Sobriety and Spending Series: Small Changes

I’m working on a post that isn’t quite ready yet about some of the HUGE life changes we made that helped us chip away at debt, but the truth is, the smaller daily changes are what will sustain healthy spending habits long term.

I think about early sobriety and the days when I didn’t know what to do with myself because of all that extra time.

And in the past few years I’ve realized that delving into my relationship with money is not all that different than delving into my relationship with alcohol.

As I mentioned in the first post, in early sobriety I found that I was shopping during the times when I used to drink–usually right after work.

Okay…so what was that exactly?

Why was I unable to find a way to unwind or release without doing something like drinking or shopping?

And what were the smaller changes I could make to not be spending small amounts of money each day, that would add up to big payoffs in the debt that made me feel crushing anxiety?

It all felt so overwhelming. 

The thousands of dollars of debt I had from college felt insurmountable and it felt like I would never ever ever get out from under its pressure.

But that’s what it felt like to think about not drinking for a year. A day felt manageable, but a year? Two years? A decade? It all sounded impossible and scary and ridiculous and I had no idea where and how to start.

So I decided to tackle debt the same way as I’d been able to tackle not drinking…in small changes.

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Here, in no particular order, are a few small changes I started to implement:

  • Remove online temptation. I unsubscribed from all marketing emails, I removed my auto-password from online shopping and payment accounts, and I unfollowed (and now you can mute) brands & stores on social media.   I even went as far as to remove my CC info from every online account I had so it was difficult and annoying to pay for things online. Bye bye Groupon, goodbye amazon, no more paypal. I deleted shopping apps from my phone and unbookmarked them from my browsers.
  • Remove in person temptation. I had a few local haunts where I really liked spending money.  Mostly thrifts stores, grocery stores, and Target. It feel innocent enough to buy a few extra things on a trip to any of the above places, but if that happens every week, at $25 a week, all year, it adds up to $1,200 bucks.  For some people maybe that doesn’t mean too much.  For me however, it was the difference between starting to chip away at my principal student debt. It was the difference in the mindset of not buying stuff just because I was bored. So, I stopped driving past my favorite thrift stores.  I started shopping with a very clear grocery list and meal planning (and checking my fridge and pantry before grocery shopping). I declined invitations to go shopping with friends and countered with an invite to meet up for a walk or have them over to our house for coffee instead.
  • Create accountability. Just like when I decided to do a dry month and onward to a non-drinking lifestyle, I started to tell people.  First, I told my husband. Then I told my friends, my family. And just like with alcohol, most people were supportive or didn’t really care. Most everyone was also just as happy to spend a day walking at the park with me as they had been to hang out at a store with me.
  • Fill your time. Sounds stupid, and maybe this isn’t the issue for some people, but when I was starting to pay down my debt, when I’d quit drinking, and before my daughter was born, I just felt like I had so much time.  That’s where volunteering became so important to me. It was a way to be part of a community, spend time studying and learning local history, and give back without having to spend a cent.
  • Fill your soul.  Figure out some no cost or cheap ways to fill your soul.  Before I started working towards debt repayment I felt like the only way to really pamper myself was to spend money.  I’m not saying you can’t get your hair done ever again or that you can NEVER buy yourself a new piece of clothing , but I do think it’s important that it not be your go-to way to treat yourself or decompress. Especially if you are working towards debt repayment or financial independence. For me, it ended up that the library, public parks, art galleries, cooking at home, outdoor walks, and hiking became my no or low cost ways to fill my soul.
  • Plan ahead.  This one took me some time to get good at (and sometimes I still fall short).  It mostly involved planning ahead in food-related areas. It meant prepping our coffee the night before, so that in the morning there was a fresh pot and I wasn’t tempted to drop $5 on the way to work.  It meant making a big batch of something on the weekend so that I had food for lunches during the week so I wasn’t tempted to eat out at work.  It meant keeping water and snacks in my car so I didn’t want to drop into the gas station on the way home for a quick pick me up.
  • Think about how to borrow instead of buy.  This one might not be for everyone, but if you are open to it and have a community you feel comfortable with, think about borrowing an item you might not need all the time.  For example, you have an event coming up this summer that you need to wear something nice to–but you don’t want to spend money on a new outfit.  Do you have any friends that would be willing to lend you one of their outfits for the event?  Or maybe you want to give your yard some love.  It would be easy to go out and purchase a leaf blower, rake, and other gardening supplies. But maybe one of your neighbors has these items and would let you borrow them in exchange for some home baked zucchini bread. The caveat with this is that generosity breeds generosity–if you’re not willing to help others out this one may come back to bite you in the butt! But we have found that there have been specialty items we’ve needed that we’ve been able to borrow and it’s made a huge difference in our yearly budgets.
  • Try a no spend day. Then a no spend week. Then a no spend month. The ‘no spend’ challenge is the idea that you do not purchase anything that isn’t essential.  Start with ONE DAY. I know it’s tempting to do something extreme, and if that is your thing, by all means jump into a no spend year cold. I just wasn’t able to do that. Like with sobriety, I needed to try little experiments before doing something all in.  Do a day where you don’t spend money on anything but essentials (like your bills). Then try a week.  A week not eating out, not shopping, not purchasing extras of things you already have at home. Then try a month.  A month without to-go coffees, without random amazon purchases, without whatever it is you have now found to be a non-essential.  See how you feel, and how your bank account looks. Take the money you’ve saved and put it towards your debt. There are days where it can be hard, but in the long term, learning to flex these muscles will force you to learn about your relationship to money.  And who knows, maybe you’ll even want to experiment with a no-shopping year!

Okay, so…..

Maybe right now you feel overwhelmed.

Start small.

I know how vulnerable and crushing it can feel to start to untangle your relationship to money.

Again I say, start small.

If you have been on a sobriety or debt-repayment journey, what is something you would have told yourself on your day 1?



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