Frugal February

Erika Enigk

Eliminating takeout. Resisting those coffee shop runs. Cutting back on movie dates. Everyone can find ways to spend less. But for Bob Dunning and his family, that wasn’t enough.

For one month a year, the family not only spends less; they spend 100 percent less. The family, of Davis, Calif., is now in its second year of “Frugal February,” in which they don’t spend anything, period.

How to do it

The Dunning family -- Bob, his wife, Shelley, and their four young children -- stocks up on essentials in January. Including a few small treats on the grocery list is OK -- Dunning said he planned to pick up a few more frozen pizzas this year -- but buying an expensive prime rib to throw in the freezer is cheating, as is buying a gift card to a restaurant or movie theater.

Because Dunning, a newspaper columnist and radio talk show host, and his wife both work at home, the family is able to make one tank of gas last the entire month by walking almost everywhere. For families who can’t make that work, the key is to first consider whether the trip can be made on foot. And entertainment has to be free: many museums offer free admission days, and a crackling fire and movie at home can make for a cozy family night.

Perishable food that can’t be frozen is allowed, and emergency items such as medicines or emergency room trips are, of course, allowed. But that ice cream at the hospital? Off limits.

Why do it

According to Laura Adams, author of “Money Girl’s Smart Moves to Grow Rich,” an experiment like the Dunnings’ can be useful only when accompanied by more lasting lessons about budgeting. “In the real world, (spending nothing) is not how we manage our money,” she said.

For the Dunnings, however, it was too easy to let spending snowball. They’d find themselves walking into the store for a $2 item and walking out having spent $50. Eliminating the trip for that $2 item also eliminated the temptation to spend on anything else.

“You don’t realize how much discretionary spending you’re making,” Dunning said. “The key for us was not to spend a penny.”

Adams agreed that an exercise such as Frugal February could help a family re-evaluate how they spend their money.

“We do need to think before we buy,” she said.

For the Dunnings, this included the pre-February grocery run. Shopping for a month’s worth of food at one time forced them to make sure they’d have enough of the nutritional essentials.

The experiment had an unexpected benefit as well. The children, now ages 8 through 11, encouraged their parents to be strong when they were tempted to spend. And family time became more meaningful as they searched for economical activities together.

What to do in March

When spending again becomes part of daily life, the Dunnings make it a point to think more carefully about each purchase. They still walk everywhere they can and often entertain themselves at home.

Adams recommends budgeting in categories, putting the necessary amount into fixed areas such as rent and utilities and splitting the remainder into the discretionary areas, like entertainment. She posts budgeting tips on her blog,

“I like to approach money from an abundance rather than a scarcity,” she said. While parents don’t need to be specific about the amounts of their income and expenses, teaching children that everything costs something and that spending more in one area means less money for something else is important.

“It’s never too early to begin these conversations with your children,” she said.