5 Women Attempted a ‘Zero Dollar Day’ and Here's What Happened

When we read about the “Zero Dollar Day”—a money-saving challenge during which you spend literally nothing for 24 hours—we were intrigued but skeptical. How in the modern world, where we are forever finding ourselves low on gas, groceries and/or energy (and thus powerless to resist Starbucks’ 3 p.m siren song), would we EVER survive such an exercise? We put five women to the test. Read on to see who saved, and who shame-spiraled.  

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1 woman counting cash in her wallet

The Nihilistic Mother Of Two

“I easily pulled off a Zero Dollar Day—because I spent $168 the day before. See, I was already at the supermarket on what was supposed to be my ZDD when I suddenly remembered the plan (clearly my $4.45 vanilla latte did nothing to fire up my short-term memory).

So, in anticipation of actually spending nothing the next day, I felt compelled to shop like I was Candy Spelling on a bender. The whole setup did, however, make me hyper-aware of my spending. I was appalled to discover I’d loaded $20.38 worth of organic fruit into my cart (strawberries = $8.99!). Once I threw in a gift (plus wrapping paper) for my son’s friend’s birthday party that weekend, I’d sailed past a $100 tab. In the end, knowing ZDD was looming simply caused me to cram several days’ worth of spending into one. I quickly concluded that while this exercise might be a fun challenge for a single person, it is damn near impossible to execute for someone running a household.

More evidence: I also had several bills to pay (for our alarm system, my cell phone). Would delaying those payments by a single day ultimately save me any money? No. Would putting them off make me likelier to forget them in the abyss that is my inbox? No doubt.

Overall, it was very eye opening (and shaming) to be suddenly cognizant of how freely money pours from my wallet on a daily basis while I’m apparently sleepwalking through the produce aisle—and that we need to revert to non-organic strawberries, stat. The next day, I did indeed spend $0.00. My meals consisted of coffee at home, pepperoni pizza and cake at the aforementioned birthday party (Thanks, Asher!) and a 9 p.m. snack drawer raid. But in my real life, I pay a babysitter daily-ish, purchase a gallon of milk thrice a week, and inevitably run out of Pull-Ups, bagels or gas—none of which the three people who depend on me could function optimally without. This is just not realistic or replicable on the regs.” — S., freelance writer

2 mom and her daughter baking cookies

The Stay-at-home-mother Achiever

“I had two Zero Dollar Days last week! Being a stay-at-home mom makes it easier. Preparing three meals a day for my family consumes so much of my time and energy, and trips to the grocery store or restaurants for takeout are absolutely my number one source of spending. Going shopping with kids is also tough, so I'll do almost anything to avoid it. I eat almost every meal and drink all my coffee at home. My trick is planning meals in advance. A friend inspired me to do this years ago. She has a huge dry-erase board in her kitchen where she maps out meals for weeks at a time. When I have my act together, I pencil in meals for the month. Even though I never follow this plan completely, it makes my life way less stressful and I go to the grocery store much less often.” — R., stay-at-home mom of two

3 woman buying groceries at self checkout
Yagi-Studio/getty images

The Lawyer Guilty Of Selective Spending Amnesia

“I thought it would be very easy to spend zero dollars. I don't like to waste $4 on Starbucks when I can make coffee at home, and I have a Keurig at work. I can easily pack a lunch, even though I usually buy it, and I'm certainly not going out to dinner during the week, since I'm so busy with work and the kids. So I chose Friday as my Zero Dollar Day. But then I forgot my daughter had a birthday party after school, and I hadn't gotten a gift yet! Determined to stick to the plan, I re-gifted excess presents I’d stashed away and wrapped them in Anthropologie tissue paper I’d saved.

But then there was an unanticipated event—a big storm—which forced me to abandon my Zero Dollar Day. I was about to give my kids leftover chicken cutlets when the power went out and I couldn't heat them up. I had no choice; I had to go to Panera to get dinner and charge my phone.

I came so close but ultimately failed. I thought I would try again Saturday, but we had plans to get a babysitter and go to dinner. Then Sunday I had to buy raffle tickets at a carnival. And Monday my gas tank was empty and I had to get to work. So I learned, even though I don't think I spend money, I am always spending money, but not thinking about it.” — M., attorney, mom of two

4 woman packing her lunch

The Natural

“I'm generally a bit of a saver (read: complete and total cheapskate), so not spending any money for as long as possible is my absolute dream. I'm getting married in three months, so I've been on a healthy eating kick recently, doing a lot more cooking and less eating out. This definitely came in handy on Zero Dollar Day, because I already had everything I needed to pack breakfast and lunch at home: avocado toast and a big salad. I'd planned to get drinks with friends after work, but I canceled. For dinner I had another salad and a box of pasta I'd gotten for free at work. (I don't always hit up my work kitchen for their free carrots and hummus, but on Zero Dollar Day, you'd better believe I did.) I did need more conditioner, and I did need to run to the post office to mail a package, but putting it off and saying ‘I'll do it tomorrow’ is extremely easy for me, if it means getting to keep that money in my bank account for another day. I love the idea of going into every day aiming to spend as little as possible. Of course, they can't all be Zero Dollar Days, but trying to stay in that headspace at least a few days a week is a great exercise.” — L., novelist

5 grocery shopping basket full of food

The Hibernating Squirrel

“For me, it was all about food prep. I have a monthly MTA card to get places, so food was my singular focus. As soon as I remembered about the challenge, I scrambled to the grocery store, grabbed some staples and hoped for the best. Our office has coffee and snacks, so, like a squirrel getting ready to hibernate, I weirdly hoarded all of those things as soon as I got to work (as if I was going to eat five times my body weight?).

But the timing of this exercise was interesting because I was in the middle of a traumatic ordeal in which both my beloved Tupperware containers (nice ones!) had been lifted from the office kitchen. While the investigation continues, it's been more than 48 hours, and I'm sad to say the case has gone cold.

The point is, while I did remember to get food to prep the night before for lunch and dinner, I had no practical way of getting it to the office. I wound up bringing a huge, heavy Pyrex container with a lid on my hour subway commute, which honestly, made me a stronger person. I realized that it's so hard to plan that far in advance. With food, I'm usually taking it day-to-day and not thinking long-term, even though I clearly have some sort of food anxiety.

Which brings me to how I failed this challenge. With news of another Nor'Easter coming (Hello, Quinn), I went into hibernating squirrel mode again. If we were stuck inside during the storm, I needed more acorns! So I scrambled, yet again, to the grocery store for more food because I got nervous. I spent $38. I'm ready to hibernate. (Oh, I also sent my friend a present from Amazon because I wanted to get it to her on time and, in the moment, was able to magically rationalize that internet money is not real currency.)

If I do this challenge again, I need to PLAN. I clearly have no idea what I'm spending throughout one single day. So this experience was like a food diary, and no, not just because it was mostly food-focused, but because keeping tabs opened my eyes to what I'm actually spending.”  — D., editor

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