WASHINGTON — I thought it was a simple challenge, albeit a hard one.
Could you spend 21 days - three weeks - without shopping for things you don't need? Could you put your credit cards away for 21 days and would you be able to stop swiping your debit card?
It is a challenge - a financial fast - that I have laid out day by day in my new book, "The Power to Prosper: 21 Days to Financial Freedom." The fast has helped many people do some financial introspection, though some still have questions about it.
One reader sarcastically asked if you should still pay your mortgage or rent.
Of course, you keep paying for things that are necessary. Last time I checked, having a roof over your head is something you can't live without - or live comfortably without. You don't stop paying your utilities and you don't even have to cancel cable or any other subscriptions you have going. The fast is simply about curtailing your consumerism.
During my recent visit to Philander Smith College in Little Rock, Ark., a student asked if she could give to Haitian relief efforts and still be faithful to the program.
My answer was a resounding yes. Please give, and generously if you're able.
Donating money to help victims in Haiti is definitely within the spirit of the fast. Part of the reason I want people to try the 21-day challenge is to show them that they may in fact have money in their budget to give. When you aren't shopping or eating out or spending a lot to entertain yourself and your family or friends, you get an idea of how much you can give on a regular basis.
If you do decide to make a charitable contribution to the relief efforts for Haiti, you may get a tax deduction. Taxpayers will be able to write off charitable deductions to Haiti earthquake relief efforts when they file their 2009 taxes, under a bill that recently received congressional approval. After the president signs the bill into law, you will be able to claim donations made between Jan. 12, the day of the earthquake, and before March 1.
Many people who use credit cards and pay off their bills every month object to giving up their plastic. It's convenient, they contend. Carrying cash is dangerous, they argue.
Look, I'm not saying give up your plastic forever - just for 21 days. Studies show that when you make purchases with plastic, you tend to spend more than when you use cash.
One person who considers herself a good money manager took the 21-day challenge.
What did she find?
She realized how dependent she was on credit and how much she shopped for clothes, and how much she could save by charging less - even for things she could easily pay off.
There's another issue people have with the fast: You can't buy any gifts. You can go to birthday parties or weddings, etc., but you can't buy a gift for the event.
Candace Matthews of Silver Spring, Md., was reluctant to show up at a 5-year-old's party without a gift. During the fast, she was also scheduled to attend a birthday party for an adult friend.
"I can't purchase gifts for either?" she asked.
Of course you can do whatever you want. But consider that we spend so much money buying stuff that is often just, well, stuff.
I'm trying to challenge you to see whether there's another way to celebrate life's special occasions without spending, especially if your finances are in bad shape.
"For my friend's daughter, I told her beforehand I would get her a gift later," Matthews wrote to me. "I know I should not have, especially after reading the lesson about [leaving] an inheritance [for children]. When I went to my friend's 25th birthday party, she assured everyone it was OK if they did not get her a gift, because she was in the presence of her friends. My advice to others is that material things can't compare to your time and the love that you give someone. Don't think of it as being rude, but think of it as a gift that money can't buy."
Some asked if fun is allowed during the fast.
"I won tickets to a play; should I wait until the fast is over to attend?" one participant asked.
Of course you can go.
The fast isn't intended to make you suffer. You can have fun during the fast. That's allowed.