Popularized by the 2014 book “The 21-Day Financial Fast,” by acclaimed Washington Post columnist Michelle Singletary, a financial fast is when you spend on only the bare essentials for a period of time. In the most extreme cases, it might involve not spending any money at all.

Some people like the idea of embarking on a financial fast in October to save money ahead of the expensive holiday season. After all, Oct. 12 is National Savings Day. And with inflation, soaring prices and the possibility of a recession looming, many are worried about the holidays breaking the budget this year. An October 2022 survey by Bankrate found that 32 percent of people who plan to travel for the holidays say the expenses will strain their budgets.

You might think of a financial fast like a juice cleanse for your finances. Or, in a more spiritual sense, it could be seen as a ritual with deeper introspective meaning.

How a financial fast works

Singletary writes, “I’m inviting you to take a 21-day financial fast in which you will purchase only necessities. The fast is really about curbing the need to consume. … How many times have you gone to Walmart or Target with the intention of buying just a few things, but you ended up tossing more than a few things into your shopping cart? You get to the register, and a trip that should have cost you $20 ends up costing you $200.”

Some people start smaller, perhaps aiming to go seven days without spending anything on non-essentials. You might even be able to go a week without spending a single penny, so long as you stock up on groceries and gas ahead of time.

In the 21-day financial fast that Singletary devised, cash usage is key. “I want you to become acquainted again with the feel and limitations of cash,” she advises in the book. “Using plastic in any form — credit card or debit card — makes it too easy to overspend.”

Personal finance is inherently personal, of course. And while I’m not necessarily a fan of a total financial fast, I do think there are several valuable lessons that are related to the concept.

The benefits of a financial fast

Becoming more conscious of your spending is a big plus. Even if you don’t completely abstain from discretionary purchases for a period of time, I think it’s a great idea to track your spending and write out a budget. Everyone has money leaks, but you won’t be able to find them if you don’t look for them. Singletary describes the experience of one reader who went through this process and realized how much she was spending on takeout lunches at work. Packing a lunch from home saved her $140 per month. That adds up.

Sticking to cash is a potentially controversial recommendation. Personally, I’m a big fan of using credit cards for as many purchases as possible as long as you’re able to pay your monthly bills in full to avoid interest. The best rewards credit cards offer cash back, points and buyer protections that cash and debit cards don’t.

But I acknowledge this approach isn’t for everyone. Most active credit card accounts (54 percent) carry debt from month to month, according to the American Bankers Association. With the average credit card APR at its highest point since 1992 (18.38 percent), it’s a rough time to be paying interest on your balances. As much as I like credit cards, I don’t want you to be in debt, either. Chasing rewards only makes sense if you can pay in full.

The bottom line

While I like credit cards and won’t be embarking upon a financial fast this month, I agree with much of the spirit behind this concept. I think everyone would benefit from being more thoughtful and intentional with spending — especially ahead of a potential recession. Track where your money is going and cut back on expenditures that don’t match your values or bring enough enjoyment to your life.

And while credit cards can provide many benefits, prioritize paying down debt before earning rewards. It doesn’t make sense to pay 18 percent interest just to get 1, 2 or even 5 percent in cash back or airline miles.

Have a question about credit cards? E-mail me at ted.rossman@bankrate.com and I’d be happy to help.