I remember the day I got my first credit card. I was a sophomore at NYU and a bunch of credit card companies set up on campus offering cheap gifts in exchange for a seemingly small commitment. I left Washington Square Park with an ugly t-shirt, a King-sized Kit Kat, and two credit cards. Signing up for the cards made me feel like an adult, but in hindsight it was more like Ariel selling her voice/soul to Ursula so she could get some dumb legs. OK, maybe that’s a little dramatic, but the truth is that credit cards, when abused, can prompt you to spend more and spiral into debt. While my relationship with credit has slowly improved over time, and I pay my bills in full almost every month, I’m still a little more loosey-goosey with spending when I’ve got plastic in my pocket. I’ll throw away $50 on dinner when I mean to spend $20, or drop a mint at Sephora. I’m a freelance writer living in a big city, and although I’m married and my husband brings in a decent salary, I’m nowhere near being the idle rich to which I aspire, so those splurges add up. When I saw that my recent credit card bills were getting bigger and bigger, I decided to get rid of my cards for a week and rely strictly on cash instead, to see if it would help curb my spending.
Monday: Setting a budget
First, I had to figure out how much money I wanted to spend during the week. Since I was hit kinda hard by taxes, I needed to drastically decrease my spending. I can easily fly through $400 in a week so I thought, why don’t I challenge myself with a limit of half that ($200)? I know it’s not nothing, but for me, a city girl who eats out frequently and loves to impulse-buy all the candles at Anthropologie, it would require real effort. I withdrew the cash and said a small prayer.
The expenses quickly started piling up. An oat milk latte and vegan scone at the cafe down the street set me back $12.50. I decided to park it and work on a few freelance assignments. By lunchtime, I started eyeing their special, a vegan Cobb salad–I’m vegan and Cobb salads were my favorite food before I went vegan. It was delicious and even at $15, it was worth every penny. I planned to work for a few more hours, but was a little sleepy after my feast, so I walked home instead, passing a few of my favorite clothing stores on the way. I told myself I wouldn’t walk into any, but one place had a sale rack out front. “What’s the harm in browsing?” I asked myself, foolishly. I found the perfect dress to wear to a wedding the following weekend and it was mega marked down to only $60, including tax! How could I resist?! Quick answer: I didn’t. I felt so great for about ten minutes, and then regret set in. I turned around to return the dress but was welcomed with a sign that said, “All sales final.” Ouch.
My husband and I had planned to go out for dinner, but because I’d really outdone myself, money-wise, we decided to stay in and cook some of the millions of dollars worth of groceries in our fridge and pantry. It was fun to cook together, and I felt smug thinking about the extra $50 that was in my pocket. Not all heroes wear capes.
Started day with: $200.00
Ended day with: $112.50
Tuesday: A new game plan
I desperately needed a new financial game plan for the second day, or else I wouldn’t make it past noon on Wednesday. So I decided to just take $40 with me for the day. I spent the morning running around to various meetings, and then had a late lunch with a friend. We went to a place with my favorite cocktails in the world, but I knew that I had dinner plans later, so I ordered an appetizer and an Arnold Palmer. It was $15 with tip, and I didn’t have to call a Lyft afterwards due to inebriation. Score! That left me $25 for dinner and I decided on essentially the same meal. It came to $19, and I threw down $25 for my portion of the bill and tip. I’m amazing at money!
Started day with: $112.50
Ended day with: $72.50
Wednesday: No spending!
I worked at a photo shoot for the day, and both breakfast and lunch were provided. They even did a mid-day Starbucks run and I had a venti mocha Frappuccino — something I’d never dream of dropping the dough on in my current state. It felt like downright decadence, but I wanted to scream, “Do you know how much this costs?! Is this whole crew crazy!?” At the end of the day, the production crew packed up the craft services and sent us all home with a ton of food. Normally I’d pass up the freebies in favor of dinner out, but I decided to live my best-ish life with leftovers. My husband and I feasted like kings, and I continued feeling like the most frugal person on the planet.
Started day with: $72.50
Ended day with: $72.50 (I’m amazing!)
Thursday: Mourning those shopping habits
Welp, all of the great feelings I had about my new money skills faded as soon as I was tested with my first *real* challenge. I’d been eyeing an ASOS blouse that was sold out in my size, but it became available again. It was $150 but I had only $72.50 left for the week. I’m not proud to say that I shed a small tear. I went through the five stages of grief, including denial that the top wouldn’t be sold out by Saturday, bargaining with my husband to get him to buy it for me as a gift (he declined, telling me to tough it out), and finally acceptance that this gorgeous, perfect top would never be mine. I spent the rest of the day moping and feeling bad about not getting it. Although I planned to cook dinner, I decided to instead rebel and go out for dinner, drinks, and dessert. But because I only had $72.50 left, and I wanted to have something left for Friday, I decided the biggest I could ball was Taco Bell. And since TB doesn’t have a vegan dessert, I didn’t have dessert. I’ll just say it was an unsatisfying day, and leave it at that. (Because if I say more, I might start crying again! What is wrong with me?!)
Started day with: $72.50
Ended day with: $58.81
Friday: Finally, freedom!
I woke up still a little sad about the blouse, but then I looked at it again, and I looked at my closet, overstuffed with very similar tops, and I had an epiphany about how we all live in a consumerist hellscape and I was finally free. The satisfaction was huge. And then it was noon and I wanted to buy a milkshake that I saw advertised on a billboard, so I realized that I might not be totally free, but I could be a little smarter about my choices. I spent the day working in the coffee shop, and again indulged in an oat milk latte, a vegan scone, and that delicious Cobb salad. I left the cafe with $27 fewer dollars, but having had a successful day of work, I felt the trade off was worth it. I had $31.31 left to my name and so I asked my husband to meet me for happy hour appetizers and drinks (OK, a drink) and I spent my remaining $31 on my man. I’m a sugar mama and I love it!
Started day with: $58.81
Ended day with: 52 cents
While I stuck to my budget, I didn’t do quite as well as I had hoped. (See the regrettable dress purchase above.) But the benefits of even trying to go without credit cards for a week was huge. If I hadn’t been doing this experiment, I probably would have spent twice as much when shopping, and dropped way more on meals. While I know I can’t banish credit cards for life, I’m vowing to become much less reliant on them, and I now know that I can do it. And the lessons of thinking twice before spending and treating cards like cash will really help me out long-term. I’ll start tomorrow, right after I go to the movies. And dinner. And fine, drinks, too! Everything in moderation, including moderation!