Finding the Sweet Spot in Habit Spending

I’ve been reading Gretchen Rubin’s Better than Before, recommended by several folks lately. The book is a practical guide to forming habits, and I am enjoying it. One thing that has stuck with me is Rubin’s discussion of how people spend money on habit formation. She divides people into two categories: underbuyers and overbuyers.

The Problem with Overbuying

In a shocking turn of events (said no one), I am an underbuyer, while Mr. Steward is an overbuyer. [“No, I’m a buyer,” Mr. Steward says.] Overbuyers want to buy all of the things related to a habit at the outset. In his enthusiasm, Mr. Steward starts a habit expensively, then scales back as he finds cheaper alternatives. When Mr. Steward started reading comics, he ordered tons of series in individual issues, which is basically the most expensive way to read comics. He has since not only dialed back the number of series that he reads, but also buys in collected editions, which are cheaper and retain value better. Nonetheless, our closet features several boxes of single comic issues.

Some of the downsides of overbuying are obvious. Overbuyers may waste money on items for a habit that doesn’t stick, leaving them out the cash and with a house full of guilt-inducing stuff. There are also the psychological drawbacks. Sometimes, the act of buying stuff for a habit stands in place of actually doing the habit. There is also the risk of making a habit so convenient that it falls apart when any impediment arises. (I always wonder how people who lose weight with mail order food services fare when they quit the service.) Finally, overbuying can be a product of trying to create the perfect conditions before starting a new habit. Coincidentally, thinking like that often ends a habit before it is established.

The Problem with Underbuying

Before anyone thinks I’m being too much of a meaniepants to Mr. Steward, let’s talk about how underbuying is just as bad. Underbuyers don’t buy even the basic things needed to successfully start a habit. For example, I tried to participate in National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) last year. I decided that I probably didn’t need a replacement when my old one died not long beforehand, even though I enjoyed my former laptop. Instead, I stubbornly tried to make it through the month with a rigged-up Bluetooth keyboard (borrowed, because God forbid I spend the money to buy one) on a Kindle Fire. Suffice it to say, I spent a majority of the time I should have been writing fussing with technology not made for the task.

For another example, I want to start riding a bike to work. Over time, this could save me a lot of money on gas and car maintenance, while also making me healthier. The only problem? I don’t own a bike. My fear that I would buy a bike and not use it is significant enough that it has held me back from giving it a shot, despite the potential benefits.

Underbuying is a classic example of being cheap rather than frugal. If I’m trying to form a new habit, I do myself a disservice by refusing to invest in the tools needed to succeed in that habit. I’ve wondered lately how many times I haven’t followed through on a habit just because I made the conditions too superficially onerous by not investing in the right tools. Worse, I can think of several times that I ruled out some habits that might have been great for me because I didn’t want to spend the small initial outlay needed to get started.

Where Is the Sweet Spot in Habit Spending?

So how do we walk the line between underbuying and overbuying? We need to figure out what is needed to start a habit safely and successfully. (A genius friend coined that line, not me.) Let’s break that sentence down into its component parts, using my desired bike habit as an example.

Start: This part is particularly relevant to overbuyers, who tend to put the cart before the horse in habit formation. All you need to start riding a bike is a bike and a helmet. An overbuyer might ask, “What if I want to ride in non-ideal weather conditions? What if I get a flat?” and so on. They would benefit from instead asking, “Is this item needed to just get started?”

Safely: Underbuyers need to consider whether or not they’re putting themselves at risk by not investing more money into a habit. An underbuyer might decide that they’ll get that old bike with brakes that stick, or that they don’t really need to buy a helmet for their bike until they test the waters a bit. Any time someone won’t spend a nominal outlay of money to increase their personal safety, I think it’s safe to say they’re being cheap rather than smart.

Successfully: Obviously, this is the most wishy-washy part, for both types of spenders. Underbuyers should seriously consider if any purchases could greatly increase their odds of success in forming a good habit (like, you know, owning a bike if you want to ride one). If so, they should strongly consider buying those items. Overbuyers should ask the same question, but emphasize the greatly part. If the item only nominally increases the odds of success, you can probably do without it until your habit is established.

And, as always, remember that borrowing or buying used are always options! While I go scour Craiglist for a ladies’ road bike, tell me what you think. Are you an overbuyer or underbuyer? What are your strategies for finding the sweet spot in habit spending?

6 Replies to “Finding the Sweet Spot in Habit Spending”

  1. youmeanme

    Love this! I’m an over buyer which makes me a salesperson’s dream!
    Because that habit burned me I became a bit of an under buyer. I’m still struggling to find my sweet spot.

    • Ms. Steward

      As is probably obvious from my entry, I am an underbuyer, but that stems from all the times I bought stuff for a habit, then did not follow through.

      Another thing I find fabulous is that I’m finding people aren’t always the type you’d expect! It’s fun to learn.

  2. Emily Bedwell

    I want to overbuy, but the reality is I’ve been burned in the past, so I am reluctant to invest in new hobbies – almost to the point where I don’t try anything that involves an investment (money-wise).

    Also, kuddos to you for wanting to bike to work. I had a friend that did that living out be the airport to campus. They did it for about a season, but found competing with traffic to be too harrowing.

    • Ms. Steward

      That is my #1 concern, honestly, moreso than the fitness part. I will have to carefully plot a backroads course. But that’s my #1 fear regarding a biking habit not sticking.

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