Our family is on a “no-nonessential spending kick” for September. Why? We had a few hangover bills from a summer vacation and three unexpected car repairs. So a spending freeze seemed like a sane way to get our budget back on track.

Now, we’re pretty careful with our money anyway, so I thought, “How hard can this be?” Well, it’s only September 2. And I’ll tell ya the truth: It’s very, very hard!

I read a suggestion in financial celebrity Suze Orman’s 2009 Action Plan (which I downloaded for free; you can still read the first chapter here). It was: Don’t spend ANYTHING for one day. So during the last part of August, I kept trying to do that, in preparation for September. Emphasis on “kept trying.” I’d think: OK, this is an easy day to spend nothing. Then we desperately needed milk. Or it was my “mom’s night out” and I wanted to buy a cup of coffee with a friend. Or I needed to send in a check for my daughters’ lunch money.

So I’d put off the “spend nothing day” until tomorrow. But the funny thing was that something kept popping up—sometimes a need, sometimes a very strong “want”—and I found it really tough to go even one single day without spending at least a few bucks! I wondered: How the heck are we going to get through September?

Now, to be honest, it’s not a spend NOTHING month. However, it is a “spend only on really important stuff” month. For instance, we cut eating out altogether. And we don’t even eat out that much. But for September, we’re not even getting cheap burritos on Wednesday night (our typical “eating out” night) out at our favorite (and cheap) Mexican place.

We’ve also cut back on movie rentals and we’ve seriously stripped back our grocery budget for the month. Anything that wasn’t tied down, budget-wise, was fair game.

But there have been some unexpected bright spots:

  • Free plants: My garden beds really, really need compost. I’ve been thinking about this a lot, trying to decide how I could get free mulch. And a few plants died and September is the ideal time to replace them. But on a tight budget—how?When you don’t have money, you get creative. And maybe opportunity finds you, too. Yesterday, I glanced at the plants at my local superstore. I noticed a table of pretty nasty looking plants—leaves wilted, etc. Two perennials I’ve been wanting were in the batch. I asked the salesperson if they were on sale, since they looked pretty wilted (but still very much alive.). Her response: “Oh, the store has written them off. They’re not for sale.” The upshot: They weren’t even going to mark the plants down—they were going to throw them away! They’d already been written out of the store’s books. My opportunity: She gave them to me for free! Savings: $30


    • Free garden mulch: As I drove my kids home from school today, I noticed that a neighbor was having trees trimmed. The arborist was making a heck of a noise because he was shredding the branches and leaves. Hey, that’s mulch! I asked the guy if he’d be willing to dump the load around the corner at my house, and he happily did so for free. Thanks, Bruno Tree Care! I’ve got more than enough mulch to take care of my garden beds. Savings: $200.

Free mulch

  • Free “drycleaning”: I noticed that our bed comforter really needed a cleaning. Normally, I take it to the drycleaners, since it’s too big to fit in our washer. Then I remembered: I have a bathtub. It can be hand washed—or, in my case, scrunched with my bare feet like I was stomping grapes, as my daughters watched and laughed!) And it does fit in our dryer, though it took 3 or 4 cycles to get all the water out. Savings: $40.

    Also, my husband has gotten in the habit of taking shirts to the drycleaners, but only because he hates to iron. This month, he offered to trade me a chore of my own if I’ll iron his shirts. I actually don’t mind ironing—especially if I can get him to do something I hate instead!—and we’ll save about $25 on unnecessary drycleaning.
  • Free yogurt: I subscribe to The Grocery Game to get weekly lists of grocery sales and coupons to match them. But sometimes your local grocery store has unexpected sales on meat and dairy that are about to expire (they’re still perfectly safe to eat). This week, Yoplait yogurt was on sale at my Safeway for 60 cents each if you bought 10 or more. Two flavors also carried special “50 cents off” stickers because they were within a few days of their expiration. That took the yogurt down to 10 cents each. Pretty good! But I also had two coupons for 40 cents off six yogurts or more, and my store doubles coupons. The bottom line: I bought 12 Yoplaits and store paid me 40 cents back! Savings: $7.60
  • Free cupcakes: My daughters were begging to get ice cream yesterday. “It’s the last day before school starts!” they wailed. “We should get something to celebrate!” I almost made an exception. But then we searched through our coupons and unused gift certificates. Found: 3 unused cupcake coupons from last Halloween (!) that almost ready to expire. Guess where we went for treats? Savings: $9

Now that I’m in the “no-spend” mindset, I’m sure even more ideas will occur to me. I fully admit: None of these are amazingly original. But when I had easy money in my pocket, I would never have thought of them.

How about you? What could you do differently if you didn’t spend money for a day…or more?