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♥ & $: The Spending Diet: My Month of More Mindful Spending

December’s credit card bill came in the other day and it was all I could do not to gag. How did all my good intentions and careful planning go so horribly wrong? Yes, we had many unexpected medical expenses (don’t worry, everyone is ok). And yes, two school tuition bills came due. And yes, we took a brief family ski vacation. And yes, I felt compelled to make year-end donations. And yes, it was Christmas. But that much over? If you’re having the same response to your bills as I am to mine, then you know somethings has to change.

No, I’m not talking about those vacuous new year’s resolutions that merely cause you to spend more money: the gym memberships, weight loss clubs, or, like my mother-in-law, the electronic cigarettes to help you finally kick the habit (let’s hope it works). I’m talking about conscious intention. I am talking about owning your relationship to money. I am talking about starting fresh.

When I look back to the last month (heck, the last few months or, gulp, perhaps even the last few years), I realize I’ve gotten in the habit of just slapping my card down. Buy now, pay later. And while I always pay my credit card bill in full each month, sometimes that payment comes out of savings. Bad idea.

What’s worse is that while I have been unconsciously spending, my husband has been quietly tightening his belt. By nature he’s a conservationist, but there is more to it than that. He could use a new winter coat and his shoes are looking pretty shabby, but he’ll tell you what he has is just fine. He brings in lunch to work most days, but he’ll argue it allows him to be more productive. When I finally called him on it, he said he was just trying to stay within budget. What he didn’t add was, “because you’re overspending.”

I admire him for that. It takes a lot of restraint to not wag your finger when you see someone going off the path. He could have chastised me (and probably would have if the spending was truly out of control and putting us at risk). But he didn’t. He says he wanted me to come to my own conscious awareness regarding my behavior; he wanted me to own my actions and choices. He wanted me to be mindful.

My friend, the talented writer and CNN columnist, Amanda Enayati, recently wrote on the concept of mindful spending. She says:

“Embarking upon a mindfulness practice when it comes to spending can help reduce stress and improve mental and physical health…It also provides us with a greater sense of control. It introduces an individually driven, spiritual aspect of the solution to our larger economic problem, and gives each of us the opportunity to reflect and gain important insights about our relationship with money and why we spend it.”

She also references an interview with Tony Wagner, Innovation Education Fellow at Harvard’s Technology & Entrepreneurship Center and author of Creating Innovators: The Making of Young People Who Will Change the World. She writes:

“While researching his book, Wagner discovered that more than 70 percent of our economy is based on consumer spending. Increasingly, over the last 20 or so years, that consumer spending has been fueled by debt. The savings rate in 2007, immediately before the economic collapse we are still slogging through, was negative 2 percent. That kind of spending is unsustainable…economically, environmentally and spiritually.”

Let me get this straight, if I can adopt a mindfulness practice regarding my spending habits, it will reduce my stress, empower me, and help the economy get back on the right track? Ok, I’m convinced.

Some have advocated, as Carl Richards did in his Bucks column for the New York Times, that a spending cleanse — a spending diet, if you will — is a great way to start the new year. I couldn’t agree more. Perhaps the first step to mindful spending is to start with a shock to the system in order to break bad habits and to bring consciousness to our choices. So, I’ll do this for one month starting today. I won’t stop spending money completely, that’s just not realistic in my life. However, the goal for my spending diet is to half my out-of-pocket budget. My spiritual goal, as Amanda would call it, is to become more clear on my motivations and more at peace with my daily spending choices. Here’s what I’ll do:

  1. Instead of going out to lunch with friends, I’ll ask them to meet come on over for coffee or to go on a hike.
  2. Instead of buying every book that appeals to me, I’ll visit my library.
  3. Instead of downloading every song from iTunes that strikes my fancy, I’ll revisit some of the many I already own and create new playlists from my current stock of music.
  4. Instead of going out to dinner, I’ll invite friends over for a pot luck.
  5. Instead of buying those gorgeous black suede boots I have been coveting, I’ll wait to see if they go on sale. And if they don’t, I’ll pass on that purchase.
  6. Instead of renting that condo for the ski weekend as I had planned in February, I’ll reach out to friends who have given us a standing invitation to stay with them. That’ll be more fun anyway.
  7. Instead of going out to the movies, I’ll bring my friends in for popcorn and Downton Abbey.
  8. Instead of buying that Starbucks green iced tea that I’m addicted to, I’ll make my own and bring it with me.
  9. Instead of buying those new hair care products I can’t seem to say no to, I’ll finish all the ones in half empty bottles piled high in my shower.
  10. Instead of driving everywhere, I’ll bike or take the train. My hips will thank me for it.

Maybe if I ease in to it, I could actually go a few days without ANY outlay of cash. No promises there, but I am sure there are many other ways I can reduce my spending. What are some of the ways you could kick start a spending diet? Are you mindful when it comes to your own spending habits?

Published or updated on January 21, 2013

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About Lisen Stromberg

Lisen wishes she had money under 30, but she didn't. She had credit card debt, a husband with nearly $200k in school loans, and a job that barely covered the rent. Today at 50, she's made some, lost some, and learned a lot along the way. She had a successful business career, started and ran a non-profit, opted out and then opted back in. Now, she's an award-winning writer who focuses on issues important to women, men, and families. Read her personal blog, follow her @LisenStromberg or become her friend. Email her at lisen (at) prismwork. com with your ♥ & $ questions and concerns.


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  1. Kirby says:

    Being aware of your spending is more than half the battle. If you don’t know what you are spending and where you are spending it, then you don’t have a way to know how to meaningfully cut (or simply shift) your expenses in any given month. My wife and I use Quicken and to track our expenses, and while it may sound excessive, it helps make sure we are on top of our spending and don’t have to take money out of savings to pay the credit card in full each month.

    Thanks for sharing your tips on creative ways to reduce your spending. Other great ways to reduce spending are to:
    1) Freeze leftovers to be used for lunches,
    2) Occasionally ask friends to borrow books, movies, or CDs,
    3) Shop around (Amazon and other retailers to price compare),

  2. Mattie says:

    I definitely need to become more mindful of my spending habits, but I doubt I can do it without some kind of constant reminder. I think I’ll put a picture in my wallet to remind of my long-term goals… maybe a photo of a pretty little house so that every time I reach for my credit card, I’ll be reminded that there are more important things I want to save up for!

  3. La bankruptcy attorney says:

    Good article. We could all be a little more mindful regarding our spending.

  4. Lisen! Loved this, but felt oddly exposed. I am so nervous about spending money after 20 years as a not-famous-but-worked-enough-to-eat actress, I know no other way to live. Which has come in particularly handy recently as my husband also takes his hand at more creative, rather than purely lucrative work which we’ve all enjoyed for ten years. The only problem with a conscious spending lifestyle, I can tell you, is that once you get in these habits, going back the other way feels oddly indulgent, unnecessary, and…well…kind of stupid. Other tricks: high quality thrift stores for fashion finds, free psychotherapy that almost all major cities have if you look hard enough, running to stay in shape, (costs nothing but sneakers) or REAL dance classes at real dance studios instead of pilates or some fusion stuff, they cater to dancers and most classes are still under $15. And our last costsaving discovery, your own espresso/cappuccino machine. We had a small Krups one for 12 years we just replaced with a fancy Italian one. Major savings for coffee snobs like us.
    Great thoughts, thanks for sharing, as they say.

  5. Lisen Stromberg says:

    Thanks to all for reading and engaging. Sounds like I am not alone when it comes to needing a dose of mindful spending.
    I was reading the NY Times the other day and one of their columnists wrote about his how he is spending money on digital media without really thinking about it. I thought you might like to read it:
    Boy, can I relate!

  6. I was/am attempting a no spend month in January but I felt like I was on some sort of strict diet (like the grapefruit diet) and I don’t do well with self-denial so I panicked and felt resentful and blew most of the money on fast food in the first 2 weeks.

    The fact I may have to do without makes me crave something even more. So now I will try to spend more mindfully. I wasn’t sure what exactly I wanted to do to come to terms with my out of control fast food spending but I think I will take the words To Spend More Mindfully and put them in my wallet in 2 places. I will wrap the words around my overused plastic and I will wrap the words around the cash I seem to let slip through my fingers.

    Thank you.

  7. The Debt Side says:

    There are some great tips in this article for helping everyone save money. We really enjoyed this article. @thedebtside

  8. Stacey says:

    Love this post. It came at a really great time. My husband and I are also going on what we’ve referred to as a “spending diet.” Funny that you mention it… Our goal for this year is to pay off as much of our loans as we can – car loans, HV/AC loan, student loans – and it requires that we curtail as much of our lifestyle spending as possible. It has made me realize how much of my personal time (with him, with friends, on my own) revolves around spending: brunch, pedicures, date nights, etc.) The funny thing is, spending money doesn’t always make us feel good. In fact, we are usually wracked with guilt over it immediately afterwards. I guess it’s like you say – it’s a shock to the system. But I’m looking forward to the lessons we can learn from it.

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