How One Woman's 'Spending Fast' Helped Her Pay Off $23,000 in Debt

Savvy Denver-based blogger shares her debt-busting strategies.

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Could you cut out all discretionary spending for an entire year? Anna Newell Jones did. After a year-long "spending fast," during which she bought only essentials, and a few months on a "spending diet," the Denver-based blogger paid off $23,605.10 of student-loan and credit-card debt. In the process, she cut her own hair, used coffee grounds as a facial exfoliator, made her own laundry detergent, and learned how to distinguish wants from needs.

Jones, who writes the blog andthenwesaved.com, shared her debt-busting strategies with U.S. News. Excerpts:

How did you come up with the spending fast concept?

At the end of 2009, I had been rolling money from my overdraft account to my checking account just because of my overspending. So every month, $200 to $300 was just continuing to roll back and forth. I'd make a little progress and then I'd get frustrated.

I was thinking about how I felt like I was drowning in my debt. I had a loan out with my parents, and my mom was putting a lot of pressure on me to pay them back. I just kept telling her, "You don't realize, I don't have any money." And looking back on it, it was because I was spending every possible way. After I got a certain amount of debt, I was kind of in the mindset of "screw it, I'll just enjoy myself."

I had tried budgeting. I had tried to get another job to pay off my credit-card debt. And it just didn't work. I would just get frustrated because it was so slow moving. I just hit my financial bottom and decided, "I have to do something drastic. I have got to be done with my debt."

What were the rules of your spending fast?

The rules were that I could spend money only on the needs side of my wants and needs list. It was pretty bare-bones living. I did the spending fast for a year, and then I did a spending diet the second year, because I still had some remaining debt at the end of the first year.

What's the difference between a spending fast and a spending diet?

With the spending fast, I had no discretionary income. If it was a need, I would spend the money. If it's not a need, then I didn't get it. With the spending diet, I gave myself a $100 non-need allowance per month, and I could spend that on whatever I wanted. But the spending diet was way harder than the spending fast.

Why do you think that is?

It went back into the gray area that I had had so much trouble with before. With the spending fast, it was really black and white. But then with the spending diet, I would try to spend normally again and then I would overspend.

How did you get buy-in from your husband and other people around you?

I actually didn't ask my husband. We had only been married for six months, and I was at the point of thinking I had to be done with my debt, because I felt so terrible about myself and what I had gotten myself into. I didn't want to ask him because I didn't want him to say no. Looking back, that was really not the best idea, and I don't recommend that for people because it's way easier if you can get your partner on board.

With friends, since I had the blog, I would just be like, "I'm doing the spending fast. I can't do it, I can't go out." So I was able to kind of blame it on that. And then, once I started telling them why I was doing it, other people started telling me about their problems with money. It started a conversation that I never had with people, and I didn't really know that other people were in the same boat as I was.

What were the hardest things to give up?

Eating out was probably the hardest thing. Then my husband and I had gotten into the habit of going to the mall on Saturdays and wandering around, just to see if we needed anything. That's a really bad thing to do. We hadn't totally changed how we interacted together, so it really impacted his life and how we lived. I was naïve and I didn't think it would really affect him because we didn't share money at the time.

What were some ways you and your husband found to interact that didn't cost money?