How To Cut Back on Spending (Without Feeling Miserable)

I’m a passionate reader, and independent bookstores attract me like a bee to a flower. If I happen to see one, I’m sorely tempted to stop in, wander around, check out the staff recommendations and often walk out the door with two or three books under my arm.

Here’s the problem: Between the many books I have on my shelves at home and the many, many books I’m waiting for at the library, I have more books lined up to read than I’ll be able to read in years. And, yet, I’m still tempted.

The truth is that books have always been the type of spending that tempts me most. It doesn’t matter how many books I have already in my reading queue. I’m still tempted to buy another one. Books can easily translate into a spending addiction for me.

Perhaps this feeling echoes with you, even if books aren’t your big temptation. Perhaps your temptation is clothing, and you have an overstuffed closet. Maybe your temptation is loose-leaf tea or coffee beans (which happens to be my wife’s temptation). Different people I know buy salt and pepper shakers or tools for their garage or cookbooks — far more than they’ll ever need or use.

There’s nothing wrong with having interests or passions, but these kinds of temptations pose a real financial risk. If I suddenly had all of the money back that I spent on books that I haven’t read or only read once before swapping, I’d have many thousands of dollars in my coffers.

What’s the secret to balancing that financial drain while enjoying the things we like most in life?

In this article

    How to cut back on tempting spending without being miserable

    Focus on enjoyment over acquisition

    Rather than investing time and energy into acquiring more of something, consciously choose to invest that time and energy into enjoying the items you already have. For example, if you’re tempted to buy more clothes, instead find an outfit in your closet that you haven’t worn in a long time, or find some new pairings of clothes. If you’re tempted to buy some new tools, instead go home and build something with the tools you have.

    With my book habit, the best approach here is to focus on books I’ve read rather than a long list of books I own. If I’m tempted to go to a bookstore, I should instead go home early and read for an hour.

    Find social outlets for enjoying the hobby

    Having people who share an interest can curb your spending on that interest. For example, rather than buying new gear for a hobby, you might go hang out with that person and talk about the hobby or do the hobby together. Furthermore, other people provide a great outlet for swapping and borrowing items.

    How do you find other people who are interested in the same things you are? For example, if you’re into clothing, you might see if there are any clothing swaps in your area, where people bring clothing items and trade them with each other. If you’re into tennis, see if there are any tennis clubs organized by local parks and recreation departments. Look on Meetup or on your city’s website for organizations, or even put a feeler out on social media.

    For a book buyer like myself, the solution has been book clubs, both in-person and online. Reading the same book as others adds a rich depth to the experience, helps me meet people who also enjoy reading the same kinds of things that I enjoy, and gives me an outlet for swapping books.

    Borrow items before buying them

    Although having friends who share your interest can be a great way to find someone to borrow items from, you can borrow from lots of places. Libraries are an obvious place for things like books, but libraries offer all kinds of things: Movies, audiobooks and tools of all kinds are available to borrow from many libraries. Some stores also have services in which you can “borrow” items from them, such as video rental kiosks. Your neighbors and friends, though they may not have the same niche interest as you, may have items related to that interest that you can borrow.

    Once you borrow an item, you have time to use them and figure out if it’s something you permanently want, and that can help you decide whether to buy. You’ll often discover that, after the initial use, you don’t have a need to buy an item like it.

    Obviously, for a book lover, the library is the best place around for this, but second-hand bookstores often function as a place to effectively “borrow” books, as you can often bring them back to receive a discount on another book.

    Sell off or eliminate the bottom 25% of your collection

    This is a short-term solution, but it’s a powerful one, and it’s one you can repeat with some regularity. What you’re effectively doing is giving yourself a simple and achievable goal related to the items you already have, one that has a bunch of nice side effects.

    Here’s what you do. Take out every item in your collection and sort them into three equally sized piles: one that you definitely want to keep forever; ones that you’re OK with getting rid of; and one pile that’s in the middle. When you’re done, take the pile you want to get rid of and allow yourself to keep or save exactly one in four items in that pile. The remaining ones are the ones you’ve considered twice and are OK with eliminating.

    As you go, you’re almost always going to find something interesting that you forgot about, which will nudge you back into participating rather than buying. You’ll have a sense of actually having a lot more items you’re excited about than you thought. You’ll also have a pile of items to get rid of. You can sell them off (if possible) or donate them. Any returns you get on those items can be put aside to help fund any additional hobby purchases you make going forward, though you now have a bunch of items you’re excited about.

    I do this regularly with my books, whenever they’re about to overfill my shelves. I sell off some of them and donate the rest, but I always find a bunch of stuff I’m excited to read along the way. The resulting money helps with future book buying costs, though I’m less interested in buying them because of all of my discoveries.

    Go “deep” rather than “wide” by defining participatory goals

    Set a personal goal that’s directly tied to participation in your interest rather than the accumulation of stuff. This goal should be one that encourages you to use the items you have on a deeper level than before.

    For example, you might set a goal of reading a book a week for six months, or wearing each item in your closet at least once.

    Here’s the kicker: You agree to a moratorium on buying new things until you achieve this goal. So, until I’ve read 26 books, I can’t buy any new ones, or until you’ve worn everything in your closet, you can’t buy a new outfit.

    This engages you in the items you have in a deep way, rather than just widening your collection by endlessly buying more things you barely use.

    Don’t go “browse shopping” for new items related to the hobby

    This one’s easy: Avoid going into stores that cater to your interest unless you have a specific item you’re looking for. If you’re just looking to browse, don’t go. This goes for both online stores and physical stores.

    This doesn’t mean that you just never go to those stores again, but don’t go unless there is something you have in mind that you specifically want. On those visits, you can feel free to let serendipity strike and pick up something else, but don’t go in the door unless you’ve already made the decision on a purchase.

    This policy keeps me out of bookstores unless I’ve got a specific book in mind that I want. I will sometimes buy a second book when I go, but I’ve found that exposing myself to bookstores less often has reduced my desire to buy more books because I’m aware of fewer titles. That saves me money while not reducing my enjoyment of books.

    Define a “hobby budget” and keep it in cash

    If you have a specific hobby or interest that you’re compelled to fulfill, identify a healthy amount to spend on that type of item each month that your budget can easily tolerate, and pull that money out of your account in cash each month. Whenever you make a purchase of that type, only use your “hobby cash” for it. If you want to buy an item online, buy it, but then pull that much cash out of your “hobby cash.”

    This lets you enjoy your passion in whatever way you’d like, just with a spending cap on the top. If you like hanging out in craft stores, for example, you can do so, but you’re capped at $30 a month for yarn.

    I have a book spending cap that affords me about three books a month. It used to be higher, but I found that with the other practices in this article, my actual book purchasing has declined over the years and thus I’ve also trimmed my book budget. This is more than enough to leave me feeling as though I can buy what books I want when I want while keeping my finances healthy.

    We welcome your feedback on this article. Contact us at inquiries@thesimpledollar.com with comments or questions.

    Trent Hamm

    Founder & Columnist

    Trent Hamm founded The Simple Dollar in 2006 and still writes a daily column on personal finance. He’s the author of three books published by Simon & Schuster and Financial Times Press, has contributed to Business Insider, US News & World Report, Yahoo Finance, and Lifehacker, and his financial advice has been featured in The New York Times, TIME, Forbes, The Guardian, and elsewhere.