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The Lenten budget: Save through self-denial

Could giving up small indulgences for Lent be a successful saving strategy?

By Karen Datko Feb 16, 2010 10:26AM

This Deal of the Day comes from Sarah Morgan at partner site SmartMoney.


Are you giving up anything for Lent? For Christians, the traditional 40-day period of fasting that leads up to Easter begins Wednesday. This year, with budgets still tight for the faithful and secular alike, the practice of giving up some cherished self-indulgences could be a chance to practice fiscal, as well as spiritual, discipline.


Historically, new converts to the Roman Catholic Church were baptized on the night before Easter, and the observation of Lent derives from a pre-baptism period of fasting and reflection that was gradually expanded to include the whole church community, says Lawrence Cunningham, a professor of theology at the University of Notre Dame. The 40-day period echoes a Biblical story in which Jesus spends 40 days in the desert resisting temptation and preparing for his ministry. Fasting is traditionally supposed to be combined with prayer and giving to the poor during this period, Cunningham says.

Many modern Christians have taken the traditional concept of fasting and expanded it to include giving up anything from social media to sex to television, says Patton Dodd, a Christianity expert at spiritual Web site Beliefnet and the author of “My Faith So Far: A Story of Conversion and Confusion.” For believers, the challenge is to keep the focus on the purpose behind the fast, rather than any incidental health or budget benefits, Dodd says. “It’s not like another round of New Year’s resolutions. It’s a time of deep spiritual renewal,” he says.


For those looking to get their spending under better control, a 40-day period of self-denial could be an opportunity to reflect on -- and begin to change -- financial habits. It’s a chance to learn to make more conscious choices, says Mary Carlomagno, the author of “Give it Up: My Year of Learning to Live Better With Less,” about a year spent giving up various vices for a month at a time.


If you’re looking to kick-start a new saving regimen, anything from the traditional practice of giving up eating meat to a more modern latte fast could add up to real savings. Here’s what a couple of common forms of self-denial could save you:


Traditional fasting. American households spend an average of $1,072 a year on meat and eggs, about 22% of their yearly expenditures on food eaten at home, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Substituting cheaper vegetarian meals could quickly add up to substantial savings for a typical household. “I went vegetarian for Lent several years,” says Trent Hamm, the author of “365 Ways to Live Cheap” who writes about his efforts to live frugally at The Simple Dollar. He says that giving up meat and dining out helped him and his wife save a total of about $20 a day -- that’s an $800 savings for the season.


Liquid diet. Cutting out a latte habit could easily save as much as $190 over the course of 40 days. Skip that daily soda from the vending machine, and you’ve just saved an easy $40. If you typically buy three drinks out during a week, you could save about $90 in six dry weeks.


And once you’ve gone more than a month without your particular indulgence, you may find you no longer have a habit. “Coffee definitely changed for me” after cutting it out completely for a month, Carlomagno says.


Financial fasting. If shopping is your vice of choice, the savings from a period of self-denial could be even more substantial. As someone who shopped almost daily and could easily spend $100 anytime she went into a store, Carlomagno says she saved more than $1,000 in a month of abstaining from fashion. “I was a good shopper, I’d get a lot of stuff inexpensively, because I was a bargain hunter,” she says. That mentality helped mask how much she was really spending, Carlomagno says.


As an avid reader who reads three or four books a week, Hamm says a month away from bookstores led to a permanent change in his habits. He now spends about a quarter of what he used to spend on books by going to the library more often, he says. A short-term change like that “forces you to do things in your life a little bit differently, and you might just find out that the new way is better than the old way,” Hamm says.


For a more radical approach to personal finance, consider the “cold-turkey approach to budgeting,” a 40-day fast from any spending at all, Dodd says. “When you’re done, you’ll have a snapshot of your ability to save, and maybe you can apply some percentage of that figure to your budget after Easter,” Dodd says. Doing some reading or keeping a journal about your thoughts on spending could also help you better understand your relationship to money, he says.


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