A year-long spending moratorium

While walking the dog last weekend, Kim noted that I've been getting a lot of packages in the mail lately. “What's up with that?” she asked.

I sighed.

“Remember how we shared that bottle of champagne on New Year's Eve?” I said. “Well, that got me buzzed enough that I sat down at my computer and ordered a bunch of used books. Mystery novels and manga. So, those are starting to filter in.” That's right. I got drunk on New Year's Eve (because I no longer drink regularly, I've become a lightweight) and ordered old John le Carré paperbacks and Lone Wolf and Cub compilations from ABE Books. I lead an exciting life, my friends.

“Don't you have enough books?” Kim asked.

“Honestly, I do,” I said. “And I haven't read half of them. I haven't watched half of the movies I've purchased. I haven't read half of my graphic novels.”

“You only wear about half of the clothes in your closet,” Kim added. We stopped to let the dog dig in the ditch. Tally was certain she smelled a rodent and was desperate to find it.

“Right,” I said. “I know I'm not the only one who does this, but that doesn't mean I like it. I feel as if I ought to take a break from buying new stuff and just work through the books and movies and clothes I already own.”

“I feel as if you ought to do that too,” Kim said, laughing. Then Tahlequah saw a deer in the neighbor's field, and our conversation was forgotten in the ensuing excitement. Bark bark bark! Deers are evil.

A Spending Moratorium

During the fifteen years I've been writing about personal finance, I've read a number of stories from folks who've elected to do a “buy nothing” year or a “no spend” year. Although I've always viewed these spending moratoriums with interest, I've never considered doing one of my own until now.

After my conversation with Kim, though, I've decided it would be a useful exercise. But what rules should I set for myself? How long should the spending moratorium last? What should it cover?

To answer these questions, I need to be clear on the purpose of this spending hiatus. My goal is to spend less money, yes, but more importantly I want to appreciate the things I already own. I want to use them. And I want to bring less Stuff into the house. Plus, I want to break the conditioning that makes me believe that I have to own everything that looks interesting.

Money is one part of the equation, but only one part. This project would be more about adjusting my psychology, my mindset.

In a way, I'm approaching this project as if I were going on a “money diet”.

As of today, I'm exactly two weeks from the end of my actual diet. Since July 28th, I've lost 28.5 pounds. I have a pound and a half to lose in the next fourteen days to meet my goal.

I've lost this weight through simple calorie counting. Nothing else. I track the calories I consume and the calories I burn. I try to maintain a gap between the two. This means that I need to be mindful about everything I put in my mouth. (I ate a 350 calorie donut as I started writing this article. It wasn't worth it!)

I'm trying to think of this spending moratorium as something similar. Or at least as something that flexes the same mental muscles. It'll require the same sort of discipline.

Because I'm already channeling a lot of willpower to maintain my calorie deficit, I'm going to delay the start of my spending moratorium until I'm finished with the diet. I don't want to create unnecessary difficulties by focusing on two things at once.

My Spending Rules

Because my diet ends (or should end) on January 29th, I think February 1st makes a great date to start the spending moratorium in earnest. In reality, I'm already trying to adhere to it. But my official spending hiatus will run from 01 February 2021 to 31 January 2022.

So, the timeline is easy to pick. It's more difficult to decide what kind of spending this project applies to.

I don't have the same spending issues that a lot of other folks do. I'm not tempted to pick up fancy coffee. I hate malls. I don't like shopping for clothes. I rarely want to eat out for breakfast or lunch. (Dining out for dinner is an issue, though.)

My trouble areas are media and tech. I like new gadgets. (I'm typing this on a brand-new M1 Macbook Air.) More than gadgets, I have this bizarre compulsion to own each and every book or song or movie that interests me whether I have immediate plans to consume the media or not. This is so dumb, yet it's how I operate.

As a result, the rules for my personal spending moratorium might be different than the rules you'd set for yourself. Here are the guidelines I currently plan to adopt. (This might change by the time I start in February.)

  • No new technology. None. Not even for business. (I tend to rationalize tech purchases by telling myself they're for the company — which they are — but that's not really an excuse to upgrade things that still work just fine.)
  • No new comics, manga, or graphic novels. None. I sold my comic book collection a few years ago, but I still have plenty of comics material I can read when the mood strikes. There's no need to buy more.
  • No new movies or TV shows. None. I already have something like 800 movies in my iTunes library, plus a few dozen TV series. Plus, we subscribe to Netflix and Disney+. There is zero need for me to buy new movies. (For films like Dune, which I'm eagerly awaiting, I'll need to go to a theater or catch it on streaming or wait until the moratorium is over.)
  • No new books except for those specifically required for my work. I'll allow myself to purchase a book if it's needed to write an article or to do research. But I don't want to stretch things here. I have to legit need it to get the project done. Otherwise, I have plenty of financial reference books. And I have scores of unread mystery novels and sci-fi books for leisure reading.
  • No new furniture, yard tools, or other household items. This area isn't really a weakness for me, but I want to explicitly exclude these items from my spending. That said, there are two projects I'll allow spending on this year. First, we need to fix the rot and/or foundation problem under the bathroom. Second, I'm okay spending a few hundred dollars to complete our “Japanese garden” area. (Most of that spending will be on gravel!) But nothing else.

As you can see, my spending moratorium targets my natural tendency toward acquisitiveness. It doesn't address spending on experiences. That's for two reasons.

First, I'm not spending much on experiences (vacations, restaurants) at the moment thanks to the coronavirus pandemic. It's not even an option. If things change and experiential spending because tempting once more, I'll revisit this.

Second, I don't feel like I overspend on experiences even during normal times. (Yes, restaurants are an issue, but I'm aware of it and working on it.)

Even with these guidelines, there are some grey areas. Take fitness, for instance. Now that I'm nearing the end of my weight-loss journey, it's time to get serious about exercise. I have a nice bicycle and I plan to ride it for aerobic activity. But I also want to build some muscle. I don't want to join a gym. I'm tempted to purchase some free weights off of Craigslist. But would this violate my spending moratorium? Should I simply make do with the dumbbells and kettlebells I already own?

I don't have an answer.

One solution might be to implement a rule where I'm required to consult Kim for any purchase like this. I could have a default “no” position on my problem areas, then for everything else I'd double-check with her in order to verify the worthiness of any given purchase. This seems sensible, but I haven't decided what to do yet.

After years of talking about it, this is the year I'll be letting go of my season tickets to the Portland Timbers. Kim thinks I should keep the tickets and simply sell them game by game. “You may end up regretting that you gave up your seats,” she says. “If you keep the tickets but sell them game by game, you always have the option of attending. And you get to keep the seats in case you change your mind.” We'll see. For now, though, I plan to give them up.

My Spending Plan

Setting goals and intentions is a great start. Deciding to change is the first step to change. But deciding isn't enough. For me to succeed, I know that I need to have a plan that ensures success.

With my current weight loss, it wasn't enough to simply say, “I want to lose thirty pounds.” I had to devise a strategy to do so, a strategy that I knew I could follow. I stopped keeping treats in the house (except for fruit-based popsicles, which have been my one cheat these past six months). I stopped buying alcohol. When I felt myself wanting to overeat, I deliberately made myself sit in the hot tub for an hour or two. (Such a sacrifice, I know.)

These little changes of habit (and others) have been effective. I haven't adhered to them without fail, but I've done so maybe 95% of the time. That's enough to see great results.

Based on past experience, I know that I need to employ similar restrictions in order to succeed with my spending moratorium. As far as possible, I need to avoid temptation.

I spend when sad or stressed.

Here are some of the changes I intend to make:

  • Stop browsing shopping sites simply to kill time. I'm not sure why I do it, but about once per week I'll find myself browsing Amazon or Apple or ABE Books for no other reason than to look at all of the things I don't own yet. This is so, so dumb. It has to stop.
  • Stop reading blogs that highlight new stuff. Right now, I read MacRumors every single day. I browse a couple of comic book blogs. Every week, I check for new releases on the iTunes store. I subscribe to subreddits like /r/DidntKnowIWantedThat that. These habits need to be put on hold. They tempt me to spend.
  • Stop spending to self soothe. Like many others who have spending problems (whether present or in the past), I have a tendency to buy things in order to make myself feel better. [Reddit Meme. Which subreddit was that? Poverty finance?) I'm much better at this than I used to be, but I still do it sometimes. Because both the end of my diet and and springtime are approaching, I hope to switch to exercise as a source of self-soothing.
  • Start using a wish list. Even with these rules in place, I know there will be many, many times this year that I find things I want to buy. I'm going to keep a text-based wish list of these items (not a wish list on Amazon). When the project is over, I can review the list to see if I still truly want any of these things or whether they were passing fancies. (This would basically be a variation of the 30-day rule to control impulse spending.)

I'll probably think of other strategies I could use to keep myself in check during this exercise. Plus, I'm hoping that you folks will chime in with tips and suggestions. Basically, I'm trying to follow my own advice: Build barriers between yourself an bad behavior while removing barriers between you and doing the right thing.

So, that's my plan.

Starting February 1st, I'll undertake a year-long spending moratorium intended to reduce my consumer habits. This is less about the financial benefits of such a project (although I welcome those) and more about the psychological benefits. I'm curious to see how it goes. If my current diet is any indication, things will be great for long stretches — but there will be days I'm sorely tempted to “cheat”.

More about...Psychology, Spending Wisely

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Melissa
Melissa
3 months ago

My neighborhood started a “Buy Nothing” Group on FB and that has been a boon for me and my spending and great for community building. I have met so many neighbors. You can ask for things you want or post things. The difference from CL or other free boards is that you have to live in the neighborhood to join the group- so it is very quick to pick-up or drop off items. It has also been fun to see the items that get a lot of interest- like plants and specialty pantry items. For example, “I didn’t like this… Read more »

Steveark
Steveark
3 months ago
Reply to  J.D. Roth

I’m not sure I understand your motives. Money and diet are mostly completely different concepts. If you are overweight you need to consume less, if you are not overweight then there is zero reason to count calories. You are eating exactly the amount you need. Going on a diet would make no sense. If you are going broke or unable to fund the things in life you value then you need to spend less or earn more. If you are happy and meeting all your financial goals and commitments then you are spending exactly what you should. There is no… Read more »

Sheila
Sheila
3 months ago
Reply to  Steveark

I’m getting that he wants to reduce consumption because he already has plenty. I find that an admirable goal.

Steven M Cousins
Steven M Cousins
3 months ago
Reply to  Sheila

I get that, like I say, we could spend much more but it doesn’t add value so why do it?

Donna Freedman
Donna Freedman
3 months ago
Reply to  J.D. Roth

Never too late to join a new Buy Nothing Facebook group! I double-dog-dare you to sign up.
For those who don’t know anything about this wonderful use of social media:
https://donnafreedman.com/need-something-buy-nothing/

Olga
Olga
3 months ago
Reply to  Donna Freedman

Any alternatives for those who don’t use social media?

Elizabeth
Elizabeth
3 months ago
Reply to  Olga

Freecycle is an alternative. You have to join but it’s free and not part of facebook. I haven’t used them yet but intend to give it a try.

Torrie @ To Love and To Learn
Torrie @ To Love and To Learn
3 months ago

I’ve really been enjoying the content you’ve been putting out so far this new year—I’ve found both this and the “start where you are” posts to be so motivating. So this is just to say thank you for inspiring me, and I wish you all the best in the new year!

Raven_Smiles
Raven_Smiles
3 months ago

I’m excited for this and really interested to see where this takes you. I did a year of no spending in 2018 and it was very helpful. I paid off all credit cards that year and paid off student loans in 2019. I really did it because I thought that I was mindlessly spending. Buying books whenever I saw them (despite having 20-50 unread on my shelf), same with clothes. But also saying yes to every invite to go out to eat, drink, etc. I want to try to revisit it this year but don’t know quite how to accomplish… Read more »

Amanda
Amanda
3 months ago

I also have a problem with book purchasing. After one conference I had to buy a cheap suitcase to haul home all the books I bought in those couple of days. Last fall I went through my books and donated any that were cheap paperbacks I would never read again (over 300 books were donated!). I kept technical books and some reference materials. Now I am going shelf by shelf through all the stuff that remains. Any unread books from that shelf I set onto the floor in a pile that is very much in the way as a reminder… Read more »

Shad Sup
Shad Sup
3 months ago

I’ve significantly reduced my impulse spending with a simple “24 hour” rule. If I want something, I have to email it to myself (Subject: Purchase: Awesome Shirt). It has to staty in my inbox for 24 hours before I can buy it. If it does, then I have no guilt in purchasing it. I have a daily todoist email reminder that I get every morning at 7AM with the Subject: ” Delay All Purchases 24 Hours”. I get this email every day and it is a “to do” item I check off to enforce the habit. This has reduced my… Read more »

Nicole Rule
Nicole Rule
3 months ago

I’ve been planning to do this myself after reading Cait Flanders “The Year of Less.” I’m totally in. I’m still working on my guidelines for it. But thanks so much for the inspiration and accountability! I’ll be checking back in regularly!

One Frugal Girl
One Frugal Girl
3 months ago

Hi JD, I am a minimalist at heart so I am cheering for you and your spending moratorium. It sounds like you might be bringing items into your home that you aren’t using. Many years ago I made a rule about books in my house. I couldn’t buy a new book until I finished all of the ones I already owned. I couldn’t buy a new shirt until I wore all of the ones I owned, etc. When I looked at my possessions this way I realized I just didn’t need more of them. I already had more than enough.… Read more »

Josh
Josh
3 months ago

Oh wow, this is awesome! It’s given me motivation to think about areas that I mindlessly spend. I don’t think there are many, but I’m going to find out. Maybe by me going through this exercise I’ll motivate other members of my family who do a bit more mindless spending than I.

Susanna
Susanna
3 months ago

Sounds like you are wanting a depth year. I read about the depth year a few years ago. It’s something I long to do but I always seem to fall into old habits. I think it’s the thought of a year that’s hanging me up – so I’m shooting for some depth days. Hopefully they will eventually become more and more regular.
https://www.raptitude.com/2017/12/go-deeper-not-wider/

JoDi
JoDi
3 months ago

Looking forward to following along with your experiment over the course of the year! I am currently doing a month of “no takeout food” except for our regular pizza night on Friday. I’m removing barriers to achieving this goal by planning our weekly meals (including my weekday lunches) each weekend and keeping a couple of emergency meals in the freezer for those days when “life happens” and I don’t feel like cooking. It’s too easy for me to give in to the urge to pick up takeout after a tough day at work so knowing I have a quick meal… Read more »

David @ Filled With Money
David @ Filled With Money
3 months ago

Buy nothing moratorium, that’s very interesting. For me personally, I spent very little on fun for the past year and I’m thinking that 2021 will be the year I let loose and go out with my spending. But because I’m a personal finance fanatic at heart, we shall see. Interesting experiment.

Joe
Joe
3 months ago

Good luck on the no spend year. I think it’ll be pretty hard. Last year, I ordered a bunch more stuff than usual too. That’s what happens when you’re stuck at home all the time. This year, we plan to spend much less. We already have everything so replacement only.
Great job on losing weight. That’s a lot of work!

Amy Rutherford
Amy Rutherford
3 months ago

When we FIREd in 2015, we cut $6,500 from our MONTHLY spending. Insane. Now, most of that was significantly downsizing our home but we were both unconscious consumers. Tim sounds like he was similar to you…gadgets and tech, books and movies. He cut most of it out, even more when we became full-time nomads. I’m surprised you haven’t mentioned your public library! Those reference books you might need? Borrow them. Request an interlibrary loan if your library doesn’t carry them. Our former library had microscopes, sewing machines, Go Pros available. In our current Texas spot, the public library provides free… Read more »

Adam @ Minafi
Adam @ Minafi
3 months ago

What calorie counting app/website are you using? After trying a ton of them, I’ve been using LoseIt for the last month and have already shed a few pounds. Nice to hear that same mindset works long term if I stick with it! I’ve done a ton of these behaviors as well – organizing massive music and book collections, purchasing to use later. It’s a tough cycle to break. One thing that helped me was switching from “owning” to “borrowing”. Getting books (even graphic novels) from the library, switching to Spotify for music, using Libby to borrow audiobooks, asking friends to… Read more »

Last edited 3 months ago by Adam @ Minafi
rh
rh
3 months ago
Reply to  Adam @ Minafi

Just wanted to say Thanks for the LoseIT app info. I downloaded it and think it’s great. Within a day or so I immediately changed my eating habits.

Adam @ Minafi
Adam @ Minafi
3 months ago
Reply to  rh

Wow, that’s awesome! It’s nice that there’s a free trial for it too, before signing up for the year. It’s amazing how much a well designed app can help to stay on track. I just hit 28 days in a row – something I’d have no idea about if not for lose it’s gamification (which I usually can’t stand, but they do it seldom enough that the feedback helps).

veronica
veronica
3 months ago

Here’s my suggestion: If you have your credit card “on file” with Amazon or one of the other sites where you regularly purchase, delete it. Make yourself actually walk to wherever your credit card lives, pull it out and manually type in the numbers each time you want to make a purchase. It’s just one more little inconvenience that throws up a bit of a barrier between you and your purchase. If you want a bigger barrier, let Kim hang on to your credit cards so that you have to go and ask her for them in order to make… Read more »

Ringo
Ringo
3 months ago

I’ve been doing “replacement only” purchasing for about a year and a half. Other than groceries, I only buy stuff if an existing possession is a goner and I know it’s something I use and get value from, such as when my coffeemaker died. I started when I realized how much of the stuff I’d bought was a waste. Not needed, used or enjoyed. Dumb consumer mindlessness. The best way to go about it is to not shop — don’t browse, don’t go into stores or their websites, don’t read reviews. Avoid commercials, ads, and shows with a lot of… Read more »

Deb
Deb
3 months ago

paperbackswap.com You post a book and if someone picks it, you get a point. Then you pick a book (many thousands of books available) and you choose a book. Someone picks your book and you pay postage. You choose a book and the mailer pays postage. Over the years we’ve posted many books and mailed many books. Right now we have 160 points which means we posted many more books than we chose. So we have 160 points or 160 books we could choose postage free. Best deal we’ve ever found.

Anne B
Anne B
3 months ago

As always JD, I love how you explain your thought process about this issue. Lots of us do some “retail therapy” to self soothe. Just because you can afford it doesn’t mean it is the right coping strategy. I just wanted to add a big NO vote to using Kim as your spending police. That is a sure road to resentment then you will need some other form of self-soothing. I think that would be very counterproductive to the changes you are going for. Best of luck with this and all your healthy growth.

zzzzzz
zzzzzz
3 months ago

Is there a Freecycle group, or something similar, in your area?
My guess is there are always people cleaning up their homes, perhaps even more than usual during the pandemic, who are looking to get rid of books. You might be able to satisfy your desire for more books without spending any money, and also be doing some people a favor to boot!
Perhaps you can find such opportunities through Craigslist.
There are also a bunch of e-books available for free for Kindle.
And of course there’s the public library, although that doesn’t address your acquisitive desires.

Elizabeth
Elizabeth
3 months ago

I like the idea of a spending moratorium. In my case, it’s books, DIY electronics and project stuff, clothing, and tools that are the big items that I need to stop buying.I’m only going to commit to the first 6 months this year since I’m planning on retiring sometime this year and hope to take some trips in the last half of the year.
It will be interesting to see how this goes. One thing that I’m NOT going to stop spending on (and may increase) is charitable giving.

Other Sue G
Other Sue G
3 months ago

Amy knows — your public library! I once had an apt in the same building as a branch of city library. No more excuses. So I made a rule: I could only purchase a book or DVD if I borrowed it from the library first and loved it so much I needed to own it too. At first I needed extra incentive to not buy books and DVDS (super ingrained habit!) and gave myself one dollar in a jar for every item I borrowed from library; that was “mad money” I could spend on anything, including books and DVDs. As… Read more »

Morgan
Morgan
3 months ago

I just came back from living 3 months off the grid in Mexico, where I had no delivery address and therefore no way to buy most anything I like at the click of a button. Since I’ve moved back, I’ve had to recreate a household worth of stuff, and I hold myself to the same standard as when I lived off the grid: would I drive 3 hours to buy this item? Will it make my life that much better? At different times in my life, I’ve made different rules for myself for shopping: I’ll leave my wallet at home… Read more »

Cody
Cody
3 months ago

I have an idea for your strength training vs. spending… What if you set benchmarks for yourself on the habit/practice of your fitness, then used those benchmarks to “earn” a purchase? This way, you will be developing the workout habit before you get the equipment, helping to safeguard against buying toys that will never be used. Perhaps you could set a schedule of bike/cardio/mobility days (remember mobility JD!) and a schedule of strength/crosstraining days. Then, once you have 20 strength workouts you get to buy a rack, 20 more you get a barbell, 20 more you get weights, etc… This… Read more »

Emily
Emily
3 months ago

So in general, I found Marie Kondo a bit extreme, but she had a good approach for books. It’s been a while since I read her book, but what I remember is the concept of a “hall of fame.” If a book doesn’t belong in your personal hall of fame, you shouldn’t keep it. Her approach obviously relates to clutter, not spending. But I think this thinking could definitely be transferable to spending, if you adopt the mindset that books/media should be consumed and passed along (sold/donated/gifted), because your home is only for “hall of fame” books.

SharonW
SharonW
3 months ago

I’ve approached spending limits from the other side: zero waste. It started with just wanting to change to a smaller trash bin (my city charges based on size), and now I’m all in to not generate trash. The first effects were in the kitchen and changed how I cook. No more processed food at all. Local,non-packaged produce, cooking from base ingredients that are bought in bulk in reuseable containers. It improved our diet, and we got our trash down to one tall kitchen bag every two weeks. As time went on, we stopped buying things that shipped in plastic packaging,… Read more »

Donna
Donna
3 months ago

I’ve tried “no spending years” and “no spending months” and always end up quitting because the temptations drive me to distraction. I realized that it is not enough for me to avoid spending, I have to somehow figure out how to desire less. Yes, I would cancel magazine subscriptions, get off catalog mailing lists and unsubscribe to email blasts. Yet the overwhelming temptations would creep in. If you find some method to train your brain to desire less, please share. Or a link to an online support group.

Last edited 3 months ago by Donna
Jess M
Jess M
3 months ago

I did a “no buying” year in 2018. I could go grocery shopping, replace what I ran out of, and buy things that my son needed, but I unsubscribed from all of the shopping newsletters I was getting, unfollowed folks on Instagram who promoted their own products, stopped browsing the Sephora sale section just to see what I didn’t know I wanted until that moment, and didn’t buy any new clothes. A lot of people had interesting reactions: my mom thought I was missing out when I was in a store with her and my sister so my sister could… Read more »