This just in: Sales of bleach and fertilizer are down, but U.S. consumers can't seem to get enough of cosmetics and wine.
According to a recent New York Times article, we're also buying more shoes, handbags, premixed cocktails, and meat pies. (Meat pies? Who knew?) Cheesecake sales are up by 22%. Vacuum-cleaner bags are down by 19%.
We'd rather eat, drink and dress up than clean the house? There's news.
Continued economic doldrums mean we're comforting ourselves with sweets (again: stop the presses!) and indulging ourselves with things like purses and watches. One department-store exec said the latter may actually be a cost-cutting measure. As counterintuitive as that sounds I'm inclined to agree: When you can't afford a new wardrobe, accessorizing your existing duds can make them look different. Those who work in appearance-conscious industries know this.
(Those who are freelancers or home-based workers, please join me in a silent prayer of gratitude: Thank you, God, for making it possible for me to work in my underwear — and since I don't leave the house, it doesn't even have to be my good underwear.)
Self-control only stretches so far
Nevertheless, the article indicated that some of those splurges amount to budgetary rebellion: I've been good for six whole months! And besides, these shoes are too cute to resist!
“In a poor economy…there's only so far (that) self-control energy can be stretched,” says Kathleen Vohs, a University of Minnesota professor whose specialty is spending behavior.
In other words, you're totally normal to want more Stuff. But you're not powerless.
Meet the urge to splurge head-on. I came up with a list of five Rs (why stop at three?) to use as weapons in your war against overspending.
Note: You may not always win. And that may be okay.
The first R: Recognize the urge
Do you start twitching when you see a nail salon or a sporting-goods store? When a friend puts a shot of his new car on Facebook are you stricken with auto-eroticism? As your roommate shows off her mall gleanings do you feel overwhelmed by the desire to apply for every store credit card extant?
Welcome to the cult of the completely human. We're hunter-gatherers by nature, so it's natural to be distracted by bright, shiny objects. Oooh! Pretty! Want one! Want two!
What you don't want is unnecessary debt. Nothing takes the luster off a hot sports car like the cold reality of half a decade's worth of monthly payments. And wouldn't it be a lot cheaper to do your own nails? (Apparently some people think so: Nail-polish sales went up 10% in the past year, according to that Times article.)
Once you've recognized the urge, it's time to deal with it by considering…
The second R: Remember your plan
Why did you cut spending in the first place? Perhaps you're paring expenses to meet a specific goal, such as paying off debt or saving for a down-payment on a new home.
If the splurge you're eyening isn't moving you closer to that goal, take a step back. Take a deep breath. Take time to call a friend who will talk you down. (Don't have a splurge sponsor? Get one.) Just don't take out your credit card and notice an error in your credit report later.
It's not that you can never, ever have fun again. (More on that below.) It's that you need to pick your spots.
Then again, you may not have much of a choice. Some people choose austerity, and some have it thrust upon them by unemployment, medical bills, or a salary that's outpaced by inflation and/or the needs of a growing family. If that's you, you may be awfully sick of the pared-down life. Do any of these statements sound familiar?
- You're tired of being so good all the time.
- You're tired of saying “no” to your kids.
- You're tired of wishing that you could give your spouse the world.
My advice may sound like a trio of platitudes, but here goes:
- Sometimes, being good just stinks. But try to remember the advantages you have. Water comes right out of the faucet, and it will almost certainly not give you cholera or typhoid. You have access to food, even if it's government cheese when you'd prefer The Cheesecake Factory. Soldiers from neighboring countries don't sneak across the border to steal your stuff and try to kill you. Etc., etc. (Remember, too, that the folks who seem to have it all might be up to their hairlines in debt. Some of them might lie awake at night wondering if they can ever pay off those credit cards or fearing that a foreclosure notice will be nailed to the door the next morning.)
- “No” is hard to say. But sometimes you have to say it anyway. Hearing this word won't kill your kids. (Unless you're saying “No, I won't pay for your insulin.”) Don't send them to school in rags and don't neglect nutrition or health care. But don't go deeply into debt trying to meet every “need” dreamed up by a marketing-driven society.
- Love with your heart, not your wallet. If you love and respect your spouse and show it everyday, then you already are giving him or her the world. Or the part of it that matters, anyway.
If you're really down and out, see “Unemployed? Underemployed? Here's how to get help” for information on programs that might ease the burden.
It's normal to feel shortchanged, and it's hard to stay on the straight-and-narrow for months or years without any relief in sight. But if times are already tough, overspending won't make things easier.
Whether your simplicity is voluntary or involuntary, you still need to take the next step.
Take it from me, a slowly reforming tightwad: It's okay to meet basic needs. It's also okay to spend money on some of your wants. (I'll get to that soon. Honest.)
But to meet your long-range goals, you need to spend mindfully. Which brings us to…
The fourth R: Redirect it.
So you need or want new slacks for work, a replacement school backpack for your kid, that luscious cheesecake in the bakery window. Mindful spending will let you have these things, or something quite like them. Why pay retail when you can use frugal hacks such as:
- Thrift shops or consignment stores.
- Clothing swaps
- Social commerce sites such as Groupon or Buy With Me
- Coupons and rebates
- Discounted gift cards
About that cheesecake: Look online for inexpensive recipes, especially if they're for smaller versions. Otherwise you'll need to replace your work clothes a second time. You could also compromise by baking up something similar, such as cupcakes with cream-cheese frosting or a cheese-filled pastry.
Fun fact: Sales of “refrigerated baked goods” went up 16% this year.
Of course, you also might take the bold, bold step that is…
The fifth R: Revel in it (sort of)
To paraphrase Tom Cruise's character in Risky Business, sometimes you just have to say “what the heck.”
You, too, can have a few non-essential items now and then. You can even enjoy them! Just do it — yep — mindfully. When possible, use the frugal hacks noted above to get the most bang for your buck. But do part with a few of those bucks now and then. It's the little extras that make life fun.
Bonus: The smallest of treats will seem much more luxurious precisely because you don't indulge yourself constantly.
When overcome by the urge to splurge, think it over. Decide what, when or whether to buy. Perhaps you can do without. Perhaps you'll decide you really do need it, in which case you can find ways to meet that need without breaking the bank.
Or perhaps you'll realize that sometimes it's really okay to indulge. Man does not live by bread alone. Sometimes he needs refrigerated baked goods, too.
Author: Donna Freedman
Donna Freedman is an award-winning journalist who writes the Frugal Cool daily blog for MSN Money and blogs at DonnaFreedman.com .
Donna has lived the frugal life. She has been a college dropout, a single mom, a newspaper reporter in Chicago and Alaska, and a late-in-life university student. She has also picked tomatoes, worked on a chicken farm, managed an apartment building, inspected and packed bottles in a glass factory, babysat, cleaned houses, mystery-shopped, set type, and sold doughnuts, movie tickets, fresh Jersey produce and, when things got bad, her own blood.
While getting divorced she went back to school and helped to support a disabled adult daughter by working a handful of part-time jobs.
Donna has freelanced for numerous magazines and newspapers. Her work has won awards from organizations such as the Society of Professional Journalists, the Women's Sports Foundation, the Association for Women in Communications and the Society of American Travel Writers. A resident of Seattle, she is the mother of
one daughter, Abigail Perry â€“ whoâ€™s also a writer. Go figure.