How the $0 Day Can Help You Reach Your Financial Goals

Laura Shin

Two years and one week ago, I began logging all my spending on a Google spreadsheet.

This was before I worked at LearnVest, and just after I got a budget for the first time in my life, well into my 30s.

I had more than $20,000 in student loan and credit card debt that, until then, I had not been able to figure out how to control. When I learned how to set up my budget, I saw very clearly that if, every month, I spent below my means and paid a little bit toward my debt, my debt would go down every month until it would be all gone.

So, I began following a strict weekly allowance. In order to make sure I hit my number every week, I wrote down every single dollar I spent in the Google doc. (I also “planned” my spending by logging expected future expenses in upcoming weeks, so I sometimes would enter a week already knowing that I needed to reserve $20 for dinner with a friend and that I had that much less to spend that week. Read more about how I paid off my debt.)

That very first week, I spent $6 on laundry, $38 on groceries, $45 on a couple meals and drinks out with friends, $24 on various fast food lunches, $60 for a hotel room for my friends’ wedding, $15 on the bus out there, $19 on a thrift store dress and $15 on some personal finance materials. And on Thursday, September 23, 2010, I logged a big fat $0, highlighted it in green, and put a smiley face next to it.

And thus, the $0 Day, a concept that can help you reach your financial goals, was born.

Stumbling Into the $0 Day

Looking back at my calendar, I can see now why I didn’t spend any money that day–I went to work, brought my lunch, took a yoga class at a center where I had a membership and then headed home to pack for the upcoming wedding.

I hadn’t intended not to spend any money, but the next morning, when I went to log the previous day’s spending on my spreadsheet and realized I hadn’t spent a single cent, I felt a small thrill. In my battle with my debt, I had scored an easy win and made it that much easier on myself to meet my weekly budget goal, as well as my larger goal of paying off my debt.

In the weeks that followed, I didn’t try to have $0 Days, but I managed to get one in about every other week simply because of busy days that didn’t involve going out or running errands. But then, I went a few weeks without logging a single $0 Day, and I realized I missed that high.

It was at that point that I began to challenge myself to have $0 Days.

From mid-November 2010 through the end of December, I logged 12 $0 Days. It seems counterintuitive to have achieved that during the hectic holiday season, but it see that I logged six of those $0 Days during Thanksgiving and Christmas, when I was hanging out with my family at home–away from the Black Friday and holiday sales crowds.

For the other days, if I knew that I didn’t have any social events planned that would require me to spend money, I would try also not to buy a snack or run an errand that could be done another time. I wouldn’t plan out my $0 Days–it’s just that if I made it halfway through the day without spending any money, and I knew I didn’t have any specific reason to be spending money that night, then I’d try not to buy anything for the rest of the day so that way, the next morning, I could open the spreadsheet and write “$0,” highlight it in green and give myself a smiley face.

The Benefit of Little Goals and Little Victories

Psychologists have found that one of the easiest ways to veer off the path to your goals is to craft them in a way that is so difficult you are likely to fail. Trying not to eat meat? Start with Meatless Mondays rather than trying to be 100% vegetarian all the time.

And so it goes with your budget. If you’re trying to spend within your means, or save a lot of money or pay down debt, trying to control every last penny might stress you out so much that you go on a shopping spree to relax.

But scoring an easy, painless win that doesn’t cost you anything in stress or effort will give you a little boost on your way to meeting your larger goal.

So, whether you’re trying to pay down debt (as I was when I started $0 Days), or you’re trying to save up money (as I am now, two years later), celebrate a $0 Day whenever you have one, even with something as simple as a private smiley face.

It’s probably best not to make it a regularly scheduled event that will make you feel bad if you don’t meet your goal for that day. In other words, make your $0 Days the kind of thing where you can only win and never lose.

But if you want to log your victory in a financially meaningful way, you can put an extra dollar toward your debt or savings on that day and log that transaction in the Money Center. You could then file these $1 transactions in a folder marked $0 Days to commemorate your little victories.

However you decide to mark your $0 Days is up to you. Just make sure that you do celebrate them. After all, we should rejoice over every step we take toward achieving our goals.

Laura Shin is senior editor at LearnVest, and she’s been meticulously logging her spending for the past two years in order to pay off $20,000+ in debt and build up her savings.

  • Christina C

    The $0 day idea is great! I definitely want to try to implement that! I just recently (in this past July) got to the point where I realized I needed to take control financially and pay off my credit card debt (~7k) and student loan debt (~30k), and actually start saving for emergencies! I’m also one of those meticulous trackers, but I feel like while I write the information down, I don’t really process it. Since starting on a budget, I’ve also fallen into the trap you mentioned above where I watch every single dollar (debt makes me hyperventilate so I want to pay it off as quickly as possible), then cut loose and go on a “spending spree”. Now that I’ve recognized that it will take awhile to pay everything off, my goal for October is to find a way to have a balanced approach to all of this – so that I’m paying off debt, but also leaving myself enough spending money for what I need, and for some fun, and also contributing enough to my savings. The $0 spending day would be a great private motivator for me. I feel like I spend money every single day, so it would be a major victory to not spend any just one day!

    • Sara C.

      Christina, I totally identify with you! I log all my spending and think “Oh my gosh, I need to control this month’s spending!” I make a budget – but I never really process the real situation! $0 day sounds awesome :) 

      Good luck! I’m going to try it, too!

  • Fl

    This is a great idea.  I started tracking my expenses but i fell off of the habit.  I definitely need to budget better, and I think that aiming for $0 days is a great idea.  

  • Engchik

    Great article! i have zero days now and then but i need to log it and really keep track,eso b/c so much of my income is blown on lunch/dinners as a quick alternative. im so close to paying off my debt that even a $5 lunch is too much!

  • Srahjayne

    I enjoyed reading this. In the past year I have started watching my money in order to pay down some credit card debt and tackle my student loans. I’m also planning a move and have about 4 vacations planned for this year! Eek!

    When I plan out my budget, I try to have 5 consecutive days of no spending during the work week. I bring my lunch everyday and say no to happy hour. I go home and cook my own meals and then read a book or watch some TV. I also try to make it to the gym so I feel productive. In order to stay sane, I go out on the weekends.

    I’m glad to hear someone else has employed this $0 rule. So far, it has REALLY helped me!

  • Awstobber75

    Any tips on how to manage a “$0 day” w/kids? Always $20 here for team tshirt or add’l pieces of a dance costume, mini mart snacks and drinks after school before practice, bday parties, poster board for school projects, local fair, football game, grew out of the pants earlier than expected, another team registration…HELP :)

    • Fresca

      I am the mom of 2 grown sons and I was also in your place not too long ago. I learned that No was a complete sentence and I could say it. Also, I planned ahead by putting a cooler in the car and kept Kool Aid in a pitcher in there with reusable sports bottles and snacks from my pantry. I shopped at Thrift stores and Dollar stores and learned that children do much better when their mom isn’t stressed out over money. No… a great sentence.

      • LSCDMC

        I agree with Fresca. Advance planning means no stopping at a mini mart for snacks – you can pack healthier snacks from home, anyway.  The thrift store has been my biggest find relative to kids clothes and sporting uniforms – baseball pants, etc.  I also keep a “gift closet” where I keep a couple of gifts on hand that can be taken to a birthday party.  You can set limits on how many birthday parties a month, or how many tickets at the fair, etc.  Good luck!!!

    • brenda

      stop the minute mart snacks and buy in advance from the grocery and use coupons  when possible.  cokes come at a price like 4 for $12.00 and little debbies can be bought in boxes or at the outlet stores- about $8-10 a case, school supplies can be had at the dollar stores or walmart for a better price.  Stocking up at the beginning of the school year and on tax free days helps also.  Buy and stock up on birthday items when you can find them on clearance and after christmas sales.  Dedicate a closet shelf for these(children and adult).Check thrift stores for gently used pants and other things as well.

  • Schmidt Katrina

    I’ve been keeping track of everything (I mean EVERYTHING) I spend in an excel spreadsheet for the past 4+ years.  I just get a receipt for everything, save them in my wallet. and enter them in at the end of the week!  It’s a fantastic tool, because it helps you realize just how quickly all those “little” purchases add up, and when you’re more aware of what you’re spending, you can be better prepared to control that spending.  I’d recommend this system to anyone who wants to get a better control of their finances.  Just being aware of what I spend has enabled me to have more control, and I’ve ended up saving thousands of dollars!  :)  It’s also cool to look back at your records and see how you’ve done!  I get super stoked when I see not just a $0 day, but a $0 WEEK! :)

  • Steph D

    Can you share the spreadsheet you used?

    • laurashin

      Hi Steph D,

      I can share it with you, but I also recommend you log your spending in the LearnVest Money Center. The spreadsheet has no analytical capabilities like the site, which shows trends in your spending and allows you to set limits. Plus, we’ll be coming up with an iPhone app and other mobile apps very soon, so you can also log your spending on the go. 


      • Kathleen C

        I would also really like a copy of your $0 spreadsheet.  I love the LearnVest Money Center but think this tool and the “mini victories” will help me focus on my day to day spending.

      • LeE

         May I also see the spreadsheet(s)? Thank you!

      • Melissawyatt

        I would also really like a copy of your $0 spreadsheet.  

      • Lcgregg

         I would also like a copy of the spreadsheet. Thank you!

  • Amber

    Great article. Thank you for sharing! This is such a great tip. These are the types of articles that I enjoy  most from LV.

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  • Carey Elizabeth

    Love this. I live in NY where a $0/day seems impossible. But I know that when I’m effectively planning my spending it’s completely doable.

    I’m swishing around the idea of a $0/day Jar….for each day I got without spending money, I put a note in the jar with a “treat yo’self” kind of item on it (ie manicure, flowers, one fancy cocktail). For each time I hit a financial goal of mine, I get to pick one of those out of the jar.

  • Ashley Burton

    My issue is that I mostly have $0 days, it’s when I do spend I spend big one day a week….

    • Guest

       Same here.  During the week I take my lunch and I don’t spend much, but it’s on the weekend when I’m running errands that I tend to spend more.

      • mawhite

        Same here. I can’t figure out how to stop my weekend spending.

  • Nikki

    i like this idea. i’ve been slacking off on tracking my spending. :/ but now i want to get back on track.

  • Debi Brown

    Just over a year ago, I had almost 18k in debt. I decided enough  was enough! I got a second and third job, slowly weaned myself off the third job. And although I didn’t keep track of every penny, I did sign up for Before that, I would cringe to log into each of my accounts. Mint made it super easy and all in one place. Goodbye micromanaging with Quicken! I’m now down to $5801, and should have everything paid off by January. Can’t wait to actually save! Did I mention that I’m also going to school? Ways to save: STOP! Stop telling yourself that you need cable, a smartphone, a gym membership, the latest of everything. Do you realize that you can say no for now and always say yes for any of these later? But, pay off your debt first! You’ll be so glad you did. Or at least I am!

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  • Just Jill

    Awesome idea and great article! Never underestimate the power of the smiley :) I’m totally going to try this!

  • Tarabutler829

    Would you mind sharing your spreadsheet template for others who want to track their daily spending?

  • Mendy Marit Mal…

    This is one of the most practical and inspirational tecniques that worked for me! 

  • Megan

    This is such a good tip! I will also implement those days. I have been spending money every day this month and it makes me feel bad, but I clearly remember other months where I did have $0 days and how good they made me feel. I’ll try to not spend any money tomorrow!

  • Karen Dove

    New Year’s Resolution (starting now for one year, hey, its never too late to start!): $0 day once a week!