Last weekend, instead of shopping for Black Friday deals, I decided to go on a No-Spending Spree, a Holiday Cash Fast.
This would be like a juice fast, but instead of avoiding solid food, I’d avoid opening my wallet. For three days straight. No buying things online with a memorized credit card number either. No giving in to pestering from my nine-year-old son.
The idea of the weekend Spending Fast began when I returned from the grocery store the day after Thanksgiving. My mother, who was visiting for the holiday, commented that my son, “Sure has a lot of stuff.” She’d been sleeping in his room, as she does when she visits, and had spent a lot time observing the abundance of little, unnecessary items on the shelves, in the drawers, under the bed.
“He does have a lot of stuff,” I agreed, pulling out of my shopping bag a snuggly stuffed polar bear I’d just bought him at the grocery store. I’d run into a friend in line who’d been considering buying the bear for a friend’s child. She decided against it, and I took it from her hands. “I’ll buy it for Alexander!” I said, thinking . . . what, exactly? That the 45 stuffed animals my son already had weren't enough?
My mom headed back home to Austin on Friday, and by the time we’d dropped her off at the airport, I’d hatched this no-spending holiday weekend plan.
It would be fun, I assured my son. Like the olden days, like Little House on the Prairie. We’d make balloons out of pig’s bladders—or in our case, do art projects with a glue gun and popsicle sticks and old cardboard boxes we had lying around the house.
We would not be among the more than 154 million Americans who were spending that Black Friday spending money, as CNN reported. Ours would be a holiday weekend like the one my mother had talked about from my childhood, a Christmas vacation when my step-brother and I made holiday decorations by stringing popcorn on thread.
“Can we make popcorn decorations?!” my son asked.
“If we have popcorn at home already,” I said in my new, stern, no-spending voice.
Of course we had popcorn at home. And seven kinds of pasta in the cupboard next to it. What is all this stuff? We live in a smallish apartment with unexceptional storage space. My place is basically neat, and I’m not a hoarder. Yet, I’ve accumulated all kinds of things I’ve long last track of. I’ll often go out and buy something new when I have an item at home that would do perfectly well—with a little creativity, or even with just a little routing about.
It isn’t as if money is no object. Money looms rather large in my life right now, or rather, the strain of not having quite enough. My former husband and I worked out a reasonable and fair settlement agreement when we split up.
But today, more than four years later, I am spending more than I take in, and trying to figure out how to make my financial life more secure. Perhaps spending less was one piece of the puzzle?
Later that afternoon, I wanted to go down to the beach so my son could swing on the rings. Driving was out; the beach-front parking lot costs money. I pumped up the tires on both our bikes, and we rode the mile and a half to the California Incline, the roadway that cuts down from the cliff to the water, then rolled along the Pacific Ocean, passing underneath the Santa Monica Pier—where we would not be stopping to buy ice cream we didn’t really want, or a sun hat we didn’t need.
Every time I’m down on the beach, I feel grateful to live here, grateful to my ex-husband for agreeing to move west after we split, and calmed by the ocean stretching out forever. None of these feelings actually require spending money (beyond what I'm already shelling out on rent to live near the beach.)
We biked home as the sun was setting. I was craving melted cheese after all that turkey, and proposed that we make nachos for dinner. Except, I discovered, we were out of tortilla chips. Normally, I’d run to the Whole Foods on the corner to buy a bag. But we were not spending! I cut soft corn tortillas we had into quarters, fried them in oil, and viola! We had chips to make a nacho feast.
My son was giggly, excited by the big project of chip frying, his job of patting off the oil with paper towels and shaking on salt. Dinner became an art project rather than merely a meal, or worse, an annoying disruption to his otherwise preferred activity of playing Minecraft on TV.
There are so many perfectly free ways to entertain a child, and ones that can make you feel glad to be in your own life. I know this, and yet so often spending money seems somehow easier.
It's also more stressful, I realized on day two of our No-Spending Spree. Not spending meant there were all these things I didn’t have to do, like deal with replacing the frayed bedspread I’d somehow kept since my marriage. I didn’t have to stock up on food for the week, or do laundry in our complex’s coin-operated machine. I also realized that I often feel pressure to do something big with my son, to find a movie or restaurant or festival to run off to. Shopping exposes you to the anxiety of over-choice, whereas not spending establishes comforting limits.
The weekend quickly took on a super-homey, relaxing feeling. Saturday, I had an appointment at the beauty parlor (pre-paid!) I texted my friend Paul, who lives within walking distance of the salon, to ask about street parking at a non-metered spot. “You can park behind my car in my parking space if you want,” he texted back. This felt very Ma and Pa Wilder—the decision not to pay for parking led me to reach out to a friend, which made me feel more connected, and in some ways richer than if I’d just pulled into a metered spot—richer in community, friendship, some inkling of the sense of self-reliance I remembered from my childhood.
Sunday night, I was craving pizza, but we didn't have the ingredients to make one at home. Which meant, we couldn't eat pizza. I suddenly had a flash of my childhood, back in suburban Detroit in the 1980s, before the Instant Gratification Internet, and Buy Anything Amazon and Whole Foods selling refrigerated pizza crust on my corner. Back then, my parents would cook whatever they’d planned for dinner rather than responding to our every whim. I’d grown up with all kinds of unmet desires. Some of this was frustrating and unfair, for sure.
But the more general sense of not having every desire met every second also brought with it a sense of living in my life, as it was, rather than spending my way through it, constantly running from one new experience or item or taste sensation to the next.
Sunday night, while sitting at the bar in the kitchen, eating kale chips we’d made and leftover cranberry sauce, my son said, “Let’s do this again next weekend!”
“Okay!” I said.
“We can buy everything we need in advance. We can stack up on things, buy two loaves of bread, even though we only need one! We can stack them up, just in case!” He was giggling, aware he was making a joke of our money-free weekend. But he also meant it.
In the same way that a juice fast can reset your sense of what full feels like, a spending fast, for me, was a reminder of how much more I can do with a whole lot less.