Conscious spending in action

Kris and I pulled the plug on our television last week. We canceled cable, gave our DVD player to her sister, and moved the television to the workshop until we can find a buyer. We’re now officially TV-free.

Sort of.

We haven’t given up TV shows and DVDs entirely — we’re just consuming this entertainment via other methods. Namely, we use:

  • iTunes subscriptions for Glee, The Office, 30 Rock, The Biggest Loser, and The Amazing Race. Plus, we occasionally rent movies via the iTunes Store.
  • A Netflix subscription. We get three discs at a time (and I’m lobbying to drop to one disc at a time), which also allows us to access the site’s streaming content.
  • Hulu for classic TV programs like Adam-12 and The Mary Tyler Moore Show

The Netflix subscription costs Kris $20 a month, and our iTunes subscriptions cost about $215 per year. So, we’re still paying $455/year for home entertainment, but that’s less than half what we were paying five years ago.

No, I’m not able to watch sports on TV. But most of the time, I don’t miss it. For big games, I can always go to a sports bar or a friend’s house. I’m not sure what I’ll do for the Olympics and the World Cup, both of which I enjoy. I’ll worry about it when the time comes.

This latest move is the culmination of a years-long transition. We’ve been gradually weaning ourselves from TV. A couple of weeks ago, I realized that neither of us had actually turned on the television since before we left for Italy in September. That’s right: For five months, I paid for a cable package we didn’t use. That seemed like a clear indication that it was time to finally cut the cord.

Cable TV canceled!

Conscious Spending

It may seem strange to some of you that Kris and I are willing to spend thousands of dollars on trips to Europe and Africa, but we’re unwilling to pay $15 a month for basic cable. Actually, that’s the point.

The heart of frugality is choosing to spend on the things that are important to you while cutting back ruthlessly on the things that aren’t. Ramit Sethi calls this conscious spending, which is a fantastic way to describe it. Conscious spending implies that you’re actively choosing to spend on some things and not on others.

Contrast this with how most people spend. (And, in truth, how even financially-savvy folks spend a lot of their money.) We tend to spend on reflex. We buy things because we’re expected to, because everyone else does. We spend to have what others have. We sign up for gym memberships that we never use, subscribe to magazines we never read, and pay for golf clubs that get buried in the garage. We make impulse purchases at the grocery store — or even on large items, like computers and cars. Most of the time, people spend without thinking.

But with conscious spending, you evaluate every purchase. You vote with your dollars.

I’m saying, for instance, that I’m willing to spend several thousand dollars for three weeks in Africa because this is an experience I value. In exchange, I accept that I’m giving up television, and that I’ve delayed replacing my car. (I’m in no hurry to upgrade my Mini, which is a good thing. I opted to drain my car-replacement fund so that I could afford this vacation.)

Conscious Spending in Action

To put conscious spending in action, I’ve learned to ask myself questions before I buy:

  • Will I use this? I’m often tempted by neat gadgets and pretty toys. But as fun and nostalgic as a pocketwatch might seem, is it something I’ll actually use? (Answer: No. Unfortunately, this is an instance where I didn’t exercise conscious spending. Now I have a pocketwatch I barely wear.)
  • Can I get this cheaper — or free — elsewhere? Can I borrow it from a friend? Can I find it used at a thrift store? If it’s something I have to buy new, will someplace else have it for a lower price?
  • Can I wait to buy this? Why do I need to buy it today? I’ve found that I can do a lot to control impulse spending by using the 30-day rule: If I want something, I write it down; if I still want it 30 days later, I consider buying it. By waiting, I give myself a chance to cool off.
  • Why am I buying this? Does it fill a need? Or is it just something I want?
  • Is there something else I’d rather spend the money on? This last question has been a powerful motivator for me in recent years. First, I wanted to use my money to get out of debt. Then, I saved for my Mini Cooper. Now, I usually want to save my money for travel. By reminding myself of my priorities, I’m able to avoid a lot of stupid spending.

Again, not all of my spending has been conscious over the past couple of years. I still make plenty of impulse buys. (The pocketwatch I mentioned above is a good example.) But whenever possible, I aim to analyze all of my purchases.

Conscious spending isn’t restrictive; it’s liberating. It can help you recognize when your spending is aligned with your values, and when it’s just being made out of habit.

Now I’m looking for ways to reduce my cell-phone bill. I’m paying $80 a month for my iPhone plan. When my contract expires in a couple of months, I want to move to something cheaper. Doing this could free $20 or $40 or $60 a month. That’s money that I can use for more important priorities — like exploring South America in 2012!


This weekend, we hired a friend’s 12-year-old to help with yardwork. As we cut blackberry canes and pruned arborvitae hedges, Ian explained that he’s saving his money. He wants to buy a remote-control car, but his dad persuaded him to hold on to his cash until he’s sixteen, at which time he can buy a motorcycle.

Ian really wants the R/C car, but he wants the motorcycle more, so he’s being patient. He’s willing to wait four years to save for his goal. That, my friends, is conscious spending in action.

Later in the day, I talked to another boy who wants an iPod — but he’s not willing to save for it. He’d rather spend his money today on video games and bubblegum. When I tried to talk to him about it, he didn’t see any connection between the fifty cents he spent on a pizza-parlor video game and the iPod he wants so badly.

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