The Plan that ended my excessive spending.
Behind almost any meaningful change, you’ll find a strong reason and a sound plan. After I looked my bad spending habits in the eye, it was obvious that the way I was using my money did not in any way reflect what was meaningful to me. Categorizing every one of my purchases had revealed the errors in my ways, but I couldn’t just stare hopelessly at what was going wrong – I had to define what my spending would look like if I was proud of how I was managing my money.
I’m not an investment banker or a personal finance expert. I didn’t set out to create a perfect money management system right out the gate: I just wanted to take better control of my spending. I wanted a future that wasn’t dictated by debt, where I was free to make choices about my life based on what was most meaningful for me. I took inspiration from Anna Newell Jones's brilliant book "The Spender's Guide to Debt-Free Living," but a total spending fast wasn’t the right approach for me. I didn’t need or want to spend zero dollars; I wanted to use my money in a way that reflected my values.
First, I took stock of what was valuable to me.
Spending in a meaningful way required that I specifically called out what was important to me. I identified a handful of things (okay, maybe slightly more than a handful) that felt essential to a good life, and you know what? Most of them didn't necessarily require any spending – A cozy home, my husband and son, meaningful relationships, impactful work, occasional adventures, thought-provoking experiences, dancing, some ridiculous fun, creative hobbies, time outside, and feeling healthy. When I compared these essentials to where my spending money was going, it was pretty clear that most of my expenses weren’t actively drawing me any closer to those things. Sure, I could argue that those dinners out were important for our family, but we were having them on nights we were too tired to cook or really engage the way that feels best. In fact, some of my spending habits were harming the things that mattered most to me; my debt had the potential to affect our future life choices and none of the important things were improved by the stress caused by my credit card balance. I needed some new rules to guide my spending.
What’s the Plan, Stan?
I decided to set some rules to guide spending for each of my two-week pay periods. Although my goal was to break my old habits for good, this would ensure that I was never more than two weeks away from a fresh start if I botched it. My trick was to give myself a modest allowance that I could spend on the things I valued most, ensuring the dollars I did spend would create meaning and be deeply satisfying. Admittedly, this plan required that my sense of meaning not be based on acquiring bigger and bigger piles of expensive stuff, dropping huge sums of cash at expensive bars in order to uphold an image of success, or never wearing the same outfit twice.
HERE WERE MY NEW RULES...
I promised to:
- ADD NO NEW DEBT (unless it was seriously an emergency)
- Drastically limit spending on non-necessities (with limited exceptions below)
- Take good care of things and fix what I could to minimize the need for future purchases
- Reduce the costs of monthly bills and necessary expenses as much as possible
- Use all the savings I could find to pay off debt (and not feel justified about making more purchases)
I gave myself:
- One date per pay period – $35 or less (My husband and I enjoy A LOT of quality time. Most of it's free, but I didn’t want him to be on the hook for everything we might want to do together)
- One professional development/business-related meal per pay period (inexpensive = better)
- One treat coffee drink each weekend if I was really good about the other rules
- Gas money for otherwise free adventures or drives with my soon-to-be-sixteen year old son
Following the rules would mean bringing all my workday lunches and snacks, buying no coffee drinks, coming to work earlier to snag the free parking, having snacks on hand for hunger on-the-go, finding free things to do with friends and family, and re-evaluating all of our household’s monthly bills. In short, a whole lotta change would be happening.
I was almost ready for a new way of spending.
I allowed myself two final purchases before I got started: flannel sheets for the coming fall and a belated wedding gift for some friends with a love too good not to celebrate. And then I was off! Kind of...
I realized right away that my past pattern of spending had created obligations on my future money. For example, I was part of an office group that voluntarily shared the cost of stocking our breakroom watercooler (government workplaces are lean on niceties, y’all); this cooler was ten feet away from a working sink. I also had way more workday lunch plans on my calendar than what fit my budget. I cancelled my participation in the water service right away, but the lunches were another matter. These meals were with friends, coworkers, and mentors – Relationships that were meaningful to me. Because of this, I sucked it up and kept these commitments while promising to be more mindful when making future plans. Even though my ideal plans for spending would be compromised for a few weeks, I refused to use these obligations as an excuse to delay making real change. And so my spending/saving adventures really began. (Obligations aside, I had some really rewarding initial results that I’ll share with you next week!)
Setting rules that matched my values created a spending revolution.
Deciding how my life would look if I spent my money on what mattered created a huge and immediate change. Instead of berating myself for being off track, I was asking myself "What do you really want? Let's do that." Instead of feeling like a hungry wolf on a strict diet, I felt in control and empowered.
My spending did not become perfect overnight (I'll share more about those struggles too), but the habit I thought would be hardest to kick – coffee drinks – was almost immediately conquered. Now, when my body says, “You got up so early and you work so hard and you have to be at your best for an important meeting this afternoon – you deserve that coffee,” there is something strong inside of me that doesn’t hesitate to answer: “What is the value in that?” Instead of indulging, I think about how I can get more rest. I remind myself that my coworkers who are parenting infants, going through their weeks completely sleep deprived, are still doing amazing and admirable work. I decide what skills I can build to help me ace all the things even when I'm not at my best (instead of propping myself up with the incredibly alluring crutch that is the latte).
Your money, your rules.
No one can say what is of value in your life except for you. Maybe you’re fine with zero meals out on the town, but you need a rock-climbing class or a bouquet of fresh farmer’s market flowers each week. (In fact, when we start talking about bills, I’ll confess what seemingly ridiculous weekly expense is not being eliminated from our budget.)
When deciding what is essential to our innermost selves, the answers should be things that bring you true joy. The expenses we rack up trying to compensate for our shortcomings are not meaningful or fulfilling: Like buying clothes or make up to compensate for a lack of self-confidence, buying fast food because you didn't make time to pack lunch, or having an expensive car in order to look attractive or successful to others. (This is true whether the shortcomings are real or perceived. xo.)
Once we’ve identified what is essential for a fulfilling life, we can choose to use our money as a tool to get us there instead of it being a source of shame. We can put each purchase to a powerful test: Why am I buying this? Will it bring me closer to the things I want most? With this knowledge, we have a true defense when faced with the frequent choice of whether or not to swipe our debit or credit card.
- How I found $700 of savings in the two weeks on my new spending plan
- Our first guest contributor! Why being more mindful on where we focus our thoughts is more important than we think
- AND, we imagine a world where we buy nothing (Spoiler: it already exists!)