Dangerous Norms: When a Treat Becomes a Routine Matter

The Big Top Restaurant by pixeljones on Flickr!When I was young, going out to eat at a restaurant was a rare treat, something to anticipate and savor. About twice a year, we would go to an elegant buffet restaurant called Johnny's Supper Club in a nearby town. I looked forward to eating at Johnny's for days in advance, plotting all the different delicious foods I would eat. I would even skip lunch on those days so I could eat more at the buffet.

But at some point, the treat of dining out became a matter of routine. When I got married in 2003, my wife and I settled into the habit of eating out for almost every meal. Soon, spending $20 on a meal at a restaurant became the norm. There was no joy in this process — it was simply the way we did things, for better or worse.

Later, I began to appreciate cooking at home, particularly when we moved into a larger house with a decent kitchen. We started preparing a lot of food at home, often spending only a few dollars to feed our family of four. After a while, this became the norm — it was normal to spend just a few dollars on a family meal, prepared in our kitchen and served on our dining room table.

Now, we've come full circle. When my wife informed me that my parents were planning on taking us out to eat at a nice little restaurant nearby, I felt a twinge of excitement and immediately began to look forward to the experience.

Unsurprisingly, it was during those years of eating out for almost every meal that I began to get into financial trouble. I had established some expensive routines in my life — eating out, buying piles of new DVDs and books and video games on a weekly basis, golfing several times a month, and so on. These expensive things were enjoyable, but they weren't treats — they were the expected routine of life.

That meant that as a matter of course, I'd drop a couple hundred dollars at restaurants in a week and spend roughly a hundred on entertainment, too. That was the normal routine.

What made it worse was how high the bar was set for occasional splurges. A new video game system was a potential splurge — $300 right there. A new golf club? A weekend trip to a tournament? A DVD box set? These were the kinds of things that I would buy to indulge myself every month or two, often blowing a couple hundred dollars above and beyond my normal expensive routine.

If this all sounds familiar to you, you're playing a dangerous financial game. After a few years of this, I found myself in a downward financial spiral. I realized that without making some major changes, I was going to lose everything I had.

The most important change I made was resetting my norms. Instead of eating out for every meal, I started cooking at home. It was rough at first – I had difficulty preparing even the most basic things – but I already had some rusty skill in the kitchen, and before long I was making passable meals at home. After a couple years' worth of steady practice, I can make all kinds of interesting stuff.

Instead of buying a new DVD or video game or book every week, I found other ways to manage those hobbies. I started borrowing DVDs and books from the library. I started to use swapping services like PaperBackSwap. I made an effort to actually master old video games before acquiring new ones.

Before long, the things that had seemed part of the routine — like eating out or picking up a new video game — began to seem like splurges, and my new baseline routine was much cheaper. The best part is that I never really felt like I missed out on anything during the transition. I still had delicious meals to eat, books to read, games to play, and DVDs to watch — I just didn't gorge myself on them.

So, what's the take-home message here? Make your routines as cheap as you possibly can.

  • Cook at home.
  • Make your own coffee.
  • Don't hit the bookstore or the electronics store every day.
  • Start utilizing the library.

Once the low-cost choices become the norm, you'll start to have a lot more financial breathing room. Then, the little things (like eating out or getting a new book) will begin to feel special again — and a lot of fun. You won't lose the joy of day-to-day life. Instead, you'll find deep appreciation and happiness in the wonderful little splurges. Even better, you won't have to worry about making ends meet.

J.D.'s note: I, too, have experienced treats becoming matters of routine, especially with books and music. Now they're treats once again. (In fact, they feel like indulgences.) I continue to struggle with dining out, though. It's a part of my routine, and not one that I've been able to cut back.

More about...Psychology

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jeffrey strain
jeffrey strain
11 years ago

Routines are so important in getting your finances under control. A lot of time we don’t even realize the routines that we have because they have become so ingrained. It wasn’t until I started to consciously step back and question my everyday routines that I realized how much I had been wasting without even realizing it. The funny thing about routines is once you change and establish the ones you want, you wonder why you ever had the other routines in the first place. So many are picked up through family and friend without ever questioning whether or not they… Read more »

RDS
RDS
11 years ago

This is absolutely true. I think that many Americans have lost the ability (or desire) to figure out the value of something. Countless people seem to go through life in a spending free-for-all buying dinners out, expensive lattes, $12 movie tickets, expensive cable package, fancy cars, and gigantic homes.

Are these things worth it? Often for me they are not. Like Trent pointed out, there is value in scarcity. Treating yourself to little luxuries less often can lead to greater overall enjoyment of them. And a fatter wallet.

RDS

http://financialvalues.blogspot.com/

jb
jb
11 years ago

Yep. Same here. I had a phase in my 20’s when I was spending money ridiculously. Eating out was high on the list of foolish expenditures. I did this several times a week. In addition, my breakfast (muffin+coffee) came from Dunkin Donuts every day — seven days a week. Now, if I eat out there’s a reason for it. Either a reason to celebrate (once every few months), or we’re taking my grandmother out to dinner (worthwhile because she enjoys it, it gets her out of her apartment, and because she can’t get out on her own). If I buy… Read more »

Angie
Angie
11 years ago

This is the trap I’m trying to pull out of right now. Once I got my first job and the huge relocation bonus that came with it my spending went crazy. I went from spending $600 per month on my credit card to $1,500 on a good month.

Now I realize I need a budget. But habits are hard to break and I haven’t been able to do it yet.

Easiest way is to never let it start.

Gwyneth
Gwyneth
11 years ago

tv is a good example of this. People pay quite a bit for cable or satelite but tend to mostly watch network shows. Cable tends to be filler for the rest of your spare time and you find yourself watching things you don’t care much for because constant tv becomes a routine. When we stopped our satelite service none of the shows we look forward to watching went away. We do watch less tv though. We’ve found that tv without a DVR is unbearable.

Mark Larson
Mark Larson
11 years ago

That’s really interesting. How many couples are affected by the norms they set up while they first start dating? If you spend the first few years going out on the town a lot while courting, those behaviors probably will carry over into the long-term relationship (until you stand back and take stock and make the changes you both agree to make).

Ms. Clear
Ms. Clear
11 years ago

Yeah, in my college years I was always getting take out. This continued into the early years of my marriage. We’ve finally quit that. We usually only go out with my parents, who always pay, or on rare occasions, like our recent weekend vacation to a nearby state. Other than that, we mostly eat at home. Take out no more than twice per month. Making it routine to cook or to make a sandwich for those of us who don’t particularly like cooking is very important. So is library usage. I used to buy a great number of books. Now… Read more »

elisabeth
elisabeth
11 years ago

Some things become “culturally routine” — I’m thinking cell phones. The world did ok before cellphones were invented; now, I recently read that at least one definition of poverty includes a cell phone among the necessities of life.
And similarly, whenever I get depresed about some bad news about the internet (reading about new security gaps and other negative aspects…) I think, well, at least I’m old enough to remember a time before the internet, so I know its not a “necessity” either!

Sri
Sri
11 years ago

All of what Trent writes above makes absolute sense. At the point of time I got married 5 years ago, I used to live a very carefree life (eating out everyday, watching every new movie release, collecting luxury watches, daily dose of 5-6 starbucks Vente coffees, owning 50+ pairs of Nike, loving to trade in the stock market and losing thousands of dollars, etc.). By that time, I had accumulated $115,000 of debt. Thanks to my wife, who bulldozed her will and prudent ideas into my mind, I have done a complete turnaround by following similar steps mentioned above in… Read more »

Kate
Kate
11 years ago

As a librarian, I’m always excited when people note that they use the library regularly. When wallets get tight, the library is fantastic! You can get free internet access, free access to daily newspapers and magazines, borrow tons of books and movies, and usually access some great community programming. I remember visiting the library being a weekly routine when I was a child and I am always in awe when I see the amount of money people spend at the big box bookstores – when they can access of all the same materials for free! (And when they return them,… Read more »

Mo Money
Mo Money
11 years ago

I will start using the library more instead of buying books, reading them then put them on the shelf or worse putting them away in a box in the garage for the next sale at 50 cents each.

J.D.
J.D.
11 years ago

I want to point out that Trent’s observation is applicable in more parts of your life than just your personal finances. Here’s a personal example. I grew up without alcohol. I didn’t have my first drink until college. Even then, I didn’t get wrapped up in the stuff. Through most of my adult life, alcohol has been something for special occasions. It’s for dinner parties or for nice evenings out. Lately, though, a drink has become commonplace for me. I’ve made it a routine to have something to drink in the evening. This is not a habit I want to… Read more »

momof5
momof5
11 years ago

This concept is really important when parenting. When my older kids see something they want to purchase they start thinking about their allowance and NEVER ask us to buy for them. When my younger kids see something they say, “OH! I want that for Christmas!” Because we’ve set that tone in our family life we save A LOT of money and have a more peaceful household. Of course keeping tv to a bare minimum helps children and adults alike.

Steven
Steven
11 years ago

@Kate You’re comment is so true. When I retired three years ago, I donated my personal library – except for about six boxes of “keepers” – to our local public library. Every three months they have a book sale and the money received goes to buying new books for the public library. I now live in a major city that has a very extensive public library system. I can even link the card catalog to my home computer, put books on hold, and have the “holds” transfered to the nearest branch. I have purchased very few books during the last… Read more »

Avatar
Avatar
11 years ago

Hi All,

Trent’s post is a great one! I remembered a wise saying about how habits form the backbone of one’s character…

It’s so easy to form spendthrift habits and lose control of one’s finances. After all, we are bombarded with messages to let go, pamper ourselves and enjoy…

Thanks for the timely reminder on how to get back on track with a frugal lifestyle…esp. with the petrol prices skyrocketing these days.

MoneyBlogga
MoneyBlogga
11 years ago

Paying on a mortgage I can’t afford and living in a big house I don’t need has forced me, over the past year, to get frugal. Really frugal. It has also forced me to actually place a value on money which I never did before. These lessons, which I’ve finally learned from living beyond my means, will probably stick with me throughout the rest of my life. This is the ONLY good thing to have come out of owning a McMansion. I am looking forward to the peace of mind that selling and downsizing will bring us all.

Moneymonk
Moneymonk
11 years ago

A luxury once sampled, becomes a need

laurendc
laurendc
11 years ago

I have a problem with shopping for clothes. And I can’t just ignore the mall, because I shop online, too! I spend a couple hundred easily every week.

I am trying to look into trading clothes or swapping. Does anyone know any good web sites? So far I have only found this one: http://www.rehashclothes.com/

KC
KC
11 years ago

The scary thing with eating out for me isn’t the money so much as its the weight. I am not a large person, maybe 10 lbs bigger than what I should be, but eating out more often than eating in really contributes to weight gain. And the health consequences of being overweight can certainly hit you in the pocket book as well. I know when I eat in I’m not so proud of the money I’m saving, I’m more proud of the calories I save. The money saved is just icing on the cake (so to speak).

Jessica
Jessica
11 years ago

I certainly have a problem with spending when it comes to books, they are my weakness. I never liked using the library because I said I’d always read it over and I just love the thought of owning books. But now that I am near the largest library in the state, I will start borrowing to save a little extra. Also, I will take the suggestion of cooking at home more.
Great guest post!

Shanel Yang
Shanel Yang
11 years ago

“Special occasion” food and drink are not only terribly expensive if we start to indulge in them on a more or less daily basis, but they wreak havoc on our health, which is also ultimately HUGELY expensive. Like J.D., I didn’t start drinking alcohol till later (I was actually 30 years old when I took my first serious drink), but I’ve certainly had my share since then. I’ve seen the toll it’s taken on my otherwise youthful looking body and skin now at age 42, which I know are mere surface manifestations of more serious problems brewing inside of me.… Read more »

Dave
Dave
11 years ago

I make five figures a month, but come from a very, some would say, near poverty background growing up on a farm. I still find it very difficult to drop huge sums on “things” just because of the way I was raised. I think it is VERY important, no matter how much or little you make, to pass on these “traits” to your kids. So, my question is, IF you can afford to splurge a little, how can you control it so that it does not become a habit and something you get used to? I enjoy eating out, buying… Read more »

Adam
Adam
11 years ago

The answer to everyone’s questions are really the same: Pay yourself first. Very few people seem to do this for some reason, and it is one of the most absolutely fundamental concepts of personal finance.

Pepperdove
Pepperdove
11 years ago

This really was the right reminder at the right time. We are struggling to learn how to pay a mortgage, feed 2 young kids, and pay off a new kitchen after being married only 4 years. It’s very different from living alone with roommates! Eating at home is such a struggle when it is so hot out (we are not using a/c this summer, since it is broken and we don’t want to pay to fix or run it)… but eating most 2 meals and 1 or 2 snacks out every day is really draining finances. I decided just yesterday… Read more »

Solomon
Solomon
11 years ago

This reminds me of a line from the song “Nina, pretty ballerina” by ABBA.

“This is the part that she likes to play
But she knows the fun would go away
If she would play it every day”.

It’s easy to get so excited by something that you forget that it’s a treat, especially if you’ve been depriving yourself of it.

J.D.
J.D.
11 years ago

Bonus points to Solomon for name-dropping ABBA. If there were an official group of Get Rich Slowly, it would be ABBA, not because they sing about personal finance principles, but because I have lousy taste in music.

Must go listen to disco…

So Cal Savvy
So Cal Savvy
11 years ago

All things in moderation…All things in moderation.

Stacy6
Stacy6
11 years ago

All things in moderation…even moderation. 😉

frugal zeitgeist
frugal zeitgeist
11 years ago

I’ve always been a little bit afraid to get too comfortable. I think doing things the frugal way whether I need to or not help keep me from getting spoiled or otherwise taking little luxuries for granted. In other words, it’s better for my character.

I just killed off my mortgage (just over six and a half years, yay!) and now I’m struggling a little bit to figure out how I can unclench to some extent without running the risk of rampant hedonism.

Cheaplee
Cheaplee
11 years ago

I was guilty of this too. It’s so easy to eat out and not have to prepare foods. But as my wife and I thought about it, two meals out for two people was costing $60 a day. Ridiculous. Pretty soon, I started changing my habits. Here’s how I did it. First start with lunch (or for some, dinner). Choose to have that meal at home only. Do this for 5 days a week. Once you have gone through a few weeks, try a few days for dinner. You don’t need to completely give up going out. An easy way… Read more »

Liz
Liz
11 years ago

We don’t eat out often for supper or so I thought. I was talking to the kids when I was planning meals for the week and the fourteen year old said, “we haven’t had Subway forever.” I asked her how long forever was, she replied, “two weeks.”

As I thought about it, I realized we had been eating out a lot more. So the fourteen year old was told she could go use her money to go to Subway.

sir jorge
sir jorge
11 years ago

Lunch kills me. My coworkers eat out everyday, and I am stuck with rudimentary pb & j and it sucks.

Jill Culver
Jill Culver
11 years ago

There are some excellent points above. I just wanted to add that i think that in the spirit of “your money or your life”, eating out is fine IF you have examined how much you spend on it and have decided it is a worthy allocation of your resources…if it is important enough to spend your hard earned $$$ on. For most of us this is just not the case. Also eating at home is so much more do-able if you can share the work with someone! It takes a lot to plan, shop, cook and clean up for a… Read more »

David
David
11 years ago

One way of cutting costs is going directly to the source. This summer, I picked more than 40 pounds of blueberries and peaches at farms in New Jersey and stored them in the freezer. Of course, I have no idea what I am going to do with them.

http://whyspendmoney.blogspot.com

Penelope
Penelope
11 years ago

@ Jill – that is so true! Now I know why I feel so overwhelmed by trying to do all the cooking myself. I’ll try “sharing the luv” and see how far that gets us. 😀

L
L
11 years ago

Great article, last week I was house and pet sitting for some friends and as a form of payment was left restaurant vouchers and ended up eating out 3 times during the week. I’m finding it’s much harder this week to make myself cook every night.
As for ABBA, why hide behind “lousy taste” in music? Embrace the cheesey pop! They are number 1 in the album charts in the UK this week (knocking coldplay into 2nd place) Happy days indeed.

Another Personal Finance Blog
Another Personal Finance Blog
11 years ago

I have found that there can be a domino affect when it comes to changing habits. When I started jogging, I was more motivated to eat better, to floss more, etc. I find when you do things to improve yourself, everything falls in place. The same can be said for finances. Making small changes lead to bigger ones.

slackerjo
slackerjo
11 years ago

I thought I was the only person who grew up with going to a restaurant twice a year. In addition, we might have McDonalds once, maybe twice a year. I always associate Thanksgiving (the Canadian one) with McDonalds. We’d always have our big Thanksgiving dinner on Sunday to accommodate traveling schedules) and have McDonalds on Thanksgiving Monday. To be perfectly honest, I really don’t like turkey all that much and as a kid, I looked forward to the Big Mac, fries and Coke more than the big fancy Thanksgiving meal. To this day, I still have McDonalds on Thanksgiving Monday.… Read more »

CarrieK
CarrieK
11 years ago

Great advice! I’ve been taking my kids to the library for books, dvd, and cds since they were infants (gotta love the Book’n’Babies club!)and since I started meal planning and eating at home, we are setting our “norms” low. Hopefully by teaching them young, they won’t get themselves into financial pickles when they are older.

Mark Nelson
Mark Nelson
11 years ago

The old money trap. Once you start spending it is so easy to spend money on anything. Once you open the doors to spending it is hard to control.

Our challenge is on trips. We become pretty free spirits and our wallets become much looser.

Eric
Eric
11 years ago

A couple of years ago, I got angry waiting in line at the movie theater because a woman and her son were taking WAY too long to decide what to watch. They asked the cashier to explain the plot of each movie, and debated whether to see a show immediately and splurge on popcorn, or to buy tickets for a later show and go home for lunch instead. In comparison, I went to about three movies a week. The treat factor of entertainment was lost on me at that point, and I missed the beauty of “going out” to see… Read more »

Shalom
Shalom
11 years ago

@Dave @ Accidental FIRE (post 22): I have the same problem. Back when I was earning a lot less and I had a boatload of debt, my spouse & I lived frugally, wrote down every penny we spent, shopped consignment, used the library, even dumpster-dived. It all worked, just like these sites say it will. But now that the debt is gone except for a small mortgage, we have savings, and I’m earning that 5-figures a month you mentioned — well, it’s a lot harder to keep up the frugality. Using that old Your Money or Your Life “true hourly… Read more »

ThatGuy
ThatGuy
11 years ago

Watch your thoughts, they become words.
Watch your words, they become actions.
Watch your actions, they become habits.
Watch your habits, they become your character.
Watch your character, it becomes your destiny.

-ThatGuy

Abby
Abby
11 years ago

laurendc (#18) – me too! I blow $400 to $800 per month. I save 25-30% of my gross income and have zero debt, but I still feel horribly guilty about how much I spend on clothes and shoes. You could try buying vintage and/or consigning the stuff you no longer want.

Dave
Dave
11 years ago

@Shalom…Thanks for the tips. I do much of what you say. I pay myself by way of investing in the stock market..ING etc. I also try and give at least 10% to charity (thinking about upping that..). I hear you about hanging out with friends who spend a lot. My best friend makes twice as much as I do and he’s always trying to convince us to go on “quick trips” to Australia, Europe etc…it’s hard to refuse him as I know it would be fun, but I just can’t justify it! I happily drive around my fuel effecient car…even… Read more »

Shalom
Shalom
11 years ago

@Dave @ Accidental FIRE — Sounds like you’re doing much better than I am Apart from retirement accounts and a college acount for our child, we haven’t invested yet. I definitely need to do more “pay myself first.” I have one of those brothers, too, though I hope yours isn’t the jerk that mine is! I tried to help in smaller ways, back when that was all that I could afford, and he always took it and then seemed to go out of his way to let me know that he wasted what I did. It’s like he felt he… Read more »

Steven
Steven
11 years ago

@Dave @ Accidental FIRE
@Shalom

Warren Buffett has a great philosophy about giving money to the family: DON’T. He doesn’t believe in subsidizing his family with what he calls social welfare. It never ends once you start;it seems to nulify
any impetus for achievement because emotions come into play. Take Warren’s advice. You’ll be happier and, in the long run, your family will be better off.

Good luck to you both.

Anne
Anne
11 years ago

@Steven
There is some rich guy (maybe Buffett) who pays for family members to go to college. After that, not a dime. You’re on your own. Sounds fair to me.

Lois
Lois
11 years ago

Pepperdove:
Just a suggestion for easier, cooler meals. Try the crock pot. I just cooked a turkey breast in mine. Hot turkey the first day, turkey salad with some, and turkey and dumplings with the last (in the crock pot). Not bad for one turkey breast, feeding six people. I understand about the a/c, though.

Treva
Treva
11 years ago

It’s so true that having something less often makes it more of a luxury. We’ve cut our eating out to maybe twice a month — usually one fast food or delivery and another meal out. Now when we start talking about going out I start wondering which restaurant we should go to. There are so many where I am and each has something special at it that I would love to indulge in. B/c we eat out so infrequently, I spend days debating over which place we’re going to dine.

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