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Is a Financial Fast Right For You?

At the beginning of the new year Washington Post finance columnist Michelle Singletary “invited” her readers to a 21-day financial fast [1]. Singletary introduced the fast at her church years ago, and says that many people have used it to jump-start their “path to prosperity.” I agree that the path to financial freedom starts with commitment – but question if her financial fast goes a little too far.

Now that you’ve done your mid-year financial checkup [2], is a financial fast up next?

What is a Financial Fast?

From Singletary’s article: “During this fast, you will not shop or use your credit cards [3]. For three weeks you must refrain from buying anything that is not a necessity. And by necessity, I mean the bare essentials, such as food and medicine. You will refrain from going to the mall or retail stores…No restaurant meals…You can’t stop for coffee…You are not permitted to buy gifts or gift cards.”

The fast also includes eliminating all plastic from your life – including both credit and debit cards [4] – and getting serious about creating a budget and paying off debt.

Taking Fasting to Extremes

Singletary’s idea of debt fast isn’t really anything new – after all, I myself preach the benefits of a “no-spend weekend [5]” every now and then. But this pretty extreme, advocating staying nearly spend-free for almost ¾ of a month! What I find most difficult about this financial fast is the idea of no gifts – while it’s true that it’s easy to go overboard on spending, I don’t think we should be discouraged from giving appropriate gifts if we really can afford them.

For someone just starting on the path to good financial management, I question whether a financial fast is really the best approach. If you are in deep debt, or have no money saved for retirement, or simply spend every single penny of your paycheck every single month, getting your finances in order is truly a marathon. Sprinting out of the gate will get you ahead – but might make getting to the finish line that much harder.

I liken the idea of a financial fast to an actual fast – or at least a really strict diet. If a diet tells me I can only eat grapefruit for three weeks, I’m liable to do it for one day and then eat double the next day to make up for it – ditto cutting spending then making up for it by going on a shopping binge. If a diet tells me I can’t have a piece of bread, ever, I’m likely to just decide not to do the diet at all. I feel like the financial fast falls in the latter category – if I can’t buy a birthday or wedding gift, or even a single cup of coffee, I might decide to avoid the program altogether.

Should you fast?

I do think a financial fast would be good for some people. Specifically, a financial fast is for you if…

  • You’re generally good at managing your finances, but feel like challenging yourself to go the extra mile.
  • You need a little extra cash [6] or want to generate extra income [7] to meet a savings goal or pay off that last bit of debt.
  • You are really committed to getting in financial shape this year, but you’ve already fallen short on your New Year’s resolutions [8] and need that extra something to kick you into gear.

On the other hand, some people either just don’t need or are just not ready to take this drastic step. A financial fast might not be right for you if…

  • You are just learning the basics of personal finance. Instead, check our our list of best personal finance books [9] and start learning about budgeting [10], debt reduction [11], and savings [12], and take your transformation one step at a time.
  • You are generally judicious with your money and avoid major financial mistakes [13].

If you decide to do the financial fast, or something like it, I’d love to hear from you in the comments! Just make sure that to reap the benefits by avoiding splurging once your fast is over. And if you decide not to do it just yet, that’s ok – there are plenty of other ways to jump on the path to prosperity!