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Zero spending for a month more than exercise in frugality

For the entire month of February, I walked around town without a dime in my wallet.

I didn't need one.

We put ourselves on a dollar diet and challenged ourselves to live our suburban lifestyle without spending money.

I can honestly say that not once did we open our wallets for a Chick-fil-A sandwich or a new pair of Nikes, or anything else, though it was tempting at times.

In case you missed the introduction into our monthlong frugal odyssey, let me explain.

From Feb. 1 through Feb. 28, our family of three chose to unplug from the consumer machine. We paid the mortgage on our home and all the regular monthly bills. And yes, that did include my husband's cable package. I wasn't willing to risk marital discord to prove the point that middle-class Americans can survive without a retail fix at every turn.

We also filled our cars with gasoline to get to and from work. And we bought a gallon of milk each week and a few fresh fruits and vegetables. And I do mean "a few." Our weekly budget for milk and produce was $10, and with milk going for $3.50, that didn't leave much of a selection. Mostly, we bought spinach, tomatoes and bananas.

Beyond that, we spent zero. Honest.

How'd we do?

Here are a few of the highlights:

We did not go out to eat -- not on Valentine's Day, not when company came to town, not when I was tired or busy or just plain didn't want to cook. There were some days, honestly, where I would have given almost anything for a nice big bag of take-out.

With the help of weekly menu plans and my trusty slow cooker, we resisted the call of the fast-food drive-through. We ate breakfast, lunch and dinner from what we already had on hand in our pantry, refrigerator and freezer.

We did not buy gifts. When my daughter was invited to a birthday party, I got reacquainted with my sewing machine and, with the help of my daughter, we made a handbag out of recycled juice pouches.

We did not buy clothes, not even when my daughter had a middle school dance to attend. If I had been thinking a little more cleverly, I would have recommended she shop the closet of a particular friend who lives nearby and is the same size. But I didn't, so she shopped her own closet and found an outfit she hadn't worn since last spring. And she lived through it, without complaining.

When we ran out of bread, I baked my own.

As the cupboard became increasingly bare, I also experimented in making my own granola bars, taco seasoning and baking mix.

And finally, as much as I wanted to rush out and buy a new laptop when mine died mid-month, I resisted. I could have easily purchased one and put an asterisk next to my no-spending in February claim, but I set out to prove a point and wanted to see it through.

Though we whined a bit toward the end of the month, particularly over the laptop, we felt like we had accomplished big things.

First, over the course of the month, we saved $549. I arrived at this amount by tallying everything we would have likely purchased.

I was actually a little surprised at just how high that figure turned out to be. It just goes to show how much thoughtless spending goes on even by the so-called frugalistas of the world like myself.

Second, the exercise in extreme frugality was a good personal reminder of just how low we could go in terms of trimming the budget if we had a layoff or other financial emergency.

As I kneaded bread dough on a Saturday morning, when I much rather would have been reading a magazine or doing just about anything else, I realized that if a financial crisis were to strike, as it has in many families in the past three years, we could make it. It might not be fun, but we have what it takes to make do.

And finally, we enjoyed the simpler way of living.

As we discovered in our two previous spending fasts, spending nothing is way different than spending less. It requires a different skill set and a different way of thinking.

Instead of looking at our month of no spending as deprivation, we looked at it as a vacation from consumerism. With spending off the table, we didn't look at the movie listings or discuss going out to dinner. The almost daily barrage of sales circulars went directly into the recycle bin. Who cares about a sale on sofas when we aren't buying?

In a nutshell, we were content with what we had.

Don't get me wrong. I like my "stuff," probably as much as the next person, as my laptop whining has demonstrated.

But we have learned over three frugal Februarys that we can do with a lot less stuff. And less stuff equals more time.

Over the 28 days, the three of us spent more time together. We rode our bikes, we watched some family TV shows together, we went to Grandma's house for dinner. We played Scrabble.

Now what?

A lot of you wanted to know what the Dollar Diet family will do, how we'll act and what we'll buy now that February is over. Is it really worth it to starve yourself, financially speaking, for a month and risk a retail binge afterward.

Much like a food diet, that's definitely a concern. And if this had been our first time down the extreme-frugality path, I would worry about the kid-in-the-candy-store effect.

But since we've been at this simple frugal life stuff for a while now, I'm not too worried.

On March 1, when I walked into my neighborhood Target, I went into sensory overload. So much stuff; stacked floor to ceiling; so much credit card debt potential. I didn't buy a thing.

Lest you think we are all cheap and no play at our house, we celebrated our re-entry into real life with a large cheese pizza. We used a coupon, of course.

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