Most people quickly reach a point beyond which more cuts feel like self-deprivation.
But instead of praying for mercy in the budgeting dungeon, you can escape the money trap by focusing on quality of life, not quantity of spending.
The trick is to cut your mental link between spending and happiness.
The payoff? Less worry about scarce pounds – because they’re being better spent on the things that really matter to you.
There are three steps for someone who’s not a natural saver (and that includes me):
- Break the connection between spending and self-worth. This will take time.
- Eliminate discretionary spending on anything that fails to move your happiness needle. This takes experimentation.
- Start small and build up your momentum. Belief and confidence turn from a trickle to a flow until eventually better spending is second nature.
Breaking the link between spending and self-worth
It’s no secret that status is heaped upon those with conspicuous wealth. As status-driven primates, we’re easily sucked into the consumer arms race.
Capitalism monetises our insecurities and presents ‘solutions’ in beguiling forms: a car, a pill, a handbag, a workout, a membership, a nose job, a super yacht.
We want things that fulfill our self-image. So in order to want things less, you need to change your self-image.
That means you need a new story that appeals to you more than world-class marketing.
The story can take many forms. Here are some examples.
A greater goal
For example: I’m saving for financial independence, or buying less as my contribution to the fight against climate change.
For example: I’m not a capitalist zombie-drone who buys crap because some influencer told me to. Or, I don’t follow fashion because I’m curating a capsule collection of timeless classics.
I see through the illusion
For example: status goods don’t make me happy or solve my problems. I want to live a simpler life founded on family, friends, community, and connection.
For example: I want to achieve a 50% savings rate. Or save a house deposit in five years. Or run the heating no higher than 17 degrees. You can gamify yourself using targets and tests of resilience.
Choose your own adventure
You’ll already have a strong notion of the stories that mean something to you. Develop them and they can become anti-spending countermeasures that overlap like armoured plates.
Your new, positive stories absorb the impact of consumerist messages and redistribute their negative energy away from your sense of self.
Controlling spending is now no longer a tale of denial. It’s a sign of self-empowerment grounded in your personal values.
Shifting the narrative helps you design more creative and daring solutions against the rising cost of living.
Because now you’re beating the system, not being beaten down by it.
Eliminate spending on things that don’t make you happy
Wander round your house and look at the things you used to think would be amazing but now you barely notice.
Once they were an answer. You slid them out of the box and they seemed to whisper: “You complete me”.
Now they’re just wallpaper.
Use those items as consumerist memento mori. Their withered significance is a reminder to focus on real priorities.
Forget ‘sparking joy’. Your old tat sparks revelation. Specifically the insight that the next must-have will soon be as washed up in your affections as an aging pop idol.
With this mindset, it becomes easier to take a Zippo to those persistent outgoings that bleed your finances like ticks.
Burn off anything that makes you no happier than before you ever had it.
That’s easier said than done, of course. Loss aversion stabs us with vile psychic pain out of all proportion to acquisition’s pale pleasure.
Possession is like caffeine addiction. It can turn us into mini Gollums:
If your Gollum is too strong, try just putting an expense on pause for a month and see if he notices. If it doesn’t feel so bad, do without it for three months and promise yourself a review.
By then the habit could be broken.
Pick your cost-cutting battles
Substitution is the methadone of budget cuts.
Swap something in and we don’t have to give anything up. Instead we take away the pain by using a cheaper version.
Done right this can be liberating and the stuff of happy memories.
Let me share some personal anecdotes.
A family fish and chip night is way more fun than going to a posh restaurant. Everyone loves fish and chips. And it doesn’t matter if you squirt ketchup all down your front.
I’ve spent many a happy lunch hour walking around the city with friends and colleagues. Just talking, chugging coffee, and moving our legs instead of boshing an expensive lunch. Maybe they’ll show you a part of town you didn’t know.
The best work night out I ever had was playing frisbee in the park one summer evening instead of nursing pints in the company’s local.
A downgrade can often be an upgrade because it’s easier to relax in low-key, informal settings.
It always works if you suggest ideas that are universal crowd-pleasers. Often everybody else is relieved to be doing something different, too.
Substitution is a classic technique for dealing with the rising cost of living and personal inflation.
Academic literature on inflation will cite consumers switching from steak to pork, for example.
I’ve had some success eating less meat altogether just by chopping 20% off the helping I’d normally heap on my plate. Or by exploring some of the amazing vegetarian food available.
As a lifelong carnivore, I find it easier to give up something I love by tying it to a bigger win:
- Like trying to be a better global citizen in the face of the climate crisis.
- Or eating a healthier diet to boost my chances of living a full and active life into my dotage.
Cycling is another rising cost of living winner. Fuel costs drop, gym costs drop, and it seems to boost your immune system. Handy in this era. But I still have to make an effort not to just jump in the car.
My point is substitution is a learned skill, so you need reasons to stick with it. But your abilities turn from puny to powerful the more you practice.
The substitutions that make sense to you are almost certainly different to mine. But if you keep experimenting, you’ll unlock more and simpler pleasures that work for you.
(I’d love to hear more ideas from Monevator mavens who’ve already mastered this art!)
I advocate spending more not less on something for two reasons:
1. When it’s truly core to who you are
I know a photographer who’s taken out a small mortgage to own the camera of his dreams. He pours his heart and soul into photography. He’d be sad as a deflated party balloon without it. He economises elsewhere to focus his spending here. I’d never argue he’s making the wrong choice.
2. It’s worth spending more when that helps you spend less
I bought the best, most reliable, energy-efficient boiler I could after living with cheapo burners for years. The only reliable thing about budget boilers was that they’d reliably break down in the middle of winter and reliably need hundreds of pounds worth of repairs.
My walking boots are another example of extravagant luxury disguising investing smarts (honest). After continually wrecking £50 jobs, I spent ages researching a repairable, German hiking boot that may be the last pair I ever buy if I look after them.
I love them. That and the ridiculous expense means I’ve committed myself to a meticulous programme of maintenance to ensure I haven’t mugged myself.
- Upgrade things that bring you genuine pleasure and that you will look after.
- Downgrade things you don’t care enough about to research and maintain.
The rising cost of living: quicker fixes
This is a post about making choices with the money you have. It’s not about making choices nobody should have to make – like choosing between feeding your family or heating your home.
The rising cost of living is pushing some people into poverty. Debt charities like Step Change offer targeted help for anyone in that position.
If you’ve never systematically trawled your bills and switched to cheaper providers then check out Money Saving Expert’s money makeover programme to save a packet.
Everyone has to start somewhere. As I’ve mentioned before on Monevator, I used to spend money as if it burned my fingers.
The most important savings tips I ever used were the first ones I followed. They set me down a better path to making my own choices.
Now controlling spending is the air I breathe. I’ve never regretted it because it’s made me happier.
Take it steady,