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When I started going over my budget last month, I had to ask myself what was going on. As a prideful, self-proclaimed money nerd, overspending isn't something I often do. What was preventing me from spending wisely?

After going through my bank and credit card statements, I noticed that it was the impulse buys and the morning coffee runs that were eating up my funds. Sure, I had a few "forced upgrades" and made a few unexpected purchases earlier this year - buying a new laptop when mine wouldn't start up again and a new smartphone after my old one suffered water damage.

But as it turns out, it was those small, everyday purchases that were adding up. As I dug even deeper, I noticed that all of these purchases were going on my credit card. So I decided to leverage cash payments (debit cards, checks, cash, etc.) to get my spending back on track. Here's how I survived a cash-only month:

The Rules

Before starting my challenge, I carefully thought through the parameters of how to effectively manage my budget. I would allocate X amount each week to discretionary spending - groceries, household items, gas, dining out, and socializing. I would only use cash or my debit card to force myself to become more aware of my spending habits. I had two back-to-back trips planned: a weeklong camping trip and a short business trip up the California coast. To account for travel costs, I budgeted a little more than usual.

The Exceptions

Besides setting up rules, I also allowed for a few exceptions. There were some recurring purchases that I put on my card each month - such as my internet bill, gas bill, and streaming video services. Because these expenses don't change and are part of my monthly budget, I decided to stick to auto pay for these bills.

The Results

Only using cash was eye-opening, to say the least. I was surprised by how much I could rack up on everyday purchases - trips to the grocery store ($50), a tank of gas ($30), and washing my clothes at the laundromat ($20). I also found myself checking my account balance at least once a day.

  • I was far more frugal than usual. The simple fact that I had to make the existing money in my account stretch made me hit pause before I bought something. No more treating my friends "just because." I even returned a few items because I wanted to have that extra bit of cash in my checking account. If I had used my credit card for such purchases, I probably wouldn't have bothered to trek to the store. I also said "no" to a few social outings. And if I wanted to go out with friends, I suggested a less-expensive alternative. Most of my pals understood, and some were even curious about trying the challenge themselves.
  • I put off unnecessary purchases. Anything I didn't really need, I avoided buying for the time being. I wanted to make sure I had a better grasp on my spending before charging things.
  • I used gift cards. To make sure I didn't go over my weekly budget, I raided my pile of unused gift cards that I received over Christmas. It helped pay for some household items on my "to buy" list and covered a dinner during my travels.

The Verdict

After going on a cash-only challenge, I've been far more careful about putting things on my credit cards. Instead of carrying around several cards, I whittled it down to one. If you're looking to get yourself back on track with your credit card spending, here are some tips for a cash-only month:

  • Set rules for your challenge and stick to them. Your rules may be different from mine. Set ones that make sense for you. And while there's nothing wrong with exceptions, just make sure they're justified, and aren't merely secret ways to cheat.
  • Understand your trade-offs. There are definitely benefits to using a credit card: reward points, extended manufacturer warranties, and travel protection. If you're not 100 percent comfortable with the idea of pausing your credit card spending completely, set conditions for when you can swipe the plastic.
  • Set alerts. See if you can set alerts for transactions on your debit card that exceed X amount. Or get pinged if your account falls below a certain balance. These alerts will help keep your spending in check and within your budget.
  • Start small. When an entire cash-only month seems like a tall order, start with a weeklong challenge. After a week, do a review and adjust accordingly. Use HelloWallet to set your budget and get a better understanding of your finances.

Once you start spending wisely, you'll get back on track with your budget. With a little diligence and work, and after creating a plan to pay off your card, you might even be able to set aside a little more cash at the end of each month for your savings account.

Disclosures

This information and recommendations contained herein is compiled from sources deemed reliable, but is not represented to be accurate or complete. In providing this information, neither KeyBank nor its affiliates are acting as your agent or is offering any tax, accounting, or legal advice.

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