Spending Freeze Challenge–Part 1: Breaking the Habit

Lately I’ve been super stressed about finances. We recently had our large backyard landscaped, which is wonderful, but we took out a loan for it, and being in debt kind of freaks me out. Also, we just returned from a Florida vacation, and although we used credit card reward miles for our flights and stayed with our friends for free, we spent quite a lot on restaurants. You’d think that anxiety would motivate me to curb my spending, but it doesn’t really influence my financial choices very much. Mostly, it just makes me feel uncomfortable and fearful. I don’t want to keep showing up this way for my family, so I asked my husband if we could go on a spending freeze for the month of September.

We tried a zero-spend month two years ago, right before moving into a different house. It had been my husband’s idea, and I really didn’t like it at first and was afraid that, as a mother of three at the time, I wouldn’t–couldn’t—succeed. The month had already started, too, so “pre-buying” was out. The more I thought about it, though, I felt empowered by the idea of self-restraint and wanted to see if I could do it. That time, we were more motivated by needing to use the food we already had, than by the money-saving benefit. We decided to try the challenge again this month, and it feels different this time because we’re now in a house we own, which opens up a whole new realm of things we’d like to spend money on. This “Part 1” post is more about the rationale behind taking on a challenge such as this, while future posts in this series will present more specifics. This is the why, those will be the how.

So, why be so drastic as to institute a spending freeze? you might ask. Couldn’t you just budget or do the Dave Ramsey cash-in-envelopes thing or stick to shopping lists? Why go cold-turkey and deprive yourself? Wouldn’t you spend about the same money anyway, if you buy what you’ll need before the challenge month starts and after it ends? These are all questions I had at first, too. But there’s at least one important benefit to be had in doing away with voluntary spending for 30 days at a stretch: it can reroute your brain away from habitual and impulsive spending.

Although I consider myself a relatively conscious and aware spender, after thinking about it, I realized that my spending patterns were executed primarily out of habit. I’m sure I’m not alone in this. Spending is so convenient, especially online and with Amazon Prime. You can make purchases without moving from your chair, with just a couple of clicks. When the credit card fields fill in automatically, it doesn’t even feel like you’re actually spending money. And at the grocery store, it’s so easy to buy more than what’s on your list and justify the purchases because they’re “on sale” and there’s plenty of space in the extra freezer. And deal blogs–don’t get me started on those! I’ll just say that mostly they give useful tips that really can save people money, but if I’m buying things I don’t really need, then it’s ultimately wasteful, no matter how rockin’ of a deal I got. The thing about deal-seeking, for me, is that it’s kind of a sport. It feels competitive, in that I like to think that I’m spending less than most people on such-and-such an item. If I’m doing it for the emotional reward, the “thrill of the hunt,” rather than out of necessity, then my motivations are off.

The blog we got the idea from, Living Well Spending Less, had given a series of reflection questions for each week of the challenge, and I dutifully answered each one. (I won’t post the questions here since they’re not my own, but can send them to you if you’re interested.) I learned a great deal about myself, including the “sporting” idea from the last paragraph. Another revelation was that I often instinctually revolt against what feels like a restrictive loss of freedom, but when I take on a challenge of self-discipline, I find even greater freedom and happiness than I had previously known. This paradox can be found in many areas of life. For example, doing a social-media fast while on vacation last month felt a little like deprivation at first, but after that week, I felt a renewed sense of choice in that it’s no longer a compulsion or automatic go-to while on the computer/phone/tablet, but merely an activity I can choose to do if and when I desire. Not only that, it made me more mindful of the beautiful surroundings and more present with the wonderful (and actually-physically-there) people accompanying me that week.

Now to address why to be so drastic as to go “cold turkey.” Research has shown that we only have a limited amount of willpower and decision-making energy each day, so blanket abstaining rules like “no spending!” are usually more effective than vague moderating ones like “spend less.” That’s why my sugar goal is: “No treats or desserts, aside from one indulgence per month.” I don’t have to keep deciding whether to eat whatever sugary food happens to be in front of me. Aside from deliberately choosing my one indulgence each month (which I need so that I don’t feel deprived), I’ve already made the choice and don’t waste energy deciding whether or not to raid the candy basket in the pantry several times a day. For some people, one indulgence a week is fine, but I’ve found that doesn’t work for me, as it takes a couple of weeks for sugar cravings to abate, and I just don’t want to swim upstream.

Furthermore, when we want to change a deeply-ingrained habit, just setting a new resolution sometimes isn’t enough. We have to take concrete actions to keep us from going down the old paths, which must be done BEFORE we can rewire our brain with a new desirable habit. For me to not be tempted to spend this month, I can’t even open the Bloglovin’ window in my browser, nor any commercial email. I throw the store ads from the mail straight into the recycling bin. I carry no cash, and when I must go into a grocery store for the three staple items I limit myself to (more on that in the next post), I won’t let myself even glance in the clearance carts or manager’s special bins. Some people cut up their credit cards, but the miles for free flights are too important of a perk for me. I’ve also heard of people literally freezing their credit cards in a pan of ice to keep from using them!

If you want to tackle a problematic habit, it’s helpful to be aware of the benefits we glean from these habitual actions. The greater the reward, the more powerful the habit will be. In “The Power of Habit,” Charles Duhigg explains it thus:

“This process within our brains is a three-step loop. First, there is a cue, a trigger that tells your brain to go into automatic mode and which habit to use. Then there is the routine, which can be physical or mental or emotional. Finally, there is a reward, which helps your brain figure out if this particular loop is worth remembering for the future: THE HABIT LOOP.”

So, on the topic of spending, the fastest way to interrupt the habit loop is to avoid the “cue” altogether. For example, if you’re used to stopping at a particular coffee shop on your way to work, try driving a different route so that it would be inconvenient for yourself to get the coffee you want to stop spending money on.

If removing the cue isn’t possible, try going straight for the routine. As another example, if you can’t stop yourself from purchasing through Amazon Prime, have a family member change the password. When you want to buy something, ask them to purchase it for you or set up times when they can allow you to access the account. (The inconvenience of going through extra hoops or being required to wait a certain period of time may dissuade you from making less-necessary purchases.)

In other cases, you may need to remove the reward so that the habit is no longer profitable. I feel a sense of security each time I come home from the grocery store loaded down with bags and cases of food for my family. But I also feel secure when I am aware of the wealth of food we already have stored. I think I’ll try going through my food storage room, pantry, and chest freezer before the next big case lot sale so that I get a hit of that yummy secure emotion beforehand instead of trying to buy it.

Gratitude provides wonderful rewards. When you’re tempted to buy something you want, take a few minutes to think about or write a list of great things you already have. It just might take your mind off what you don’t have, and at the same time, give you a longer-lasting feeling of satisfaction than if you’d caved and made that purchase. Plus, with gratitude, the feeling comes completely guilt-free!

Readers, what strategies do you use to break the spending habit and to be more mindful in making purchases?

Check out the follow-up post to this one: Spending Freeze Challenge: Part 2

And here’s Linkin Park’s “Breaking the Habit,” just because I love this song! You’re welcome. 🙂


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