I first learned about the concept of “intentional spending” framed as “conscious consumption” back in 2015.
I was living in Charlottesville and volunteering for a number of organizations focused on environmental sustainability and stewardship. I remember being at a movie night hosted by an organization called Better World Betty.
We watched a short film detailing the lifespan of many everyday products we consume. Everything from our toiletries and pens to computers and cars. It was obvious we were consuming too much, and eventually our resources are going to run out.
That short film dramatically changed the way I thought about consumption. It laid the foundation for my drive to consume less and spend more intentionally.
When I spend money intentionally, I pause to consider if a purchase is truly necessary before going through with it.
Usually, if I don’t really need it, I don’t buy it
This isn’t a tactic I’m using to become a millionaire, or gain financial independence and retire early, but that would definitely be an added bonus.
It’s a mindset – or a lifestyle – to choose to spend intentionally based on my desire to reduce my overall consumption, and as a byproduct, my carbon footprint.
Now don’t get me wrong, all those folks in the FIRE (financial freedom, retire early) movement are definitely spending with intention
How could they not? Most of them are saving half their income or more so they can stop clocking into the everyday grind and get out there to do what they truly love. That takes real commitment and intention.
However, it’s more than just saying no when it’s something I don’t really need. I’ll admit there are definitely times when I buy something I don’t truly need, once again, I’m not on the FIRE train. This is the “intentional” part of intentional spending. I pause and think about the spending. I am spending on purpose, for some purpose, even if it’s not a need.
I also try to buy from brands whose values align with my own. Do they have a focus on improving our planet, going carbon neutral, or have eco-friendly packaging? This definitely isn’t 100% of the brands I shop, but I do factor this into my choices when possible.
I don’t spend compulsively or thoughtlessly
This is also a mindset and lifestyle shift. It is SO easy to tap or swipe and have most things we want delivered right to our doorstep. It’s all at our fingertips, but how often do you spend without actually thinking about it? The ad caught your eye and the next thing you know you’re looking at the order confirmation page.
This is because shopping triggers the reward pathways in our brain, just like many other habits, causing a flood of dopamine in our brains. Dopamine creates the pleasure response in the brain. This “rush” can become such a powerful feeling, even if somewhat unconsciously, that there is little or no thought involved in the action of spending. This is not intentional spending, this is borderline addiction.
So how do we reverse this type of behavior?
One of the first steps toward reversing thoughtless or compulsive spending is to admit that you’re not spending with intention and then commit to making change.
As with anything else you’re trying to change about yourself, if you don’t really want to change, then you won’t.
Once you’re truly committed, then just pay attention. You’re not going to get it right 100% of the time right away and that’s okay. It will take time, practice, and awareness.
Some tips that have helped me spend with intention:
- Create a ritual where you make a list before you go to the store. Double check the list to see if there is anything unnecessary on the list. At the store, only buy what’s on the list.
- Lock your credit card from your bank’s online website to help prevent overspending or help control the spending of authorized users.
- Come up with a mantra to repeat daily to help remind yourself not to compulsively buy things “I will only spend with intention” or something along those lines.
- Do some research on conscious consumption and planned obsolesce to get a visual reminder of our societally accepted overconsumption.
- Find an accountability partner to help you on this journey. Set up a weekly meeting to talk and share progress, and especially admit if you did any thoughtless buying.
Intentional spending is key if you’re trying to save up for a big financial goal or even just make ends meet and keep your budget on track.
I have seen this play out recently as I’ve started helping my brother manage his finances. He bought a house, got a new job, moved to a new, more expensive city, and really had no awareness of how much he was spending or how to actually ensure all his obligations were met.
We are in constant communication about his spending. I’m running his Tiller-powered spreadsheet budget while he’s in this adjustment period to figure out how to transition from living paycheck to paycheck to spending intentionally and actually saving for the future.
Over the last month we’ve seen shifts in his spending behavior
No more money spent on dining out, they’re cooking all their meals at home. No more random toys for the kids. No more subscription services like Netflix or Xbox Live.
These changes are incredibly challenging to make because the brain is literally wired to continue doing the things that create pleasure, but with a little time and patience, real change can happen.