How to spend more mindfully in the new year
Mindfulness and meditation can ease chronic pain, anxiety and depression. Now some money experts say awareness tools such as these can help you avoid impulse purchases and create a spending plan that reflects your values.
There’s no single definition of mindfulness, but Leah Weiss, who teaches leading with mindfulness and compassion at Stanford University’s Graduate School of Business, says it can be viewed as “the intentional use of attention.”
You may want to save every penny, buy only “Made in USA” items or reduce what you send to the landfill. Mindfulness can help you make conscious choices so your everyday purchases live up to that goal.
Check your spending habits: Financial planner and educator Carrie Schwab-Pomerantz recommends starting with a “financial cleanse “ to get a handle on where your money is going. Use cash to cover day-to-day expenses for one month. It’s more painful to part with cash than to pull out plastic, so you’ll build awareness.
Other ways to resist mindless buying:
■Wait a day, or a week. Schwab-Pomerantz says taking time to think before you spend is often enough to get past temptation.
■If you simply cannot wait, she advises buying from a retailer with a good return policy. If you realize you made a mistake, a refund will help more than store credit.
■Don’t tempt yourself. Avoid the places where you tend to buy on impulse.
■If you’re already in the parking lot of such a store, take a few deep breaths and remind yourself why you’re there and what your intentions are, Weiss recommends.
Develop the skill of paying attention: Paying attention helps you pause and think before buying. Trying some simple exercises can help you get better at it.
Meditation — sometimes as little as five to 10 minutes a day of focused breathing — has been shown to affect areas of the brain that control attention, emotion and habit, says Cortland Dahl, a research scientist at the University of Wisconsin’s Center for Healthy Minds. If you want to stop making mindless or money-wasting choices, meditation may help build the “muscle” that enables you to pay attention to your thoughts.
Money is a limited resource for most of us, and thinking — or thinking twice — can help us make conscious choices.
Know what you want: Certified financial planner Carrie Van Winkle of Louisville, Kentucky, uses a “vision board.” She gathers photos and words representing her goals for the year into a display on her refrigerator. It’s a daily reminder of the kind of spending most likely to bring her joy. You can make it as simple as a photo of a vacation destination or a snapshot of your kids to remind yourself you want to save for college or improve the world they live in.
The more specific your goals, the more likely you are to act on them, Weiss says. “’I want to be a conscious consumer’ is vague,” she says. “But, ‘I want to pay attention to the ecological impact of what I buy and choose items that can be recycled’ is more specific.”
Brent Kessel, a certified financial planner and the author of “It’s Not About the Money,” offers this exercise: Imagine your finances a year from now. What changes in how you use money would you feel good about? Maybe you turn a spendy habit into a once-in-a-while treat, then use the savings to get on a plane to visit a friend or relative or raise your 401(k) contribution.
Make spending more meaningful: Kessel recommends tracking your spending to figure out what you value and what you’re likely to regret. Write down what you buy, then note how you felt about it 24 hours later, three days later and a week later. Did your purchase do what you expected it to? Did those new workout clothes inspire you to go to the gym?
Patterns should emerge that will help you make wiser choices over time.
Change is slow, Kessel says. He compares it to a supertanker turning one degree each day. It won’t appear to have altered course 24 hours later, but in six months it will be headed in the opposite direction.
“Give yourself huge props” if you take a baby step toward reversing a habit. “We need kindness and love,” he says. “We don’t change our behaviors by punishment.”