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"No-buy pledge" catches on with TikTokers. Here's what to know and how to start.

Many Americans overextending credit card limits, especially young people
Many Americans overextending credit card limits, especially young people 03:36

The first rule of the "no-buy" trend? Talk about the no-buy trend. 

What started several years ago as a blogged-about experiment in budgeting and mindful spending has become a popular trend on social media. For the challenge, participants pledge to stop buying non-essential items, whether unneeded shoes, additional beauty products or other impulse buys for a set amount of time, usually 12 months.

"Having this lifestyle adjustment, I was anticipating that it would make a huge difference in my ability to pay down my debt," Elysia Berman, a creative director who lives in Brooklyn. 

Berman decided she needed to drastically change her spending habits after she accumulated a collection of vintage designer clothing and a five-figure credit card debt. Her no-buy pledge included no new clothes, getting makeup and hair products only after she finished the ones she had, and limiting social outings to low- or no-expense activities.

For Berman, adopting a more frugal lifestyle is serving one purpose: paying down her credit card debt. "It wasn't like I wanted to challenge myself. I'm really in a position where this is a necessary next step for me," she said.

Both sticking to her pledge and making progress toward her financial goal have proven more difficult than Berman expected. Within two weeks of starting her challenge, she couldn't resist buying a new beret. Next came a new pair of boots. Although the challenge has helped her reduce her spending, she isn't accruing savings as much as living within her means.

Talking about any personal financial struggles is difficult for most people, but Berman approached hers head-on by discussing her financial struggles with friends and family and then posting about these issues on social media. The latter action resulted in more exposure than she originally expected; she has over 60,000 followers on TikTok, where a video in which she displayed her empty skin and hair products received over 1 million views.

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Agency over finances

While the trend has been growing for some time, the beginning of 2024 provided another opportunity for people to gain back agency over their finances following the "doom spending" of the COVID-19 pandemic, according to Courtney Alev, a consumer financial advocate for the personal finance company Credit Karma.

"It's just people trying to reclaim what's been a rampant cycle of overspending, to be able to get their financial situation back in order and be able to save money," Alev said.

U.S. households are carrying a record amount of credit card debt, according to a February report  from the Federal Reserve Bank of New York. The bank said the data indicates financial distress is on the rise, particularly among younger and lower-income Americans. 

With rising rent and food prices overloading many household budgets, Americans are leaning heavily on credit cards as well as buy now, pay later plans to pay for everyday staples such as groceries, gas and pet-care products.

"Better for the planet"

But not everyone electing to join the no-buy trend has debt. Amea Wadsworth, who moved back home to San Diego, California, after graduating college, wanted to use her first full-time job as a chance to save, both the environment and money for her future.

After returning to live with her mom, she began noticing how many things she had that took up space. Working for a sustainability app also has made her more aware of her personal contribution to the world's mountains of waste.

"I'm tracking everything that I'm spending. I'm writing it all down," said Wadsworth, who also writes down the times she wants to buy something but doesn't. She reviews the entries at the end of the month to determine if her purchases were really necessary purchase or a response to a quick craving.

Other no-spend participants give themselves some latitude. Wadsworth, for example, is not buying any physical items but does allow herself to occasionally eat out with friends and the cost of visiting her long-distance boyfriend.

Sabrina Pare, 31, of Detroit, Michigan, approached cutting back on purchases from an environmental perspective. A sustainable living aficionado with a large social media following, Pare decided to participate in the no-buy year as a way to limit her contribution to the world's waste.

She began by decluttering her closet and then looked for environmentally friendly ways to build a minimalist wardrobe, like hosting a clothing swap and avoiding fashion trends. At every step, Pare brings her followers along by filming short videos and sharing tips.

"If you're buying less, it's better for the planet. Overconsumption, it's such an issue in our society," she said.

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Avoiding overspending

But just as social media can be used for accountability and support when participating in the no-buy year challenge, it's also one of the reasons many overspend. Berman, for example, stopped following a lot of fashion influencers to reduce the urge to buy things.

Learning to avoid impulsive shopping takes rethinking your habits and becoming aware of your triggers, said Carrie Rattle, CEO of Behavioral Cents, a financial coaching company.

"(The challenge) does help you try to push back against that need for dopamine. Every time we shop, any of us shop, we get that little dopamine hit," Rattle said.

While the challenge is meant to last for one year, people trying it say they are learning new techniques to help them avoid overspending in the future.

"My consumer habits have changed so much through this," Berman said. "Just because you see all the waste and you're like, 'Why is this necessary? Why buy a million little things when you can just buy one big thing, and it's even better if it's refillable.'"

After she makes a significant dent in the credit card debt, Berman hopes to start saving and investing. Wadsworth plans to focus on spending her money on experiences with her loves ones rather than material things. Pare hopes to pay off her student loans.

Wadsworth advises anyone who hears of the no-buy challenge and can't imagine doing one to give it a try, even if it's just for a month.

"They say that it sounds so hard and yeah, it sounded hard to me, too. But if it sounds so terrifying to you, it probably means that you need it," she said.

Taking the challenge

Any time can be the right one for those looking to tackle their credit card debt, declutter their homes or to spend less time shopping. Some challenge participants begin with a no-spend month.

"I commend anyone who realizes they're just buying too much because North America is very consumer-focused and there's too much waste," said Carrie Rattle, the CEO of financial coaching company Behavioral Cents.

Thinking of taking the no buy pledge? Read on for some tips from experts as well as from people who have taken the pledge.

1. Identify your weakness
Whether it's makeup, ordering takeout food or buying unnecessary trinkets in the $1 section at Target, knowing your vulnerabilities will help you make a realistic plan for staying on track.

Before starting her no-buy year, Mia Westrap, a Ph.D. student in Southhampton, England, took a close look at what she spent money on during the previous few months. She decided that unnecessary food and beverages were her weakness.

2. Make your own rules
San Diego resident Amea Wadsworth, 22, used to love spending hours looking at clothes and quirky knickknacks at Target and Goodwill. But when she moved back home after graduating college, she realized how many things she had accumulated through the years.

"When I have those decluttering moments and I look through all my stuff, I was finding things that I bought and spent a lot of money on and then never ended up wearing," Wadsworth said.

For her challenge, she chose to not buy new clothing items and prioritized spending on experiences with her loved ones. Wadsworth also started her challenge by doing it month by month.

3. Take a pause
Finances are very connected to emotions, and emotions sometimes can make you feel like buying something you don't need. When Wadsworth feels an impulse to get something she saw on social media or at a story, she writes it down instead of immediately purchasing the item.

At the end of the month, she reviews the list and decides what, if anything, still is worth buying.

"I look back and I see how many things I wrote and I'm like 'I'm glad that I didn't buy that because I really didn't need it,'" Wadsworth said.

4. Unsubscribe and unfollow
Between pop-up promotions and influencers swooning over new merchandise, social media can be a trigger for unnecessary shopping, according to Courtney Alev, a consumer financial advocate at Credit Karma.

If you think screen time is compounding your overspending habit, Alev recommends taking a break from following accounts that bring on the urge to pull out a credit card.

5. Be gentle with yourself
When Westrap began her no-buy year, she felt like the universe was conspiring against her. Her car broke down one month, and the next she received an expensive fine for an overdue parking ticket she was unaware of. Unexpected expenses or weak moments happen to everyone, and it's OK if you don't follow your no-buy year rules exactly as you had planned. The effort matters.

"If you fail, you probably need a bit more help. You are not a failure. You have simply failed at one method," Rattle said. "And that's really important because I don't want people to feel dejected."

Building a new habit and managing your finances can be difficult. Try to be gentle with yourself in the process.

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