Mindful spending: How this author saves a LOT of her money and how you can too

"If I was to re-brand the shopping ban, I would call it the browsing ban."

"If I was to re-brand the shopping ban, I would call it the browsing ban."

(Getty Images/iStockphoto)

This article was originally published May 1, 2018.

Spring cleaning season is upon us and there's nothing like organizing, sorting and tossing to make one wonder "why do I own so much stuff??" or worse… "why did I buy this anyway?"

To make this the year of change, we reached out to Squamish-based writer, Cait Flanders. Her memoir, The Year of Less, came out earlier this year and it documents her self-imposed shopping ban and how she shifted her money habits so that by the end of it, she was living off a mere 51 per cent of her income. If she can do it, maybe there is hope for the rest of us. Here's our conversation.

You talk about mindful spending — how do you define that?

Mindful spending is feeling good about what you're spending money on. It's about knowing what your goals and values are and making purchases in a way that aligns with them. If I look back on the reasons why I've gotten into a ton of debt in the past, it was because my spending didn't have any purpose. I was just wasting money away. And a lot of the time, when I was spending that money, I knew deep down it didn't feel right, but I just ignored it.

What were the first steps you took towards spending mindfully?

  1. I came up with the rules for the shopping ban. People think that the shopping ban was incredibly restrictive, but it really wasn't. I was allowed to buy things I actually used on a daily or weekly basis, like groceries and gas. I set a limit for eating out that I was comfortable with. I could buy gifts for others and replace something if it had to be replaced. I could also buy things if I really found like I needed them. It was kind of a test. I would live without it and if I knew I actually needed it, then I could buy it. What I couldn't buy were things that I didn't really need but which had become a mindless waste of money for me. These included take-out coffee and books. These restrictions will be different for anyone, but for me those were mindless spending habits I knew I had to change.
     
  2. I set savings goals and opened a separate bank account. When I started, my only real goal was to set aside $100 a month, which is what I had been spending on take-out coffee. During the ban I set mini savings goals, like setting aside enough money to replace my bed or even quit my job and work freelance, which happened at the end of the year. Before the shopping ban that would never have been an option because I was spending all of my money. By the end of I was living off 51 per cent of my income.
     
  3. I decluttered and I took inventory. I went through every room and drawer in my house and got rid of things I didn't actually use or need. And I made sure everything I kept was serving a purpose now, and wasn't something I thought my future self might use down the road. Knowing how much of everything I actually had stopped me from making impulse purchases. For instance, I added up all the books on my bookshelf and discovered there were more than 50 I hadn't read. For me, just having that number created awareness and every time I would think about buying a book I would think, nope, I have lots. I don't need more.

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What advice do you have for people who want to start spending more mindfully?

Tell at least one person in your life what you're doing. Or you can tell lots of people, that helped me! And when you're picking that person, pick the person who's going to encourage you to make the right decision.

The second step would be to unfollow retailers on social media. I'm not anti-retailer. I don't think buying stuff or spending money is bad but, it's about removing temptation. When you follower retailers on social media all you're going to see is more stuff that you might be interested in or stuff that's on sale and that'll just make you want to go buy it.

Why is it important for all of us to become more mindful spenders?

You'll feel better about the spending that you are doing. And when you're doing it for the right reasons, it'll remove any weird guilt or shame you may feel otherwise.

Mindful spending is also better for the environment. We end up buying less "stuff". And by not even buying it in the first place, we create less waste. Expending the life of things we own and making only "intentional purchases" is, in my opinion, a much more sustainable way to shop.

Oh, an intentional purchase! How do we make them too?

For me, an intentional purchase is when I've lived without something and found that I have a genuine need for it. I would say they're the only kind of purchases I make now. I go into the store with a list, get what I need, and walk out. There's no browsing. If I was to rebrand the shopping ban, I would call it the browsing ban because that was really a big part of it.

If you're an online shopper, make it one step harder for yourself: never save your credit card on sites and only go to websites when you really need something. Try to create a bit of friction in the shopping experience so it's not too easy.

You banned yourself from buying anything other than what you really needed for only one year, but you chose to continue your ban for a second year. What was the hardest part?

It was discovering that I was definitely a much more emotional spender than I realized. I didn't drink any more and I couldn't shop. So for the first time ever, when I was going through something hard, I had to really just feel the feelings. I cried a lot the first year, but that's real life. The good thing is that changing habits gets easier, and the second year of the ban was super easy.

What was the biggest difference that committing to a budget made in your life?

Committing to a budget helps create awareness. A budget can sound scary and complicated, but it's just numbers and asking yourself if you're okay with them or not. I've always tracked my numbers but the difference was, before the shopping ban, when I looked at the numbers each month they didn't make me happy. And while it's important to remember that you're not a bad person if the numbers aren't perfect, you do want to understand why you're unhappy and try to make adjustments. It's that awareness that'll encourage change.

What tips do you have for even the most disorganized person to lay out a money plan and stick to it?

  1. Sit down weekly and look at your credit card statements. It's important to do anyway because of credit card fraud. I put as much as I can now on credit so I can track my spending easier, but that's only because I'm comfortable knowing how I'll pay them it off. If you would rather, pay with debit. You'll still be able to see the transactions online.
     
  2. Keep a money journal. I'm old-school and like to write in a daily planner when I've spent money and how much I've spent. Then every week I sit down, compare those numbers with the one on my credit card statements, and punch everything into a very basic spreadsheet on my computer. By doing it weekly, I can see if I'm about to go over my budget before it actually happens and make adjustments if I need to.
     
  3. Make a budget for less than you earn. I don't think a personal finance expert would ever tell you to do this, but it's something that always worked for me. If I earn $2700 a month, I'll make a budget for $2500. It's nice to have a bit of a cash buffer in case something comes up.

Aside from shopping, how can changing our spending impact our social lives?

It can change relationships with people in a pretty positive way. Something I realized pretty quickly during the shopping ban is how many conversations we have about shopping and our spending. And I found myself with nothing to bring to the table! It was so interesting. By the end of the year, because my experiences with other people didn't revolve around these conversations, I found my friendships more meaningful.

What are your top tips for handling birthdays, weddings and other gifting situations?

Give experiences over stuff, whenever possible. Spend a day with someone on their birthday, take them hiking, buy them ice cream — they'll appreciate that quality time.

And if you are gifting stuff, ask people what they want. I know it feels taboo, but for me, even if it's someone's wedding, I'll ask them what they really want off their registry. And that's what I'll get them, because that's what they'll actually use.

What are your top tips for handling social situations?

Even on the shopping ban I still went to restaurants. It's just a matter of choosing the number of times you're comfortable with going. And if you don't want to go, don't be afraid to be that friend who suggests something else. You may be surprised at how quickly most people jump on board. It just takes one person with the guts to say "hey, let's go to my house for a barbecue!" Everyone wants to save money.