The Limits to Just Not Buying

By Philip Brewer on 27 April 2011 12 comments
Photo: Philip Brewer

My first reaction to financial stress has always been to just stop buying stuff. Obviously, some expenses can't be eliminated, but a lot of expenses are discretionary — on a temporary basis you can eliminate whole categories. Do not miss that very important key word, temporary. (See also: Emergency Belt-Tightening)

My initial model for this came from my parents. Whenever money got a little tight when I was a kid, my dad would quit spending money. Since my mom bought the groceries and paid the bills, the result was that our fixed expenses continued to be paid while discretionary expenses dropped to zero. I only had limited insight into the household finances, but I could see that the strategy worked. The necessities were covered; the luxuries got deferred.

When I grew up, I didn't stick with the gender role division, but the general strategy remained intact. In my case, money has been a little tight now for going on four years — ever since my former employer closed the site where I'd been working, and I became a full-time writer. My wife and I made modest changes to our fixed expenses — dropping our landline, swapping out the last of our incandescent bulbs. But our big economization was a huge drop in discretionary spending — we quit buying stuff.

Our entertainment budget was cut to a single line item (Netflix). Our grocery spending shifted toward the low-cost end. We just about quit buying clothes or shoes or books or CDs. During the transition we did some traveling, but that too has fallen by the wayside. We even started buying cheap booze (although not only cheap booze).

The result was just about what you'd expect — a sharp and sustained drop in our cost of living. And it was made without a big drop in our standard of living. We didn't buy much in the way of new clothes, but we had plenty of clothes. We got books from the library. We ate out less, but we cooked great meals at home. We do know the line between frugal and crazy.

This drop in our cost of living was sustained; it wasn't permanent. As we approach four years of this, we've started to reach some limits. Our car, which has given us 21 years of trouble-free operation, is showing signs that it won't last forever. I've had to replace two computers. One pair of shoes has worn out, and I can see that two or three other pairs aren't going to last much longer.

So, I offer this as a data point. I'm sure the results would be very different for families with children. But in our experience, as a household with two adults, the length of time that we could go on a buying fast turns out to be three or four years. And it's a genuine three or four years — we don't have a huge backlog of necessary expenses that have been on hold and are now becoming urgent.

That's not forever, but it's a really long time. There are limits to just not buying stuff, but it's still a solid way to improve your household finances. Some expenses can't eliminated, but a lot of expenses are discretionary. On a temporary basis, you can eliminate whole categories.

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Guest's picture

My sense of that state of the world is that it's a good time to engage in strategic spending on things that reduce future running costs -- fuel efficient cars, perhaps a place to plant an orchard (or a permaculture food forest), the clothesline or drying rack if that's something you have not yet gotten around to . . .

Philip Brewer's picture

It sounds almost like you're reading ahead! Check out my next post (up in a day or two, I expect) which touches on exactly those issues.

Guest's picture

I am sure that in this day and time their are alot that are cutting back on buying stuff. It is a lot harder for families with children.

Guest's picture

I'm sorry--is there copy to go along with the headline of this article? There is nothing showing. Am I missing something?

Philip Brewer's picture

There was a momentary glitch where the main body text of posts was missing. Seems to be fixed already.

Guest's picture

I'm very impressed with the 21 year car! I thought we did well to keep ours for 10 years....

Philip Brewer's picture

It's my wife's Honda Civic that has lasted 21 years. (Although I did keep my VW GTI on the road for 17 years, so I figure we were both doing something right.)

Guest's picture

My family (hubby and I, and 2 teens) have been doing this for 3 years since we moved to rent a home in a great school district. Library for music, movies, and books. We only buy necessities, and each teen gets 300/ year for their clothing and shoes. But among necessities we include review books. I thought of canceling the landline, but I get a pkg deal with TV and web, and it gives me 2 free movie tickets a week-my big outing every week. (Movies here cost 11 a ticket, so it's an 88/m value)

One way to do this is to only replace items. If you are a clutterbug, then the one in-one out rule is good anyway! What we have found is that if we window shop now, we find that we prefer what we already have, and/or have no wish to take care of more stuff. I love beautiful things, but I do not need to be the caretaker- visiting nice things is just fine-let someone else dust it!

I am also into suggesting long term use items when a relative asks what I would like as a gift- composter, cast iron, Noah crank radio, old egg beater, and so on. I also have a goal to replace most of our electric items with manual items that do the same thing. And Freecycle completely outfitted me for camping!

Guest's picture

Great topic. My husband and I have currently "shut down" our discretionary expenses while we save up for a house down payment. Actually, it is less of a shut down and more of a continuation of the frugal habits we had during grad school!

And it is completely true. While I can shut down on clothes spending, you eventually have to buy some to look decent and keep your job. :-)

Actually, I've found that not spending money on things like clothes saves an unexpected amount of money in the long run. For example, I won't casually shop for clothes here and there, picking up things I like and then trying to find other things that match. Rather, I walk into a store once a year (after getting really fed up about not having anything to wear) and pick out about three or four outfits that have interchangeable pieces. Then I pick out a few accessories that match everything. By holding out and buying all at one time I save tons of money! Now I don't have the problem of a certain necklace or pair of shoes only going with one outfit because everything matches!

Guest's picture

My first reaction to this article is, Discretionary spending--what's that? I've had to cut my living expenses down to the bone due to right sizing, downsizing, laying off and deadbeat employers *not* paying me. There is nothing left to cut. I know that I'm not alone, but this is no consolation. There are currently 31 million under and unemployed Americans, but the corporately consolidated mainstream press doesn't bother to report these numbers, just the massaged, feel-good, heavily manipulated BLS UI rate. The economic situation in this country is worse and becoming increasingly desperate with each passing day, and, the problems the congressional aristocracy focus on are unions, organic farmers and teachers. Funny, but none of them crashed the economy. A second revolution is coming and it won't be pretty when it happens.

Guest's picture

What a great article, it’s truly remarkable just how many things we don’t really need. In fact, most of the things that I cherish most are super cheap. Check out this list for some great ideas for inexpensive things to do. I will admit that not everything I love to do is on the list; but it's a start. Check it out and let me know what you guys think.

Guest's picture

Great article! And the first thing to go is the $165/month bundle with Comcast!!!