On Mindful Spending and Going Against my Values

Encapsulating My Values

Let me begin with the basis for this episode: I am on a weekly food budget. Each week, I challenge myself to spend no more than $80, including restaurant meals. It is, I think, a reasonable budget for a single person who’s also a food enthusiast. I force myself to be careful and creative with my shopping, with the goal of coming in UNDER budget (carry-over can be “banked”, so to speak). Additionally, I track my food spending—item by item. NOT $7.98 at Pay Less, but rather $3.00 for avocados, $2.50 for cottage cheese, etc. I do this for several reasons. One, to learn to live with less. Generally, I’m quite good at living below my means, but I felt there was still room for improvement. If I know I have to enter each item on a spreadsheet, I think twice about buying, asking myself if I really need it. Two, it’s part of overall expense-tracking. And three, it makes me think about my spending in terms of my values.

So, What Happened

Last week, I was pretty close to my $80 cap. And I wanted yogurt (a common ingredient in a nofunlatte breakfast). And I wanted to make my own yogurt (a common activity in the nofunlatte household). The problem? I had no milk.

For the record, I do not practice a 100% organic, local lifestyle. But that is still important to me. We can get caught up in perfection, realize its unattainability, and simply throw up our hands in frustration and quit. So, I try to do reasonably well, operating on the Pareto modified Principle, where 80% of my purchases are “good” and not sweating the other 20%. Yes, I try to buy food that reflect my values—health-promoting or organic or fair-trade or local or produced by someone or some company with ideals similar to mine. So far, so good. So, I went to a local grocery store, a little short on time, and calculated that I could not buy any local or organic milk with what I had left. Instead of making a choice to forgo milk until the following week or just go over the budget for once, I scanned the refrigerated section for a cheap quart of milk. And what I found was a half-gallon. For 69 cents. Yes, 69 cents. And I bought it.

A Lesson Learned

I bought that milk, even though the cheapness of the price was gnawing at me. I took it home, put it in my refrigerator, and tried to think of a valid excuse for buying it. I could not think of one. I knew I had compromised my values. And that, my friends, was a very good lesson. The remorse from that purchase meant that I would not make that choice again. The few dollars I saved? Paid for them with the uncomfortable feelings of guilt.

Ironically—or, perhaps, a nudge from Providence—I read a ’poignant blog post the next night, a post on the difficult road that dairy farmers face. Dairy farming, never an easy way to make a living, is in crisis, with farmers not even breaking even. Some of this has to do with changing tastes, as Americans (and yes, this is a US-centric post) drink less dairy milk and more alternative milks (e.g. soy, almond). But a lot is due to the conglomeration of the dairy industry, with mega-producers dictating the rules, quashing the small farmer. Some are turning to cheesemaking, in an attempt to create a value-added product. Some are leaving farming. And sadly, some are committing suicide.

America: Land of the Cheap

Cheap food, that is. Yet, according to USDA data, Americans spend approximately 6.4% of their income on food, about the lowest percentage in the world. And while I’m not sure if this figure represents actual food purchases and not restaurant meals, it probably doesn’t matter. The point is, I know that I’m already getting a break by buying in the country with the cheapest food. I am informed and I know better. Buying this didn’t fit my carefully considered values. And yet, sadly, I let myself be seduced by a 69-cent half-gallon of milk.

An Addendum and Explanations

First, I am not suggesting that people who are struggling to feed themselves and/or their loved ones ought to “overspend”. For them, that milk might’ve been a good source of protein that week. Second, this post is not an invitation for vegans (or their flipsided brethren, paleo diet adherents) to proselytize—I am fully aware that for many, a dairy-free diet works well. That is not the point of the post. Rather, I suggest that readers consider their spending—and their food spending in particular—in light of their carefully thought out set of values.

The Year of Living Frugally: An Introduction

A Clarification

First, I have no intentions of going hog-wild with rampant overspending come January 1, 2019. I’m not going to cash in my retirement accounts to buy boxes upon boxes upon boxes of useless “needs” from Amazon so that Jeff Bezos can be even richer than he already is. I am not going to raid my emergency fund to amass the complete set of Beanie Babies™. By nature and nurture, I am already a saver (thanks, Mom and Dad!) Indeed, I was one of the people queried in a journal article on the tightwad-spendthrift scale; my score had me firmly in tightwad country. But I’m working on ramping up my savings and thought I’d post publicly about it, as a way of keeping myself motivated. I started my career later than most (thanks to a delayed entry into college and then a couple of additional degrees beyond the bachelor’s), I’m living away from family, and frankly, independence is one of my core values. That includes financial independence. But while I’m pretty adept at living within (and below) my means, there certainly is room for improvement. Starbucks, for example, would be a perfect place to cut some of my spending!

What Are My Goals Here?

A bigger balance in the bank, for sure. I am responsible for myself. But also to enjoy life’s simple pleasures (i.e. the ones that cost little or nothing—the view of sunsets from the back of my house, a good book, throwing dinner parties where the conversation is scintillating, seeing Mars and Jupiter on a cold, clear January morning.) To reduce consumption. And to give more to organizations with values I share and people I care about.

But I Am Not Giving Up $27/lb Cheese

Je suis une turophile (I am a cheese lover). A serious cheese-a-holic. I love seeking out unusual varieties, typically artisanal and/or farmstead. Indeed, I’ve planned vacations around cheese! Supporting small or local producers is important to me. I’ve had the good fortune to have had conversations with several cheesemakers and it is a difficult life, made even harder by ridiculous agricultural policies that favor the likes of Kraft and Sargento. I feel good about spending this money and I’d rather cut back elsewhere than give up quality food. Better a small amount of something delicious than a vatful of overly processed garbage with added sugar where it doesn’t belong. I’d rather put my food dollars back into the hands of local organic farmers like Wendy Carpenter than in the pockets of ConAgra or Monsanto executives.

Please note that I rarely buy a pound of cheese at once (unless I’ve got a dinner party or luncheon planned or I am planning to give it as a gift).

Mindful Spending and a New Relationship with Money: The Ultimate Goals

These. Are. The. Goals. Mindfulness in general, but mindful spending in particular. I think we all need to remember that money is a tool, not the end but a means. So simply amassing money to have it is as much of a problem as willful, indulgent, irresponsible spending. Saving so that one can support oneself is admirable, but saving just to say “I have a bigger bank balance than you” is silly (and, frankly, points to a sad, insecure existence and/or hoarding). You don’t have money at that point; money has you. The flipside—spending, spending, spending, usually on credit—is equally unbalanced; in this case, you are owned by your stuff. Both are two sides of a greedy coin. Truly, the key is to strike a balance.

It Boils Down to My Values

It comes down to my values. What do I care about? What do I want to use money FOR? Supporting myself so I don’t burden others. Nurturing my relationships with my cherished and strongly loved friends. Contributing to causes important to me. Doing my part to reduce the rampant, soul-strangling consumerism that grips our society. And yes, some $27/lb cheese.

Finding Values

What Do I Mean?

In my previous post, I briefly touched on the need to define one’s values (and yes, to live a fully meaningful life, values identification is necessary). I ‘d like to expand on this a bit. Frankly, I think we (the general “we”) don’t pay enough attention to the values that actually resonate with us, selecting, instead, those we think we “should” value. So, when working to clarify what is most important to you, be honest with yourself. If you aren’t, then the values you proclaim to be central to you are mere falsehoods. If independence is more important to you than family, that’s fine. If challenge is more important to you than altruism, then select that. Remember, this list will help you define what is truly most important to you. And with that, you can begin to live a more meaningful life of purpose. Your list is just that–YOUR list. Keep it private if you want (I generally do). Take time with it—it took me weeks, if not months, to narrow down exactly what truly spoke to me. And remember that you can edit your list anytime. What is important to you now may be less so in five or ten years.

And How to Do It

To help get you started, I’m linking to a LONG list of values found at Steve Pavlina’s website (he’s a personal development author). Be forewarned that this is a very extensive list (418 strong!) covering the entire gamut of possible principles (“Fashion” is number 163!). Go through the list and without thinking too much, circle those that really speak to you. In a week or a month or even a year, go back to see which ones are the MOST important to you (while retaining the others of course!)


I’ve been thinking that maybe we should teach Values Definition to young people; many seem to drift through life aimlessly or with a palpable dullness because they are living according to someone else’s values, perhaps a parent’s or a teacher’s or even those perceived from society in general. But even those of us beyond our teens or twenty-something-hoods could do well to consider a re-think of values. Look at the (many!) people who have retired without purpose, a sad, lost decline spent watching judge shows on television. Compare them to those who have defined that which gives their lives meaning. Perhaps health and fitness ranks high, so they spend time on daily walks or weightlifting at the gym. Maybe giving back is the key for them and volunteering becomes a reason to get out of bed in the morning. Perhaps they’ve now found the time to embrace their inner activist and conducted letter-writing campaigns to politicians (or even run for office themselves!). This would not be possible if they didn’t, on some level, know what they hold dear.

Time for a Conversation?

”Yes” is my answer. I think it’s time for a national conversation. Although I started this work back in January (obviously I didn’t work on it 24/7), the full import of it became apparent after I read Emily Esfahani Smith’s “The Power of Meaning”. And, while a national conversation might be a bit of a pipe dream now, we can certainly discuss this with those close to us if we’d like—our friends, our families, our communities. So, my advice to you is to start working on this—nobody, NOBODY, is getting any younger and the sooner you can define your values, the sooner you can identify or hone your life’s purpose.