In a recent phone conversation with my brother Brandon, I mentioned that I’m not spending money this Christmas. Generally, I’m not a big spender. When you make as little money as I have in the past, the only way to survive is to spend less. Now, out of work and living off savings for the last eight months, I don’t spend money as a rule. It’s just not wise. So I keep a little petty cash in my wallet and only pull it out for things I really need. I have a credit card and a debit card, but they stay neatly tucked away. I’ve been practicing this for months; it’s not very hard – anymore.
Brandon congratulated me on my lack of spending. He says I should write a book about it, (something he encourages me to do often), but I’m not sure I could write a book’s worth on the subject. Still, the economy stinks, the holidays are here and we Americans aren’t exactly known for our frugal ways during the holidays, so I think I could write a few helpful suggestions in two parts. First, I’ll pass along my hints on how to spend less in general. Later this week I’ll pass on some good ideas on how to give great Christmas gifts, without spending too much money. Hopefully these ideas can help you have a spendless Christmas or a more bountiful life.
How to tighten your purse strings without a painful pinch!
- Save first – Several years ago I realized that I wouldn’t save money if I didn’t save money. What I mean by that is, if I didn’t save a portion of my paycheck automatically, I would have little left to save at the end of the month. Concerned with this personal trend, I hightailed it to the bank to set up an automatic transfer from checking to savings each time I received a pay check. That move saved me thousands of dollars a year (even on a meager salary), which has been my bread and butter these last eight months.
- Stay connected to your bank account – If you can, get on-line access to your bank account so you visually see your spending as you spend. If you watch your spending numbers go up while your income stays the same (or for many of us, decreases), you should feel unnerved, concerned or even sick to your stomach. Your conscience should give you a kick toward curbing your spending. If not, it’s time to ask for accountability.
- Shop carefully – One, short sentence trained me to be a conscientious consumer – “Do I need this?” I walk around the store with the desired items in my cart. Then I take an extra lap around the store staring at each of the items and ask myself, “Do I need this XYZ?” I ask this about each of the items and then return the ones I don’t need before I get to the checkout lanes. Like any other human being, I occasionally splurge but I limit unplanned purchases to under $20. (When I’m unemployed I don’t make unplanned, unnecessary purchases.) If you don’t trust yourself to follow through, then take along a friend who knows your new rules and can help you make good choices.
- Don’t shop – There is no better way to spend less than to avoid temptation. Typically, I do not sit around and think about all the things I want but don’t have. Getting to that good place, I think, is a result of limiting my visual encounters with things. I haven’t been to a mall in months. When I watch TV, I either fast-forward through the commercials or mute them and read a few pages of a book. I don’t cruise on-line retail sites and the only stores I visit are the post office and the grocery store. When I limit my exposure to things, I just don’t crave them as much.
- Explore cheaper or free alternatives to what you want – Ever heard of a library? I promise you, they are not as archaic as they sound. In fact, they are accessible, offer a ton of events, programs resources and have things we all enjoy like newspapers, magazines, books, CDs and DVDs. All for free! I love books and reading. If I could survive off the written word alone, I would. But the fact is I can’t afford to buy a copy of every book I’m interested in, so I go the library. This means I have to wait for books that are well-known, but in the meantime I discover new authors and subjects and styles. I’m saving money and expanding my brain. Whatever it is you can’t live without, use your imagination and think of ways you can get them cheaper or free.
- Give away your money – If you have a steady income but feel caught in the saber-toothed trap of consumerism, a great way to change your habits is to give your money away. A common practice for Christians is giving 10% of our income to a need or an important cause as an act of thankfulness to God for being our ultimate and real provider. I’ve given to homeless shelters, women’s domestic violence shelters, relief workers and organizations, to local churches, charities and to people in need. When I give, it’s a physical act of opening my hands to the world around me and a symbolic act of acknowledging people and things that are more important that my needs or desires. Giving money to something good is rewarding because it keeps my life in perspective. So I tithe, then save, then spend on my needs and then spend a limited amount on my wants. This way I remain healthy, satisfied and debt-free, even while I’m unemployed.