4 ways to have your least expensive month ever (minus the misery)

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No-spend challenges have gained popularity in recent years. Their premise is simple: Create a list of essentials and refrain from buying anything else for a designated period of time. Challenges vary in length. Some last a weekend; others go a year. They sound like a great way to save, but, truth is, life happens. Clothes tear, $1,000 iPhones crack. Friends roll into town for spontaneous drinks. It's hard or even impossible to spend nothing for any amount of time.

Luckily, you can benefit from a no-spend challenge without actually embarking on one. Here are four lessons from people who spend-freeze to help you have your least expensive month ever, minus the misery.

1. Pick a thing

When Jen Smith, author of "The No-Spend Challenge Guide", initially decided to freeze her finances, she wanted to change one thing: her coffee habit.

"I started with giving up Starbucks for a few weeks and worked up to where I'm at," she says. "You don't have to go all in to do a challenge."

Instead, start with one pain-point, she says. If you struggle with a daily coffee habit, commit to skipping the drive-thru for a week. At the end of challenge, assess how you feel: Did you miss the daily routine? Is the coffee from the shop actually superior? How much money did you save? Was it worth cutting the expense? Can you handle axing another? If so, try another challenge and pare back further over time.

2. Get creative

Creativity is no longer reserved for children and artists. In fact, research shows everyday expressions of originality and meaningfulness are critical to our overall well-being. Approach spending through this lens.

Kylie Travers has done a number of no-spend challenges. Her longest freeze lasted six months. One of her biggest takeaways: Creativity is key. She's found its particularly helpful when trying to cut out entertainment spending ... without actually cutting out entertainment. How? In lieu of staying home, she researches free outings in her area.

Travers also flexes her creativity muscle in the kitchen.

“I see how long I can go without grocery shopping as well and I get really creative with what we already have instead.”

Creativity take time, but Travers finds satisfaction in the hunt and advises others to embrace the game to avoid feeling deprived.

“Work out ways to do what you want to do for free or cheap instead of eliminating everything in your life,” she says.

3. Be a Detective

If you want to save money while still enjoying life, it’s time to start searching for clues about what purchases actually make you happy. No-spend challenges are a great way to figure this out.

"When you say ‘no’ to yourself you feel the sting of delaying gratification," Smith says. "I’ve learned what stings most and now I can buy those things with confidence. But at the same time, I also don't desire a lot of the stuff I used to.”

You don’t need to embark on a no-spend challenge to figure with what makes you happy, though. Experiment with cutting an item out of your budget and see how it feels. You might be surprised to learn that you don’t even notice it’s gone.

4. Get grateful

If the thought of giving stuff leaves you feeling anxious, practice gratitude for what you already have. It sounds counter-intuitive, but a little mindfulness provides some much-needed motivation for cutting back.

"I sell things from our home regularly, but when it comes time to stop spending, I get an urge to clear out the house, too," Travers says. "When I do that I realize how much stuff we have in a tiny apartment — kids' toys, clothing we don't wear, books and more. We soon learn how little we need to spend and how much we waste.”

Want more ways to cut spending while curbing deprivation? Here's how the minimalist movement can help you manage your money.

Image: MN Productions