I’ve recently started reading Cait Flanders’ The Year of Less. In this book (her debut), Cait documents (with a real openness and honesty) what was happening in her life during a 12 month period when she decided to go ‘cold turkey’ on her spending and instigate a year-long shopping ban.
Cait describes how she had documented the ‘year of less’ on her blog, inspiring others to do a shopping ban of their own.
The Approved Shopping List
In case you’re curious, Cait decided to change her relationship with spending by sticking to a specific number of self-imposed rules. The items on her Approved Shopping List were carefully considered: she worked out what would be coming up during the period of her shopping ban and planned accordingly.
To give you some examples, takeout coffees were firmly off the list, but replacement toiletries and cosmetics were OK, providing they weren’t “fun items” such as nail polish. Travel was definitely on the list, but clothes were not.
This got me thinking about the difference between getting on a written budget versus instigating a shopping ban. Were they polar opposites, or could one approach benefit the other?
Getting on a written budget
If you’ve been reading my blog for a little while, you’ll know that I have previously cited the work of Dave Ramsey. One of the key tenets of Ramsey’s philosophy is that, if you’re going to be successful with money, you have to get on a written budget.
Ramsey’s budgeting app, ‘EveryDollar’ (not available in the UK), is so named because the idea is that you literally tell every dollar where to go.
My dual account spreadsheet serves the same purpose. With two accounts rather than one, we run all of our regular bills and expenses (e.g. utility bills) off the first account. This leaves only the second account to manage in terms of discretionary spending on items including food, groceries, fuel and so on.
Why a written budget is so useful
A written budget is essential. It means you plan in advance of your spending, rather than worrying about where your cash has gone when there is ‘too much month at the end of the money’.
If your finances are joint ones, by sitting down each month and doing a written plan, you also balance any ‘go go’ (spending) tendencies against any ‘no no’ (saving) preferences within your relationship.
The benefits of a shopping ban
A complete shopping ban also has a number of benefits, especially if you’re someone who needs to take an ‘all or nothing’ approach.
Writer Gretchen Rubin famously abstains from eating carbohydrates; if she doesn’t eat carbs, she doesn’t have to think about them. A little bit of something in moderation isn’t her style.
The same goes for someone who can’t go shopping without returning home laden with bags of merchandise they hadn’t planned to buy. So, the ‘all or nothing’ approach might be beneficial.
By announcing your intention, you can also get accountability for your goals: your supporters will spur you on and help keep you on track.
‘No spend’ drawbacks
Cait’s experience made me realise that initiating a shopping ban might also bring some drawbacks.
For example, so-called well-meaning ‘friends’ would try and tempt her to buy something Cait didn’t need, or which wasn’t on The Approved List. They reasoned that ‘she deserved it’ or that a little retail therapy was no bad thing. In fact, this was tantamount to offering a reformed smoker a cigarette, a dieter a wedge of chocolate fudge cake, or an alcoholic ‘just one’ drink. Happily for her, a handful of true friends were on hand to help keep Cait on track.
Another potential drawback of a shopping ban is that you also have to deal with your own triggers. That is, if you’re working to achieve specific financial goals, avoiding putting yourself in situations where you might blow your budget is essential. For an abstainer, it has to be all or nothing.
As Cait writes, “The toughest part… was having to confront my triggers and change my reaction to them. It always felt like the minute I forgot about the shopping ban was the same minute I felt like shopping again.”
Why a written budget provides some flexibility
If you’re like me, you might prefer having some flexibility each month. That said, Cait certainly didn’t set out to veto all spending forever; it was, after all, an experiment.
What helps me is that I’m now really intentional in what I buy; getting on a written budget also avoids any feelings of self-deprivation. If we need something (in any category), we make provision on the spreadsheet for it. There’s no ‘forget it, I’m going to buy whatever I want’ and the extremes of a shopping spree or spending ban are avoided.
The middle ground
Where the ‘no spend’ philosophy might help is in cutting out expenditure that you know doesn’t add value to your life and which may impact negatively on your overall finances.
For example, if you regularly buy lunch out (perhaps at a cafe or by picking up a take-out meal), the cost of this soon adds up. Deciding to intentionally exclude things from your budget can help you achieve your financial goals. In a recent post, I discussed the idea that second-hand should become second nature; applying a ‘nothing new’ rule might be one approach to consider.
All or nothing?
I admire Cait Flanders’ forthright account. In applying her ‘no spend’ discipline, she not only learned a great about herself, but she lived on just a proportion of her income. This helped her not only to pay off debt but also to truly understand the important things in life.
Whichever route you choose, laying some ground rules (and getting accountability for your goals) will truly reap the benefits. And less is definitely more.
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