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Published: Dec 19, 2019 7 min read
Illustration by Sam Island

For two years, Stacy Solis has been hunting $5 bills.

It doesn't matter whether she's at Sephora or the grocery store. If a cashier hands over change and Solis spots a Lincoln, she leaps into action, zipping it into a pocket until she can get it home and put it in a special jar she got from TJ Maxx. In her world, $5 bills have ceased to be spendable.

"I can't use them," she says. "I have to save them."

That's because Solis is doing the $5 challenge, a game of sorts she found on Pinterest in late 2017. Participants collect every single $5 bill they encounter from January to December, and then add them up. Last year, the challenge helped 29-year-old Solis sock away $250 in small bills — not a huge sum, but still a "blessing" for a freelancer who doesn't always have a steady income.

Solis also made a YouTube video about the experience, complete with a thumbnail where she's pictured holding a thick stack of cash. The clip has racked up some 139,000 views.

"The idea of seeing how much somebody could save within a whole entire year... I think that was appealing," she says.

From imitating Kylie Jenner's lips to swallowing spoonfuls of cinnamon, challenges are constantly dominating the internet. Financial ones are no exception. They tend to spike in popularity around the new year, when most people are making resolutions to spend less and save more. In addition to the $5 challenge, there's the penny-a-day challenge, which raises nearly $668 for savers; the 52-week challenge, which is based around withdrawing gradually increasing amounts; the downshift challenge, which cuts down on food costs; and more.

Budgeters and bloggers love these personal finance challenges, especially when they come with Instagrammable charts. But do money-saving challenges work? Should you try one for 2020?

Here's what experts and challenge veterans say.

Savings Challenges Can Be Fun if You Commit

Kumiko Love, creator of The Budget Mom, attempted 12 different frugal challenges in 2019, including Pack-a-Lunch January, $2-a-Day June and No-Spend November. She tells Money that she picked them by asking herself two questions: Will this be fun, and can I accomplish this without drastically changing my budget or life?

"Completing a savings challenge is all about realizing your potential to save money and taking small action every day to turn saving into a habit," she says.

According to Love, who is also an accredited financial counselor, challenges are popular because they seem competitive and doable. They can also point out opportunities to save that participants previously hadn't considered, like how Love sold two unused household items in August to generate extra cash.

"Savings challenges allow us to save money in a different way — through an activity rather than a simple transaction," Love says. "All of a sudden, it doesn’t seem as daunting."

But a Savings Windfall Isn't Guaranteed

Taking on a money challenge won't immediately change your entire life. One problem with them, according to Erin Voisin, director of financial planning at EP Wealth Advisors, is that they can be low-impact. Not all challenges result in gigantic savings.

Love identified another issue: Because challenges are so short-term, it can be hard to cultivate the habits you need to make saving money a permanent priority.

"The purpose of a savings challenge is to complete it," Love says. "I think this lacks one of the most important steps on your financial journey: figuring out your underlying reason for wanting to save."

Actually Seeing Physical Money Piles Can Help

Voisin says she likes the challenge where you put a certain amount of cash in an envelope and limit your spending to what's in there (à la Dave Ramsey). It helps motivate people to break their spending habits and pay closer attention to prices.

"It's so easy to swipe a card, but when you're physically having to use cash... you really start to look at what's in the envelope," she says. This can apply to other cash-based challenges, as well: "Think of it as a little kid filling up a piggy bank — they can see it get full."

Redditor tusi2 can attest to this. He put away $735 in 2018 due to the $5 challenge and partially credits its tangibility for his success.

"It has a different impact than seeing digits on a screen," he adds.

Don't Underestimate the Power of Accountability

Like Solis, Shauntez Johnson chronicled his participation in the 52-week mega money challenge on YouTube. The 31-year-old filmed himself sifting through the cash he stored in a red Nike shoebox and checking off his progress on a chart.

"If I was just doing it by myself, I'd probably get bored and stop," Michigan resident Johnson says. "But there are people writing and asking for updates, so I gotta stay on top of this."

That public accountability inspired him. By withdrawing multiple installments from the bank at once, Johnson completed the yearlong challenge in less than 40 weeks. In addition to saving $7,500, Johnson got more than 150,000 views in the process.

"I was like, 'Let me try this,'" he says. "Best decision."

Make the Money Challenge Work for You

All money challenges allow for customization. For example, Johnson reversed his challenge, putting away $260 in week one and decreasing to $5 in week 52. tusi2 decided to keep both $5 bills and $10 bills this past year, which led him to save $530.

Katherine Salisbury chose to automate her participation in the 52-week challenge on Qapital, the banking app she co-founded. Qapital actually has a 52 Week Rule that allows people to save $1 in week one, $2 in week two, and so on. They can also choose to do it backwards, so the bigger amounts come first.

Salisbury, who saves up money for her family's summer trips to New Hampshire, likens challenges to the Couch to 5K program. Instead of gradually teaching exercise amateurs how to run long distances, they can slowly get you in the habit of saving money.

"You don't have to have that New Year's resolution-level energy the rest of the year," she says. "If you do it incrementally, you don’t feel it so much."

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