Cait Flanders, author of “The Year of Less,” shares advice for reigning in spending
Cait Flanders said no to shopping.
In 2011, fresh out of college, 25-year-old college student Cait Flanders was, like many recent grads, strapped for cash. But her problems were bigger than that: She was buried under $23,000 of credit card debt, only had about $75 in her checking account, and about $75 left on her credit line.
Flanders attributed this mountainous debt to living outside her means and “saying yes to everything” — dinners and drinks out with friends, shopping, buying a new furniture set she couldn’t afford. It all piled up.
“It was awful — I have memories of not being able to sleep at night, feeling like a failure. I had ruined any chance of having a strong financial future,” said the author of the new book “The Year of Less: How I stopped shopping, gave away my belongings, and discovered life is worth more than anything you can buy in a store.”
Flanders, then a government worker at the Canadian Ministry of Education, was earning about $38,000 at the time. With “no option but to start paying off my debt,” the chronic overspender embarked on a brutal two years of frugality until 2013. While she wasn’t able to trim her basic expenses — $740 a month for rent, about $200 on groceries, and another $115 on her gas and car insurance — she cut nearly everything else.
“I basically just told myself that I had screwed everything up and I wasn’t allowed to have any fun money for those two years, and there’s no balance in that,” she confessed to Moneyish. “I didn’t save anything; I put everything towards my debt.”
“Friends would ask me to go out and do certain things; there were some friends that I was comfortable suggesting something cheaper to, but a lot of times, I just made excuses. I didn’t want people to know how much debt I had… [so] I would say I had other obligations,” to avoid admitting “that I had no money.”
And some of it was even more painful. “At one point, a bunch of friends of mine wanted to go to a week-long or ten-day trip to Nicaragua and it wasn’t that expensive, and everyone was going — but I couldn’t go. It’s something that I still remember; part of me wishes that I had gone.”
Making those unforgiving cuts enabled Flanders to crawl back from the brink (making the final payment “was a huge weight off,” she said), but soon thereafter, some of her previous bad habits returned. “I was just so sick of having to say no during the two years I was paying off my debt,” that the temptation of overspending — not racking up debt, per se, but not saving more than 5% to 10% of her income every month — crept up.
Once again, Flanders knew she had to make a change. So for one whole year, she committed to only buying the absolute essentials, foregoing “clothes, shoes, accessories, books, magazines, anything for around the house.” She stuck to food and gas and whatever basics she’d need to make it through the day, and nothing else, cutting luxuries like accessories and home furnishings and most dining out.
She also trimmed smaller expenses, like her $100 a month on takeout coffee, and discovered she didn’t need to buy more books to read because she already had 50 unread volumes on her shelf. She put a halt on casual browsing in shops for recreation. Plus, Flanders forced herself to purge about 70% of her belongings, donating old clothes and discarding “boxes full of stuff” from previous moves over the years. The process, she said, was liberating.
Looking back, the experience changed her. “It is just sort of the way it is now — I don’t browse anymore, I don’t go looking for anything. I will buy things when I need them, but I learned how to [detect] the need before buying something.” Here are a few other lessons you can learn from Flanders to help curb your unnecessary spending.
Reduce the visual cues that cause you to splash cash around. Flanders refrains from following brands like clothing retailers on social media. “I love certain brands, but I don’t need to follow them on social media, because the only thing I’m going to see is stuff to buy.”
Look for joy in what you buy. Flanders is careful to note that spending is hardly evil — and she’s not here to judge how anyone spends their dough. “Whatever people get value from is different… You don’t have to start a shopping ban or anything — but for the next 30 or 60 days, whenever you actually feel the need for something,” take a few days to consider if you’ll really find joy in owning it or if it will satisfy a necessity in your life.
Buy what’s useful and of value to your life — ditch the rest. “It feels so much better when you get to a place where you’re only buying stuff you will actually use and value,” Flanders concluded, “instead of thinking that you can buy or spend happiness.”
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