How To Spend: Learn To Do Without

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Possessions bring both joy and work. These pink azaleas outside Megan’s first home were beautiful in Spring.
In Summer, they required regular pruning to keep them clear of our path and windows.

I (Megan) often think of episodes from an old radio drama I used to listen to as a child called Adventures in Odyssey . One episode that comes to mind often is called “Tales of Moderation” . Rather than breaking out my old cassette tapes to type up a transcript of relevant sections, I’ll let the wiki for the show summarize it for you:

It all started at Whit’s house. Connie is there, helping him clean out his garage. There, she notices something: Although Whit is wealthy and owns lots of property, he chooses to live in a modest home. Connie asks Whit about it. She wonders why he doesn’t live in a way that better suits his financial status. Whit tells Connie that wisdom and experience have taught him that it’s much better to exercise moderation and live more simply.

Connie isn’t convinced, so Whit gives her a book of three tales, which explains his reasons for living like he does.

The first tale, An Hour Later, is about two farmers. They both worked very hard one year, and it paid off. The first farmer went crazy and had a lavished New Year’s Eve party, while the second farmer divided his blessings into fourths and celebrated New Year’s Eve quietly with his family. The next year wasn’t so good. The Blights came and destroyed their crops. The first farmer had nothing left, while the second farmer was fine.

Whit’s second tale, Who Owns Who, is about a Young Man who surrounds himself with every expensive and modern appliance available in order to become truly independent. Then, his appliances start talking! He goes to sleep, thinking it’s a nightmare, but his alarm talks to him! The appliances tell the man that he’s been neglecting them, leaving them to get old. The man agrees, and soon enough, he did nothing but fixing appliances. Finally, he gets frustrated and tells them to do what they were created to do–or else! He jumps in his car, satisfied, but it and his garage won’t let him go anywhere!

Finally, Connie reads Can You Journey Through the Eye of a Needle, the story of a rich, young prince who asks a great teacher what he must do to gain eternal life. The teacher tells him to sell all his possessions and give them to the poor. The young prince leaves sadly – he loves his wealth more than he loves anything else.

The point is made – Connie understands the importance of moderation.

Learning to do without gets easier once you’ve done it. However, the learning curve can be steep.

Many people delay thrift by saying, “I will save as soon as…” or “But I deserve nice things.” Like the alcoholic who drinks or the obese person who eats, the behavior may soothe in the present but makes things much worse in the future.

Today’s choices form tomorrow’s habits. It will be harder to do without later when you have indulged yourself now.

You must live well below your means to grow wealthy. Wealth is what you save and invest, not what you spend. Consumption is what you spend. Capital is deferred consumption. You can only have savings when you defer your spending.

There’s a common thrift saying: Use it up, wear it out, make it do, or do without.

You’ll notice that no matter which outcome you pick of this phrase, you don’t get to buy a new item. In the saying, you either make the one you have last longer or you don’t have one at all.

Now obviously, the thrifty among us don’t practice self-denial all the time. Although we may duct tape our tennis shoes to make them last longer, we also eventually buy new shoes when we need them. The rest of this series will help you exercise thrift in the purchases you eventually make.

However, the first lesson in learning how to spend is learning how to not.

Almost no matter how much money you make each year, there is someone spending every penny of a salary five times as great and someone saving more than you on a salary half as much. It takes diligence to keep spending low and saving high.

People who are not acquainted with wealth think that living with wealth is just one string of being able to buy what you want after another. But that is like riding the pony without cleaning the stall. Anyone who has learned to build real wealth will tell you that the more money you have, the more work and responsibility you have stewarding that money.

You can either live rich or you can be rich.

In every financial negotiation or purchase, you should always be willing to walk away. If you are not willing to walk away and you absolutely must have what the other person is offering, then you will also have to be willing to pay whatever they are asking. Needing to have what someone is offering is the worst possible negotiating position to be in. It is also a poor mindset.

Developing financial will power is as difficult as developing grit in any other aspect of our lives. It is a process of trying, failing, and trying again. I heard it suggested once, that if you want to develop a rich mindset, put a $100 bill in your wallet, take out your credit cards, and then practice not spending it.

Others suggest having a “No-Spend Challenge” where you practice making only required purchases for a period of time. The purpose of a No-Spend Challenge is to help you change your mindset from one of poverty (“I need to spend money to be happy”) to one of prosperity (“I have more than enough to be content and fulfilled”). Such a challenge can help you identify spending triggers and personal emotions of entitlement, deprivation, and fear of missing out. It can help you distinguish between needs and wants. It can help you determine which spending brings the most happiness and which spending is hardly missed. It can help you develop guidelines for spending. And it can help you get out of the cycle of credit card debt and build a monthly emergency budget.

Regardless of if you use a challenge or if you simply resolve to change your life, developing a habit requires years or months. It all starts by learning to do without today. “Not today,” you say one day at a time. And in this way, you can learn to do without.

Photo from April 2017 by author Megan Russell.

Follow Megan Russell:

Chief Operating Officer, CFP®, APMA®

Megan Russell has worked with Marotta Wealth Management most of her life. She loves to find ways to make the complexities of financial planning accessible to everyone. She is the author of over 800 financial articles and is known for her expertise on tax planning.

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President, CFP®, AIF®, AAMS®

David John Marotta is the Founder and President of Marotta Wealth Management. He played for the State Department chess team at age 11, graduated from Stanford, taught Computer and Information Science, and still loves math and strategy games. In addition to his financial writing, David is a co-author of The Haunting of Bob Cratchit.