You don’t have to fall far into the rabbit hole that is Personal Finance On The Internet to stumble upon someone doing—or exhorting you to do—a No Spend Challenge. (It’s “No Spend November,” so you might be seeing them even more than usual!). If you’re not familiar, they’re exactly what they seem like: A person challenges themselves to expend zero dollars beyond the necessities of life, such as housing, food and transport.
At face value, they’re a fairly innocuous way of reigning in your expenditures, becoming aware of mindless extra purchases and saving a little cash along the way. You resist that Aritizia sale, forgo Uber in favour of the TTC, meal prep your lunches instead of buying take-out (OK, that only lasted the first week but still) and…emerge a hero, refreshed from this foray into minimalist living, one step further along in your road to financial freedom. Because this is 2019, you also probably documented your “struggles” on social media. #millionairemindset #goaldigger #onabudget
What you may not have realized you were doing as you tightened your belt by not buying that belt in the Matches sale? You were also participating in an activity that’s the purview of only the most privileged in the world.
“I could do a ‘No Spend Challenge’ and it might get me $20 at the end of the month,” says Laura Cattari, a Hamilton, Ont.-based anti-poverty activist who, while not in poverty anymore, has experienced exactly what it’s like to spend every last cent on essentials like food and shelter—and still be in need. Even now, her disposable income is limited. “I wouldn’t say I find this challenge offensive, but I do think targeted to a very particular group.”
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This particular group, of course, is people who actually have disposable income. Spending becomes a choice—something that you don’t have when you’re living in poverty. Your entire life is one long and painful No Spend Challenge.
“It’s very hard to imagine poverty until you’ve been there,” explains Cattari, who found herself there after chronic illness met a diabolically-timed layoff, despite having previously worked jobs that paid $80,000 a year. “When you’re not buying something because you’re doing a challenge, there’s never that fear that comes with poverty. That fear of not being able to eat, of becoming homeless.”
Cattari is an advocate of what she calls “simple living,” and she’s all for being wise with your money and checking your consumption…and maybe not blasting your privilege all over your feed? For her, you see, the issue with this challenge comes when it’s paired with a lack of awareness about the experiences of people for whom this is not a fun activity to post about on social media, or a personal development goal to tick off as a sign of your admirable restraint or frugality.
“To think that [your effort] in any way, shape or form resembles real poverty is way off base,” she says. For her, “real poverty” is when you’re faced with doing impossible math like: If your social assistance for the month is $1,100, and your fixed housing cost is $1,000, how on earth do you decide what to prioritize with that remaining $100? Do you give up your phone, and risk not being able to call for help as a woman living alone? Do you keep your phone and see if you can eat from food banks that month? Or do you not pay your utility bill and risk it getting shut off, meaning the food you’d bought could potentially spoil instead?
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There is also, of course, the isolation, a sense of being different from your peers that’s the polar opposite to the post-watch-the-likes-roll-in experience of conspicuously “not spending” on social media. “When I was on [social assistance], I wasn’t able to buy Nutella,” shares Cattari. “It’s a small thing, but I’m Italian, I grew up on it. It just brought home how you have no choice in your life.”
For Meagan Loose, a writer for the personal finance site Money After Graduation, the “No Spend Challenge” is just a symptom of much broader issues within the world of personal finance, and it’s linked to that ignorance (whether blissful or willful) that Cattari is referring to.
“These challenges to cut spending are all marketed to people who are already financially secure,” she says. “In so much personal finance advice, there’s this assumption that people are already fed or have a bed to sleep in that night. You see people trying to save 10K for a downpayment—but I’m just trying to make enough to eat today.”
Alberta-born, Loose moved to Toronto six years ago, and since then says she’s “been struggling to get by.” Her only expenditures are on food, transiting and housing. She hasn’t bought clothes in three years, and would love to be buying gifts for her family this holiday season—but when every last cent is spoken for already, that’s just not in the cards. She only recently moved into her own apartment, and doesn’t have parents to fall back on like other young people she knows. It’s because of this that she writes about personal finance for people who find themselves in a similar situation.
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“It’s frustrating to see advice from people who can’t understand the place of the people they’re advising. For example, I haven’t bought clothes in three years, so telling me to spend less on clothes? That’s not helpful. But writing from a poverty perspective? There’s solidarity in that.”
And speaking of solidarity: Loose says the answer to this isn’t necessarily *not* doing a No Spend Challenge. It’s simply recognizing the privilege you have in being able to do that, and going forth in sensitivity. In fact, she’d like to see the change starting with the people issuing the challenges in the first place. “If you’re putting forward the idea of doing a ‘No Spend Challenge,’ preface it with something like ‘If you’re in a position to do this,’” she explains. “It’s as simple as acknowledging that there are people who are in different situations.”
Alternately, you can swap out the “No Spend Challenge” for something like “The Welfare Challenge.” It’s one she often asks politicians to do, says Laura Cattari, and involves seeing how many days you can make an average social assistance benefit stretch. (In Ontario, that’s $730 a month.)
“The most important part of doing ‘The Welfare Challenge,” she says, “is that honest assessment of how it impacts you. When you realise how difficult it is, it’s a good way of understanding how impossible it is to get out of poverty.”
“We all know what it’s like to not get what we want,” she adds. “That’s still not the same as poverty. A mindfulness of that privilege can go a long way.”