How Not to Buy Too Much
Creating a budget is a lot like going on a diet. You begin full of hope and enthusiasm. Every pound lost is a victory. You probably tweet it while you're still on the scale.
Then the excitement starts to wear thin, so to speak. You're still hungry after meals. Weighing portions becomes a chore and you resent limiting yourself to the "lean choices!" side of the menu. And oh, do you miss your old friends Ben and Jerry. (Carrot sticks are not the same as Chubby Hubby.)
With luck you find balance, i.e., eating sensibly most of the time and splurging on the occasional slice of cheesecake. But until you've mastered healthier habits, you need to avoid those all-you-can-eat buffets (to say nothing of the "lard choices!" side of the menu).
Changing the way you spend isn't that different from changing the way you eat. You need to learn financial balance — spending wisely most of the time and treating yourself to the occasional Ferrari. Until then, you need to stay out of the mall and away from online shopping sites.
I've heard some interesting suggestions about how to cut spending. My favorite was from a woman who admitted to being a quart low on willpower. Her solution to impulse buying? She taped her credit card to the back of a huge, heavy dresser and had her boyfriend shove it against the wall. The woman couldn't even budge the armoire on her own. Problem solved.
If that strategy won't work for you, how about these?
1. Make your money inaccessible
Once you've made your plastic hard to reach, treat your cash the same way: Put it in an online bank, which means at least a 48-hour wait for withdrawals. (Bonus points for doing it as laddered CDs.) Of course you should keep some liquid funds in case of emergency, but why not put most of them in a checking account without an ATM card? Having to go to the trouble of writing a paper check to the cute-shoes emporium or the hot-wings place might temper impulse buys. (So might the fact that fewer and fewer places are taking checks these days.)
2. Give yourself an allowance
And feel free to spend it — but when it's gone, that's it. If you want a bigger-ticket item, save up for it.
3. Say "maybe later"
Start an online wish list and look at your sparklies instead of buying them. Think about saving up for them. Also, tell people who like you an awful lot about this list, for birthday and holiday purposes.
4. Try a petite splurge
See a delicious-looking cake? Ask if it comes in cupcake form. Grouchy because you can't afford a vacation? Join a social buying site and watch for spa deals; a few hours of pampering for $40 beats a weekend in wine country and its corresponding financial hangover.
5. Calculate the real-world cost
Suppose that daily coffee-and-bagel habit works out to at least $25 a week. How many hours of work does that translate to, Mr. or Ms. Underemployed? (Specifically, how many Gap shirts do you have to fold per sip of overpriced java?) For extra credit: What could you do with an extra $100 or more a month? For heaven's sake, get a travel mug and keep some bagels in the freezer.
6. Wait, wait and, oh yeah, WAIT
Those must-have shoes or fishing lures or whatever it is you think you want? A week later you might not care. Then again, you might, which is why you should…
7. Buddy up
Make a pact with your spouse/partner: Henceforth and forevermore, decisions on anything more expensive than a box of condoms (a purchase you should never begrudge) will be mutual decisions. Unattached? Get a friend, or more than one friend, to talk you down from the "hot deals" site. There's a variation on this system, called…
8. The three-strikes rule
You must discuss and/or physically handle a prospective purchase at least three times before you can actually buy it. This gives the scales a chance to fall from your eyes, i.e., you may realize that the skirt isn't that cute. (Bonus: If you eventually decide to buy, the item may be on sale. Maybe even on clearance, if you've dilly-dallied sufficiently.)
9. Don't buy it — TRY it
If possible, borrow the item you crave. One of my prizes for being on the game show "Jeopardy!" was a video camera, which was an expensive item back in 1991. Frugal friends borrowed it to film their kids' birthday parties. Or how about renting? A four-hour contract on a power washer could help you realize you really wouldn't use it often enough to justify a purchase.
Is there a Freecycle chapter in your area? How about the "free" section on Craigslist? An online swap site? Or put the word out among friends and co-workers that you're looking for a sofa or an exercise bike or a wading pool — somebody might be anxious to ditch one.
11. Interrogate each purchase
Run all potential buys through the following filter:
- Do I really need this?
- If I get it, will my life be significantly improved?
- If I don't get it, will my life be substantially diminished?
- Do I already have something that will suffice?
It's up to you what you buy. But being cautious about how you buy may keep your life free of clothes you don't wear and gadgets you rarely use.
Just as a diet doesn't mean you can never enjoy food again, a budget doesn't mean that you can never buy again. But it's probably smarter to buy a cupcake than a layer cake.
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