30 Days of Our Cash-Only Crusade and How We Saved Over $900

I like cash. Who doesn’t like cash? The soothing little ‘whrrrring’ sound it makes when you count it. The feel of the crisp bills in your hand. But actually shopping in the real world with cash is a pain. However, when I pulled up our bank statement and found out we were $900 over budget for the month, I realized I’d turned into a soulless, plastic-carrying zombie that just blindly swiped when the nice machine told me to. Yeah, even with our super-strict budget, I have no idea where that extra money went. We launched a cash-only crusade for 30 days to see if we could stop the budget leak.


Day One:

We took out the entire month’s budget in cash and split it between us. “This is it,” I warned Todd. “If we run out of money before the end of January, tough tamales.”

“Yeah, sure,” he scoffed. “You’ll cave by week two. You’ll be begging me for your debit card!”

Here’s where my spouse forgets that I’m motivated almost completely by spite. Oh, I am SO sticking with the plan! Until … I offer the guy at Starbucks a fifty because I forgot to get smaller bills. He reared back from the money like I’d shoved a rabid squirrel in his face. “We can’t take that!” he hissed.

So … no Starbucks then.

Day Two:

Crap. I forgot about our car insurance payment. Since I can’t pay it online with a couple of taps on the keyboard, I’m stuck driving to my agent’s office.

“You’re what?”

“I’ve got cash,” I repeat, “I’m paying with cash.”

John, my agent and a guy I’ve known since high school stared at me. “What’s wrong, honey? Did they cancel your credit cards? I could work out an extension-“

“Dude, no. Cash. Cash-only all month, Todd and I want to see where all our money’s going because our budget is all shot to he-“

“Is this like the time when you went without air-conditioning for the month of July because you were mad at the power company?” This is actually true.

“People used to pay for things in cash, John!” I am insistent. “This way, we’re forced to examine every dollar before we spend it.”

He was kind of a jerk about it, laboriously writing out a receipt for the cash “In longhand, just for you, Erin!” But I left the office feeling virtuous.

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Week Two:

It hit me as I was cruising the aisles at the grocery store. I’m surreptitiously adding up everything that was being thrown the cart to make sure I have enough money. I haven’t done this since college! So when our eight year old tried to add a box of Mochi ice cream, I had to take it back out.

It was like I told her the hamster died. Huge brown eyes, simmering with tears. “But- but- but- we always get Mochis!” she wailed. I caved.

Lest you think I’m a total pushover, let me point out that the 2019 report from the National Retail Federation shows that nine out of ten parents admit their kids influence their purchases – especially with food. Generation Z has a death grip on their parent’s wallet. Eighty percent of us involve our children in our purchase decisions, way more than our parents did with us. In fact, I can’t remember my dad ever including my input when he bought something.

I was still adding the cost of everything in the basket while the cashier rang me up.

“So, that’s $128.36.”

I had $115.00. Remember that scene in Terms of Endearment” when Debra Winger had to put back groceries because she didn’t have enough money and the cashier announced over the store speaker that she couldn’t pay for her Motrin? Really? I’m the only one who remembers that movie? Anyway, I gave up the pork chops, my daughter gave up the Mochis, though the ride home was a stew of simmering resentment. For both of us.


(Image credit: Citymama)

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Week Three:

“But we always get popcorn at the movies!”

My son is really into ritual and habit, but when I realized that a large tub of popcorn ($9.50) two bottles of water ($9.00) and a Diet Coke ($3.75) would set us back $22.25 in addition to the $32.00 I’d just shelled out for movie tickets, I was all, “Oh, that’s not happening!”

He was all, “But we always get popcorn!”

My dilemma: I didn’t have enough to get the snacks and still pay for parking to get us out of the lot. It’s little, dumb issues like this that make my palms sweat and suddenly all those extra expenses outside of our budget that piled up made more sense. Northwestern Mutual recommends going after the “low-hanging fruit,” that is, examining the expenses that don’t bring you joy. If the popcorn makes my boy happy, I’ll get the popcorn. But nine dollars for two bottles of water? Seriously? I’ve been buying them mindlessly every time we hit the movie theater. We go once a week, so that’s nine dollars times 52 which means I’ve been shelling out four hundred and sixty-two dollars a year on bottled water, just for mindless sipping during a movie. While, I might add, everyone else with two brain cells is sneaking them in.

So, back to that ritual thing: we always meet up with our friends Jenn and Ryan every month for dinner together. It’s our one grownup date and a chance to speak to actual adults.

“How much are we taking for dinner?” I asked Todd, who was trying to find a shirt he didn’t have to iron.

“That depends. Do you want to be able to fill the gas tank, too?”

I blanched, “We’re seriously that low on cash?”

“Yep,” he was grim, showing me his thin envelope. (We’ve been using the envelope system all month, essentially, allocating different envelopes for utility payments, food, etc. There’s also budgeting apps that are designed especially for “in the moment spenders” like us, like Mint or Acorns.)

Counting the money left, I realized that we could not dine out and pay the babysitter – usually around $145 per date night – if we wanted to drive the cars next week and pick up perishables at the grocery store. I’m really not one for self-examination, but I had to think about whether I was worried our best friends would think we were cheap if we didn’t hit the place that was featuring the “Shaved Beet Tower.” Fortunately, Jenn and Ryan were cool with Sally’s Burritos, where there were 25 different kinds of burritos and big, fat margaritas. Date night: $53.74.


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Week Four:

Will the drudgery of this month never end? While I’ve been focused on all the little ways we’d been saving through our day to day expenditure drama, I’d underestimated some of the big ones.

“You have to put the $450 down now or you lose the reservation for the cruise!”

Crap. I’d forgotten about the “super cheap” trip we’d planned with my sister, and the down payment had to be paid immediately.

“Uh, Julianna…” We’d planned this, right? It’s okay if I break out the debit card for this? A heavenly four days in the Virgin Islands? Don’t we owe this to the kids? Traveling is so educational! Deep sigh. “We can’t.” Then I said the words that I had to drag kicking and screaming out of my mouth. “We don’t have the money for it.”


Just as I was about to crack, my sister said, “Okay, I understand that. There’s always a cruise line running some killer deal. We’ll find another one.” And just like that, I’d saved $450 that to be honest, we really couldn’t afford. No shaming, except for the bit I was lavishing on myself.

Why are we so embarrassed to admit those four little words? “We can’t afford it.” Who’s really judging us?

So, as the bleak landscape of January dragged to a close, I added up the result of the Collard Cash-only Crusade, as Todd had taken to calling it. We were under budget and saved $916 from the previous month’s expenses. We’d spent $916 in mindless plastic swipes in December, and for what? I’m not sure I could tell you. Will we stubbornly exist on cash-only purchases from now on?

Do I look like a masochist to you? NO.


But I downloaded an app to pair with my (hopefully less) mindless zombie plastic-swiping. And I’m looking at the purchase total before I do.

How about some free and lovely ways to care for yourself during stressful times? We’re here for you.

(Cover image credit: torange.biz)

7 replies
  1. Fraser Nelson
    Fraser Nelson says:

    I’ve done this! The thing about admitting you just don’t have the money right now is the hardest part, even to friends and family. I don’t get why, but I totally feel you on this.

  2. George Kelvin
    George Kelvin says:

    I would love to try this! My wife is a great saver- me, not so much. That first time when you don’t have enough money would kill me. But I’m going to do this!

    • Todd & Erin
      Todd & Erin says:

      Believe me George, it wasn’t entered into willingly, but it’s definitely effective! Lemme know how it goes with you.


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