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.