This holiday season has been a doozy. Scrolling through my bills feels like trying to zip up a bursting suitcase — even when I sit on it, there’s just too much in there to squish it closed. I can’t possibly need all this stuff, I think. Why can’t I pare back, live more simply?
I know I’m not alone. And in our defense, there’s a good reason we’ve gone a little nuts lately. This is the first time in three years that many of us will get to spend Christmas with extended family. We’re going out to parties again. After so much caution and uncertainty, isn’t it fun to live large, even be a smidge reckless?
Still, when I look at the financial fallout, numbers stacked together in a list, it feels excessive, even gluttonous. Enter the sudden appeal of “money diets,” “spending fasts,” or “financial cleanses,” all unfortunate names for the same concept of reducing your expenses for a fixed period of time (often in January, following the holiday free-for-all).
As a rule, I hate when people use dieting metaphors with money; not to mention, diets don’t work. But I must admit that my current spending habits aren’t sustainable, and the idea of making some clear, intentional changes at the beginning of next year sounds pretty good right now. I talked to some experts about how to cut back in a thoughtful way that won’t backfire. Come January 1, here’s what I’ll be doing.
Think about what you’re trying to accomplish.
The purpose of this exercise isn’t punishment. If you’re feeling ashamed or even just vaguely gross about how you’ve managed your money recently, it’s time to let yourself off the hook. Your bank account is not a scale for weighing your moral integrity, and stripping your life down to bare bones won’t make you a better person.
It’s also worth noting that if you already have a lot of anxiety around money (which most of us do), you should tread carefully. “Trying to cut way back on your spending could set up a scarcity mindset problem, which might result in more rebound spending,” says Tanja Hester, the author of Wallet Activism: How to Use Every Dollar You Spend, Earn, and Save As a Force for Change. Plus, if you’ve dealt with very real scarcity in the past, it could trigger obsessive thoughts around money and budgeting, which isn’t helpful either.
Meanwhile, recognize the privilege of being able to cut back at all. “A lot of people have to buy necessities whenever they have the money for it,” says Hester. “They can’t say, ‘I’m not going to shop for clothes for a year.’” We’re lucky that we get to make that choice.
That said, your spending can be a reflection of what you value. And if your receipts do not roughly align with what’s important to you, then now is a good time to reexamine your priorities and how your financial habits fit into them.
In short, approach this as an experiment in spending less, not a Biggest Loser–type challenge to see how little you can live on. “Limiting yourself to the essentials needed to keep a roof over your head and food on your table is cruel,” says Traci Williams, a psychologist and certified financial therapist. “At the end of the day, we need to spend money for our survival and our enjoyment of life. Be realistic about how you do that.”
Take a hard look at what you’re spending.
My credit-card bill currently looks like a crime scene (the victim: my financial well-being), but it also holds the answers: Where is my money going, and where do I want to cut back? It’s painful — not to mention tedious — to comb through your expenses line by line, but it’s the best way to see which costs were worth it and which ones weren’t.
Furthermore, cutting back doesn’t have to mean cutting out. “Take a look at the areas where you may have overspent recently and make a plan to reduce those expenses,” says Williams. “For instance, instead of the seven happy hours you attended in December, consider going to one or two in January.”
Make it fun — and remove temptations wherever possible.
Create a plan for ways to treat yourself that don’t involve spending money. “‘Enjoy without owning’ is a rule that’s been helpful for me over the years,” says Kiersten Saunders, a financial educator and the co-author of Cashing Out: Win the Wealth Game by Walking Away.
“I don’t deprive myself of the things I can’t buy. I look for them in my community at places like public parks and libraries. I audit my pantry and rearrange furniture,” she says. She also recommends organizing swaps for clothes, books, or beauty products: “When I focus on sharing, it ultimately becomes a creative exercise that replaces shopping as my default hobby or creative outlet.”
Visual reminders are another way to be proactive about what you’re trying to accomplish, says Williams. “I create a mood board with images that I hope to bring to fruition in the New Year,” she explains. “I also set intentions — brief phrases that encapsulate goals that I can repeat to myself, like, ‘I will carve out space in my budget for my self-care.’”
Remember, the best way to bolster your self-control is to avoid situations where you’ll need it. “Treat your willpower like the precious resource it is,” says Saunders. “Delete the apps that tempt you and automate your savings wherever possible.” I’ve even set up website blockers on my browser so that I don’t mindlessly click on an ad and wind up with new shoes 30 seconds later.
Enlist other people to hold you accountable.
It might feel embarrassing to tell other people that you’re trying to spend less money, but remember — they’re probably in the same boat. More importantly, they’re part of your support system. “Talk it over with your partner, close family members, and friends,” says Williams. You’ll want them to know that you’ve drawn this boundary for yourself and ask that they respect it.”
Of course, you should also be sensitive — social media might not be the best place to trumpet your progress. “Research shows that with any behavior change, mutual support in real life is always the most effective,” says Hester. “It also avoids some of the weirdness that can happen when you post about your goals online. You might have the intention of doing it for accountability, but it often has the effect of shaming others, which probably isn’t something you want to perpetuate.”
Choose a timeline and think about what happens when it ends.
Like diets, a “spending fast” won’t get you anywhere if you white-knuckle your way through a month and then blow it out come February. The goal isn’t to deprive yourself for as long as you can take it; instead, it’s to see what habits are realistic to keep in the long term. That’s why it’s important to be flexible and build in an evaluation process. “If you make a plan to cut out certain things for the month, sit down on January 31 and ask yourself, ‘How do I feel? What did I miss? What did I not miss?’” says Hester. “Then you have a plan for February 1 and beyond.”
The Cut’s financial advice columnist Charlotte Cowles answers readers’ personal questions about personal finance. Email your money conundrums to firstname.lastname@example.org