Wednesday, March 17, 2010

A Financial Fast

My friend rails against another debt-reduction plan, Michelle Singletary’s 21-day financial fast, which she details in her book, The Power to Prosper. Although I have not read the book, her excerpt from it in the Washington Post was interesting and made sense to me. Lots of us tend to throw money away daily without noticing where its going. So I checked out what people thought on Amazon about the book. A lot of readers were turned off by Singletary’s specifically Christian religious tone. She originated the program and beta-tested it, if you will, within her own church circle. Some readers could not get past this, and so for them all the rest of the sound advice in the book was dead. You can check out the book for yourself, but meanwhile, what can we take away from the idea of a 21-day financial fast?

First, three weeks is short enough that most of us can commit to it. Singletary calls this a fast, and she is right to position it like the jump start for a diet. It’s not the way we can live every day, but if we are sick of excess, a fast is a good counter. What is the purpose of the fast? It’s to make people stop their automatic behavior and examine it piece by piece.

Second, we need new ideas about how to become more mindful of and able to control spending. As a nation we spend too much and we all know it. Unfortunately, marketers are working very hard to come up with new ways to entice us to spend more than we should. Their success is our financial failure. We have to fight back, and personal finance experts provide us with useful tools in this battle.

Third, good financial advice holds true whatever the source. I’ve read sensible personal finance books by fundamentalist Christians before (usually by southern white guys). Although their concepts for a woman’s financial role in a household are not mine, and I personally do not believe in tithing (since I more than tithe to federal and local government through my taxes), any new ideas about how to handle personal finance issues are welcome and can be adapted to individual circumstances. After all, plenty of women head their own households with no man around, so who cares if a particular book says the man should be the boss? The details of how to manage finances are the important part here.

What is Michelle Singletary’s plan? Go on a money fast. Three solid weeks without spending on anything but utter necessities. And no splitting hairs about what is a necessity and what is a luxury. Of course no using a credit card during the three weeks. But more important, no casual, random expenditures on a daily basis. That’s it. Sure, there are more details, but that’s the nut of the plan.

People who tried this regimen have discovered that in a mere three weeks they saved an enormous amount of cash. Several hundred dollars that otherwise would routinely slip away from them on idle pleasures. Sounds like a good experiment, you say.

But my friend refuses to admit it. To some people there is comfort in the daily expenditure of cash. They like it; it makes them feel as if they are functioning adults in the real world. All of us can remember being children and having no control over buying anything. Either we had no money or our parents controlled our every purchase, or both. Childhood was an endless round of negotiations. Being able to spend money without consulting anyone else feels tremendously empowering. That’s why even the idea of following a budget can resonate as another version of a parent saying no to us. For some of us, wanting to feel like “the boss of me” is what trips us up when we are tempted to buy something we don’t need.

Then there are those of us who cannot imagine going through three weeks without needing to buy something unanticipated. But that’s the whole point of the financial fast, to get us to see what we spend our money on. To make us think about every transaction and weigh how necessary each purchase is. And to consider what it does for us and what it does against us.

I welcome this entry in the effort to help Americans gain control of their finances. I just wish so many of us were not already on the financial fast called unemployment.

13 comments: said...

The idea of a "fast" in order to better understand your own spending and how much goes out is not a bad idea. But it's not new either. As a kid one variation I learned was to take what you thought you should spend and see how long it lasts.

Still, "A Fast" is a distinctly religious term that I don't think really applies. As a rule, if you mix religion and money it means someone else gets my money. I think there is way to much "context" in how the Bible deals with money, wealth, social justice, power etc etc, for me to have much faith in this.

Anonymous said...

Since the word "fast" all by itself has so many connotations for you that it's scaring you away from trying to not spend, how about calling it a "strike"?

Would thinking of it as a spending "strike" rather than a spending "fast" make the concept seem less poisonous for you? said...
This comment has been removed by the author. said...

No, sorry, strike has a distinct usage already, it is a protest. What are you protesting? Your own spendthrift ways?

I am not communicating my problem and this is not sufficiently interesting for me to keep trying -- so one last shot.

Singletary is selling the idea our current financial problems can be explained, at least in a large measure, by people going into debt to buy luxury items. In order to get control of their financial lives they should undertake a “Financial Fast” and not buy anything except necessities for 21 days. I will leave aside my point that her premiss is questionable, and address whether this idea is new, which it ain’t, which is my biggest problem with it. And a small extra bit on related stuff.

Think: "mutton dressed as lamb". The idea of not spending for three weeks is mutton, it is an old tough stringy, but still yummy, idea (if you cook it long enough). Dressing it up as a spiritual exercise is lamb (an other religious reference, by the way). I can't remember *not* knowing the mutton part. Maybe it's a Catholic thing, but in Blessed Sacrament Parish, under Father Krieg, you gave up all but necessary spending for Lent, every year. You put aside all that money and on Easter Sunday gave it for Charity. You got to see what you had been wasting and how important it was for the poor (which is a good and valid spiritual exercise). It was "known" how old fashioned the idea was and proof of Father Krieg's old time ways. Also, separately, a representative of the Dime Savings Bank of Brooklyn (or was it NY?) said, while visiting my second grade class, that it was an old fashioned exercise to, every once in a while, take an envelope with you for a day, or week, or whatever, and put all the money you would have spent on luxuries: coffee; a newspaper; a fancy lunch; in it, and make list of what you didn’t buy one side; and then make a list on the other side of things that you had needed: car fare; a healthy lunch; etc, on the other. You could look at the lists and the money in your hand. Which did you want more, the cup of coffee that you lived without, or the money you had now that you wouldn’t have had. You also got to notice what as important and what was not. This was teaching thrift. Something that is not taught anymore. It is politically incorrect since the consumer has to save the economy. It is this conflict of interest which is the big problem.

To a lesser extent, I find dressing this old idea up as a spiritual exercise, or Fast, is disingenuous, in that Fundamentalist Protestant way. You are not going to be giving it to the poor, it is just a way of handling your own money for your own good and believing Jesus loves you for it. Also, the idea that the financial issues of today can be addressed in this way is wrong. It is that we are paying for that we didn’t used to pay for: TV, cell phones, internet, and exorbitant amounts on healthcare and medications that is sinking people. This is how we are saving the economy. Notice, you got to watch Sid Caesar for the price of watching a few minutes of commercials. Now top quality content is on cable, on pay per view, with commercials. That is a steep price hike that isn’t being counted by Ms Singletary.

If this was “10 Old Time Financial Tricks That Can Save You Now”, or "10 Financial Tricks Your Mom Should have Taught You" I’d be cool with it. But it’s not, so I’m not.

Hopeful Lily said...

Traditionally the period immediately before Lent has been rowdy carnival time. So maybe consider prior spending habits as carnival, and new spending habits as Lent. Both are temporary.

As far as what we the people are told via the media about personal spending, I think it's analogous to Woman's Day magazine: always a diet on the cover but a photo of a luscious, high-calorie dessert. In other words, a satori of opposing ideas.

Anonymous said...

Ah, so the word "strike" also has connotations that prevent you from trying this idea. Do these words _always_ make your hackles rise? Or just in this instance?

That is, when the doctor asks you to fast before a medical procedure, do you lecture him that he shouldn't be using such a religiously charged word? Or do you go with the flow, and accept that he used the word without religious intent, regardless of how you were raised?

If a cigar can sometimes just be a cigar, can't a fast sometimes be just a fast? said...

Scott -- Groucho's cigar was one thing while George Burn's was another. Also, your quotes were misplaced. It's "A Strike" not a "Strike". The word "strike" has many connotations, "A Strike" has a specific meaning. So, to quote the philosopher, Puhleeeeeeze. And inquiring minds what to know -- is your cigar smokin'?

But Satori -- Now there is a word! A satori of ideas -- Nice!

Lilly -- I know about Carnival. You're beginning to stretching the metaphor.

Instead of defending an old incomplete idea, improve it. You admitted there were issues with what is a necessity and what wasn't. Those aren't just issues -- those are fatal flaws. Work out some sort of heuristic for cutting the knot of understanding between a luxury and a necessity.

Scott Edelman said...

A necessity is that without which you will die. A luxury is what you move on to once all those basic needs are met.

Everything else is detail.

So what you're saying is -- until others can come up with a perfect plan, you'd prefer to take NO action while waiting for such an impossibly perfect plan to exist?

Because if that's the case, since holes can be poked in any plan, all plans will be shot down, and there'll always be an easy excuse for doing nothing. said...


I learned years ago never to let anyone rephrase what I am saying. So as a matter of principal .. no that is not what I am saying.

A little advise on how to do what you are doing in these comments better then you are.

I never said anything about what I do and don't do financially. You ever asked. Always have a handle on your customer. Since I don't live on the street I must be doing something right. Since I am not content with what I have (I'm noticing & thinking about what you have) then I'm not right enough in what I am doing. You -- the Salesman -- have opportunity. I don't need perfect, I need better than what I've got. How is "this" better then what I've got? That is how you sell. Your rephrasing hurts your customer relations. You didn't enlighten me, you just annoyed me. Never annoy the customer. In your attention to rephrasing my words you lost sight of your product. Everything must lead back to the product. It is always some specific "this" you are selling. You have to convince me that what ever "this" is "it" is worth my investment in time, money, energy, whatever. Again, "it" doesn't have to be perfect, "it" just has to be worth whatever you are asking.

That said -- I'm a bad customer. I'll let the salesman work and work and try to sell his whatever, then not buy. I'm not buying this. You don't spend any money vaugely for 21 days, then what? Doesn't say. This old nag of an idea needs more work. It has promise as a starting point, so finish it.

Your comment on "Necessities" is one of the things wrong with the "Financial Fast", not what is wrong with my comments. You're selling this. You tell me.

Scott Edelman said...

Hey, I'm not selling anything here. I'm just pointing out that if one wants to find a reason not to do something one will always find a reason not to do something and that no one can be convinced to do something they truly don't want to do. I find that far more fascinating than any particular aspect of the fast concept.

Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator. said...


It seems that when I leave comments on Google blogs they sometimes are replaced by the junk that was removed by the admin. I would have thought Google would have a Droid that would do that.

My comment was that I can't argue with Scott on this one.

Hopeful Lily said...

Now that I have read the book, I find that it is steeped in overt Christian tenets, although with some interesting areas of sliding, such as not outright condemning people who cohabit and have children without marriage.

Singletary is trying to reach people who believe they are practicing Christians, and she uses Bible passages to strengthen her commonsense arguments. I still disagree with her on some of her points (for instance, submitting to one's husband, or pleading with him to do his share rather than expecting him to behave as an equal), but in the main, her advice is practical and sound.

Regardless, considering the specific tone and content of her book, a money "fast" is correctly used in her case. She wants people to get right with their money so they can be right with God.