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.

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