

And then, the other day, my boyfriend asked: “Have you heard of this thing called the 52-week challenge?”

I was a little surprised. My boyfriend doesn't spend much time on the Internet, and he doesn't keep up with personal-finance trends. Turns out, a friend of his mentioned the challenge during a recent hangout, as he and his wife are giving it a go.

It looks like the latest frugal gimmick has transcended the Internet and made its way into my real life. And I'm all for it.

Why I like money-saving challenges

I know, I know. These challenges are, as I said, gimmicky. And gimmicks are usually passing trends. As financially savvy people, we're supposed to focus on slow and steady, not new and trendy.

But the topic of personal finance could use a little more attention. Our culture could stand to be a little more aware of frugality and our finances. So if it takes a gimmick to get people to realize saving is important, I'm OK with that.

Another reason I like these challenges is they promote accountability. A lot of people who take on the challenges share their progress online, or they take them on with a friend. We've mentioned this a couple of times in the past: Keeping like-minded company is important on the road to financial security.

So I welcome these money-saving challenges. And, as a frugal geek who enjoys looking for new ways to save, I have to admit, they are kind of exciting. I have my conservative saving habits, sure. But what's so bad about adding a little fun to saving? And maybe even saving a little extra in the process?

The Jar Challenge

Growing up, my parents kept a water cooler jug full of spare change in their closet. I have no idea where the jug came from, because we never owned a water cooler. I think it was a leftover from my stepdad's bachelor apartment.

Anyway, all three of us — my mom, stepdad and I — would feed this jug all of our extra change. It took years to fill it up. Well, maybe not years. Time moves slower when you're a child, so maybe it was more like months. Whatever the time frame, it was a challenge in patience to wait for that jug to fill up. My parents always said we'd use the money to buy something special. But, for me, the reward wasn't even what made it fun.

Truthfully, I have no recollection of anything special we bought with that money. But I do remember coming home from school, excited to roll quarters and nickels and dimes, and then do the math. Hundreds of dollars. For that brief period, I felt like we were rich.

Pinterest is rife with creative spinoffs of the jar challenge. And, of course, Bank of America has an automatic program for this — Keep the Change. You can easily replicate Keep the Change by using only bills to pay for your expenses. When you get change back, put it in a jar.

You can give yourself a time-based goal — How much change can I save in three months? — or you can give yourself a visual goal, like we did with the water cooler — How much will I save when this puppy is full?

Buy Nothing Year … or month

My mom was inspired by the story of Julie Phillips and Geoff Szuszkiewicz, two Calgary roommates who resolved to buy nothing but essentials for an entire year.

After reading my interview with them, my mom made it her New Year's resolution to only spend money on necessities.

“I just want to see if I can do it,” she said. “And I'm curious to see how much I can save.”

I talk to my mom at least once a week, and at least once a week she tells me about some shopping item she was tempted to buy but didn't.

“I found a gold tray at Ross,” she told me. “It was in the shape of a squirrel. I was going to buy it for you. But I decided not to.”

I was profoundly disappointed about not having a gold squirrel platter, but I was proud of my mom for sticking with her resolution. So far, she's probably saved over a couple hundred bucks only buying what she needs: food, toiletries, gasoline, etc. Most people would probably save more than that. My mom just doesn't buy a lot of Stuff to begin with.

A couple of years ago, a reader shared her own version of this challenge. She called it Superfrugality Month:

“Every year in February, once the holidays are over and life is slowly returning to normal, my boyfriend and I undertake a project that helps us stop lifestyle inflation and save on the order of $300 each for the month. We call this exercise ‘Superfrugality Month' and the rules are pretty simple.

We don't spend any money on non-essentials during the month of February. Once March first rolls around, we can spend money on wants again. That's it in a nutshell.”

It's simple, but I like this challenge. I like the idea of challenging yourself to a life of bare necessities. Yes, it's probably an unrealistic long-term habit. But I think it's a good experiment in making yourself a more mindful consumer. When you're forced to resist your shopping urges, you think more about your spending habits. The more aware you are of your spending, the more control you have over it.

There's nothing wrong with spending; but I, for one, could use a little more controlled spending.

The 52-Week Challenge

This one seems to be the most popular, and I'm sure most of you have probably heard of it. But I mentioned it above, so I figure it deserves a quick recap:

You start saving at the beginning of the year. You save according to what week it is. So the first week of the year, you save $1. The second week, you save $2. On the last week of the year, you save $52. And, by the end of the year, you will have $1,378 saved.

Sure, you could just save your money and put $1,378 in your savings account at any given time. But where's the fun in that?

Another thing I like about this challenge is that it gives you a weekly, recurring savings goal. It might be small amount, but it's a great way to save when you don't have much to save. It's also a great way to save if you're new at saving or aren't particularly good at it. You gradually become a better saver.

Anyway, I know not everyone is a fan of these monthly challenges, and I understand that long-term habits beat fads. On the other hand, these challenges make us question our limits, they make us question our spending, and they boost our savings routine.

But what do you think? Do you approve of money challenges? If so, what are some of your favorites?

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Beth
Beth
6 years ago

I have mixed opinions. Part of me thinks these challenges are the personal finance equivalent of fad dieting: you go out of your way to meet a temporary goal and then go back to your usual habits and what have you learned? The other part of thinks challenges are useful because they engage with an audiences who aren’t already part of the PF sphere. A challenge isn’t as intimidating as tracking your spending or setting a budget — and it’s an easy win that could lead to bigger things. I especially like challenges that draw awareness to something. Not sure… Read more »

Gaming Your Finances
Gaming Your Finances
6 years ago

We love challenges! We try to do a monthly challenge over at Gaming Your Finances. Our favorite was our $25pp per week grocery challenge. That ended up saving us a lot of money. The last one we did was brown bagging lunch challenge. That one was healthy and financially rewarding.

Aldo @ MDN
Aldo @ MDN
6 years ago

I’m not a big fan of challenges, mostly because I fail at most of them (I’m looking at you 100 push up challenge), but I did try “the buy nothing for a month” challenge. It was more a forced challenge because I needed to get my finances in track but I did it for three months. After three months I felt I deserved a little treat. I sometimes go an entire month without buying stuff now a days but it’s because I’m more aware of where I want my money to go. I agree with you that even though challenges… Read more »

Eric Duminil
Eric Duminil
6 years ago
Reply to  Aldo @ MDN

Ahah!
I managed the 100 push-up challenge, but got tendinitis in my right shoulder. I had to hold my child with my left arm for 2 weeks, and got huge back pain.
In hindsight, I should have just trained with 20 slow push-ups everyday, instead of hurting myself and not wanting to make any push up again.

Dave @ The New York Budget
Dave @ The New York Budget
6 years ago

I think challenges are GREAT because you become more aware of your spending. The actual challenges never really help out that much. It’s what happens after the challenge. You are more aware of your finances and your situation. As long as you can make sure not to slip back into your old ways.

I am actually a sucker for gimmicks. When the KFC double down came out, I HAD to try one. Man, I love gimmicks.

Kristin Wong
Kristin Wong
6 years ago

Waffle taco?

KC in ATX
KC in ATX
6 years ago
Reply to  Kristin Wong

Aaaaand now I want a waffle taco.

Dave, that’s exactly what I love most about PF challenges/gimmicks: increased awareness.

For me, that’s also why I’m never done with them. I’m always having to make financial decisions, and frequent gimmicks (hopefully) help me keep thinking the right kind of thrifty thoughts.

PioneerGirl
PioneerGirl
6 years ago

I think these challenges are good for bringing attention to finances. Especially for those who do not really have a plan or need the little wake up call.

Even though I practice frugality and savings, etc… I will still challenge myself with the “nothing new” month or some other challenge that will re-focus me if I see myself veering off of my path.

It may be a fad like any other but if it gets you thinking, it can’t be all bad 🙂

David
David
6 years ago

Im a fan of challenges. Slow and steady might be good but its boring. Engaging in a challenge once in a while is great. Great post by the way.

Mrs. PoP
Mrs. PoP
6 years ago

We’re not a huge fan of challenges for the sake of a gimmick or a temporary kick in the pants, but do enjoy them when it’s part of a plan to make actual long term meaningful changes in our lives. Like this year we gave ourselves a Q1 Car Challenge – drive only 1 car for both of us for the entire first quarter of the year to see if becoming a 1 car household was really doable. The challenge made sure we kept track of any temporary failures, and we were able to see what we needed to do… Read more »

Stefanie @ The Broke and Beautiful Life
Stefanie @ The Broke and Beautiful Life
6 years ago

My only issue with money challenges is that I think they can sometimes (depending on the challenge) be like crash dieting. You starve yourself and then you binge rather than creating sustainable spending patterns and habits.

Thegooch
Thegooch
6 years ago

I’m not a fan of gimmicks to trick yourself into saving because they trivialize the importance of permanently changing your financial behavior. Doing something for month and then resuming previous behavior doesn’t help in the long term. It’s much better to pick up good financial habits from the likes of Dave Ramsey , You Need a Budget web site, and Clark Howard will permanently improve you behavior and improve you financial health a thousand times more than any short term gimmick. Clark Howard’s phrase, ‘spend less, save more, and don’t get ripped off’ can have a huge impact! One final… Read more »

Brian@ Debt Discipline
[email protected] Debt Discipline
6 years ago

Challenges can be fun and may help jump start savings or getting healthy for a short period, but changing your daily habits is the best way I’ve found to accomplish things long term.

Mick
Mick
6 years ago

Maybe start at $52 the 1st week, when your resolve is strongest and then work your way down. You could earn some interest on the way (I know, not much but…) and it would get easier as each week went by. You would see some results quicker.
When faced with a challenge I usually prefer to get the harder part out of the way. Always push-ups before the sit-ups in my workouts:)

Kristin Wong
Kristin Wong
6 years ago
Reply to  Mick

Oh, I like this variation.

Tracy
Tracy
6 years ago
Reply to  Kristin Wong

I’ve heard of people using this variation before as well for 3 reasons: 1) December can be a very spend heavy month because of the holidays, so only being on the hook for a small amount at that time means more people will stick with it. 2) People will see the win more quickly, so they’ll stick with it. 3) People are more likely to save more. It would probably be uncommon for people to think “I’m already adding 1 dollar to the savings amount next week, but why not make it two,” but if people were successful with saving… Read more »

Becky @ RunFunDone
Becky @ RunFunDone
6 years ago

I remember when I first heard of the 52-week challenge. At first I was kind of horrified that so many of my friends thought it would be a huge deal to save <$1500 in a year (I know how they spend, so I know that they could save a lot more than this if they tried). But then I thought about it and realized that it was great that they were actually making an attempt (any attempt) to save! Who am I to turn my nose up at someone who is making an effort to improve their savings? One of… Read more »

E.B.
E.B.
6 years ago

My initial reaction was the same: horrified! Don’t you people know you need millions saved by retirement if you don’t want to be destitute in your elderly years?? You think $1300 is an accomplishment?? I don’t want to knock fads that get people to think more about spending, but it’s such a drop in the bucket of the REAL problem. One car repair or medical emergency and that $1300 you spent all YEAR saving is gone in a flash. People need a longer-term strategy for saving. It’s not as sexy as a gimmick, but so much better long-term. I know… Read more »

Carla
Carla
6 years ago
Reply to  E.B.

Its a bit deal when you don’t make a lot of money, and yes, I am doing the 52-week challenge. :/ That’s not ALL I’m doing but more savings is always a good thing.

BD
BD
6 years ago
Reply to  E.B.

For people making around $10,000 a year, yes, $1,300 IS a big deal. It’s a large chunk of their money that they need for rent, food, and utilities and after those basic needs, there is almost nothing left over for things like medicine and doctor visits.

So many people forget that not everyone out there is making $50,000 a year. Some people make far far less.

Kristen
Kristen
6 years ago

I started the 52 week challenge, thinking it would be a great Christmas club sort of savings. I switched to adding $200 per month by the beginning of April, just so I didn’t have to figure out which week it was. I should end up a little higher even than originally planned.

JenC
JenC
6 years ago

I am a frequent Target shopper who enjoys saving $$ with coupons, my 5% red card discount, mobile coupons & the cartwheel app. I told my husband recently it might be a fun challenge to put all of my “saving” away for something fun. This is pretty easy since my savings are shown on my receipt & my red card & cartwheel purchases are saved. I’m hoping this will help motivate me to find new ways to cut costs as well!

Rose
Rose
6 years ago

I like the idea with a tweak…..do the challenge in any order. That way you could start out with a $52 savings and one week when your car breaks down not feel bad about just doing the $1 week. Same result over the course of the year – but more flexibility means less of a chance you have a “bad” week and then think you failed the entire challenge.

Marie Cohee
Marie Cohee
6 years ago
Reply to  Rose

i see where you’re coming from but I think the satisfaction is in making this little sacrifice and seeing it add up week after week.

But hey, that’s just me. Even if you only manage to squirrel away a few bucks, you’re still better off for having done it.

nicoleandmaggie
nicoleandmaggie
6 years ago

Having done a ton of challenges on our blog (http://nicoleandmaggie.wordpress.com/tag/challenge/ ) here’s my bottom-line view:

Challenges are fun when you don’t have to do them.

Challenges are really not fun when you kinda sorta need to do them.

In both cases, they’ve worked in terms of saving money, but in the former case they’re a game and in the latter they’re a stressful reminder that we can’t do everything we wish we could.

Kristin Wong
Kristin Wong
6 years ago

This makes sense. I don’t think these challenges would be very fun for someone struggling or for someone who doesn’t have the personal finance basics established yet.

But as someone else mentioned, once you’re on the slow and steady course, sometimes it helps to keep things exciting.

When I was saving to move, for example, I was automating my savings, living frugally, contributing to my 401k, etc. But to feed my desire to reach my money goals, I’d set up challenges for myself, read about different ways to be frugal, lurk PF blogs, etc. It kept the momentum going.

Tom Coghlan
Tom Coghlan
6 years ago

I’m in favor of anything that helps you save and avoid unnecessary spending. I’ve used a simple method of saving that anyone can copy since the 1980’s. It’s a variation on the Keep the Change program from Bank of America, though I was using it way before they announced their program. The simple method is this: – Every time you write a check, or debit an amount from your bank account, round up. So $15.31 becomes $16.00 when you make the entry in your check book. It makes it easier to do the math, and your savings will be “hidden”.… Read more »

Toni
Toni
6 years ago
Reply to  Tom Coghlan

I can’t “fool” myself so easily. I’m an exacting person, so I always want to know exactly how much is in my account. I do save all my change when I use cash, so in a way it’s like rounding up, just with cash.

Vanessa
Vanessa
6 years ago
Reply to  Tom Coghlan

I’m like Toni, I like to know what my balance is at any moment so that method would drive me nuts. You’re also putting a lot of faith in your bank to never make a mistake.

Tom Coghlan
Tom Coghlan
6 years ago
Reply to  Vanessa

I should clarify here that I check every bank entry… trust but verify. I’m simply spending less than I have by saving the pennies. They add up quickly.

Samantha
Samantha
6 years ago

I love challenges too, in moderation. One month we did a “No Restaurant” challenge. Wow – eye opening on our habits, we saved a ton of money, and it was a way to force me into planning ahead for meals. Plus, it broke the bad habits and cycle of “no groceries – let’s eat out!”

Also, at the end of the month when we did finally go out, it was so much more special and appreciated. That was the best challenge – now I’m thinking of doing it again next month!

John
John
6 years ago

I’ve learned more today on this site than I have over a long period of time. Savings is priority to me these days and I picked up some very valuable information.

Leticia
Leticia
6 years ago

I agree that challenges are meant to be fun. I started the 52-week challenge at the beginning of the year. This is in addition to my current savings plan. It is fun to do this with friends and we constantly reminding each other not to forget to “contribute” to our challenge and often ask about how each is doing. This also often doubles as opening up about money, which we would normally not do. What will I do with my challenge money? Since it’s a “fun” challenge I might use it for something I usually don’t splurge on, I might… Read more »

BrentABQ
BrentABQ
6 years ago

I might be at a different stage in personal finance, but these challenges seem short and/or insignificant when looked at in the course of ones whole life. If all challenges do is build awareness, there are real concrete goals that don’t take much time that we regular readers all know. Like the first month you should track every penny. If challenges are so popular, you should probably create a kickoff event and every month or week layout the challenge. This week is investigate a better/cheaper insurance policy/provider.

Donna W
Donna W
6 years ago

I love money challenges!

Scondor
Scondor
6 years ago

I’m using the 52 week challenge to pay down my school loans. I started with my age for the number of dollars per week and went up 1 dollar every week, programming the payments in my ING/Capital One account. Because the amounts change and the frequency is different from my paycheck autodeposit, it has resulted in a great thing: the lazier I am, the more frugal I am! If I were to put the time and effort into planning/budgeting for such a complicated payment schedule and reconciling it with my paycheck and monthly bills it would be a nightmare. Instead… Read more »

Mae
Mae
6 years ago

I am very much goal-oriented so I do enjoy doing these type of challenges. I see it as a learning experience more than trying to change everyday habits.

A couple years ago, I did the challenge where you spend $20 in food in a week. I learned quite a few things in that week. For example, *so* much of people’s socializing revolves around food. Quality over quantity makes a big difference. I even learned some new recipes that I’ve adapted and still use to this day.

Tina
Tina
6 years ago

We recently had a “cut back on food expenses” which was a 30 day challenge. This was to show the family how much we waste in eating out and convenient store stops every montth. Sadly, it only worked for me and didn’t impact my family at all which was the whole point of doing the challenge. Even with an incentive for us to do something fun, it didn’t work and we spent the same amount as the month prior.

Unfortunately, with my family, they need to hear it straight.

Becky
Becky
6 years ago

I have found that I do better in longer term goals if I start with a short term challenge. It is ultimately the gamification of saving money. I enjoy playing games and completing different levels. It is a good way to build savings muscles in a fun manner. I am doing the 52 week challenge but I reversed it because I know I tend to have more available money in the beginning of the year than I do around Christmas. It has been exciting for me to see the money rack up in my savings account. I actually put some… Read more »

Even Steven
Even Steven
6 years ago

I like sprint challenges. Like not eating out for a whole week or bring coffee from home every day. I usually try to do this to cut spending.

Saving should be done automatically, if the challenge has that incorporated then it certainly can be helpful.

Susanne
Susanne
6 years ago

I’m on day 11 of Michelle Singletary’s 21-Day Financial Fast. Her book is excellent; she also sends a motivational video each day. So far, it’s reminded me to differentiate between needs/ wants, and plan ahead (pack lunch the night before) Already saved an extra $40 to send in with my lowest balance credit card.

Kathleen
Kathleen
6 years ago

As long as fads aren’t actually immediately harmful, they can be very educational. I’ve only done two “fad” diets, but one taught me it was not possible to starve to death in four hours, and the other taught me that there are other meal options than solely starch-based foods. I think both lessons helped my regular eating habits immeasurably. The same with fad savings. Maybe you don’t adopt it as a lifestyle, but you learn it won’t ruin your day to skip a coffee, or that it is possible to save something even on a certain income. Lifestyle tweaks vs… Read more »

Michelle
Michelle
6 years ago

I’m addicted to these challenges! And, if you’re able to stick with them, they can be very affective ways to save a lot of money and to connect with your spending process.

Amy
Amy
6 years ago

While I agree that taking a long-term approach will make the most significant difference in one’s personal finances, these challenges can be a fun way to work toward a manageable goal. Also, I think many people struggle with how “large” the goal of paying off debt or saving for retirement can be. Achieving small successes via challenges can be motivating and confidence-building.

emma
emma
6 years ago

Hi,
I am starting the 52 week challenge today to save for Christmas starting with £2.00, increasing in £2.00 increments. Start tonight will have over £1000 for Christmas.
Thanks

Jenny
Jenny
6 years ago

It’s not really a challenge, but more of a game. On the first of each month, I take the measly amount of interest my savings accounts have earned over the past month and make a deposit so that my account has a nice “pretty” balance. For example, if on June 1 my account balance (after interest) is $1,001.50, I make a deposit for $98.50 so my balance is $1,100. I used to do an amount lower than $100, but now that I’m married, I’ve upped it to a number below $200. (In this example, my deposit would be $198.50 to… Read more »

Jenny
Jenny
6 years ago
Reply to  Jenny

I should add – this isn’t all of the money I’m saving. It specifically goes into an account designated for home improvement.

Jon Maroni
Jon Maroni
6 years ago

We try to do something like this every month. We usually challenge ourselves by putting as much money as we think we can handle in our retirement accounts and savings on the first of a new month. The challenge is to see if we can make it to the end of the month after putting our max in savings. Each month we have made it, and we keep amping up our savings percentage. This last month we put in about 50% of our take home pay into our retirement accounts and had plenty left over to live on. It is… Read more »

Parker Waldrop
Parker Waldrop
6 years ago

While I agree these are great ways to get people to save, I also want to make sure we’re not pushing people into savings when they should be doing other things (like getting out of debt for instance). I wrote this article a month ago for this very reason. I like the challenges, but most of the people doing them, shouldn’t be. http://wp.me/p4sydg-17

Adelaide Timbrell
Adelaide Timbrell
6 years ago

The concept of frugality challenges sounds good for allowing people to think about their purchases and engage in short-term savings. This kind of intertemporal substitution between goods now and goods later is beneficial, not only for people who are saving up, but also for banks who have more checking deposits to give out to borrowers, who are stimulating the economy. However, saving money in cash is detrimental for savers and the economy as a whole because it takes the money out of circulation. By putting money in a bank, rather than keeping it as change, savers can earn interest from… Read more »

India Hinton
India Hinton
6 years ago

Which type of accounts or methods do you recommend for storing the saved money?

Missy
Missy
5 years ago

These challenges seem to be failure prone in the big picture because they focus on goals and not a system. If there is no system in place, then you will revert back to your old financial habits once the challenge is over.

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