A year-long spending moratorium


While walking the dog last weekend, Kim noted that I’ve been getting a lot of packages in the mail lately. “What’s up with that?” she asked.

I sighed.

“Remember how we shared that bottle of champagne on New Year’s Eve?” I said. “Well, that got me buzzed enough that I sat down at my computer and ordered a bunch of used books. Mystery novels and manga. So, those are starting to filter in.” That’s right. I got drunk on New Year’s Eve (because I no longer drink regularly, I’ve become a lightweight) and ordered old John le Carré paperbacks and Lone Wolf and Cub compilations from ABE Books. I lead an exciting life, my friends.

“Don’t you have enough books?” Kim asked.

“Honestly, I do,” I said. “And I haven’t read half of them. I haven’t watched half of the movies I’ve purchased. I haven’t read half of my graphic novels.”

“You only wear about half of the clothes in your closet,” Kim added. We stopped to let the dog dig in the ditch. Tally was certain she smelled a rodent and was desperate to find it.

“Right,” I said. “I know I’m not the only one who does this, but that doesn’t mean I like it. I feel as if I ought to take a break from buying new stuff and just work through the books and movies and clothes I already own.”

“I feel as if you ought to do that too,” Kim said, laughing. Then Tahlequah saw a deer in the neighbor’s field, and our conversation was forgotten in the ensuing excitement. Bark bark bark! Deers are evil.

A Spending Moratorium

During the fifteen years I’ve been writing about personal finance, I’ve read a number of stories from folks who’ve elected to do a “buy nothing” year or a “no spend” year. Although I’ve always viewed these spending moratoriums with interest, I’ve never considered doing one of my own until now.

After my conversation with Kim, though, I’ve decided it would be a useful exercise. But what rules should I set for myself? How long should the spending moratorium last? What should it cover?

To answer these questions, I need to be clear on the purpose of this spending hiatus. My goal is to spend less money, yes, but more importantly I want to appreciate the things I already own. I want to use them. And I want to bring less Stuff into the house. Plus, I want to break the conditioning that makes me believe that I have to own everything that looks interesting.

Money is one part of the equation, but only one part. This project would be more about adjusting my psychology, my mindset.

In a way, I’m approaching this project as if I were going on a “money diet”.

As of today, I’m exactly two weeks from the end of my actual diet. Since July 28th, I’ve lost 28.5 pounds. I have a pound and a half to lose in the next fourteen days to meet my goal.

I’ve lost this weight through simple calorie counting. Nothing else. I track the calories I consume and the calories I burn. I try to maintain a gap between the two. This means that I need to be mindful about everything I put in my mouth. (I ate a 350 calorie donut as I started writing this article. It wasn’t worth it!)

I’m trying to think of this spending moratorium as something similar. Or at least as something that flexes the same mental muscles. It’ll require the same sort of discipline.

Because I’m already channeling a lot of willpower to maintain my calorie deficit, I’m going to delay the start of my spending moratorium until I’m finished with the diet. I don’t want to create unnecessary difficulties by focusing on two things at once.

My Spending Rules

Because my diet ends (or should end) on January 29th, I think February 1st makes a great date to start the spending moratorium in earnest. In reality, I’m already trying to adhere to it. But my official spending hiatus will run from 01 February 2021 to 31 January 2022.

So, the timeline is easy to pick. It’s more difficult to decide what kind of spending this project applies to.

I don’t have the same spending issues that a lot of other folks do. I’m not tempted to pick up fancy coffee. I hate malls. I don’t like shopping for clothes. I rarely want to eat out for breakfast or lunch. (Dining out for dinner is an issue, though.)

My trouble areas are media and tech. I like new gadgets. (I’m typing this on a brand-new M1 Macbook Air.) More than gadgets, I have this bizarre compulsion to own each and every book or song or movie that interests me whether I have immediate plans to consume the media or not. This is so dumb, yet it’s how I operate.

As a result, the rules for my personal spending moratorium might be different than the rules you’d set for yourself. Here are the guidelines I currently plan to adopt. (This might change by the time I start in February.)

  • No new technology. None. Not even for business. (I tend to rationalize tech purchases by telling myself they’re for the company — which they are — but that’s not really an excuse to upgrade things that still work just fine.)
  • No new comics, manga, or graphic novels. None. I sold my comic book collection a few years ago, but I still have plenty of comics material I can read when the mood strikes. There’s no need to buy more.
  • No new movies or TV shows. None. I already have something like 800 movies in my iTunes library, plus a few dozen TV series. Plus, we subscribe to Netflix and Disney+. There is zero need for me to buy new movies. (For films like Dune, which I’m eagerly awaiting, I’ll need to go to a theater or catch it on streaming or wait until the moratorium is over.)
  • No new books except for those specifically required for my work. I’ll allow myself to purchase a book if it’s needed to write an article or to do research. But I don’t want to stretch things here. I have to legit need it to get the project done. Otherwise, I have plenty of financial reference books. And I have scores of unread mystery novels and sci-fi books for leisure reading.
  • No new furniture, yard tools, or other household items. This area isn’t really a weakness for me, but I want to explicitly exclude these items from my spending. That said, there are two projects I’ll allow spending on this year. First, we need to fix the rot and/or foundation problem under the bathroom. Second, I’m okay spending a few hundred dollars to complete our “Japanese garden” area. (Most of that spending will be on gravel!) But nothing else.

As you can see, my spending moratorium targets my natural tendency toward acquisitiveness. It doesn’t address spending on experiences. That’s for two reasons.

First, I’m not spending much on experiences (vacations, restaurants) at the moment thanks to the coronavirus pandemic. It’s not even an option. If things change and experiential spending because tempting once more, I’ll revisit this.

Second, I don’t feel like I overspend on experiences even during normal times. (Yes, restaurants are an issue, but I’m aware of it and working on it.)

Even with these guidelines, there are some grey areas. Take fitness, for instance. Now that I’m nearing the end of my weight-loss journey, it’s time to get serious about exercise. I have a nice bicycle and I plan to ride it for aerobic activity. But I also want to build some muscle. I don’t want to join a gym. I’m tempted to purchase some free weights off of Craigslist. But would this violate my spending moratorium? Should I simply make do with the dumbbells and kettlebells I already own?

I don’t have an answer.

One solution might be to implement a rule where I’m required to consult Kim for any purchase like this. I could have a default “no” position on my problem areas, then for everything else I’d double-check with her in order to verify the worthiness of any given purchase. This seems sensible, but I haven’t decided what to do yet.

After years of talking about it, this is the year I’ll be letting go of my season tickets to the Portland Timbers. Kim thinks I should keep the tickets and simply sell them game by game. “You may end up regretting that you gave up your seats,” she says. “If you keep the tickets but sell them game by game, you always have the option of attending. And you get to keep the seats in case you change your mind.” We’ll see. For now, though, I plan to give them up.

My Spending Plan

Setting goals and intentions is a great start. Deciding to change is the first step to change. But deciding isn’t enough. For me to succeed, I know that I need to have a plan that ensures success.

With my current weight loss, it wasn’t enough to simply say, “I want to lose thirty pounds.” I had to devise a strategy to do so, a strategy that I knew I could follow. I stopped keeping treats in the house (except for fruit-based popsicles, which have been my one cheat these past six months). I stopped buying alcohol. When I felt myself wanting to overeat, I deliberately made myself sit in the hot tub for an hour or two. (Such a sacrifice, I know.)

These little changes of habit (and others) have been effective. I haven’t adhered to them without fail, but I’ve done so maybe 95% of the time. That’s enough to see great results.

Based on past experience, I know that I need to employ similar restrictions in order to succeed with my spending moratorium. As far as possible, I need to avoid temptation.

I spend when sad or stressed.

Here are some of the changes I intend to make:

  • Stop browsing shopping sites simply to kill time. I’m not sure why I do it, but about once per week I’ll find myself browsing Amazon or Apple or ABE Books for no other reason than to look at all of the things I don’t own yet. This is so, so dumb. It has to stop.
  • Stop reading blogs that highlight new stuff. Right now, I read MacRumors every single day. I browse a couple of comic book blogs. Every week, I check for new releases on the iTunes store. I subscribe to subreddits like /r/DidntKnowIWantedThat that. These habits need to be put on hold. They tempt me to spend.
  • Stop spending to self soothe. Like many others who have spending problems (whether present or in the past), I have a tendency to buy things in order to make myself feel better. [Reddit Meme. Which subreddit was that? Poverty finance?) I’m much better at this than I used to be, but I still do it sometimes. Because both the end of my diet and and springtime are approaching, I hope to switch to exercise as a source of self-soothing.
  • Start using a wish list. Even with these rules in place, I know there will be many, many times this year that I find things I want to buy. I’m going to keep a text-based wish list of these items (not a wish list on Amazon). When the project is over, I can review the list to see if I still truly want any of these things or whether they were passing fancies. (This would basically be a variation of the 30-day rule to control impulse spending.)

I’ll probably think of other strategies I could use to keep myself in check during this exercise. Plus, I’m hoping that you folks will chime in with tips and suggestions. Basically, I’m trying to follow my own advice: Build barriers between yourself an bad behavior while removing barriers between you and doing the right thing.

So, that’s my plan.

Starting February 1st, I’ll undertake a year-long spending moratorium intended to reduce my consumer habits. This is less about the financial benefits of such a project (although I welcome those) and more about the psychological benefits. I’m curious to see how it goes. If my current diet is any indication, things will be great for long stretches — but there will be days I’m sorely tempted to “cheat”.



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