Money Mic: Why I Went on a Cash-Only Diet

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Amanda ChatelIn our Money Mic series, we hand over the podium to people with controversial views about money. These are their views, not ours, but we welcome your responses.

Today, one woman shares why she opted for an all-cash diet to combat her habitual overspending—and how her plan is faring so far.

After the first of the year, I decided I wanted to make a financial change in my life. Not only did I think that as a woman in my midthirties it was time, but as a woman who will be getting married in May, I thought I owed it to both myself and my future husband to get things in order.

I’ve written about my struggles with being a responsible consumer before. And although I like to believe I’ve come far since the wild spending days of my early twenties, I know that, for me, deciphering the difference between need and want will always be difficult. I realize that, for some, this may seem ridiculous, and I concede that it is, it REALLY is, but it’s still a fact. As a result, I only have my Bloomingdale’s card and one credit card as a means to both rebuild my credit and for emergency purposes.

Since I didn’t owe anyone any money, and I wasn’t racking up massive debit every time I left the house, I felt I had things relatively in order. I was wrong. It was a year-end look back at the past several months that showed me just how much of a “big” spender I really am.

A word about my finances: As a full-time freelance writer, I’m not exactly rolling in the dough, but I do make enough to pay what needs to be paid, then have some fun. I have a bit of savings, some inheritance in there too, and I know that if I stopped working I’d be fine for a bit, but not for several years or anything. Not having an official retirement fund, especially since I’m in my thirties, does make me nervous when I think of the big picture, but the problem with me is I rarely look at the big picture, so nothing has moved me to do something about it just yet.

RELATED: Confessions of a Trust Fund Baby 

As a New Yorker I spend way too much money on, well, everything. I’m not saying that being a New Yorker is an excuse, but with a new restaurant opening practically every day and a world of boutiques, literally, at your doorstep, the opportunity to spend money—and spend a lot of it—is everywhere.

It was after several months of blowing between $800 and $1,200 on food alone, that I realized it was time for a change. Could I afford it? Not exactly. I’d spend and spend with my debit card, move on to my credit card, then at the end of the month make amends thanks to my inheritance. It was such a waste. Then the new month started and it was time to do it again.

Horrible, horrible idea. My inheritance was not meant to allow me to go out to dinner every night of the week; it’s meant for something more—for lack of a better word—responsible. Although it was not a resolution, per se, I resolved to give not just plastic the boot but my debit card too. I was going strictly cash-only into 2014, and I knew I’d be better for it.

  • Elaine

    I think it’s very difficult to look ourselves honestly in the mirror and face our own bad habits. We all have things we could cut out or cut back on, and I applaud you for making the effort and seeing how you can make it work. And yes, treats in life really are sweeter when they’re ‘treats’ and not everyday occurrences.

  • Nubia

    Great job on the cash only diet. I reside in the tri-state area and work in Manhattan, it’s so expensive to grab breakfast, coffee, lunch and maybe a snack. I will be joining the cash only diet soon enough.

  • Megan

    Loved this article, thanks for writing that! Especially this “Next, I took control of the entire “going out to dinner all the time”
    nonsense. According to my mother, “No one has to go out to dinner that
    many times a week! Who do you think you are? Anna Wintour?”” – that’s my mom, exactly her words too (minus the Anna Wintour, my mom is not so much into the fashion world), everything is so recognizable, great read!

  • Krysta Voskowsky

    Excellent article! And truly inspirational. I’m in a similar situation, living as a writer in Boston, and it’s always been so easy to depend on my inheritance savings to go out for filet mignon and Sunday brunches with friends. But this cash only thing really puts things into perspective. In an unexpected twist, reigning in my spending habits has positively effected my overall health too. It’s encouraged me to be more mindful: pack healthy lunches, cut down on alcohol, get more sleep (few late nights out), etc. And I found that once I climbed over that anxiety hill of having a limited weekly cash budget, peace of mind set in as I can now envision my savings goals for the next five years actually coming to fruition. Keep up the good work! I’ll be cheering you on from Beantown!

  • Minerva B

    I find it very hard to relate to someone that has “inheritance” and uses it to subsidize her living expenses because she can’t differentate between a want and a need. $30 per day? not exactly that little. Most families can have a days worth of meals with that much and she uses it strictly on herself? Sorry Learnvest… only lesson from this is how spoiled some people are and that you are out of touch with some of your readers. I’m a single mom with a 6yr old car that has been paid off for 4years and paying a mortgage. Saving for the inevitable repairs to car or home. I have had to find free entertainment such as running, cycling, and hiking or stay home since you spend when you walk out your door. Seeing someone like this woman whine is rather insulting to many of us but sure, thanks for sharing.

    • V

      I completely agree with you.

      • CarrieSloan

        Hi Minerva,

        Thank you so much for your comment. I want you to know that LearnVest is here to help everyone make progress on their money, no matter what their income, budget or life situation.

        Our “Money Mic” essay series is designed to give many different writers a voice, and relates one money experience one person has had in their life, whether good or bad. Its goal is to show that we all wrestle with meeting our financial goals and staying on budget, and hopefully to help us learn from each others’ triumphs … and missteps.

        We actually just published this story, about four single moms, and how they’re making it work on one income, as one parent, that I thought you might like, and there are many more stories like that where it came from. http://www.learnvest.com/2014/03/being-a-single-mom-and-tips-for-single-moms/

        If there’s anything in particular you’d like to see LearnVest write about, please let us know.

        • Rosa P

          I agree with Minerva, this post is nothing inspirational or to learn from…well I take that back…we’re learning what NOT to do and how NOT to be a spoiled money manager by using inheritance as a way to cope with overspending. This writer’s goal should have been to not live beyond their needs. Now THAT would have been a good article. Maybe being a bit more selective on article choice would be something you guys think about. We’re here to learn ways to cope, not to learn from the spoiled how to use alternative funding to satisfy our desire to have what we don’t need.

        • ksgirl73

          I have to agree with Minerva as well. LV has a tendency to base their articles towards those living on the east coast and honestly, it almost is like a different world. I live in the Midwest and could easily pay for 3 meals on $30. We don’t use public transportation as much and our salaries, cost of living, and homes are all lower. I realize LV is based out of NY, but I think LV really would benefit from articles written by people in different parts of the country. It’s really hard to relate to some of these articles when they are based off of a completely different lifestyle that doesn’t affect us all.

          • Megan

            Hello! I think you all have a point here, however, I also think LV is doing nothing wrong, same goes for the writer – this is just an article applying to one specific target group. This article does not apply to a single mom, agree, but it does apply to people like me, twenty-somethings that realized life isn’t a paradise and that we need to start being more mindful about where our money is going. I admire single moms who do not have the luxury to finance their “wants”, they have to be tough and double-check every penny. My goal is to ultimately be mindful about every penny I spend too, so no more impulsive coffees to go. However, since I don’t have to take care of a child, I don’t have to drastically change my lifestyle. For me, every latte I order less is an improvement, but sure, I agree that this is luxury and that if I would be 100% committed I shouldn’t buy the coffee at all. I personally loved the article and I think it is inspirational. The writer might not be a perfect example and could be more radical by eliminating all the money she spends on her wants, but she shows that she, in her own way, tries change and spend her money more wisely … isn’t that a message that we can all relate to?

    • Alison

      Hi, Minerva. Please don’t be a hater. May you one day win $1 million in a lottery, and write an essay about how you chose to invest and spend it. I don’t even put money into the lotto, but I’ll enjoy reading your essay anyway- from my freezing cold house, where we haven’t been able to afford to get the furnace replaced since it broke 2 months ago. Thank goodness for Wal-Mart sleeping bags, good for temps 30 degrees and above. lol

  • Amanda

    Thanks for this post. I look forward to following your progress. You are very funny, too. A great read!

  • Melia

    staying in became fun for me once I realized that my making brunch for a few friends would be cheaper than my going out to brunch. We could hang out as long as we wanted since we weren’t going to get kicked out of a restaurant after a couple hours.

  • Sharon

    Sorry, you lost me at “inheritance”…. I’m doing fine now, thanks to savvy investing and busting my hump at work, but when I was younger, I had a budget of $30 PER WEEK with no safety net of an inheritance. I am grateful that I had to work extremely hard for everything in my life because I appreciate it so much more. But no, I cannot relate to this concept of “inheritance”

    • V

      Thank you! It is astounding to me how many people out there – grown adults, mind you – that have truly no idea what real struggle is. I can make $30 last an entire week, if need be, and this one is complaining about being “limited” to that amount per day. Did you see how many meals she consumed outside of her home? Try turning on a stove once in a while. “Inheritance,” please!

  • Jess

    Thanks for this article! It’s always nice to see how simplifying one’s financial life can make for big results.
    I always find it so disheartening to read about a person’s positive life changes and then read comments complaining about the author’s spoiled mentality, that someone else is living on 30 cents a month, the nerve of the author!, or that ‘inheritance’ is a dirty word. I often find these comments ignore what the author has already recognized- that they know their finances could use a reality check. Every one has different circumstances, impacted by location. The author readily admits NYC has a different mindset than most other areas of the US, that her inheritance shouldn’t be used to settle credit each month, and she also concedes that there are many people who would find her new lifestyle a luxury. I appreciate seeing how others live and even when it is different than my lifestyle, thinking about how the principle can apply to me. I’d love to see more articles that remind us how we can incorporate new ideas into our financial lives, and less comments that browbeat authors who have made the unfortunate mistake to have a different lifestyle than the reader. Let’s celebrate other people’s accomplishments in the context of THEIR life, rather than criticizing them for not having a situation identical to our own.

  • Nic

    Thank you for taking the time to post your story. I understand that this is not everyone’s reality, but I do appreciate hearing how different people approach their finance management and regardless of whether or not everything applies to me, I always find nuggets that are helpful. While I do not live in an area as costly as yours, I can see the value in a cash only system – but most likely, I will have to log my own behavior for a period of time and then create a budget more appropriate to my income and environment. Again, appreciate your willingness to share.

  • Steve Demaray

    Hi Amanda, I want to congratulate you on the steps you have made so far. Your instincts are correct (i) credit cards remove our financial boundaries and (i) never stopping to consider the future is risky. I am a money and life coach outside Toronto, Ontario. I’m just throwing this out there but i would be prepared to do some pro-bono tele-coaching with you Not unusual for me…my two most recent engagements are from Alabama! You can contact me through my website personalmoneycoach.ca. I am always happy to spend some time with people who are committed to change. In any case, good luck with staying on track.

  • the_leaky_pen

    This is actually really inspiring for me. It’s good to know that people are as bad as I am with spending money on food. I think I am going to try for the cash-only diet thing as well.

  • Leslie H. Tayne, Esq

    Great post about your experience going on a cash diet! It’s really easy to spend a lot more than you planned to if you use a credit or debit card frequently. Dining out at restaurants and bars can also impact your waistline and your wallet. Creating a cash budget each day can help to prevent you from overspending. I hope your story gives people more confidence to save more and spend less!

  • Thrifty Writer

    When I want to eat out in NYC, I usually look to Groupon or Living Social. There are some great deals for delicious food there, and my friends, who are pretty much financially in the same boat that I am, have no problems doing that.