I’ve heard from quite a few readers lately that impulse spending is something they struggle with and that, more often than not, these impulsive purchases derail their budgets. In mulling this over, I realized that Mr. Frugalwoods and I have instituted a few measures in our own life to curb impulse spending and so I thought I’d share them with you today. In many ways, our culture is specifically designed to encourage impulse spending. But we frugal weirdos can fight back.
Why Same Day Shipping Is Bad For Us
We live in an ultra-speedy world. Everything is convenience-oriented and super fast and immediately available. Through apps and drive-throughs, we’ve essentially eliminated the art of delayed gratification.
And this is especially pervasive where shopping is concerned. Retailers have figured out that the easier they make it for us to part with our money, the more likely we are to do it–over and over and over again.
Free shipping (ahem, Amazon Prime… ), immediate shipping (ahem, Amazon Prime again… ), and recommendations of “things you might like” inundate us and wear away at our frugal resolve. And that’s just online! In stores we confront tantalizing displays of scrumptious goodies we didn’t even know we needed–but now we NEED them. Or at least, that’s what marketers want us to believe. But I think we all have quite a bit more self-control.
The speed at which our desires can be fulfilled is unique to our modern, consumerist culture. The fact that you can order something on Amazon in the morning and have it on your doorstep that evening has shortened the cycle of desire and fulfillment, which has a pernicious underside: it causes us to want more.
Sure, in the past we could go to a store or order stuff from a catalogue, but there were a few built-in delays there: one had to take the time to actually go to the store and mail-order took at least a week to arrive. During those delays, we got to anticipate our purchase and revel in the “newness factor” for far longer than same-day shipping allows.
These barriers to entry also slowed our purchasing–we’re probably less likely to drive to Target at 11pm to buy new shoes, but if we can order them in our jammies from the couch while sipping wine and watching Call The Midwife? You can guess what we’re going to do. And the faster we receive our desires, the more we want. Instant gratification ramps up our expectations and speeds us along the consumer carousel of endless want.
Here’s an illustration: if a rat in a cage learns he can press a lever and receive a treat immediately, he’s going to press that lever over and over and over again. Receiving the treat instantly gives the rat a jolt of dopamine and he likes this! But he’s now going to require ever-more treats for ever-greater dopamine hits. Conversely, if a rat presses the lever and receives a treat sometime in the next 7-10 business days, it’s unlikely he’ll become addicted to pressing the lever. Indeed we are not rats, but there’s wisdom to extract from the concept of interrupting the cycle of instant gratification.
The 72 Hour Rule
The over 9,400 folks participating in my Uber Frugal Month Challenge (which, by the way, you can sign-up to join at any time!) already know what I’m going to say here. It’s my foolproof (though not Frugal Hound-proof or Babywoods-proof… ) method for ceasing the desire to impulse shop. You do have to police yourself, but if you follow these steps, I imagine you’ll find yourself with quite a bit more money–and quite a bit less unneeded stuff–at the end of each month.
The 72 hour rule is thus: do not buy anything (except for out-and-out necessities like prescription medication) for at least 72 hours after you initially consider buying it.
Here’s a step-by-step breakdown:
- Next time you feel the urge to buy something, write it down instead (or save it in your online shopping cart).
- Allow 72 hours to elapse.
- During this waiting period:
- Consider whether or not you actually need the item.
- Calculate what else you could do with that money.
- Explore if you already own something that could suffice.
- Ask yourself if it’s something you could find used for a much cheaper price.
- After 72 hours, reevaluate how you feel about the item. Do you still fervently want it? Or has the desire faded?
Impulse spending is the result of buying something in the heat of the moment, before we’ve had a chance to fully consider the ramifications of the purchase. By forcing yourself to wait 72 hours before making a purchase, you’re putting some space in between desire and action. Consider it a cooling off period. And if you still really want it after 72 hours, it’ll still be there for you to buy. If you do decide to buy the item in question, it’ll be with the full knowledge of the implications of your purchase.
I have an entire Google document devoted to a list of things I think I need. I jot down stuff I want and, invariably, when I look at it a few days later, I wonder, “Why on earth did I think I needed that stuff! Who wrote ‘snuggie blanket’ on here?!” Somehow, the act of writing it down removes the immediate pressure I feel to buy it NOW! Once the item is written down, I feel relieved–I can permit myself some time and space to contemplate whether or not I actually need it.
Wants vs. Needs
Ah yes, the age old wants vs. needs calculation. We live in a culture that touts product after product as “necessities,” but what do we actually need? I consider needs in several categories, very roughly along the lines of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.
First, there are food and shelter requirements. However, even at this base level, there are ways to meet our human survival needs frugally. Applying the metric of extreme frugality to every level of need is how we find our way to, not only a high savings rate, but also a simpler, more fulfilling lifestyle.
I could talk for hours about how to save money on groceries, which are a prime example of a “need” that we often migrate over to a “want” for expensive foods. Check out my food section for ideas on how to introduce frugality into your grocery shopping.
Secondly, there are fulfillment needs. This second category encompasses the things that bring us enduring enjoyment and insert meaning into our lives. These “needs” are different for everyone and you’ll have to identify what yours are.
Mine include things like: outdoor clothing and gear to enable my family to hike/snowshoe our land year-round, a yoga mat to practice yoga daily, coffee because the promise of its fragrance gets me out of bed, wine because I enjoy it, and an internet connection because it allows me to work from home, read, learn, and connect with the world.
Thirdly, there are needs that enable greater frugality. Since much of our frugality is predicated upon doing things ourselves, Mr. Frugalwoods and I have a fairly substantial retinue of tools and equipment on hand. The key with this category is to be honest with yourself about the long-term value of anything you’re considering purchasing. If you’re debating buying something that you might only use a few times, then it’s likely not going to be worth it. If, however, it’s something that’ll allow you to reap years and years of savings, you’ll probably realize its value quite quickly.
Our hair clippers are a prime example. They cost us $15 and have saved us many thousands since I use them every few weeks to buzz Mr. FW’s hair. Another excellent example is my coffee thermos, which sounds ridiculous but has saved me untold amounts of money since I now never buy coffee out–I take it in my thermos because I’m just so cool like that! There are far more expensive examples as well, such as our fuel-efficient, hybrid Prius, which saves us (and the environment) quite a bit in gas every month.
Something That’ll Suffice
I find that, quite often, during the 72 hour gap between identifying a want and making a purchase, I find something else around the house that’ll suffice. Since companies now make stuff to fill every possible need, we’ve grown accustomed to buying purpose-built items for everything. But it’s really not necessary to do that. I’d also posit that people didn’t used to buy so much because so much simply wasn’t available! Plenty of stuff you already own can be up-cycled, reused, and otherwise repurposed.
One of our most recent examples is our woodbox. We’ve needed an indoor woodbox since moving to our homestead 8 months ago, but didn’t want to buy one (or the lumber to build one). And so, we simply stored our wood on some cardboard in our living room. Not perhaps the most lovely of solutions, but totally serviceable. Then the other month, while Mr. FW was working in our barn, he uncovered an old wooden box that–guess what–now serves as our wood box! He even added wheels to it for extra wood conveyance convenience.
Embracing the cardboard solution and waiting for something better to come along is what I like to call serendipitous waiting. I can’t tell you how many times we’ve needed something (like a table or a woodbox or a chair or a coat or maternity clothes) and simply by waiting patiently, the item has come our way–usually completely free of charge. There’s grace, gratitude, and serendipity in allowing the universe to provide.
Another example: the item most recently written down on my “to buy” list was a little table and chairs for Babywoods so she can sit up like a big baby and play at her own table. We’ve been mulling this over, and discussing making one ourselves, or trying to find a used set. As I was cleaning the other day, I made a stunning discovery: we have a little red end table we’re using as a decorative table in our master bedroom that’s the perfect size for a baby! And, we have a low stool that she can use as a chair. Perfect and perfectly free. Perhaps I’ll find a baby table and chairs at a yard sale that’ll work even better, but for the present, Babywoods is sitting pretty.
In both of these instances–the wood box and the baby table–the solutions we found aren’t perfect. But, they’re entirely workable and they saved us hundreds of dollars. It’s also true that there’s liberation in letting go of perfect. Perfection doesn’t exist–we’re goaded into paying hundreds of dollars in pursuit of perfect only to discover that it’s an elusive entity. Might as well go the free route and revel in the imperfection!
In doing this, we also avoided the trap of paralysis by analysis and I saved untold hours comparing the merits of different baby tables online. Furthermore, I simplified my life by removing clutter (a decorative table) and making it useful (a baby table!).
The Beauty Of Delayed Gratification
I’m out to revive the lost art of delayed gratification. I feel powerful when I’m able to turn down an immediate treat–be it a cookie or a glass of wine or a baby table. I feel as though I’m in control of my own happiness and that I have an understanding of what deep and abiding fulfillment means.
Those of us who embrace extreme frugality for the long-term are experts at delayed gratification–it is the very nature of how we live.
When we strip away the pressing desire for consumption and mountains of material goods, we’re able to focus on the things that matter most to us. In the absence of over-spending and stress over how to outfit ourselves with increasingly fancy gadgets and garb, we can turn our attention to work that’s meaningful, pursuits that bring us fulfillment, and relationships that are based on genuine connection.