Frugal Friday: Detox From The Treat Spiral

I’ll be honest.  I can’t wait for no spend month to be over. I can’t wait to spend money again.

This is how I’ve felt every time we’ve done the no-spend exercise – by the time the month is over, I’m ready to start laying down some cash. We all feel better for the occasional splurge, for a treat or some small favor done to reward ourselves for a job well done. This seems obvious anecdotally but there is even some real research into the topic: rewarding ourselves makes us happy, at least for a little while.

Studies of intoxicants have demonstrated that what makes us feel good isn’t, for example, being drunk. What makes us feel good is getting drunk. Once we hit a certain level of intoxication, and in fact once our body starts processing the intoxicant away, the fun goes out of it. We need another drink.  We need to keep feeling the increase in intoxication. This rising curve effect permeates our understanding of how people respond to mood altering chemicals.
I think “treating ourselves” with that splurge, that indulgence, follows the same effect.  The thrill of a “treat” requires that it be something more than the ordinary.  If my routine is coffee at home, a Starbuck’s latte becomes a treat. If my routine is a latte every morning, it might be a treat to tack on a Top Pot donut.  If my routine is that latte and donut combo…well, to treat myself I’d need to add something else, perhaps a breakfast sandwich.  Once the daily order is latte, donut, and breakfast sandwich, the something special needs to be…well, probably a nutritionist, but you get the idea.

It is the treat spiral.

No Spend Month is a sort of reboot, a cold-turkey shut down of that treat spiral. For a month, it substitutes the challenge of meeting a goal for the easy relief of a treat here, an indulgence there.  Once through that month, the curve is reset – all the way back to zero, or damn close to it.  Sure, the treat spiral may climb up again, but that’s just part of why we repeat this twice a year, each time after the distorting decadence of a round of holidays.

So how am I going to (temporarily) buy happiness once the yoke of No Spend is off my shoulders?

Will I go to the Apple Store and drop a few thousand on a nice Cinema Display?  Rush down to Newcastle Golf Club and spend $165 for a tee time? Go to the Harley Davidson store and rent myself a Softail and play rebel for a day? Respectively: No, because I don’t have a place to put one. No, because my golf game is more at the $7 pitch-and-putt level. No, because I lack leathers, a motorcycle endorsement, and any interest in riding.

So just what am I so excited to spend money on?

I think I will buy myself a $5 happy hour beer on Wednesday, killing an hour between corporate America day job and tutoring moonlight gig. I’m going to order a couple packs of yeast so I can get some brews going again.  $6.25 each through Northern Brewer.  If I really go nuts and absolutely loose control of myself, I might log on to and pre-order the new book about Stone Brewing.

But the point is, my expectations have been reset. Come Wednesday, it will be quite the treat to order that happy hour beer. I’ll walk up to the bar with a little swagger…slap my five spot down, order a Manny’s and feel like I’m treating myself like a million bucks.

And that is the real value of No Spend Month: by denying ourselves the unnecessary for a month we reinvigorate the joy and the gratitude we feel when we do allow ourselves those small indulgences.

Has the treat spiral ever caught you unawares? How do you indulge yourself while staying frugal?


  1. Robert E. Marc says

    Wow. We just did no spend month. You are so right about recalibration. Expectations become different and all manner of things become transformed in value. Anyway, thanks for your continuing saga. We enjoy it.

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