Financial fast: So that's what I've been doing!

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window shoppingI was washing dishes and listening to NPR when Michelle Singletary came on to introduce a "21-day financial fast." At first I was excited with the idea, tinged as it was with the overtones of spirituality (my dad, an ordained minister, is a big lover of the food sort of fasting) and the whole concept of living within one's means. Singletary's rules go like this: except for food and medicine (and of course, utilities and contracted housing costs and other monthly non-negotiables), no purchasing. No plastic, not even a debit card. No purchases at all, unless it's keeping you alive and out of debtor's prison, not even gifts. Much like the alcoholic who's banned from bars when she joins AA, you may not go to malls. You may not window shop. Not even Marshall's! (I made up that last part, but it seems right.)
This is a lovely sentiment, and a friend who's on her second financial fast tells me it's nice. "I'm liking the changes it's making in me." Singletary, in her Washington Post column and on NPR, enumerates the benefits of such a fast: we feel the full pain of our purchases by using cash; when we don't buy anything, we are forced to be creative, make do; when we remove the trappings of shopping, acquiring, desiring, pampering, we can slow down and focus on what truly matters. Paying off debt, say, or saving for retirement, or tithing.

I thought about how nice it would be. And then I blinked my eyes and realized I've been doing that for months, regularly. It's not always 21 days, but due to the possession of zero credit cards, an under-employed husband and my freelance income (we make family pools for when the checks will come in, just like a baby's due date) I've fasted so regularly I have probably earned the ascetic's robes by now.

Yes: a financial fast is truly a gift. It's taught me, for instance, that buying pastries at the coffee shop is almost never worth it; I'll offer to bake the boys an entire loaf of pumpkin bread instead of paying $5.50 for two slices (ouch). In fact, why don't I just use my French press? It doesn't expect a tip. Family walks aren't always undertaken with a purchase at our destination, allowing the boys more time to climb on every garden wall and hop on every paving stone -- no more pulling them away from joy. I always make gifts for friends and family, forcing me to plan ahead and allowing me to soak deep in the rejuvenation of my creative juices. New pants for the boys? I have three of these kiddos. It's up to the sewing room for me to patch knees and hems and buttonholes (and as a bonus, I'm using up all my favorite fabric scraps).

Another friend, when her husband was laid off, took her five-year-old out of a pricey preschool and has been relishing the long morning walks that replaced circle time. Still another friend points to his pantry, fridge and freezer: super organized and clean (because there's so little inside)! I've been using all the kale from the garden and jams and sauces I canned, instead of buying veggies; I've been eating my leftovers. Last night dinner was cabbage and blue potato soup with little bits of ham. Not something I ever would have found in a cookbook. But delicious.

Surely: this financial fasting has been good for me. I've straightened out my priorities; I've slowed my life; I've connected instead of acquired. I'd certainly recommend it. But Michelle? This financial fast chose me, and let me tell you, it's just a teensy bit harder when you don't get to make the rules up on your own.
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