"I've stopped spending completely," my sister-in-law, Lori, announced one day. "I'm going on a spending fast."
"You're doing what?" I asked, almost choking on my latte.
"I'm going on a 40-day fast," she explained. "I'll buy groceries but nothing for myself. No shoes, no clothes, not even lipstick. I'm going to break myself of my spending habit."
I hung up the phone challenged. I always counted on Lori to support my spending. She'd tell me, "Indulge a little; you're worth it." Her spending hiatus made me think about my consumption habits.
I've never considered myself a big spender. In fact, when I was a newlywed, I kept my checkbook balanced to the penny and budgeted every purchase. Yet as my income increased, so did my propensity to spend.
These days, I don't really think about what I need, just what I want. I have to admit, I spend impulsively. Perhaps, I thought, I should go on a 40-day spending fast too.
Surely I could give my credit card a rest for 40 days. If Jesus could resist the Devil that long, I could resist the mall. But it proved harder than I thought.
The first thing I did was mark the 40 days on my calendar. This took some planning, as any given 40-day stretch included birthdays or holidays. What would I do about gifts?
I made a budget, giving myself a cash allotment for groceries, gas, and basic necessities. For the special events during my spending hiatus, I'd find a way to make do. And on all personal expenditures, I decided to go cold turkey—including even what I call my "paper-cup habit," the feeling I got from holding a coffee-shop drink made just for me.
Just as Lori announced her no-spending resolution to me, I told my close friends and family. I knew if I was to stick to my plan, I needed support. I got instant buy-in from my husband who, after I advised him of my hiatus, was as happy as a man at the Super Bowl. Friends and extended family provided encouragement by limiting their invites to fancy restaurants and shopping excursions, and by holding me accountable.
The first few days were a breeze. Delighted by my ability to stay out of stores and make meals at home, I fancied myself a true money maven, sailing on a sea of savings. But by week's end, the winds picked up and the waters got murky. I wanted a paper-cup fix, was asked to host a holiday party, and needed to purchase a new book for my book club. I had to become more resourceful.
I decided to clean out my office in an attempt to locate a gift card I'd received for the local java joint. If I use the card, I rationalized, I'm not really spending. Though I failed to locate the coveted card, cleaning out my office provided its own reward, so I moved on to my closet. Then I cleaned out my daughters' closets. The amount of unused clothing, shoes, and stuff we had was unbelievable. I gathered three large garbage bags of items to donate to charity, and gained a new appreciation for all we already own.
Next, I listed all the things I wanted to accomplish over the next month and brainstormed no-cost options. I deemed the holiday party a potluck and sent e-mail invitations, saving on the cost of paper invites, stamps, and food. I reserved my book-club selection at my local library instead of purchasing it. I plucked my eyebrows instead of having them waxed. I took blank journals I uncovered in my office clean-out and wrote "Things I Love About You" for each family member celebrating a birthday. I packed brown-bag lunches and planned dinner menus based on the plethora of food already in my pantry. I even used frequent-flier miles to purchase airfare for a trip. Finding no-cash options became a game; though it took some work, it was fun and rewarding.
Over the course of my 40-day hiatus, I saved almost $2,000, based on what I typically would spend in the same timeframe. I could almost pay off my credit card with the money I saved, and I gained a new attitude about making do with less. The personalized journals were a big hit with my loved ones—even better received than my typical collared-shirt birthday offering. My cooking was heart-healthy, as I used the boxes of rice and bags of frozen veggies I'd stockpiled in my kitchen.
I finally located the coffee-shop gift card, but it had only five dollars of credit left on it. At first I was disappointed, but it proved to be a good thing. My latte-free days helped me rethink my paper-cup habit. Had I continued to indulge through the pre-paid card, I would have kept up old habits. Now, though I occasionally have a cup of coffee with friends, my three-times-a-week latte is history. That adds up to big savings!
Though the financial payoff was huge, the biggest benefit from my spending fast wasn't monetary. It was the realization God, not stuff, brings true happiness and peace. I learned to trust him more, even (and especially) with the challenges and temptations of everyday life.
I also was touched by how I can use my life—and not necessarily just my wallet—to benefit others. Donating the bags to charity felt good, but so did giving thoughtful gifts. Sharing my words and feelings with others was a gift of the heart.
Since my 40-day fast, I'm trying to be a better steward. My hiatus opened my eyes to see a more thoughtful, simple way of living. Now I'm more apt to let Jesus fill my cup—and that's better than any paper-cup drink ever could be.
Celeste Palermo, a freelance writer, lives in Colorado.
Copyright © 2010 by the author or Christianity Today/Kyria.com.
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