In 2009, Anna Newell Jones was deep in debt — $23,605.10 to be exact.
“I felt hopeless about money, and the whole idea of trying to get out of debt was such a drag,” recalls Newell Jones. “Not surprisingly, I did everything I could to avoid the topic.”
Of her debts, which included credit cards, student loans, and a personal loan from her parents for college tuition and expenses, Newell Jones first felt the sting of her credit cards.
“Credit card debt is so stigmatized that I felt like crap for getting myself into that mess,” she says. “I thought that if I could only get rid of my credit card debt, I’d feel a lot better.”
Newly married and eager to be out of debt once and for all, Newell Jones chose a drastic course of action: a year-long spending fast.
What’s a spending fast?
No matter how disciplined we are, the vast majority of us will need to spend some money — the cost of living. A “Spending Fast” (which Newell Jones has trademarked) structures the process of that bare-bones spending.
“A spending fast is where you spend money on the basics needed to live. It’s created by structuring a wants and needs list, which is personalized by each specific person’s priorities in life,” explains Newell Jones.
To kick off her year doing the fast, Jones laid out her needs and wants on her website, And Then We Saved. She needed rent, utilities, cellphone without internet, necessary groceries, low-cost gym membership, medical costs, inexpensive photography exhibits for her side business, car payments and gas, a bus pass, and boxed hair dye.
She eliminated everything else.
“My husband, Aaron, absolutely despised the idea of the fast — at first,” Newell Jones explains. “He’s naturally good with his money and didn’t really get why I had to do something he considered so ‘extreme.’ He came around to the idea once he realized I was serious, that I wasn’t stopping until the year was up, that my idea was actually working, and that I was able to pay off significant chunks of debt.”
And it was significant: Over the course of 12 months, Newell Jones paid off about $18,000 of debt. That’s not to say the year was a walk in the park. “I can always justify deserving or needing something,” she says. “I am a natural spender and constantly have to fight that instinct in myself. I was surprised by how free I felt almost instantly … but what didn’t surprise me was that it was hard to break my habits.”
It may seem that a “natural spender” who rhapsodizes about Etsy on her blog is an unlikely candidate for such a hard-core crackdown on spending, but Newell Jones says she needed those hard limits. “I like to go all in with things. Making decisions in the ‘gray area’ is hard for me because I like things to be black or white. The spending fast was black and white.”
After a year, she was able to introduce some gray, in the form of a spending diet. “A spending diet is a modified, slightly softer version of the spending fast,” Newell-Jones explains. “It’s basically the same concept as the spending fast, but you give yourself a certain amount of money per month for ‘non-needs.’”
She allotted an extra $100 per month for those non-needs — while she had originally intended to permit herself $200 a month, she revised her plan because, “after a year on the spending fast, $200 a month seemed too easy.”
Only three months into her spending diet, she paid off another $5,600 in debt and was completely debt-free.
Where is she now?
While Newell Jones is no longer on her diet, she spent a year following the plan. Today, she’s a homeowner with no debt except for her mortgage. She’s also a new mom with savings in the bank.
“I’ve been able to quit my day job with the State of Colorado to stay home with my new baby, Henry,” she says. “That’s something we never would’ve been able to consider if I was still in debt. Now, the money that isn’t going to pay off debt goes into savings, retirement planning, and investing into our property.”
Newell Jones has recruited others to her cause. “I found that many people wanted to have public accountability, so I started the Get Out of Debt pledge. It’s very empowering to declare your desire to be debt-free — about 664 people have taken the pledge!” She also started the And Then We Saved Community to address questions and created a forum for readers to answer each other’s questions and provide support.
“I love talking about getting out of debt, because I know how life-changing it can be to have the oppressive weight of debt lifted,” Newell Jones says. “Now, I have a positive relationship with money where I didn’t before. I’m super passionate about sharing my experience with others, because I want people to know how good it feels to be free from debt, too.”
While she admits that she “definitely doesn’t have all the answers,” what advice would Newell Jones give to someone embarking on a fast of their own? “Decide if you’re done being in debt or not,” she says. “If you’re not, then don’t try a spending fast yet; try something else first. When you decide you’re really ready to be done with your debt and you’re willing to do what you need to do to get out of your debt, then you’re ready to do the spending fast.”
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