Strategies for how to stop spending money on unnecessary things, and instead use your income — what you work so hard on earning, day in and day out — on more of the things you want in life.
It's so great that you're wondering how to stop spending money on unnecessary things. Why? Because it means you care about making your financial life better, and you've taken the first step down that path.
I'm going to help you through how to get to the core of why you're spending money excessively, and then how to get past the bad habit.
How Do I Stop Excessive Spending
The best way for you to stop excessive spending is two fold:
- Figure out Why You Spend: What are your motivations for spending when you spend excessively? I'm not talking about spending money on groceries that you need to eat, or dental work you need done; I'm talking about finding the motivation behind why you are spending on the 10th pair of shoes this year, or the 7th online business course (when you haven't finished any of the other 6, let alone implemented them).
- Change Your Money Mindset: Then, you've got to change that mindset. We'll work on that below.
No matter what your spending mantras have been in the past (aka, the reasons why you HAVE to have x, y, AND z), I want you to repeat this new money mantra instead:
It's not what you earn, and it's not what you own. It's what you keep.
And the “what” in this case? Is money.
Though I am unsure of where I first heard the financial advice “It’s not what you earn, it’s what you keep”, every time it pops into my head I am in awe of its simplicity and truth. It is also slightly intoxicating for an entry level person in the workforce who is years away from banking good money — perhaps a large salary is currently out of my reach as I work through the ranks, but what actually counts is how much of that salary I am keeping.
It puts us all on a level playing field. Not only that, but it gives you a purpose for not spending money.
A shift to this sort of thinking would radically change things. The best example I can come up with to illustrate the difference this shift in thinking would make is in the dating world. Imagine how different dating would become if the financial metric of interest changed from how much money people make to how much money people put into savings. Suddenly Mr. $150,000-per-year-VP-Match.com-Hotshot who only banked $1,000 in the whole of 2010 would be picked over for Mr. $30,000-per-year-Nonprofit man who manages to bank $400 of his income per month.
Don’t get me wrong; the VP who makes $150,000 has the potential to offer financial security, material comfort, and savings because of his/her large income. But potential and behavior are two different things. The person who only makes $30,000 per year has a pattern of saving behavior that, in my opinion, offers much less of a financial risk.
At the end of the day, if you are merely the middle man/woman between your employer and your debtors, you've got to question why. Get behind the motivation to your excessive spending, and change it up with your new money mindset.
Bonus tip: Give your money a purpose. YOUR purpose — not someone else's.
How Can I Stop Spending Money for 30 Days?
Are you thinking about taking a no-spend challenge for 30 days?
It can really catapult your money goals, not to mention, be a catalyst in changing your spending habits.
Let me give you some strategies for how to stop spending money for 30 days:
- Remove All Temptations to Buy: This includes doing things like paying for your gas at the pump so that you don't sneak in a candy bar + coffee at the convenience store, going through a mass email unsubscribe from ALL retailers so that you don't get tempted when coupons are sent out, and DVR your television shows so that you can fast forward through product/service commercials. Also, unlink your credit card information from online shopping sites; it puts one more physical barrier in front of you + making a purchase!
- Keep Yourself Busy: You've got to keep busy. And not just busy, but engaged + enjoying your life. Otherwise, you'll think it's not worth it, and you'll start to spend your way out of boredom. Check out my list of 23 things to do instead of spending money.
- Use Up Your Resources: You'll want to do things like take the eat from your pantry challenge, read the books on your shelves you bought two years ago (my husband jokes that my reading list is 2 years long!), and complete some of those household and other projects you bought all the supplies for already.
- Use the Frugal Foundational Principle: Whenever you think you NEED to purchase something in those 30 days, go through the four-step process of figuring out whether you can use it up, wear it out, make it do, or do without! Substituting with something else really works as well.
How to Stop Spending Money Online
Let's talk about behavioral targeting, and how you can opt out of it to cut purchase temptations online.
I’m being stalked by a 6-foot suede bean bag chair.
It all started when I visited my friend Crystal. She had just finished creating a media room complete with a 100-inch projector screen and a 6-foot bean bag chair. Seeing this chair in her room reminded me of my very own black leather one that provided guest seating in my teenage bedroom, and I fell back onto it, melting into the fluff. Crystal joined me—her chair is so large that up to three adults can lay on it and not touch one another—and we talked in bean-bag-chair bliss one Saturday afternoon.
When I got home I looked up the chair on Amazon.com, half thinking about adding one to my office, our library, the bedroom…but found that it cost approximately $192. I clicked off the ad, easily tabling the idea for another time as the chair was just too much money to put towards something that was not a priority, especially because of the changes we recently made to our household.
But the advertiser was not done with me. The exact bean bag chair (size, color, pricing) began to follow me around the internet like a cyber bully. It showed up in the most unlikely places—next to my emails, as a banner on a personal finance blog…my questionable choice in furniture even made it to the front page of a major newspaper—stalking me for days. I felt like I had a bulls-eye painted across my forehead.
The thing is, people put a lot of time and effort into providing free content on the internet. I am one of them. So I completely understand the need for them to make money in ways other than by charging for content. Of course not all content is free, but providing free content and hosting advertisements is probably the most common internet business model.
In fact, you'll see ads on my blog as well (you probably already noticed!).
I am not ashamed about that, as I work hard to provide free content and am happy that it can be sponsored by ads instead of by my audience.
However, behavioral targeting takes things to a whole different level that I am not all together comfortable with.
Let’s face it, behavioral targeting is around because it is highly effective. In the example above, the advertiser was able to stalk me with the exact product I had in my mind down to the correct size and shape because they tracked and analyzed my searches and the websites I visited.
Without this method, I still would have been shown ads, but instead for things like a pair of sandals or some diamond earrings. The conversion rate would have been nonexistent since I am not an impulsive shopper. The advertiser was able to further their goals by a method called “retargeting” or “remarketing”, which essentially allows them to continue showing me targeted ads as I peruse the World Wide Web.
Sometimes behavioral targeting is a good thing, like when my credit card sends me coupons tailored to places I like to shop.
Win-win there, right?
But it can also financially handicap me, like when I found out that the airline industry might be using my information against me to increase airline ticket prices on the exact location and dates I have previously searched for (finding this out made me start to pay attention to cookies, and not the chocolate chip kind).
How to Opt-Out from Some Behavioral Targeting
I am not an IT person, but have done some research as to how consumers can opt-out of behavioral targeting.
- Clear Your Cookies: This wikiHow offers great instructions for how to clear your computer of cookies one internet browser at a time. I make a habit of doing this once every few months, and would like to warn you that unless you specify which cookies to clear, you will lose the automatic fill-ins of data that make the internet more user-friendly (such as when your computer automatically fills in your address, website, password, username).
- Block Analysis of Your Internet Habits: PrivacyChoice offers some tools to put a stop to behavioral targeting. If you have internet explorer 9 or FireFox you can install TrackerBlock. TrackerBlock will block tracking cookies, flash cookies and HTML5 objects. It also sets permanent opt-out status and sends a “Do Not Track” signal.
- Block Ads for Impulsive Shoppers: For someone who does not have a lot of discipline, behavioral targeting could become an enabler and crush your bottom line. It’s like constantly being confronted with luscious slices of tiramisu and key lime pie when you are attempting to diet. There are services out there that allow you to block sidebars from your computer where many ads are hosted. You can also work through the browser you are using for InPrivate Ad Filtering Settings (it may be called something different on your browser).
- Break Up with the Companies Connected to Your Browser: This free tool (thanks, Daniel) scans your browser and comes up with the number of companies who have enabled Online Behavioral ads on it. My scan revealed there were a total of 85 companies customizing ads for my browser. To get rid of this, you simply click on the companies you'd like to remove, or “select all” to get rid of all of them at once.
How Can I Spend Less?
I've got an entire, in-depth blog post on how to spend less money. I HIGHLY recommend you check it out.
If I had to share just three ways for spending less money, I'd share these:
- Put physical barriers between you and your spending tools
- Train yourself to spend less money
- Conduct spending audits
The details for each of these strategies (plus many more) are in this field guide for how to spend less money.
Psychological Reasons for Overspending – to Fulfill Emotional Thirst
Have you ever stopped to figure out what percentage of your purchases are made to quench an emotional thirst?
Let me explain.
I used to work in marketing and market research. It didn’t take me long to figure out how marketing works; you survey your target consumers and find out what their needs are, what their wants are, and you build these attributes into your existing product, or you create an entirely new product based upon these consumer needs and wants. From there, advertising takes over. Your concept or product is advertised, and the message hopefully gets across to your target audience.
Marketing is an extremely useful tool. You can gauge the feelings of people from surveys and focus groups. Sitting behind the dark glass and watching a moderator ask various questions and befriend their interviewee, you get to live in the life of an American Consumer, and you get to feel what they are feeling, and learn their obstacles, their needs, their wants, and expectations.
And then you relate these very intimate pieces of information to your brand, and you sell them products. That is the part that I had the trouble with; it wasn’t the part where you learn about people more intimately, because I loved that part. And it wasn’t the innovation, where you take consumer needs and wants and think up very creative and imaginative, out-of-the-box solutions, because that was very intellectually stimulating and fun. It was telling consumers to purchase a product in order to fulfill their needs and wants that I couldn’t deal with.
Even so, the knowledge that I took away from this job is just amazing. I have a much clearer perspective on business, products, how to deal with clients, how to target specific audiences, how to use my brain to solve problems. What an interesting field.
Products Do Not Solve Emotional Problems
Coming from the other side of the dark glass, I have something to enlighten you with, particularly if you are having problems with spending too much money, or with occasionally purchasing products that you do not need: products are for utility purposes and can only satisfy your lower or most basic set of needs on Maslow’s Hierarchy—warmth, hunger, thirst, shelter, and perhaps some safety aspects, etc.
Marketing attempts to take these products and use them to solve your emotional problems. Marketers know that if you can tie your brand in with some sort of emotion, then consumers will come knocking down your door to buy it. Perhaps they can bring back memories for you, or make you feel like a wonderful parent by purchasing something, or add to your seductiveness as a female or male by being associated with a certain product. But these are promises that products cannot keep once they come home with you and sit on your shelf.
Let’s look at a few examples to further illustrate some of the silly marketing and advertisements out there.
- Dove: Recognizing inner beauty starts with purchasing this soap
- Subway: Your extra weight will practically melt away if you eat at Subway for lunch each day
- Kay Jewelers: You cannot kiss anyone without first purchasing a piece of jewelry from here
- Buitoni: This pasta is part of Italian Art History; it doesn’t belong in your pot of water, but rather hanging on the wall next to Botticelli and Leonardo da Vinci
- Spice Island: You don’t need a passport to travel the world; just purchase one of these spices and it’s like you’ve all ready been there
- Discover Cashback Bonus card: If you are missing out on girl time with your friends, then you get this credit card, and poof! it will come back into your life
- Clorox Green Works: Nature has now been bottled, labeled, and is ready to help you wash your windows
- Ghirardelli Chocolate: Moments of timeless pleasure, right in the package!
- Campbell’s Green Bean Casserole: Without this casserole, Christmas is now a regular day
- Arm and Hammer Cat Litter: You no longer have to clean your house; using this cat litter will give you an odor-free home that will make you worthy of guests
- Jimmy Dean Sausage: Eating this will keep the morning sun from fading away
- Febreze candles: Purchasing these individually packaged candles will help you be kinder to the environment because they ‘burn more evenly than other brands’
- Axe Deodorants: Fellas, forget about pick-up lines, dressing nicely, conversation, or looks; you will get laid if you purchase this product
- Dos Equis Beer: This will keep you thirsty for life and adventure, well into your older years
Use Marketing as an Emotional Gauge
The next time you are in a store, and you feel some sort of emotional tie with a product, a brand, etc., ask yourself why. Read the messaging, look at the package, and figure out what it is in your own life that you are lacking, feeling self-conscious about, feeling inadequate about, or desiring. You can then use this information to enhance your own life. For example, perhaps you see Werther’s Original packaging and begin to feel sentimental….but really, deep down, this is a bigger issue dealing with you missing your family.
Walk away, and do not spend your money on the product. Instead, look deeper within yourself, explore why you are feeling what you are and get to the core of the issue. You can do all of this without purchasing that product, so save yourself the money.
How to Avoid Wasting Money
I think the better question here is: how do I avoid wasting my life energy?
Let me explain.
Perhaps you feel like your lack of savings or debt is a direct result from you not being able to earn the kind of money you'd like to. After all, it would be easier to have a fully funded emergency fund if only you were making $70,000, $80,000, $100,000+, right?
For those of us disciplined enough to harness extra earning power, of course we would save more money as our earnings increase. But the majority of folks who earn more also end up spending more, and amazingly enough find themselves still living paycheck to paycheck.
In other words, it’s not just the paycheck amount that counts.
All of us have leaks in our budget where we're knowingly or unknowingly spending more than we'd like to; it’s just a matter of whether it’s a trickle we don’t really care about or a gushing geyser that is bleeding us dry.
I want you to do a sobering exercise.
Calculate Your Money Leak
If you don’t ever take a step back and see the forest for the trees, then you might miss out on plugging some major spending rabbit holes you've been hopping down.
So, let's see how bad the problem is.
In order to quickly capture your financial history (income earned and money spent) without hours upon hours of probing, I’d like you to open up your last Social Security Earnings Statement (you can get it online with a free account here), and add up all of the income you have made in your lifetime.
Unless you have just recently graduated college, your lifetime earnings is in the six figures. Of course, this number is your gross and not your net income, meaning that it is before taxes have been subtracted out.
In fact, we need to subtract several amounts from this lump sum to get a more accurate picture of your leak.
- Multiply your lifetime earnings number by an approximate tax bracket (try 33% or 28% as an average of the years you have worked if you don’t want to figure out each year individually) and subtract them out.
- With what is left, subtract out your estimate on rent/mortgage for each year that you look at, perhaps a car payment (we’re not talking a second mortgage here — be reasonable), and an extra $7,000 per year (depending on the number of family members you have) for other “necessary” living expenses like food, gas, debts, medical, etc.
Now, take a look at your current savings account, retirement account, investment account, perhaps any home equity that you paid into (careful here, as this would be an asset only if you sold your house for a profit).
Here’s the thousand-dollar question: Where did all of your money go? Really?
That’s the first question that came to my mind when I looked at my statement, and we’re talking about a person with a frugal mindset and a hungry appetite for savings.
Wasted Life Energy
After the shock of finding out my lifetime earnings and then taking a look at my “for keeps” accounts, I just felt plain angry. We just discussed paychecks in terms of time and energy traded in exchange for money. I think back to all of the stress, the time, the energy, and the heart and soul I have put into my work over the last five years, and I feel a bit gypped.
If you're feeling this way, let me redirect your thinking.
There are always two ways to look at things. Now that you've seen the consequence of your spending decisions, let’s look at the bright side to this exercise.
You, like I was, may be shocked at all of the money you have made in your working life thus far! I don’t, and have not, earned a huge income since graduating college. In fact, my little brother who never went to college likes to tease me about how he is still making more money than I am!
Yet my number is quite impressive. Looking at your figure, think about your earning potential in the FUTURE, and how you can better harness it for your goals, dreams, and ambitions.
If you feel like you don’t make enough money, you should now feel much more optimistic and capable of making choices that will lead to a more sound financial future. Your earning potential will be critical in the coming articles, as you cannot save money that you don’t first earn.
As your income continues to (hopefully) grow over the years, with the right saving and frugal mindset, so can your saving account.
Causes of Impulse Buying
In no particular order, here is a list of what I deem to be the 7 deadly purchase sins that also happen to cause a lot of impulse buying. I'm sharing these because if you can identify it while you feel the impulse to buy something, then you can say “no” to it.
- Ideal Self Purchases: Do you ever purchase things because the type of person whom you ideally want to be, or the person who you see yourself as, would use such items? For example, I purchase a lot of tea. In my mind I can see myself enjoying cups and cups of hot tea in handmade pottery mugs all day long, curled up with a book. In reality, I drink hot tea only a couple of times per month. Most of the money I spend on tea is wasted because ideally it is what I would like to do, but in reality I know that I will not.
- Self Improvement Purchases as a Way to Self Improve: I love self improvement. Whether you want to lose weight, get yourself financially fit, be more independent, live in the present moment—these are all admirable aspirations and qualities to have. But when you purchase exercise equipment as a first step in your self improvement regimen, or umpteen number of self-help books thinking that you have begun your journey, you are wasting your money. The key to self improvement is in the first word of the phrase: “Self”. Want to lose weight? Start by looking at your diet, your exercise, emotional cravings, etc. Want to become financially fit? Analyze your bank statement and figure out where your money is going, then sit down and write some goals. Of course having equipment to help you exercise and books to seek guidance from is important, but purchasing self improvement products without actually putting in the effort is wasted money. Start with your Self.
- Status Symbol Purchases: Enough has been written on this category. Basically, when you are making a purchase, ask yourself why you are purchasing that product. If you have visions of suddenly becoming cool, of others wanting to be like you, of attracting a mate, etc., then ask yourself if you really should be making that purchase. This is especially true if you cannot afford it.
- Guilt Purchases: Have you ever bought a gift for someone because you felt bad for the way that you behaved, or because you have not spent enough time with that person and so you are trying to make it up to them by purchasing something? Don’t make the purchase, make the amends instead.
- Laziness Purchases: Some examples of these purchases could include purchasing convenience foods because you don’t make the time to cook as often as you should (my favorite being cheesecake filling in a container that came out a few years ago, where you literally just put the cheesecake filling into a pre-made graham cracker crust, and viola! Almost like homemade…), buying new instead of repairing for simple repairs, not taking care of personal belongings and thus having to replace them every season (like a rusted grill you could have wheeled into the garage), etc. Are there any areas in your life where you throw money at out of convenience? Once again, not all of these purchases are bad, but if you make a consistent habit of doing them, they will drain your bank account.
- Because-it’s-Cheap Purchases: I am a sucker for a great sale, and I love to buy bulk. But sometimes, buying an item because it is cheap does not make financial sense. In my own life some examples include a bulk package of Dove deodorants I bought after graduating college; out of the 7 extra large sticks, only three of them I could use before they expired. Another example is when I find a pair of pants that are insanely cheap, and even though they don’t fit me in a slight way (making them not my number one choice when I open my dresser each morning), I purchase them because they are so cheap. Note to self: cheap and bulk products are only helpful if you will actually make use of them.
- Obligatory Purchases: This category can include many things, such as Christmas presents for all of your family, office presents for other coworkers, expensive gifts for the boss, picking up the restaurant or bar tab for a group of friends, etc. Once again, these are all nice things, but not if you do not have the money.
How to Stop Spending Money You Don't Have
The easiest way to stop spending money you don't have is to pay cash for everything.
Cash is hard to part with. Really — it is.
To see all those greens leaving your own wallet and going towards someone else's — especially if it's for something you didn't want to pay for anyway, like a vet bill, or filling a cavity — is sobering.
It makes you think, and you need this built-in moment of pause before making purchases.
I'll leave you with one more strategy to stop spending money you don't have: the PAYGO strategy.
The US government used to have a rule from 1991-2002 called PAYGO, which basically meant that they could only spend money which they had coming in the door. Furthermore, if they wanted to increase spending, they had to come up with spending offsets through canceling other programs, bringing in more revenue, or spending less on other programs. Unfortunately this rule did not last, although there is discussion of bringing it back to try and get the deficit under control.
For you and me, PAYGO is a great concept to use. While we are paying off our debts or just in our everyday lives, PAYGO will ensure that we do not incur more debts, and that we have the money to put towards savings.
It's a North-Star concept to keep our finances on track!
A Final Thought — French People Don't Get Fat (OR Poor)
We've talked a lot about unhealthy spending habits in this article…so what do HEALTHY spending habits look like?
To answer that, I want to turn to a fun book that came out years ago about how French people don't get fat.
Author, Mireille Guiliano, French Women Don’t Get Fat, says:
“…in fact, pleasure should, as a rule, precede compensation.”
How can spendthrifts, who by definition spend lots and lots of money, not become poor? On the flip side, how can you eat anything that you want—chocolates, pastries, wine, pizza—and not get fat? It is what author Mireille Guiliano promises each of us in her book French Women Don’t Get Fat where she introduces us to a world of pleasure and indulgence without negative consequences. Intrigued?
Mireille’s experience and motivation behind writing this book was the approximately 20 pounds she gained by eating her way through a year abroad in America (the financial parallel: she went on a prolonged spending binge). In the days leading up to returning to her family and the svelte people of France she was embarrassed and ashamed…but still could not stop reaching for pastry after pastry in the style of American graceless and robotic consumption. If she wanted to fit in with her own and feel better about herself she had to change her patterns. Her quest to lose the 20 pounds led to a lifetime of culinary pleasures sans the muffin top.
As I am a person who is constantly thinking of finances and frugality I couldn’t help but see that the rules in this book can apply to personal finance as well. Think of calories as dollars and the rest falls into line. Even though some of the thoughts were shocking to my system, such as the above quote (what happened to dangling the sweet, honey-dipped carrot in front of my face as motivation instead of Ms. Guiliano’s suggestion to consume first and pay later?), I enjoy stretching my mind and challenging my principles.
Below I have outlined Mireille’s rules to ascend the stairway to heaven as it relates to personal finance — with any luck, I’ll see you on the other side.
Become Aware of Your Spending, Then Let it Go
The first order of business for Mireille was to keep a diary of her eating habits; every single morsel of pain au chocolat or crumb of bleu cheese that passed her lips was to be written down for the course of three weeks. She was on a mission to determine how she was proportioning her precious number of prescribed calories per day. In the same way, you can look at what you spend your money on. Does anything strike you as out of proportion? Are you spending more than 70% on living/surviving, and nothing on future pleasures (i.e. savings)? See what jumps out at you.
Now, get rid of the numbers.
Choose Your Proportions
This is not a diet for finances or for weight, but rather a rebalancing or “recasting” of your life in order to bring things into harmony with one another. Instead of counting calories or dollars, you simply need to wing it. You need to feel your way to a balance that works for you, to where you feel bien dans sa peau (rough translation: comfortable in your own skin). Figure out a proportion that you are comfortable with for each of the spending categories in your life (living/surviving, pleasures, future pleasures, etc.). Think of these categories as food on your plate: 1/3 salad, 1/3 meat, 1/3 potatoes, or whatever makes sense to you. Cover all of your bases, such as living expenses, retirement, and savings, but you don’t need to do so to the detriment of your pleasures in life.
Chances are you spending your money on things that you simply could care less about, like cable television or name brand shampoo. Allocate a smaller proportion to these categories (yes…even if it is your vegetable category. No judgment here). What about spending on things that you enjoy, such as the finest specimen of chocolate, or travel? Heap more on your plate for these categories (I’d like another scoop of mashed potatoes, please).
Incorporate a Checks and Balance System
When you take an indulgence, make a corresponding reduction elsewhere to compensate. This does not require deprivation—like skipping a meal or conversely going without gasoline in your car—but it does require cutting down in other areas to compensate your consumption. By mercilessly cutting spending on the stuff you don’t care about, you can carve out more money to spend on the things and experiences that give you the most pleasure. This delicate checks and balance systems will allow you to indulge without guilt (or without emptying your bank account).
Shamelessly Pursue Your Pleasures
With the money you have prioritized for pleasure, purchase good quality items and experiences. You will be purchasing a smaller quantity than you are used to, but this means that you can purchase better quality, thus heightening your pleasure. Indulge in quality wines, cheeses from the glass case, 500+ thread count sheets, pottery classes, etc. Remember, you are pursuing the best quality only of the experiences and things that you have identified as most pleasurable to you. If you could care less about sheets, then buy the 200 thread counts.
Stop Mindless Consumption
Are you finding it difficult to only pursue a few pleasures? Perhaps it is because you are mindlessly consuming things. You may not even know it. Savor is a term that has been lost on much of America. Mireille points out that the best part of any meal is only the first few bites, when your senses and tastebuds are heightened. What if you were to take the time to savor your belongings and experiences instead of treating them just as a means to an end? You don’t need two, three, or four of everything. One is often enough to give you the satisfaction you are craving.
Indulge your Senses
Indulging your senses is a core part of this regimen; after all, how can something be pleasurable if it doesn’t involve your senses? Mireille discusses the importance of indulging the senses in order to feel satisfied and to get pleasure out of whatever you do. Whatever you spend your prioritized money on, make sure you indulge at least two or three senses in order to heighten your pleasurable experience.
Over the last week or so while in Europe, I have had the luxury of time to think about my own pleasures and to reconsider their priority in my life. Some of them include (in no particular order): homemade jam, animals, praline pecans, pottery, cooking classes, yoga, and travel. Thanks to Mireille’s book, I will be incorporating these more into my life.
What are some of your pleasures? Are they a priority? Do they get sidelined because you're spending on unnecessary things?
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