You may have noticed an anti-consumption undercurrent in my posts lately.
It’s not that I’m against shopping per se. Or buying things. But so much modern American spending is programmed and conditioned by the barrage of advertising that dominates our every waking minute. We waste money on trivial, disposable gifts despite being so stressed out over finances, and I am just as trapped by the madness as anyone.
As Christmas looms on the horizon, I am trying new finance hacks to spend more mindfully. I want to exchange my precious dollars for actual needs rather than desperate attempts to purchase happiness and acceptance. (Because all those ads scream in my face that I will NEVER EVER be good enough until I own their product or use their service.)
I’m sure everyone has heard of the Envelope System. I think it’s mandatory content in any financial management book! And while I have read many of those in my day, I had never actually tried it. The idea is to put your monthly budget, in cash, for some category – I picked groceries – in the envelope. When the cash runs out, you’re done spending in that category for the month. The end. Cash forces you to face hard limits (as opposed to the never ending opportunities of credit cards), leading to more careful choices whenever you spend.
Well, I quickly learned that for me, personally, this whole thing only works if I write down the price of everything going into my cart as I go through the store.
I mean, everything.
Otherwise I am “that” person in the checkout lane, awkwardly holding up everyone as I hunt for items to be voided from my purchase.
I use my phone’s “memo” app to record each item and its cost to the closest 50 cents. Every ten or so items, I tally the total, so I know roughly how much my cart costs at any given point. Yes, yes – this means I am also that person, the one who stands in the middle of the grocery store aisles “playing” with her phone. It’s for a good cause, I swear.
The few times I have tried this, I definitely noticed a difference in my spending choices. Which is the whole point, right? I can clearly say this hack is “working” from that perspective. Faced with the choice of organic, hormone-free milk for my kids, or ready-made high-protein snack bars for me, the decision is easy. I’d rather spend a few bucks on better quality milk for them; I’ll just nosh on fresh veggies instead (which is, in fact, healthier than any processed food snack bar).
The other thing I quickly learned: I cheat.
Even though, by definition, I am only cheating myself because this whole hack is self-imposed.
For example, we have no ATMs close by, so I never have cash for a whole month of groceries to put in my envelope. It turns out feeding a family of four takes a LOT of cash. I have tracked my spending by categories for over a decade now, and I always assumed we spent so much on groceries because I splurge on things like wild caught salmon, lion’s mane tea, almond flour, and the aforementioned organic milk and high-protein snack bars. But the USDA Cost of Food reports show that even a “thrifty” or “low-cost” food budget for a family of four is still a whopping sum. (And more cash than I ever have at one time!) So oops? I still end up using my credit card because the cash runs out so soon.
I also cheat by moving certain items to the “big box” shopping list. Sometimes this makes sense, because buying in bulk can be more cost effective. However, the big box trips are so expensive, I always use my credit card. (See previous note about not having a lot of cash on hand.) So the regular grocery bill ends up being less, preserving that precious cash. But I’m not buying fewer things…just spending more cleverly!
That said, despite the cheats, the hack still seems to be accomplishing the goal: greater mindfulness while shopping. For groceries, anyway. Don’t even ask about the Christmas shopping!
What hacks have you tried for more mindful shopping, and what were the results? Share your thoughts in the comments section below!
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