Based on the number of emails I’ve gotten on the subject, we’re not the only ones tired of reading articles and blog posts purporting to be about “saving money,” which actually offer tips to spend slightly less. Those two things are not the same.
Sure, those articles might be about how to spend less money than you might otherwise spend if you indulge that “want,” but they’re still encouraging you to buy things you don’t need and might not otherwise purchase.
I humbly offer two personal stories as my own proof of this:
When I shopped with coupons, I bought more
Early in my saving days, I fell into the black hole that is extreme couponing. I don’t love talking about it, because it’s embarrassing the lengths I went to, the arguments I had with cashiers over coupon rules, and some of the unhealthy crap I bought just because there was a “really good deal.”
If you’ve ever taken a close look at coupons, you know that there are rarely coupons on healthy staples like fruits, vegetables, milk and eggs. Instead, coupons show up for packaged foods, often the most unhealthy ones of all. The job of the couponer is to match up manufacturers’ coupons with store coupons and store sales, and when you hit that magical combo when all three apply at once, you buy as much of that thing as you have coupons for, often regardless of what it is. And when you find that magic, you feel like you’re beating the game, getting a package of pasta that’s usually $2 for 20 cents, or a $6 box of cereal for a buck, to name a few of the healthier finds buried amid the junk food. Beating the game is an addictive feeling, and it’s tempting to chase more deals.
I shake my head thinking of some of the crap I bought in those days, just based on the deal. And sure, it was cheap. But would I have bought it without the coupons? Hell to the no. The idea of “saving money” and of getting the best deal drove me to buy more than we otherwise would have, including stuff we definitely didn’t need and possibly didn’t even want.
When I blogged about saving money, I spent more
Once upon a time, I had a different blog (definitely not one you’ve heard of) that occasionally touched on the subject of doing things inexpensively. Which is a nice idea and all, but blogging about saving money made me feel like I needed to continually find ways to save more money, which meant… spending more money to “save” more money. Without realizing it, I put pressure on myself to keep sharing more tips, which meant continually increasing my spending, all in the name of frugality. When I realized the pattern, I knew it was time to retire that blog.
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There’s so much that’s alluring about “saving money”: the thrill of getting the deal, the conquest of succeeding in getting the very best price, the relief of knowing you could have spent more but didn’t, and so on. It’s often something we don’t recognize consciously, which is where the danger lies.
If we aren’t conscious that “saving money” in the popular context truly means spending it, we’re far less able to save for real.
The “Saving Money” Mindset
In a vacuum, “saving money” really should mean saving it. Like putting it in a savings account and not spending it. But the way that most people use the phrase – especially those trying to teach us these “tips” – is (sometimes subtly, often sneakily) talking about spending money, very often money we don’t need to spend in the first place.
Take Black Friday deals, to use an extreme example. Let’s say you want a new TV, and the one you want usually costs $500. On Black Friday, it’s on sale for $250. If you buy it during that sale, are you:
- Saving money
- Spending money
Experts on “saving money” would tell us that A is true, but B is the reality.
The way to “save money” is not to buy the TV at all, to use what we already have, and to put what we might have spent in the bank. Because, sure, the Black Friday deal might be $250 less than the sticker price, but it’s $250 more than dismissing a new TV as a frivolous want rather than a need. We use this as a reminder if the difference is unclear to us:
If, at the end of the day, we don’t have more money saved (and in the bank or investments), then it’s not saving money.
Choosing to Reject Shopping Energy
Several years ago, we stopped chasing deals. We gave up the coupons, unsubscribed from all the sales emails and catalogs and, when we did need something, we stopped trying to get the absolute rock bottom price. And something funny happened:
Our spending went down.
Working to get the best deals means spending a lot of time shopping, even if you don’t buy all that much. It means looking at a lot of sales flyers, visiting different sites, and otherwise exposing yourself to the relentless push of capitalist culture to sell you stuff. It’s welcoming that shopping energy into your life, even if your goal is ostensibly not to spend frivolously.
Let’s say that, before, we needed a new ski jacket because the old one was worn out and not fixable. Now, to get the best deal, we’d need to review all the sites and reviews, find the jacket that was already the best value, and then stalk it on the flash sale sites until we saw what felt like the very best price. Stalking the jacket might take a few weeks, during which time we’d also become aware of all the technological advances in other jackets, the new pack features we could have for a good price, and any number of other purposely persuasive arguments trying to convince us how badly we need this other new (unnecessary) thing.
It didn’t seem harmful at the time, or detrimental to our goals, but surrounding ourselves with all those products on offer provided a subtle and ongoing cue that there were other things we “needed.” And eliminating that stuff from our life, even though we might occasionally pay more for something now because we aren’t spending so much time shopping around, has allowed us to become oblivious to all the other things marketers would love to tell us we need, which translates to fewer wants.
It’s a bit ironic that we’re saving much more now (in terms of actually putting money in the bank) than we were when we were seeking out every money saving strategy, but it’s absolutely true.
Developing a Real Money Saving Mindset — Especially for Those Who Are Already Awesome with Money
Just as I issued a challenge earlier this year to think of minimizing as being about using up what you have by getting every bit of usefulness out of your things (otherwise you’re not minimizing at all, despite good intentions, but are instead just maximizing waste), it’s a good idea to continually remind ourselves the importance of adopting and maintaining a true money saving mindset, which is vastly different from the one our consumerist culture promotes. They want us to feel that rush of getting the deal, because they know that keeps us coming back for more. It’s our job not just to resist, but to leave that conversation entirely.
I’m sure most of us here already think of ourselves as responsible spenders, and while this post contains zero rocket science, it’s still worth considering that even the most money-conscious among us can fall prey to that deal-seeking thinking. If we’re going to spend money on something, we want it to be the very best price, darn it! This is especially something I think about as we round that final corner into early retirement, and know that we soon won’t have the luxury of being able to absorb accidental overspending the way we can while we still have paychecks. We have to be money conscious on a whole other level, and it will be tempting to think of “saving money” in the standard societal terms.
But even for the money pros, there are some steps we can take to ensure that we keep a true money saving mindset, not a spending-masquerading-as-saving mindset:
Avoid chasing deals — For those of us who are inclined both not to overspend and to try to find the absolute best way to do something (I’d guess this applies to most FIRE folks), it’s hard to let go of the idea of seeking out the very best price when we do need to buy something. But it gets easier if we think of it not as throwing money away, but as shielding ourselves from shopping energy and consumerist pressure. That’s not to say we need to pay full price, but often the difference between a basic sale price and the clearance-plus-coupon price is not great enough to justify welcoming all of that consumerism into our lives. Put another way: When we’re chasing deals, we’re spending a lot of time thinking about stuff, and when we’re thinking about stuff a lot, we want more stuff. Break that mental cycle.
Acknowledge spending as spending – There is seriously nothing wrong with spending, or at least I’d never be the one to tell you so. Heck, a few weeks ago, I confessed that we once spent a thousand dollars on a single meal. But we were under no illusions about that expenditure. We knew it was an optional expense, a massive splurge, and we didn’t tell ourselves we were “saving money” just because we could have spent $1500 if we’d thrown in a bottle of Chateau Margaux. The problem comes when we start confusing saving and spending, and see “saving” as spending less than we potentially might have rather than putting money in the bank. Call spending what it is and don’t let marketers deliberately obfuscate the two for you.
Think money in the bank above every other measure — When I was couponing, I had an unhealthy obsession with seeing that savings percent at the bottom of my grocery store receipt. I regularly topped 80 percent and would pat myself on the back for my savvy shopping. But I was still buying things we didn’t need, I was spending loads of time researching deals and driving to multiple stores, and at the end of it all, I’m not even certain more money ended up in our savings account than would have if I hadn’t gone down the couponing rabbit hole at all. Meaning: just because the store says we’re saving money doesn’t mean we actually are. The real judge is the bank account balance: does it keep getting bigger? That’s the only way it’s truly saving.
How do you think about saving money? Any tips you can share with all of us that help you avoid that consumerist pressure to spend in the name of saving? Any other reformed couponers out there? Let’s dive deeper in the comments. :-)
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