Photo-Illustration: by The Cut; Image: Getty Images
Rebecca Sowden, a self-described “recovered super-spender” with over 65,000 followers on TikTok, has a theory as to why going no-spend in January has become such a phenomenon this year. “We all came out of COVID with bad shopping habits,” he said. “We are so bored, sitting at home scrolling through our phones, that we are so used to buying things. It’s an easy, affordable way to feel productive. “
Of course, inflation also plays a role in why we’ve all been feeling down lately. But Sowden, who is 26 and lives in Southern California, believes the real reason is simpler – we spend too much. “Everyone always complains about the economy, but the bigger problem is that they still rely on shopping to fill the void,” he said. “We no longer have the tools to say no to ourselves. We forgot how to stop.”
Whatever the reason, #nospendjanuary, a month-long challenge to cut extraneous purchases, has reached a fever pitch on TikTok in recent weeks. There is no hard-and-fast program, but most participants limit their spending to non-discretionary “needs” such as groceries and transportation. They also create (and share) specific lists of what is allowed to be bought and what is not. Some set their spending to a certain amount each week.
“People want a total reset, a fresh start,” says Sowden, who regularly posts about her own no-cost rules (she continues to a weekly “allowance” for food and transportation; clothes and beauty products are not limited) and how he sticks to them (regular journaling to control himself, silencing influencers who encourage spending) . “Everybody finally realizes, ‘Okay, I’ve bought all the stuff and I don’t feel good, so maybe I’ll try to buy a little bit more.'”
Shopping restrictions, spending fasts, and other financial “detox” programs have been around forever (I’ve tried a few myself, with mixed results). In many ways, it’s just a variation of the same old slog – spend less on crap you don’t need, stick to a budget. However, spending nothing in January is attractive for one reason: It works, at least temporarily. Rules, guidelines, and collective momentum are often helpful when you’re trying to create new behavior or change your behavior. A potential downside, however, is that strict financial resolutions can encourage yo-yo spending habits in the long term. (Of course, they also assume you have enough money to spend a little first.)
Georgia Lee Hussey, a certified financial planner and the CEO of Modernist Financial, is skeptical of the trend. “Instead of making restrictions on the way you spend a month, maybe look at the way you spend more holistically,” he says. “What did you do in December that makes you feel like you need to cut back so much in January?”
He also believes that not spending in 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 get it back in January,” he said. “That’s not looking at the root of the issue, which is to have a more thoughtful, sustainable approach throughout the year.”
Some people find that spending-free periods can start a better shopping relationship, but it only lasts for a month. That was the case of Christina Mychaskiw, a pharmacist in Toronto who attempted her first no-spending challenge in 2019, when she was struggling to pay off nearly $90,000 in student loans (about $65,000 in US dollars). “I feel like I’m going out of debt because of my student loan, and then I can deal with the financial stress by shopping more,” she said. Desperate to break the cycle, she Googled “how to stop shopping” and found Hannah Louise Poston, a content creator who documented her “no-buy year” on YouTube. “I’m motivated to do the same,” Mychaskiw said.
At first, it feels good to take more steps. Mychaskiw swears by unnecessary shopping of any kind and shares his progress online. “I was very strict and honest about it, and that worked for a while,” he says. But then, about six months into the process, his dog died and he went on a free shopping spree. “I feel like I’ve failed, and it’s a disaster,” he said.
However, Mychaskiw – who is better known as @christinamychas on TikTok and YouTube, where she now has a quarter of a million followers – is back on the wagon. A few weeks after her slip-up, she created a new, slightly more forgiving no-spending program that allowed for some exceptions, such as books, sewing clothes she already owned. , and replacements for products he has worn or used. Eventually, she reached her goal of paying off her student loans by 2021. Now, she spends zero or low months several times a year as a means of maintenance to keep the itch shopping going. .
“I learned that you have to know your ‘why,'” he said. “Of course, you will be encouraged to save and change your spending habits. But the simple act of not shopping and making rules about what you can’t buy probably won’t stick in the long run – at least, not for me. Instead, he reframed it as part of a larger exercise in taking stock and evaluating what he already had, not focusing on what he couldn’t have. “That detox from shopping is just a tool to help clear the noise, see what I use, what I want to keep, and what I want to get rid of.”
Hannah, a 26-year-old who lives in New York and recorded her first no-spend in January on TikTok as @thehanniediaries, points out that it’s easier to shop a little when everyone else is doing it too. (I can relate; I had an accident in January because many of my friends did.) Plus, it helps to have a group to keep you accountable. “It’s fun to have a community of people I’ve never met trying to do the same thing, and we all rely on each other,” he said.
I asked him if he felt cheated. After all, who needs to know? “I just bought the new facial exfoliator because my skin is so dry,” she said. It’s technically on her “no-spend” list (no new beauty products, clothes, Ubers, or Doordash), and her husband says it can be their secret. “But I think it’s important to be honest,” he said. He posted this a few days ago. “I think it’s more relatable to show you can mess up than to be like, ‘I had a stellar no-buy January,'” he said. “If anything, I got a lot of positive comments about it.”
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