“If I can live for a dollar a day — at least from a food cost standpoint — it’s pretty easy to earn $30 dollars in a month, so I’ll probably be ok.”
–Elon Musk

Long before Elon Musk became a billionaire, he was a college grad with big dreams, just trying to find a way to survive. He figured that he could live pretty cheaply with just the bare essentials, and by doing that he could forego getting a job, at least initially. Instead, he wanted to devote all of his time and passion towards his business. Obviously, it all paid off eventually, because when he sold his stake in Paypal a few years later, he pocketed a cool one hundred and sixty-five million dollars.

Hearing Musk’s story recently inspired me. No, not to live on oranges and hotdogs for a month like he did, but to re-evaluate everything I spend money on. I wanted to know how much it really took me to live, and how much “fluff” had built up over time into my monthly spending. Now, as a general rule, I like to think of myself as having it together financially, more or less. I am a financial planner, after all, right? But like the doctor that fails to exercise and eat right, just knowing the right things to do doesn’t mean I was actually doing them. And after keeping a fairly strict budget for several years when I was younger, I’m afraid to admit that the budget had gotten a little bloated lately.

When I go back and think about those days immediately after college, like Elon Musk I had no choice but to live on a budget. But when I compare them to now, I realize that despite my best intentions, my “budget” had grown into a lethargic, pot-bellied coach potato.

It was time to get back in the financial gym.

So, I decided to do what I like to call a “30-day financial detox.” Over the course of 30 days, I would go through every expense and ask myself a simple question: “Do I absolutely need this?” If the answer was no, I cut it. If I wasn’t sure, I cut it. There were no hard decisions to make–cutting it was the default answer, if there was any doubt at all. If I truly did need something, then I would take a hard look at it to see if I could reduce it somehow. Basically, since I knew this was only a 30-day experiment, I knew that it wouldn’t be the end of the world if I didn’t have some little luxury in my life for a little while.

Tons of things would get cut over that time period–my gym membership, subscriptions, cable TV, Netflix and Hulu, all of this got the boot. Now that the 30-days are over, a few of these things have already come back, and maybe one or two will get added back in the future, but overall I’ve permanently reduced my monthly expenses by a significant amount.

Here are some of the benefits that I’ve seen so far:

  • Knowing Your Monthly Nut — I have a pretty good idea of what my monthly basic expenses are now. This is important to know, because when you get ready to retire, you need to know how much income you need to have to at least cover your bills.
  • Cutting Costs — I’ve been able to cut costs significantly in several areas. My car insurance went down, just because I called them and asked them to see if I qualified for a better rate. I also discovered that they accidently billed me too much, and I was able to recover that cash as well.
  • A New Perspective — I think differently about my expenses now. Instead of asking if I have the money for this or that purchase, I think more about if I can save this amount and therefore get that much closer to financial independence. Will I think that way forever? Probably not, but I can always do another financial detox in the future, which will hopefully re-orient my perspective towards savings again.
  • Finding Cheaper Alternatives — I found that in some cases I could find cheaper equivalent services than what I had before.
  • A Simpler Lifestyle — Most importantly, I discovered that I didn’t need to spend money to be happy. By cutting down to a simpler lifestyle, I found that I began to focus on spending money on things that actually contributed to my overall sense of well-being. Sometimes spending is just a mask for other areas of unhappiness, and we can only deal with the real problem by facing it head on.

So how about you? Everyone’s circumstances are different, and I am certainly not saying that everyone should be living on “rice and beans” all of the time. But if you’re anything like me, you may find that even though your income has gone up over time, it’s still difficult to save and make progress on your financial goals. That may be because miscellaneous expenses have crept in, largely unnoticed, as your income has gone up. Many of these expenses are recurring monthly, quarterly, or annual costs, that just get deducted from your credit card automatically. So, by re-evaluating these costs with a financial detox, you may find that your cost of living will go down substantially, and you’ll start making regular progress towards your goals.

If all of that sounds like you, maybe a 30-day financial detox would be just the kickstart you need?

All I know is that it worked for me.