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Over the last 10 months I’ve been trying to save money and pay back my debts. A chronic spender and lover of clothes, shoes, spas, traveling, movies, restaurants, coffee shops, art projects (OK, I like spending money on many things), this has been a challenge. It’s not only changed what I do with my friends, but how I view consumption in general. I’ve realized through this process that I need less than I think, and shouldn’t connect my worth/looks to new clothing. I’ve also realized that the more I say “no” to something I desperately want to buy, but don’t need, the sooner the intense grasping feeling inside begins to wane.

This process, at its core, has been a detox from material objects and participating in the consumer lifestyle. It’s been about growing up, taking responsibility for what I have, and what I earn, and being grateful. It has by no means been easy, and there are some days the desire to buy something is overwhelming. And though I falter at times, I keep pressing on, the whittling of debt my inspiration as the load slowly becomes lighter.

My approach with each paycheck has been this: Save 10%, give 10% (I use a cash envelope system for this), pay rent, pay car insurance, buy healthy organic local food, treat myself to a coffee or piece of pie or lunch once in awhile, budget for gas, and steadily pay back those I owe money. This leaving about $100 in my account each time.

I don’t charge anything to my credit card unless I know I can immediately go home and pay it off (and this helps accrue free flight points for when I can travel again). I get movies and books from the library, attempt creative outfits with what I already own, make my own coffee, and pack my lunches. I don’t step foot in a clothing store unless I’m feeling strong. In 10 months at $10/hour, I’ve paid most of my debts off (about $4,500) to my credit card, my parents, and my brothers. I have $1,950 to go, interest free.

In all honesty, money stresses me out, and I tend to panic about looking at my bank account. When I’ve tried to track my spending in the past, it’s only lasted a few months before I’ve given up. I’m terrible at adding and often feel inept.

Throughout the process, I’ve skimmed many money books in an attempt to create the basis for my own plan to be a responsible money handler. I’ve taken Dave Ramsey’s approach of cash in envelopes (for saving and giving; the rest of my bills and expenditures are done online), examined my money attitudes and fears through Your Money or Your Life by Vicki Robin and Joe Dominguez, and Brent Kessel’s It’s Not About the Money. I’ve browsed some of Ruth Hayden’s titles as well. In one of these, I found the sentiment that 80%of how we spend our money is emotional and 20% is management. As I’ve waded through my money fears, attitudes and how these things have manifested in my spending habits, money management has become much less scary, less overwhelming and less frustrating.

As I’m growing in money management, I’ve also discovered I yearn to be a more responsible consumer when that time comes. With my “cease” on spending, I’ve had time to think about where I want my money to go. Which brings me to the other areas I’ve been reading up on: ethical clothing, environmental impact and the “downshifter” lifestyle. Juliet Schor’s books The Overspent American, Plentitude, and Born to Buy have helped me connect with the realities of our culture and incorporate creative ways to find a balance.

You see, spending and money are very intricately linked to lifestyle, relationships, perspective and motivation, which is what makes changing habits so difficult. Extremists like No Impact Man and The Transition Movement have caused me to think about how my consumption affects other people and the environment, as well as tangible solutions I can consider.

And then there’s clothing. I started thinking about the food I buy and the transitions I’ve made in my lifestyle to buy local, organic food. If cheap food comes at a cost (even if we don’t see it), doesn’t cheap clothing come at a cost, too? This is another blog entirely, but I’ve been encouraged by my beginning research to find companies that are ethical and treat their workers well, such as Pure Citizen and People Tree. I’ve also learned there’s an Eco Fashion week in Canada!

So, as Brent Kessel said so well, it’s really not about the money. It’s about using the money as a caveat wisely to buy ethical products (that we love and feel good about using and wearing and don’t enslave others or wreak havoc on the environment!), and create healthy shifts in our lifestyles. It’s about buying less and enjoying more. About examining the idea that just because we can do something, should we? I’ve found that money is not about restricting ourselves, but creating a more holistic, healthy life — for everyone involved in the process.

Thoughts to share?

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