Some readers, 48 percent if the readership is statistically average, will need to get out of the red before they can get into the black. Buying on time is the most common cause of going into debt, easily outdistancing medical emergencies and other personal tragedies. And it is a self-inflicted disaster. While it’s easy to say, “Don’t buy anything until you can pay for it,” this was, in fact, the standard economic wisdom in my parents’ generation. Nowadays, waiting until you can truly afford something before buying it would strike many as un-American. You’re not contributing to the economy!
Little plastic credit cards have become the most common self-enslavement device. “Fewer than half of credit card holders pay up within 30 days,” says Charles Long, author of How to Survive Without a Salary: Learning How to Live the Conserver Lifestyle (Warwick, 1996). “The other half carry an average balance of $1,000, and pay 18 percent interest (or more) on that.” (Bolster Long’s debt figures big time for the twenty-first century!) Department store cards are even worse. An obsessive- compulsive consumer with a credit card is worse than an alcoholic with a key to the wine cellar. The credit card actually brings about unnecessary spending by making it so darned easy. Long recommends a little test. He tells his readers to put the credit card away and return to a cash economy for one month. When the month is up, compare your actual cash spending with the normal charge card bill. “If the cash method has saved you money,” he advises, “you can cut up the card and flush it down the toilet.”
Debt has to be paid off. Bankruptcy is almost never a good strategy. The key here is to stop the rot. Stop going further into debt by buying only with cash and use the various expense-reducing strategies in my book, Mortgage-Free!, (and in Long’s) so that money is released to pay off existing debt. You can’t get ahead until you first break even.
The Material Fast One of the quickest ways to save money—or to get out of debt, the prerequisite— is to go on what Long calls a material fast, which he defines as buying nothing but essentials during a predetermined interlude of Spartan discipline. My wife and I adopted such a strategy in the early days, and, during that time, developed good habits that have served us well ever since. Every purchase was subject to one simple test: “Is this purchase absolutely necessary?” It is amazing how often the answer is no.
A new word has been coined to describe the American consumption pattern: affluenza. I don’t think it requires further definition. The day when the most Americans contract affluenza is the Friday after Thanksgiving, the biggest shopping day in the year. Groups who are concerned about where unbridled consumption is taking us, as individuals, as a nation, and as a world society, have urged Americans to stay away from stores on the day after Thanksgiving. They call it “ Buy Nothing Day,” something like the Great American Smoke-Out, the smoking-free day, also in November. Once you get used to it, it’s surprising how easy it is to break the consumer spending habit. Just see how many Buy Nothing Days you can link together, and watch your grubstake grow. It’s a sure-fire get-rich-slow scheme.
In our experience, the material fast works if three conditions are met.
Goal First, there must be a clear and compelling goal that makes the whole thing worthwhile. For readers of my book, it is becoming free of shelter cost. For readers of Long’s book, it is freedom from a regular job. As I’ve stated, these goals dovetail very nicely. Long tells of a freshly married couple who went on the material fast for six months, putting most of two small paychecks in the bank each pay period. Then they went on a three-month around-the-world tour. They traveled in comfort and paid cash, a great way to start their marriage together. Imagine how they’d grown after six months on the fast followed by three months of experiencing other cultures.
Time Limit There must be an end in sight—three months, six months, a year, two years, whatever. If the savings goal is not met at the end of the specified time period, you have two choices: Reward yourself with a minor splurge like a weekend at a country inn and then renew the fast with a better idea of how long it should be, based on the results of the first period; or reexamine your goal and decide if it can be accomplished on less.
Pulling Together A couple needs to be in mutual agreement about entering into the fast together. Then the partners can actually help each other keep to the fast. It can even become a game: How much can we save this month? Let’s beat last month’s record. Pulling in different directions is an exercise in futility, as when one partner wants to give up smoking and the other doesn’t. I’ve never seen that work. If they have the same goal, pull together, and support each other, however, the chances of success are very high.
The quality of life can go up as the “standard of living”—the accepted euphemism for material consumption—goes down. “Not surprisingly,” says Long:
. . . many families who submit themselves to radical savings binges find their lifestyles permanently altered. Some find that walking feels better than driving, that evenings spent in conversation do more for a marriage than a television does, that old shoes are more comfortable than new ones. The material fast can actually start to become an attractive way of life in itself. The sense that less might actually be better is the beginning of becoming a conserver.
Choices I realize that some of the money-saving tips offered above might involve a departure from your current value system. But I also know that if you really want to build your own mortgage-free home in the country, you’ll find a way to tighten your belt and make the necessary choices. I prefer the word choice to sacrifice. Most people who have already made the kinds of decisions discussed in this article report that they really weren’t sacrifices at all, but were, in fact, qualitative improvements in their physical and spiritual well-being.
Aside from everything else, austerity budgeting is an education. The skills and self-discipline learned will help guide the way when economic impoverishment is not voluntary, particularly during house construction.
And when you get really sick of scrimping and saving and watching every penny, there is no sybaritic pleasure to compare with giving in and indulging in a gourmet dinner with a bottle of fine wine.