Mini-Money Challenge: Occupy Your Brain (Why You Don’t Really Want What You Want)

I had a dream the other night. I was working some corporate job and my boss lent me his car to run errands over the weekend. In the dream, I didn’t know what kind of car it was, and somehow Homebrew Husband ended up driving it to pick me up from this job.

This was more-or-less the car, a very fancy silver convertible Mercedes:

In my dream, I got in the car and Homebrew Husband drove kinda fast, zipping around other cars. The windows were down. I was surrounded by automotive opulence. Homebrew Husband bobbed and wove around semi-trucks and, improbably, had to dodge a clump of bamboo that grew spontaneously in the middle of the road.

I hated this experience. It wasn’t fun or exciting, it was just scary. I didn’t want the burden of this fancy, expensive car. I didn’t want to worry about what would happen if I scratched the paint on bamboo groves popping through the highway. I dream-resented my dream-boss for dream-saddling me with his super-fancy luxury dream-Mercedes.

In my real, waking life, I know with 100% certainty that I do not want to own a $65,000 car with no room for a car seat or a bale of hay. Even if that vehicle was given to me for free, it’s not something I would want to maintain, insure, gas-up, wash or worry about scratching. It was interesting to learn that apparently my subconscious agrees with my conscious mind on this.

What does this have to do with No Spend Month? Everything! Values-based spending is largely about being wholly in charge of and aware of how and why you spend money as you do. It’s about prioritizing your expenditures to truly represent what you want long-term, and not what you are told to want right now.

“Well, of course I want what I want because I want it,” you might say. “That’s pretty obvious.”

But it’s not, actually. In 2011, $144 billion was spent on advertising in the U.S. As a quick comparison, the total 2011 budget for NASA was $19 billion. If NASA can put Rovers on Mars with an annual budget that’s 13% that of the ad industry’s, what can the full $144 billion targeted right at your brain do?

It can do tons.

Advertising effectively creates desires where none existed. It elicits feelings of fear, playfulness, inadequacy, pride, helplessness and more in order to sell things totally unrelated to those emotions. It convinces otherwise sensible people that there is a noticeable difference between identical items because of the suggestions on the label. Ads really can – and do – get in your head and tickle your neurons in just the way the ad creator wants. That’s power.

Cultivating values-based spending habits means reclaiming your purchasing power. Think of it as an Occupy Movement for Your Brain with trickle-down benefits for Your Wallet. This isn’t as easy as simply not buying stuff. You have to start to think about why you are drawn to buy the things you are, and what you are really trying to create in your life with that purchase. I’ll warn ya: this can get downright introspective, even uncomfortable.

Your Mini-Money Challenge

Your Mini-Money Challenge today is to write down five tangible, purchasable items you want. Really important things like world peace and healthy children don’t count – you can’t buy those things. Things like a new Prius, $400 Jeans, or a Crockpot do. If you are doing No Spend Month, you may already have a running list of things you haven’t purchased because of the challenge that you’d really like to get.

Jot down why you think you want these things, and then think a little deeper about what is really driving you to want these things. What problem do you think each purchase will solve? What feeling are these expenditures addressing? Once you nail those things down it’s easier to identify what you really want.

Here’s an example:

Once you’ve nailed down what you really want, it’s pretty simple to look at the item you think you want, compare it to what you really want and ask, “Is this purchase the best way to achieve this?”

Sometimes, the answer will be, “Absolutely.”

Usually, especially at first, it won’t be. If you find yourself equivocating, saying things like, “Well, those jeans do make me feel attractive, for awhile…” then seriously think about if that particular spending solution is the best solution. It probably isn’t.

And if you weren’t able to even come up with the reason why you wanted one of your items? Dude, seriously? Cross that thing off your list for good and never look back.

You can download a blank What I Really Want From My Purchases Chart to make this Mini-Money Challenge super simple – just fill in the blanks.

Over time, as you reclaim your purchasing power from the power of advertising and cultural suggestion, this kind of values-based spending analysis will become easier and easier. Eventually, it’s a second-nature, do-it-in-your-head exercise.

This doesn’t mean you’ll never spend money spontaneously or impulse buy. I have definite areas where I still fall for Hope In A Bottle salesmanship. But it gets easier, and I’m more aware of when I am “falling for it.”

PS: Occupying Your Brain is a lot easier if you’ve ditched TV. Just sayin’.

Have you bought things for the wrong reason and regretted it later? What stuff do you tend to buy to solve a problem that can’t be solved by all that stuff anyway?


  1. says

    I’m sure the fact that we haven’t been hooked up to tv or cable for eight years now helps a LOT with the “Gott’a have it” problem. I’m thankful that my daughter doesn’t have to deal with all that advertising bombarding her still-developing brain. Besides… saves me TONS on Christmas & Birthday gifts! If she doesn’t “Know” she want’s it, she doesn’t need it!

  2. says

    Hah, one of things on my list is a new flat screen TV. Which we don’t need -we already have 4 regular old tv’s (more tv’s than people who live here.) Thanks for making me examine my motives.

    • Debbie N says

      Mine as well. My television went out about 3 months ago and now that fall is here I am craving television like an x smoker craves ciggerettes.

  3. Homebrew Husband says

    I’m really passionate about this – understanding what you reall “want”, not as a posession or even as a goal, but out of life. Erica’s chart is a glorious thing, partially because it applies not just to counter-consumer-hippie-gardener stuff, but also to even the most superficially mainstream and even consumerist of interests right alongside the hippie-greenie passions:

    I want a big-screen TV -> Because I get a lot of value out of watching and supporting my local sports team -> That money might be better spent getting tickets to go see a few games in person.

    I want a new Ping driver -> Because golf is my passion above all other hobbies and I want to do better -> Perhaps I’d rather spend the money playing a few more rounds of golf and actually doing the thing for which I profess such a passion.

    I want a grey-water recycling system -> Because I’m trying to live off the grid and screw the man! -> I should put that money to paying off my mortgage first so I can buy a house in the country and move out of this development community where I have to drive fifty miles each way to work.

    One thing I learned from my brief and broadly unsuccessful foray into project management (other than that I don’t like project management very much) is that you have to really understand why you are doing something – not just the end goo-gaws that you will hold in your hands but the reason you want or need those goo-gaws to in your hands in the first place.

  4. c. says

    I want those new shiny uber expensive lopers. What for? To never have another broken pair of lopers AGAIN, in the middle of pruning season. Will they get me there? Well, every single gardening person, tree trimming person, etc. I’ve asked for recommendations say that is the brand to go with.

    So what now? put pennies in the penny jar? I need some new jars ;)

    Just a hint, growing up with out a TV makes this so much easier. So think of your children when you ditch the TV. They will have an easier time making decisions.

    • says

      Well, anything related to pruning is obviously exempt from any kind of rationality and can be impulse purchased at will. Oh, wait…. ;)

      But you have very effectively found one of my purchasing achilles tendons – quality gardening tools. But what do I really want when I covet those new pair of Felcos? To be the kind of person who takes better care of her tools and never, ever leaves them out in the Seattle rain and then feels like a jerk for allowing perfectly lovely tools to get all rusty. I’m still working on that. :)

      • c. says

        Well, I don’t leave my tools out. They’d either get stolen (front yard garden) or my dad’s training would echo so loudly in my sleep I’d not be able to sleep. You use a tool, clean it and put it back where it belongs every time or you don’t get to use that tool again. Period. Growing up with that, well, it becomes a reflex. Good lesson to ingrain early.

        What I really don’t want, the indecision of standing at the local hardware store, fondling three different brands, knowing two of those brands have broken on me in the last 4 years. The disappointment of getting to set aside time to DO PRUNING and then the tool is broken, again. Horrible disappointment as I like accomplishing garden work. Feels good. I also, very much don’t want to waste money. It’s painful. But now I feel like I’ve wasted half the price of a good pruner in broken pruners and that I made a bad decision twice now, am scared to make another bad decision, can’t afford it.

        Oh and I do not want to have to drive to the hardware store, again. Too much temptation exists there. I’d rather stay in the garden :D

  5. queenofstring says

    The best saying I have read in a long time adresses my impulse purchases.
    “Do not reward yourself with food. You are not a dog.”

    It’s my new mantra :-)

      • STH says

        This is a really good point, queenofstring, that we also eat for reasons that have nothing to do with nourishing the body. Just like we buy things because we want to feel a certain way, we also eat to to feel a certain way: less lonely, less sad, less bored.

        Well, I do, anyway, and I suspect I’m not the only one.

  6. says

    Well, we do have television, and because it’s not up to me alone, we probably always will, but my kids only watch public broadcasting channels for kids programming. They barely even know what a commercial is, other than being annoyed when we watch shows together because none of the commercials apply to them. ;-)

  7. says

    I haven’t noticed very many wants in a while, and I bet that your right about the tv (I don’t have one). I also don’t have any magazine subscriptions and I have a pretty good ad blocking on my computer.

    That said, there is one thing that I’ve been thinking about buying: a pair of pants. Or two. Because I lost some belly fat (biking to work everyday or almost every day will do that to you), and now all my pants sag down pretty far.

    I’m also thinking of buying vegetable seeds for next year, root bags so I can grow fruit trees and take them with me when I move in three years, and a gift for my mom of some amarillus bulbs (of a kind that aren’t available in stores locally, so I have to mail order them).

    My biggest purchasing mistake was getting two kayaks. Yes, we love to kayak, but we weren’t going to used them often enough to justify the purchase. Luckly, we were able to return them. I also bought a lawn mower, brand new, once. Gah.

  8. Bruce says

    The hardest question most people have to answer isn’t about what they don’t want, it’s really about what they do want. This is a monumental question for most people. When you ask them, you’ll usually get a list of what they don’t want. That’s normal. We are trained to respond with the negativity of life (Don’t want traffic, congestion, higher taxes, expensive food, etc., etc.) And they can usually tell you why they don’t want those things and they’ll give pretty good reasons for their choices.

    But to really get inside anyone’s head, especially your own, takes time, directed questioning, unconditional acceptance of the answers and trust. In order to distill their desires to the core goals and objectives, one will have to peel away lots of garbage, rationalizations, comparisons to others, excuses, feelings of unworthiness and just plain doubt that their goal is possible.

    But it is so very worth the journey. Once you get to the core of desire, the very heart, then you can build a path to achieving it. Then you can eliminate the nay-saying of others, the doubt that comes in those voices in your head that challenge you and the many other obstacles we place in our own way. Then you can really live.

    Gardening for me helps me to focus on what’s real, what’s possible and what I really want. It forces me to spend some time inside my head as I’m watering, weeding, planting, harvesting, pruning, turning and the myriad other tasks and chores that come with it. It gives me time to be among living things, to feel the energy of it all and to find my place in this wonderful universe.

    And I never have to worry about market share, cost-benefit analyses, opinions of focus groups or demographic trends. I don’t have to wonder if my teeth are white enough, if my clothes are stylish enough, if I’m driving the ‘right’ car, if my ‘reality show’ is cooler than your ‘reality show,’ or if (during this season at least) I’m voting for the right person.

    It’s my personal ‘reset’ button and I get to press it daily.

  9. Pete C. says

    My wife and I have been doing this sort of thing for a while now- ditched cable a couple of years ago; just keep TV with a DVD player and some older video games around for the kids (and me) on rainy days. My wife’s been really fantastic too, doing a lot of home canning and growing our food, cutting clutter out of the house- we live in about 525 square feet with two kids and two dogs, and we have empty space. Love it.

  10. Joss says

    All my purchases come back to a fantasy of more family time and more social time with others. The playroom is arranged with playdates in mind, but hasn’t made it easier to meet people or make friends. I think even preparedness comes back to a desire for my husband to stay home with us and to live a Little House in the Big Woods kind of life of closeness and meaningful work.

  11. says

    I want a dress form in my size. Practically, it will make sewing clothing for myself easier. Emotionally, I’m hoping it will encourage me to take time to sew more often. I enjoy it, but don’t “allow” myself to do it as often as I’d like. So, it’s up to me whether I grant myself more time at the sewing machine, but if I can jump that hurdle, a dress form could be a valid want.

    I want some of those little tiny “shot glass” style dessert dishes for mini desserts. I don’t really need them, I don’t have room to store them, we we rarely eat dessert. They appealed to my sense of amusement at finding everyday items in miniature sizes, and they were displayed next to a mini dessert cookbook on a day that I was shopping while hungry. This want is literally eye candy and nothing more.

    I want a pair of skinny jeans. I don’t own any yet because think they would be uncomfortable, but I have boots that need jeans tucked inside them rather than over them. Another solution would be to get rid of the boots.

    Still working on identifying a couple more wants. I agree with you and the others — when you don’t see many ads (TV, magazines, etc.), it’s easy to not want much.

    One thing I’ve noticed is that I am sometimes drawn to the way a store display is set, the colors and patterns that have been chosen, or other aesthetics. I might be tricked at first into thinking I want a thing (or things) in the display, but if I stop to consider, I realize I just want to look. I truly have no desire to have those things in my home, especially out of the context of the display. Maybe I should treat shopping like a visit to a museum.

  12. Tara says

    I found that the time in my life when I wanted the least was when I was living on a farm in the south of France. No one was wearing fancy clothes or jewelry, no one was driving fancy cars, and everything was purely functional. We had a TV but since what was shown on it was so far from my daily life it seemed not to affect my wants – what would I do with X out here on a dirty farm? Living in a city now, despite the fact that I don’t watch TV, I see people all around me with nice clothes, jewelry, cars, electronic gadgets, and that affects me more than what I ever saw on TV. But I learned a few years ago that buying stuff does not make me happy, it just brings momentary pleasure, and that’s not what I’m after these days. I am all about discovering and pursuing my heart’s true desire.

  13. says

    I buy little things to console myself for the big things I cannot have. Some of those big things would be purchasable, but most of them are not. The comment above about treating shopping like a museum would probably work for me, as a shopping trip is primarily distraction. Thanks.

    • says

      Hey Joe, that’s a really great exercise, thank you for sharing it. Notice how both of our “systems” if you will come back to feelings. I think this is key – whether we recognize it or not the majority of things we buy are bought to create (or take away) some feeling or emotional state.

  14. Kallie says

    My weakness is kitchen gadgets. I have several I’ve been considering purchasing as a reward for cooking more at home. I have made myself a promise that the day I can’t make the dish without the gadget is when I’ll put it on the shopping list. I have found this has really helped me not buy. I want an Excalibur Dehydrator, but I already have a small dehydrator that I haven’t used for 2 years, so if I ever start using it on a regular basis and it isn’t big enough for the tasks then I can put the Ex on the list. I’ve also promised myself I can’t buy better garden tools until I’ve found a proper place for the ones I have, which get left out way too often.

    I too have given up pay TV, but still watch antenna TV. I find myself rolling my eyes at most commercials it’s hard to believe that these ads actually increase sales of any sort. I did find myself yelling at the TV the way guys yell at sports when an add for disposable bath towels came on. I’m happy to say I haven’t seen that in a while. It made it seem as if your bath towels could never be washed.

    • says

      I also wanted the excalibur, but here in Australia it’s $450.00 so that’s not happening. I was talking to my close friend the other day and she said that her mother-in-law had just bought her one…the big one; we always trade seeds and swap food together as our children run off to pick whatever’s in season. She surprised me and gave me her old dehydrator when she visited recently, and I’m sure I could always use her excalibur…. looks like it’s going to be a good year for mangos.
      I really like getting sushi out, even just a hand roll occasionally…and it’s healthy (much better than a sugary food), and it supports local small business… I make sushi at home and the whole family loves it, but, it’s just nice while shopping at the farmers market to have a fresh sushi handroll with the nori still crispy on the edges. And I get bagels @$2 each there too….I really should start making bread again…but, the bagels remind me of home, I grew up just outside NYC… kinda like a comfort food I guess and I’m long overdue for a visit, so that explains the bagel need.

  15. says

    I like the way you started this post (and finished it for that matter – and everything in between). My husband’s family recently gave us their old car when they upgraded. It is a Lexus SUV. It was incredibly generous gift, but I was really resistant to it. My resistance resulted in a huge fight with my brother where he called me ungrateful. But your post expressed all of my concerns! I was so nervous driving such an expensive car, our insurance rates went way up, the gas mileage isn’t very good (even though it’s a hybrid), and maintaining it is so much more expensive than the 1993 oldsmobile it replaced. I’m embarrassed when people see me in it – I want to tell everyone at the grocery store that I would never spend money on this and I don’t care about status purchases…but that would be crazy to do, chasing people as they put their carts away. I get flack from my in laws for hauling compost in the back of it or because now it smells like our dogs….but that’s what I need to do. It really felt like they were trying to change my way of living by giving us this car. As if somehow giving me expensive things will prevent me from gardening without my shoes on or wanting to raise chickens in the backyard. Anyway, thank you for some simple living validation!

  16. Jason V says

    I came here from MMM and I really like this post. I think it is a great way to see through consumerism and get in touch with the reasons we often spend money.


  17. Theresa Kimball says

    Nice article….I for years have kept a greed list. I put everything “I want” on it….have a great time shopping catalogs, magazines, the Internet and when I am done….I record my lust….close up my greed list and I am done. Time spent…a cheap entertainment….money stays in the bank.

    I get the part of the new car. My husband bought a new car….a little BMW. I will need a new vehicle soon but I love my 2000 Tundra. It is a little banged up, has some scratches but she is mine and I got her as a gift and she fits my “Farmer Brown” lifestyle.

  18. says

    Wow! The ‘What I really want…’ table is fantastically simple yet mindblowing. I have just tried a few examples and it is amazing. I am going to try using it whenever I can, so thank you so much for sharing this.

    These are the 3 ‘wants’ that I tried out with your system. I am due to go to the hairdressers tomorrow, for an expensive cut that I can’t really afford, but what I really want to do is to lose some weight. The ‘wanted’ bookshelves for my cookbooks, actually boil down to having a tidy cupboard and some menu plans. And ‘wanting’ a smallholding in the country, that just seems like an impossible dream that is too expensive, scary and stupid for someone who hasn’t even mastered a small garden – well that turned out to be……. wanting a smallholding in the country!

    I’m looking round our home now and actually we have never had spare money to spend on luxuries. Almost everything is functional and cheap, if not secondhand and something that someone else was getting rid of. My cookery books are mainly ones that my mum was getting rid of because she didn’t use them, or else files of scraps torn out of free magazines, all too well-worn to be presentable on a shelf! We have spent money on things that enable us to be creative and to learn and work towards our dreams.

    My car is an old 1994 Toyota Previa, plain old not classic, and complete with curtains! I have had for more than 10 years. It is muddy inside and out, but is roomy for my big family, camping trips and kids parties and I love it and will only part with it on death (the cars death, the death of oil, or mine ) Dillon, I can really understand that the Lexus doesn’t express who you are. Run-down, messy, but solid and dependable is a car that expresses me well!



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