Moderators and abstainers

Moderators and abstainers

When I was a boy, I told my father I wanted a fish. I meant that I wanted a little orange goldfish in a small bowl that might live on the kitchen counter, just like other kids have. My dad knew that. But instead of buying me a goldfish, he went to the pet shop and purchased a 20-gallon aquarium with a bunch of expensive tropical fish.

The fish were fun for a day, but I was seven or eight or nine years old. I lost interest quickly. The fish became more of a nuisance than a novelty. And, eventually, one of us three boys — I can't remember which — broke the tank, and then we had no more fish.

Thank you for the goldfish, Dad?

Dad was like this.

If he had an interest (or if he saw that one of us had an interest), he was “all in”. This was a part of his money blueprint. He had an invisible money script that led him to dive deep into whatever interested him, to pour money into passions. No surprise, then, that I too grew up to have a similar money script myself.

An “All or Nothing” Guy

My tendency to go “all in” manifested itself at an early age.

In third grade, I liked Star Wars. So did the other kids, of course, but I really liked Star Wars. I read every Star Wars book and comic that I could find. I begged to go see the movie again and again. What little pocket change I acquired, I spent on Star Wars trading cards (and Hardy Boys books). I was obsessed.

This tendency stuck with me as I grew older. I learned to love comic books, for instance. But it wasn't enough to buy just a couple of comics here and there. No, I had to buy as many as possible, whenever possible. I wanted them all. (Eventually, I had them all — or nearly so. By the time I sold my comic-book collection in 2013, I had acquired every Marvel comic from the Bronze and Silver Age except for a maybe a dozen key comics. Plus, I had a vast collection of D.C. comics from that era.)

Or, in college, I dove deep into astronomy. I took an astronomy class my junior year, and I loved it. Whereas some people might have continued to read one astronomy book at a time, I went crazy. I scoured local used book stores and bought all of their astronomy books. (Most of which I never read.)

The astronomy books were just part of a larger problem. You see, I loved books. I had begun to collect them. If I saw a book that sounded interesting, I bought it. This started in college but lasted well into my marriage. By the time my wife and I bought our new house in 2004, I had over 3000 books. When our friends helped us move, they groused about how many boxes of books we had (and rightly so).

“You're an all or nothing guy,” my wife once told me.

“What do you mean?” I asked.

“You don't know how to practice moderation,” Kris said. “You can't have just a little bit of something. You want it all and you want it now. Look at your books. Look at your comic books. Think of how you eat cookies or breakfast cereal or ice cream.”

She had a point. I cannot bring cookies or breakfast cereal or ice cream into the house, and I know that. If I do, it's dangerous. I eat the entire package of cookies at once. I devour the Lucky Charms over the course of two days. And don't get me started with ice cream! It's better for me to simply not have these treats in the house at all.

Instead of trying (and failing) to moderate, I choose to abstain completely.

In 2007, I agreed to meet a Get Rich Slowly reader for the very first time. Sally Parrott Ashbrook (whatever happened to her?) came to town and invited me to dinner. We talked about my inability to moderate. She offered some sage advice.

“I have a similar problem,” Sally said. “And what I've learned to do is this. I've given myself permission that if I want ice cream — if I really want it — I can have it, but I have to go get it and eat it outside the house. I have to drive to an ice cream shop and eat it there. This way, I don't feel like ice cream is forbidden. I can have it any time I want. But I can't bring it home.”

Ever since, this has been my policy with ice cream too. Unfortunately, there's no such thing as a breakfast cereal shop.

Moderators and Abstainers

In 2013, I heard Gretchen Rubin speak at World Domination Summit. In her 40-minute presentation about happiness, she introduced a concept that really resonated with me. At the 14:08 mark, Rubin talks about resisting temptation. She says there are two types of people: Moderators and Abstainers.

Here's an excerpt from her speech:

Samuel Johnson was offered wine. He declined saying, “Abstinence is as easy to me as temperance would be difficult.” Meaning: “I can give it up cold turkey but I can't have just one.”

When I read that, I thought, “That's me! I'm like Samuel Johnson.” I can have none. I could say no. But I can't stop with just one. And that's the thing.

Abstainers do very well when they have none. It's not in the house. They don't take even one french fry, then they forget about it. But once they start, they're going to have a lot of trouble stopping.

Moderators, on the other hand, feel trapped and rebellious if they're told that they can't have it. They need to know they can have it sometimes. They need to know they can have a little bit. They need to know they can have it when they want it.

So they've got a box of cookies up in the cabinet, it's getting stale and crumbly. The Moderator just wants to know it's there. The Abstainer? It's lucky if it's there the next day.

I knew right away that I too was like Samuel Johnson. I too am an Abstainer. I'm an “all or nothing guy”. It's tough for me to practice moderation.

At her blog, Rubin elaborates on the difference between Moderators and Abstainers. She says that:

  • Moderators find occasional indulgences heighten pleasure and strengthen resolve. Moderates flinch at the thought of never getting or doing something.
  • Abstainers have trouble stopping something once they've started. Abstainers aren't tempted by things they've decided are off-limits.

I am 100% an Abstainer. If I decide something — really decide and commit — I'm golden. Take alcohol, for instance. I haven't had a drink in 2020. I haven't even been tempted. Why? Because I decided that I'm not drinking right now, and I committed to that decision. But I know the moment I take my next drink, my willpower will shatter.

My girlfriend, on the other hand, is 100% a Moderator. “I hate absolutes,” she often says. “I hate saying that I can't drink — or anything else.” She too wants to drink less, but twice this year she's enjoyed a couple of beers. She can do that. It doesn't lead her to want beer every single day. (It would with me.) And, fortunately, because I've flipped the “off switch”, I'm not tempted to drink when Kim drinks.

Now, neither type of person is better than the other. They're just different.

Still, that doesn't stop Moderators from complaining that Abstainers are too rigid. Moderators say things like, “You should practice the 80/20 rule. Do the right thing 80% of the time and it's okay to indulge 20% of the time.” That doesn't work for Abstainers.

And Abstainers have a tendency to think that Moderators are “cheating” when they allow themselves an occasional indulgence. When Kim and I are strict about our diets, for instance, I'm strict constantly. I don't let myself have treats. Kim, who hates absolutes, can't do that. She eats well most of the time, but lets herself have a snack here and there.

In the seven years since I first learned this concept, I've come to realize that it's not a black and white thing. In reality, there's a Moderator-Abstainer spectrum, and each of us falls at a different place on the continuum. Plus, we tend to be Moderators in some parts of our lives and Abstainers in others. I can't moderate my ice cream consumption, but I have no problem moderating with pizza (which I also love).

Still, some people — like me — tend to be Abstainer dominant. And others, like Kim, tend to be Moderator dominant.

Here's a recent real-life example of my inability to moderate.

I enjoy a virtual card game called Hearthstone. Left to my own devices, I'd play it all day, every day. I'm not joking. And, in fact, when I was mired in depression last year, I'd often do this. I'd climb in the hot tub at, say, ten in the morning, and I'd play Heathstone for several hours — until the iPad battery died.

In December, as I was starting to get my shit together and pull out of my downward spiral, I recognized that I wasn't able to moderate my play. So, I brought my iPad here to the office and stuck it in a drawer. Occasionally, I'll take it home for a night or a weekend and I'll let myself play the game. Otherwise, it lives here.

Moderators and Abstainers with Money

Knowing where you fall on the Moderator-Abstainer spectrum can help you make smarter decisions with money.

When I was paying off my debt fifteen years ago, for instance, I had to make a rule for myself: I wasn't allowed to enter comic shops or book stores. I knew that if I did, I'd buy something. Probably several somethings. Rather than expose myself to temptation, I never let myself be tempted.

You'll notice that I still put this principle into practice.

Last year, when I decided I was buying too many movies on iTunes, I made a choice. I decided to completely abstain from the iTunes store. I knew that was the only way for me to moderate my spending. (Because, let's be clear, it didn't eliminate my iTunes spending. It simply mitigated it. If I knew a new movie was out that I wanted, I still went to buy it. But I didn't allow myself to browse for the sake of browsing.)

This is an example of using barriers and pre-commitment to do the right thing. Because I know it's difficult for me to make the “right” decision in the moment, I have to set up systems that make reduce the number of times I'm forced to decide. Using barriers and pre-commitment is an excellent way for Abstainers to make smart money decisions.

I suspect — although I have no concrete evidence — that Abstainers tend to have more difficulty with debt. I, for one, am not good with balance. I got into debt because I spent every penny I earned (and then some). I got out of debt through a similar lack of balance. Over the past fifteen years, I've managed to achieve some semblance of balance in my financial life, but it's hard. It takes constant attention and effort. It's not natural for me.

Balance is key

GRS reader Tyler Karaszewski is also an Abstainer. He once wrote: “This is why, after being in credit card debt once, I don’t even have credit cards any more, and why I’ll buy a bottle of wine instead of six, and why hobbies tend to take over all of my free time for months at a time until I switch to another one.”

If you identify as an Abstainer, I have some advice based on my own struggles in the past.

  • If you're dealing with debt, shred your credit cards. Don't use them. Limit yourself to cash and debit cards.
  • Avoid temptation. If you know that certain stores and situations lead you to spend, steer clear of those stores and situations.
  • Practice pre-commitment. Make it easy for yourself to do the right thing by automating good behavior. Set up auto billpay. Set up automatic contributions to your retirement account.

Because I'm not a Moderator, I can't offer as many money tips. (Perhaps GRS readers will chime in below?) Plus, part of me suspects that Moderators like my girlfriend and ex-wife don't struggle as much with money issues. But maybe I'm wrong.

One thing Moderators can work on, though, is to remind themselves not to succumb to the forever fallacy.

The forever fallacy is the mistaken belief that your current circumstances are likely to remain the same forever (or for an extended period of time). If you've slashed your discretionary spending in order to get out of debt, for instance, remind yourself that this situation is temporary. You won't be living like a miser for the rest of your life. Once your debt is paid off, you'll be able to loosen the purse strings.

Final Thoughts

Despite my 50-year history (nearly 51-year history!) as an Abstainer, I hold out hope that maybe I can learn moderation someday. I keep trying.

I bought a bag of potato chips last week. The old J.D. would have consumed the bag within a day or two. The current me hasn't done this. That bag of chips has sat on the desk in front of my gaming computer at home. And there are still chips inside!

Plus, I have changed in some areas of my life.

Fifteen years ago, I couldn't have a credit card. It was a recipe for disaster. Today, I have no problem using credit wisely. I set up rules for myself when I re-entered the world of credit, and I've done a good job following them. Today, I can go into a comic book store without spending anything. I can browse in a bookstore without being tempted to buy.

I doubt that I'll ever swing from the Abstainer side of the spectrum to the Moderator side. I'll never be able to practice moderation in all things. But with deliberate effort and mindfulness, I've found that it's possible to practice moderation in some things. That's good enough for me.

It occurred to me while writing this article that the reason I love a clean slate is because I'm an Abstainer. As an “all or nothing guy”, a clean slate resets me to nothing, and that's comforting.

More about...Psychology

Become A Money Boss And Join 15,000 Others

Subscribe to the GRS Insider (FREE) and we’ll give you a copy of the Money Boss Manifesto (also FREE)

Yes! Sign up and get your free gift
Become A Money Boss And Join 15,000 Others
guest
41 Comments
Oldest
Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Stephen
Stephen
7 months ago

If you over in London again, you might want to check out https://www.cerealkillercafe.co.uk/ for your cereal cravings. Some hit or miss reviews and it is more of a desert shop than just a cereal one, but the concept is real.

Jason
Jason
7 months ago
Reply to  Stephen

yes, cereal killer cafe was the first place I thought of when he wrote breakfast cereal store, haha. Great place!

Adam@MagicalPenny
7 months ago
Reply to  Stephen

I came to the comments to mention about this place too! 🙂

Jason
Jason
7 months ago

Great article, thank you. Reminds me of my Hardy Boys bringes- I’d bring 2 (or 3!) of them up into my reading tree as a kid, and sit up there all day in the branches and read them all. Good times!

If you need a cereal bar, Pappacino’s in Woodstock is an option. 🙂

Tyler Karaszewski
Tyler Karaszewski
7 months ago

Hello! Many years later, I have credit cards again, but now only use them for very specific things, like buying Alaska airlines tickets, and having for an emergency like having my debit cards get locked while traveling, which somehow still happens regardless of whether or not you fill out a travel advisory thing with your bank. I tried using them for “rewards” but found that I was spending more on them than I wanted, enough to negate the stupid points, even if I was paying them off every month. And I am also doing “dry January” this year, hah. Pretty… Read more »

dh
dh
7 months ago

As for myself, I’ve been “all in” with the keto diet lately, and I have to constantly remind myself not to make it a religion — to step back and not identify with it so heavily. There’s an almost kind of placebo effect whenever a new diet, or really anything new, is taken on, and I have to remind myself of this. As for collections, they are oftentimes just a showcase for who we think we are as a person. It’s like we’re trying to tell the world, “These are the things I identify with and that make me ME.”… Read more »

El Nerdo
El Nerdo
7 months ago

I’m an all-or-nothinger too. This is why I can’t do something like reduce calories: when I need to drop weight I’ll undertake a period of keto eating and blam, done. I can’t do it forever, but I can do it when I need to. All-or-nothing. When I exercise it’s the same thing: I go full-throttle and eventually get injured (lol). Although I’m learning moderation by sheer necessity and the reality of pain, it takes a lot of conscious effort. But beyond the self-reporting I wanted to elaborate and connect this with another idea: that for this very reason I need… Read more »

Lisa Z
Lisa Z
7 months ago
Reply to  El Nerdo

I love this advice for us all or nothing types! I get closer and closer as I age to only including in my life things that I really want to, but the “hell yeah” or “hell no” thinking would really help me because I can still waffle sometimes.

El Nerdo
El Nerdo
7 months ago
Reply to  Lisa Z

The idea comes from Derek Sivers https://sivers.org/hellyeah …and that’s the title of his (new? upcoming? something?) book. https://sivers.org/n I’ve seen some criticisms of this method for everyday life: Life is complex and not black or white, we have to make compromises, we should say yes more, blah blah, etc. Sure. Life is complex and it’s good to try something new, etc. However, at least in the original presentation of the idea, the first line is: Use this rule if you’re often over-committed or too scattered. So there’s that big qualifier that I think negates the criticisms. But yeah, for an… Read more »

dh
dh
7 months ago

I think your marijuana use may be worth searching your heart about too. I do a lot of business with various mental health facilities, and please believe me when I say these facilities are almost *entirely* filled with men and women who got there by being high and staying high.

Laura
Laura
7 months ago

I am also an abstainer. First, I think just knowing that about yourself is helpful. One thing that has helped me is a budget. Without a budget a don’t want to spend money on anything (neither realistic or enjoyable). By making a budget and including what is important to me it makes sure I spend my money where my values.

S.G.
S.G.
7 months ago

Mostly a moderator, here. Though i can resonate with “on” or “off” it’s more about mental clutter than self control.

I think moderators can wind up in a slow boil because things happen gradually. Recognizing a problem can take awhile. They won’t blow everything on comics, but being a little over budget every month seems manageable, when it’s actually quicksand.

Dave Ramsey is for you. I like him in theory, but I’m more Millionaire Next Door.

Sara
Sara
7 months ago

With food I’m an abstainer. If there is chocolate or baked goods in the house I know that I’ll eat them all eventually, so why not just eat as many as I want until they are gone? With money that luckily isn’t a problem for me, but it is for my husband. My food issues help me have empathy for his money issues.

Anne
Anne
7 months ago
Reply to  Sara

Sing it sister, this is exactly what I came to say. I am definitely a moderator with money. I have always been good with it no matter how much or little I had. But food is something else. There is never a half open package of cookies in this house or anything sweet. Can. not. stop. eating. Even if I’m sick.

PawPrint
PawPrint
7 months ago
Reply to  Anne

I used to be like that, but discovered intuitive eating. I realized that I couldn’t stop eating the stuff because I was restricting it and treating that food as “bad.” Habituation really helped. Used to love Reese’s peanut butter cups, which I would binge on. After allowing myself to have as many as I wanted whenever I wanted, I realized I didn’t even like them. I would binge eat them because I knew I was restricting them.

Travis
Travis
7 months ago

I completely resonate with this article – I’m an abstainer, my wife is a moderator. We occasionally find it difficult to balance these tendencies, especially when it comes to food. Question for you and others: how often do you “fall off the bandwagon” and are there specific techniques you use to get back on? I heard about the “what the hell” effect from the Social Psychology Coursera course – it’s the tendency to let one slip up spiral out of control. For example – you slip up on your keto diet in the morning with cookie. This leads to a… Read more »

dh
dh
7 months ago
Reply to  Travis

Well in keto, for example, you just treat the cravings with alternative foods, so that it’s not really a slip-up. I’m not aware of any “keto cookie” (although I’m sure they exist), but there is dark chocolate with peanut/almond butter, sugar-free jello with real whip cream on top, berries and heavy cream, diet soda, vodka at night instead of beer, tacos with the shell made from fried cheese, pork skins instead of chips — you get the idea. If there’s a bad slip-up one day, go with that and have fun — but just make sure you don’t make it… Read more »

El Nerdo
El Nerdo
7 months ago
Reply to  dh

I know this wasn’t exactly your point, but HELL YEAH keto cookies, you got me thinking of those, and some glorious fat bombs.

The easiest thing was the mug pie crust—you smash some almond flour with butter at the bottom of the mug. Then you pour in your (keto) pie custard and microwave.

There was pumpkin, there was chocolate, there was some sort of cheesecake… It was goooooood!

Check it out:
https://www.ruled.me/keto-recipes/dessert/

dh
dh
7 months ago
Reply to  El Nerdo

Oh man, all those sound great, El Nerdo! The closest I get to any kind of keto treat is my morning Greek yogurt and berries– to which I just started adding heavy whipping cream!

El Nerdo
El Nerdo
7 months ago
Reply to  dh

Yup, enjoy! That website is great and it helped me tons whenever I got tired of the routine.

Bella
Bella
7 months ago

Just wanted to say that this was an excellent, thought provoking article. I know it’s not really ‘new’ information – but I really enjoyed it. Thanks for writing it.

Logan Allec
Logan Allec
7 months ago

Star Wars and Hardy Boys…this sounds like my childhood as well! And I too relate to Samuel Johnson, at least when it comes to food. I know that if I buy something not-so-healthy that I really enjoy, I will consume it in short order and will immediately gain a few pounds. So I have to be an Abstainer to keep my weight under control. With finances, though, I’m definitely a Moderator!

Susan
Susan
7 months ago

Great article! I’m an abstainer as well — mostly noted in being sober for the past six years (if I have 1 glass I won’t stop until the bottle’s empty, but zero? I can do zero). It will be interesting to keep an eye on things if and when you decide your break with alcohol is over. Mainly because if you’ve got a problem with alcohol, moderation is just no fun and occupies way too much brain space. Keep us updated in that regard.

dh
dh
7 months ago
Reply to  Susan

I think part of the problem, too, is what’s considered moderate drinking according to health authorities and the government, which is two drinks a day for men and one drink a day for women. As a man, I cannot imagine drinking two drinks a day, day after day, year after year. To me, this type of “moderation” is a breeding ground for dependency. Plus, I think I would just start to feel poisoned and half-insane after awhile. Drinking just on the weekends, or a couple of times a week, is plenty for mere mortals. Most of us aren’t James Bond… Read more »

El Nerdo
El Nerdo
7 months ago
Reply to  dh

I drink a glass of wine with dinner and no problem. I don’t have to get soused, it’s just dinner. I save the cocktails for the weekend. And it’s Friday, so—cheers! However, when on keto, you’re less able to metabolize alcohol because of the altered chemical pathways in the liver. You’ll notice it… BTW wine can have very low sugar content. Sparkling wines have the lowest due to 2nd fermentation (as low as 1.5 per 5oz glass I think? I forget…) and a nice dry cab or pinot noir will have say 3.4… which depending on what you ate might… Read more »

dh
dh
7 months ago
Reply to  El Nerdo

Cheers, bro. I’m drinking a Skinny Bitch as I type this. I’m using Smirnoff tonight, which is like liquid minimalism. It smells like nothing, tastes like nothing (maybe a hint of sweetness from the corn?), no character, no flavor, no color, no texture. I like it a lot. 😉

El Nerdo
El Nerdo
7 months ago
Reply to  dh

Hahah, I’m more of a gin person, but if you like the sweet taste of nothing I wholeheartedly recommend Sobieski vodka, which is smooth and great and surprisingly cheap.

You can find said beverage at Total Wine, and the ART will take you there (red line I think? The old 766 bus?). Well worth the trip paired with a visit to nearby Trader Joe’s hahaha. Good almonds at TJ’s, and their pepitas are amazing, plus various other nuts and seeds. Oh and their wild frozen blueberries are great and cheap (bring a cold bag). Ok…

dh
dh
7 months ago
Reply to  El Nerdo

Thanks for the vodka tip, El Nerdo. I like the idea of being a connoisseur of nothingness.

Travis
Travis
7 months ago

Great article. I am definitely on the abstainer side of the spectrum. But I like to think I have moderated on alcohol. However I feel the truth is…sort of. Over the last 11 months I have isolated my drinking to 1 day a week. Basically, that means I binge drink once a week. But I further moderate my drinking another way by restricting my drinking to after about 9pm. And even further I moderate by drinking my alcoholic drink along side with my hot tea (non-alcoholic). And finally with all my obstacles in place I am finally able to use… Read more »

dh
dh
7 months ago
Reply to  J.D. Roth

Just on a funny note, I once heard drinking non-alcoholic beer described as being like “kissing your sister.”

El Nerdo
El Nerdo
7 months ago
Reply to  J.D. Roth

I’m no expert on these things, but it’s my understanding that alcohol addiction is often rationalized with notions like “I can stop if I want to” or “I can quit for Lent,” or whatever. Which are games that the addict plays to get the illusion of control over the addiction. Alcohol addiction is an opiate addiction because it causes the release of endorphins. Ultimately it’s a relief from pain. There are “healthier” ways to get a daily endorphin kick, like exercise, or (haha) hot peppers (seriously, hot peppers cause endorphin release), and also: laughing, apparently. Maybe a daily dose of… Read more »

dh
dh
7 months ago

Oh man, great points here, El Nerdo. Super great. Yeah, we all know that one guy or gal: “Nah, alcohol is no problem for me! I’ve tried it and I like it, but I can quit any time. In fact, I’ve quit two dozen times!” I still think MMM has the best solution to drinking in a healthy way — you set a LIMIT for yourself for the week, hopefully something truly moderate, like twice a week let’s say, no more than two drinks in any given day. You either stick to this limit — or be done with it… Read more »

dh
dh
7 months ago
Reply to  dh

Was meant as a reply to El Nerdo above.

Papa Foxtrot
Papa Foxtrot
7 months ago

I like to think I am a good moderator. Except for sugar. The missus and I have a hard time moderating sugar and tend to find the larger than serving size containers of ice cream we get sometimes. In the words of Jim Gaffigan, “I eat the whole container because I’m not a quitter.”

I have heard that everyone has their “addiction.” Unfortunately everyone is an abstainer for something.

Brian
Brian
7 months ago

I tend to practice both abstinence and moderation. I go hard on a few of my vices (sweets, junk food) on occasion. For example, I haven’t had pizza in weeks by now. Yesterday I had a three-course Thai meal and some pastries I treated myself to (enough to get heartburn!). But I’ll probably hold off on another feast for a while.

I have maintained a slim physique by moderating the total intake over time, despite occasional spikes.

Thankfully I don’t have any vices that are too dangerous, like drugs, so this works for me.

Chris
Chris
7 months ago

Really interesting. I’m mostly a moderator but have my non-moderate pieces: sweets, salty snacks, and books. I’m pretty moderate when it comes to money.

Can the practice of frugality be looked at this way? I grew up in a household where you just didn’t buy it unless you really needed it and you exerted extreme efort to get the lowest price. Sometimes I just like the store, or just don’t want to spend the time looking for the best deal. Maybe I buy less stuff and pay a little more for it. I like to think this is moderate frugality.

Bethany D
Bethany D
7 months ago

Thank you for explaining some differences between my Abstainer husband and my Moderating self! In my experience Moderators can have trouble two ways with finances. As you say JD, we can have trouble tightening the belt as far as it needs to go if it’s a real crunch time; or even just being content to the point of complacency as we coast (rather than pushing) towards our moderate goals. But another issue I’ve run into is the opposite situation: freezing when it is time to let loose! We can moderate ourselves right out of enjoying expensive or rare things because… Read more »

Emmanuel Chibuikem
Emmanuel Chibuikem
7 months ago

This is enlightening. I am a moderator.

shares