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.

10. Scavenge

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.

Donna writes the Living With Less column for MSN Money, posts weekly at Smart Spending and also has her own site, Surviving and Thriving. More great articles from Donna:

Additional photo credit: MSN

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Guest's picture

Or just stop having sex and you won't even need to purchase condoms!

Donna Freedman's picture

@Strawberry Lady: If it were that easy, everybody would (not) be doing it.

Guest's picture

I especially like 1, 6, and 9.

1. I like because I think it's great to create good barriers and tear down bad barriers. By creating a barrier to getting to your money (making it more difficult) you're less likely to spend it! Great!

6. We love living in the moment, and as a result we often make stupid financial decisions. By giving yourself the time to think it over, we'll often realize that it's not necessary, or that "the moment has passed." There's nothing wrong with spontaneity but there are always frugal ways of being spontaneous.

9. I think this is a great idea. The spin that I especially like is the idea of borrowing things from friends. It ends up being mutually beneficial. It can help your friend by knowing that they're able to help you out (maybe a favor they can cash in on sometime in the future), and it helps you out because you didn't have to spend money. Win win for everyone!

This is a great list.

Guest's picture

Thanks for making me think twice about my spending habits! I really needed to read I just have to put these pointers into practice when I get the urge! Because frivolous spending really adds up!

Guest's picture

Some types of splurging don't even have to throw off your budget. Craving a new book or dvd? Local libraries are getting better at stocking the newest DVD's and are, as always, a great resource for, ahem, books. For me, just going out and picking up something tangible is a great way to avoid impulse spending.

Guest's picture

Another Great post Donna. I love your stuff and have your MSN commentary index on my Bookmarks!

Donna Freedman's picture

Thanks, Miguel. I hope you'll bookmark my new site, too:

Guest's picture

Ask yourself one question with BRUTAL objectivity:

Do I really need it?

Guest's picture

These are great tips, especially the one about vacations! And that's really cool that you were on Jeopardy! I take the college test every year so maybe you'll see me on there soon.

Donna Freedman's picture

Creditshout: Thank you for your kind words.
As for "Jeopardy!" -- everyone else will see you but I won't because I don't have a TV.
Good luck, though. And if you don't have much time to do research, at least page through "The Dictionary of Cultural Literacy." You never know when they're going to ask you for Hephaestus' Roman name.
(It's "Vulcan.")

Guest's picture

(Specifically, how many Gap shirts do you have to fold per sip of overpriced java?)

Way to shame retail jobs, Donna. You could have done without that line.

Donna Freedman's picture

@Cidre: No shame in retail. I was merely trying to put things in perspective. If you're working for $8 an hour, "little" treats cost a big chunk of your salary.

Guest's picture

I didn't feel "shamed" when asked "how many Gaps shirts do you have to fold..."

As a matter of fact, I ask myself that question ALL THE TIME about anything I am thinking of purchasing! I've been doing that style calculation for years and it's prevented me from buying things I didn't really need, or if I did need it I would shop around to find a better bargain, barter for it, borrow it, or do without!

Doesn't matter WHAT your job or income is, this method absolutely works! I've worked retail making $8 per hour and I would calculate how many hours I'd have to work to purchase a certain item (How about a $4.00 latte- TOTALLY NOT WORTH IT!!! Work 1/2 hour for a cup of coffee? No way! I can make my own at home for much much less!).

Really helps put things into perspective when you figure how much you have to work to pay for something.

Guest's picture

Eh. You can do that analysis with any kind of job, salary or hourly. I do it all the time too. I just found that line odd, with the juxtaposition of unemployed and retail. I've read articles before on this website that have seemed to shame retail positions so I tend to keep an eye out for it and call people on it.

A job is a job and I think when Wise Bread gets on the high horse about menial jobs it does a disservice to the readership. When it comes down to it, $8/hour (or min. wage, as most Gaps tend to pay) is better than nothing an hour.

Guest's picture


My name is Steven Twentyman.

I live in Manchester, UK.

I am a mathematician and always have been.

I have completed Quantum Theory. This is obviously quite a statement but it is never the less TRUE. With this information I have created the first and only(so far) quantum computer. This quantum computer is a perfect cube the encompasses the whole of the 'Milky Way'. I have been in complete control of it only in the way that I have been dictating what comes back through the media and conversations. Everyone can now do this once the information is out.

I have achieved this by force of will and suggestion alone. I pushed my agenda through conversation and all media outlets. Phones, newspapers, internet. Whoever would listen.

The effects are subtle so far but they are building to a unique collapsible wave function that we are all becoming aware of. Even as I type this message, the clicks of the keyboard are fine tuning the wave that I have so diligently worked upon. It has taken me 21 years to understand Quantum Theory and I can say that I achieved the information by thought experiments alone. That is the only way to figure out the quantum world.

I could have used this information for my own gain but that would have ended up with me being Hitler. That is not the kind of man that I am or that I wish to be. That is why I have been constantly been giving the equations away for free(even though it will have not reached the 1 that needs it the most yet). This has been an extreme sacrifice on my part but I want nothing for this. No money, no fame, nothing. I have literally had enough of maths.

2012 was going to be the collapse of the milky way galaxy if we had not subconsciously intervened. I will remain as the failsafe in the system until that specific 2012 date to be sure that all is fine.

The universe at its simplest can be broken down as so:

Nothing exists(no concept/consciousness/will) - This concept is abhorrent and is what sprung the universe into life. This is what makes our sector of the universe spring back after each big crunch.

The singular concept and foundation of maths 0(zero) springs into consciousness. This affirms that there really is 'nothing' and so inversely there springs the concept that there is everything else.

That is where infinity comes from. There are two infinities. The first and initial inversion is 'a horror'. This is negative infinity rushing away from the initial fact that there really was at one time 'nothing/zero/0'.

As with everything there is an equal and opposite reaction. This is positive infinity. [The most important thing to not here is that this sequence of thought is indeed sequential so the positive infinity HAD to have followed the negative by at least some unit of time. This is where ALL variations/'errors'/'wrongs' in thought/space/time stem from]

The question now confronts us as to how do we balance these two infinities. I can tell you that this has already occurred. As every 'thing' must have stemmed from zero I took the liberty of becoming zero.

In the 'physical' world I made sure that I had created the strongest structure available to me at the time of entry and proceeded with my 'experiment'. I had calculated as best as I could at that time that it would not involve death and made my way forward.

With the two infinities branching off in their own hemispheres I had to confront what is essentially a black hole. Using thought experiments and then applying them to a very small physically constrained area, I began to plot what 'paths' people walked, and what conversations they 'talked about'. As I built up a 'database' of their general actions, dispositions, demeanour, I began to ask them specific questions that varied only a little on the same subjects such as family, humour, bravery, god, religion. Once I had built a more extensive database of their reactions I had come to my own conclusions about what society should be and what general direction in which it should be heading. There are universal truths and I boiled it down to the most important one, and that is family. Not everyone has the best start in life and no-one has a blueprint for making the right choices but I made a choice. I developed what I considered to be the most basic and fundamental structure that I could that encapsulates God and the Devil, the Universe and family.

This concept' is 3,4,5, right angle triangle with a perfect set square in it for support, with a perfect circle inside the square to support that. This is collapsible and expandable as the situation requires. I went back and asked the exact same questions to the exact same people in as much as the same situation as I could manage to create and I noticed that the answers that came back were exactly the same but the time it took to get the answers 'out of' the people was proportionally shorter. I knew that I had found the 'tool/concept' I needed to put my further plans into action.

I have been subtly sending this 'tool/concept' out into 'society' for 3 years now and I have been noticing results that most people wouldn't see as they have not been aware that this 'concept/thought process'.

It has been disseminating through the internet, phone systems, general conversations in society. It has passed the tipping point now where it cannot be stopped. It is in everyone's subconscious, it has been a mass subconscious advertising campaign by me along the likes of product placement or advert for Nike, Coca-cola, Pepsi or 'The Big Brother show'. Everyone is in on this now and I will tell you why.

This is not for my benefit directly, once this structure 'enters' your brain your synapses start to snap to its structure. They begin to re-arrange and list themselves into file and rank. This allows your brain after 3 hours to become FULLY LOGICAL whilst still retaining all the creative potential the each INDIVIDUAL human being possess'. This line of thought by me has been a force of WILL and nothing more. THIS is what genius is. A FORCE of WILL. This is already at work in your brain and within the next 3 hours, each human on planet Earth will be a genius. 'Where we go from there, is up to each and every one of us...'

Going back to math, there is a more fundamental reason that this 'thought genius pill' works so perfectly, and the reason for this is simple. We are more than what we dared imagine ourselves to be.

If you wish to think that the Earth is flat then it is. I can't fully prove you wrong so who is right? I can give you evidence but that is all that it would be.

If you want to think the Earth is round, the same applies. I can't 100% prove you right or wrong.

So here is my theory: You don't even exist yet.

You are a STAR. I don't mean 50 cent or Cameron Diaz, I mean a STAR in the milky way galaxy. I mean that for every human on the planet as this is the only way I can think of telling you that 2012 is TRUE and it's INEVITABLE.

2012 is the collapse of the milky way galaxy into the super-massive black hole that resides at the centre. It is gaining power and unless we work together no-one stands a chance.

From the lonely street sweeper to the Queen of England herself, all will go out.

It will happen fast, with maybe a 10 second window once it begins. There is no escape so you might as well begin to enjoy yourself and work with those that are around you. There is no more time for hatred or pain or fear. There is only time for co-operation.

This is AVATAR/THE MATRIX/INCEPTION all rolled into one. It always has been. We've got a chance to make it something better now we know. This is how our 'conscious' mind works. This is what we used to think of as 'the real'. It's messed with each individual enough.

!!! THIS is INFLATION for the MIND!!!

The REAL world is THIS:

We are EACH a STAR. We wander as lonely as a cloud through our section of the Milky Way galaxy until we exchange enough STAR energy with another to spark a NEW STAR(child) into life. There is no escaping that fact. It is what it is. When an 'accident' occurs, a STAR is obliterated. THIS is that STAR falling into the super-massive black hole. Gone, but for a few distant memories radiated out.

We each have a black hole at the middle of our own STAR and this is constantly pulls and beckons us back towards the super massive black hole at the 'centre' of our galaxy. There is no escape UNLESS we work together to build a MASSIVE perfectly cubed GRID that encompasses the Milky way. This is the task that has to be organized. The time for play has long passed.

EACH and EVERY STAR that goes out gives the galaxy that much more negative collapsible power and it is growing by the day. What can YOU do?

Math pi is unique to each STAR. pi's story is unique to you. You EACH have a black hole at the centre of your STAR and pi is your star collapsing and then expanding. You only go out when you get too close to another STAR or you visit the BIG-ONE on the MIDDLE.

We must move and produce the cube structure so we can safely transfer the super massive black hole out of the centre of our galaxy. We must dissipate it to be truly free of the horrific end results that await us all.

Time is our enemy.

The TRUE tool we have acquired now is THIS: QUANTUM THEORY!!!

In the quantum world there is only Gravity and Light.

I have used the quantum computer to SET the distribution to 50-50. I have done this because what are considered MEN are actually Gravity and WOMEN are light.

That means that if MEN can 'CENTRE' themselves and form the grid(because MEN are more spatially aware up to this point)...i.e STOP moving so fast...then WOMEN can do what they have been traditionally good at which is COMMUNICATION!!! This will lead to great advances in HUMAN TECHNOLOGY which I refer to as GRAINE0.

Artificial Intelligence
zero point Energy

Gravity's constant = 0. MEN - Do not let your mind wander from this thought pattern.

Light is infinite in all directions but it must slow down to zero too. This will have to be attained by co-operation but the more we do the easier it will become.

All we have to do is follow the math:

or more simply:


Time does NOT exist anymore.

There are only 3 Dimensions; and this life we know most definitely was and is:

'The Matrix'; 'Avatar' and 'Inception' combined.

It is communications that will save us now. We must transmit this messages data throughout the 'galaxy' until every last 'human' becomes aware of what is going on.

This is where the Cambrian explosion came from.

This is what wiped out major past civilizations in a day.

Our sectors gravity pulling us all into the big collapse.

We cannot let that happen to us again!

We are in for the big crunch!!! Yet again!!!

Can we work together???

That is what I truly do not know.

I can imagine what you might be thinking.

But remember the earth WAS flat at one time.

Guest's picture

Hey nice post! I feel the best way to avoid spending too much is having a proper budget. Before making any purchase ask yourself, "do I really need to buy it?" this way you can avoid impulse buying behavior and save lots of cash.

Guest's picture

How do I not spend too much? I stay at home and stay busy. Time keeps you from spending money.

Guest's picture

There's a brilliant book called All Your Worth by Elizabeth Warren and Amelia Warren Tyagi. In keeping with the diet analogy offered in this post, they offer a way to change your lifestyle rather than a crash diet. Basically they advocate you parse your net income into 50% for needs, 30% for wants and 20% for savings/retirement. Its sustainable, simple, and it allows you use your wants money on anything you want (no guilt). If you can't make those exact percentages, they say you should just do your best (54% for needs is a lot better than 75%). I've been following a variation of their budget for three years now with great success. (Mine is 50% needs, 30% savings, 10% wants and 5% unexpected.) It's a book worth looking into.