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21-Day Financial Fast
By Michelle Singletary
ZONDERVANCopyright © 2013 Michelle Singletary
All rights reserved.
Twenty-One Days to Financial Freedom
21 Days to Go: Breaking Bonds
Main Point: We need to be set free from the bondage spending holds on our lives.
My Pledge: For the next twenty-one days, I will be on a spending diet. I will not shop for anything except necessities. I will not use my credit card. I will limit or eliminate the use of my debit card. I will use cash for purchases I make during the fast. In this way, I will strive to break the chains that keep me from achieving financial freedom.
"I hated the fast!"
That's what Terri, a federal government worker, said after she finished her first financial fast.
How's that for an opening line?
What you probably expected was a glowing testimony of someone who has gotten out of debt, or saved some amount of money for the first time in his or her life. I do have lots of those stories. In fact, one woman got rid of more than $100,000 in debt. You'll read more about her story later. But for now, I don't want to sugarcoat this process.
You need to know that this isn't going to be an easy journey. The 21-day financial fast is not a quick-fix, microwavable promise of instant prosperity. You will have to work for your financial freedom.
At times, you may want to quit. You may want to scream. You may even break the fast at some point during the twenty-one days. But no matter how many times you falter, make the commitment to get right back on track. Terri did. Here's more of her testimony:
Trying to figure out what I could and could not spend money on was a nuisance. Every day I had conversations with myself that went something like this:
Me: I'm hungry. What can I eat for dinner?
Other me: Umm ... Chinese food sounds good. Call that place that does takeout.
Me: Oh shucks, I can't. I'm on that crazy financial fast. So what's in the house?
Other me: But I'm too tired to cook.
Me: Well, you promised you would stick to the fast. (All along, I'm hearing Michelle's voice in my head asking, "Is this a want or a need?")
Other me: It's a need to eat. Ya think?
Me: Yeah, but you don't need to buy food if you already have food at home.
Other me: Oh, right.
Me: Why did I agree to this?
I'd search the fridge and cabinets for something to cook despite the fact that I was tired after a long commute from work. Every day for twenty-one days, I thought, "How am I gonna survive this?" On top of making dinner, I had to pack a lunch for the next day. Who feels like making lunch after cooking dinner?
Trying to keep my family on track was another challenge, especially my husband, Larry, who is obsessed with going to the market. Prior to the financial fast, he never took a list to the store or stuck to a budget. He believed that because food is a necessity, it's okay to spend whatever you want at the market.
But all that work did pay off—literally. I saved $140 that month on lunch money alone.
The fast really made me think about how I spend.
Consider her words. The fast made her think about how she spends.
When was the last time you really, truly thought about how you spend? When was the last time you looked at your budget, or even attempted to put one down on paper? When was the last time you looked at how much you give to your church or to charity?
This fast will make you reexamine your spending habits—and you may not like what you see. But you can't change that which you have not acknowledged. It's funny how I can sit down with someone, look at their budget, and immediately see what's been holding them back financially or why they are in so much debt. But they can't see it because they're too busy shopping or spending.
For example, Terri said her husband constantly exceeded their food budget. Through one-on-one counseling sessions and the fast, Larry realized why he overspent at the grocery store. As a child, he couldn't have certain foods because they were too expensive. The fast made Larry examine why he felt entitled to buy whatever he wanted when he went grocery shopping. Now that he's aware of what drives him to overspend at the market, he can rein in his spending and stay within their family's grocery budget.
You've probably heard that one definition of the word crazy is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. Yet that's how many people handle their money, or should I say, mishandle their money. They never take the time to examine why they are spending the way they do. As a result, they can't rob Peter to pay Paul anymore because Peter is so broke, there isn't any money left to steal. Their finances are "tore up from the floor up"—meaning their finances are a wreck—but they persist in the same destructive habits. The problem for too many people is that they don't know their finances are jacked-up crazy.
WHAT IS A FINANCIAL FAST?
This isn't some gimmick. It is a God-inspired way for you to find financial freedom. The 21-day financial fast has been field-tested for several years in my home church, First Baptist Church of Glenarden in Prince George's County, Maryland.
I first introduced the fast as part of a volunteer program called Prosperity Partners Ministry. In this ministry, men and women who are good stewards over their personal finances (Senior Partners) become accountability partners for members who are having financial challenges (Junior Partners). As part of the ministry, all members—even those serving as Senior Partners—are asked to participate in the fast.
The concept of the fast is similar to the one the prophet Daniel took, in which he "ate no choice food; no meat or wine" and "used no lotions at all until the three weeks were over" (Dan. 10:3). Daniel fasted as a way to draw closer to God. Similarly, the principle of this financial fast is to deny your flesh so that you can become closer to God. Instead of relying on an emotional rush from shopping or pursuing the latest sale or discount, this fast will connect you to God. The rush you get from this fast is far better than snagging a pair of designer shoes on sale or upgrading to the latest electronic gadget. Fasting is an act of separating yourself from worldly pleasures. During this separation, and away from worldly temptation, you can begin to break the bonds that keep you broke.
During this fast you will not shop or use your credit cards for twenty-one days. For three weeks you must refrain from buying anything that is not a necessity. And by necessity, I mean the bare essentials, such as food and medicine.
During this fast you will refrain from going to the mall or retail stores to shop for clothes, shoes, jewelry, nonessential household items, or other stuff that creates a drag on your financial life (and clutters your home).
Even window-shopping is off limits. Browsing leads to temptation, which in turn can lead to buying something you don't really need.
No restaurant meals—fast food or otherwise. This includes buying breakfast or lunch at work. You can't stop for coffee. Make it at home instead. During the fast, forget going out to the movies.
You are not permitted to buy gifts or gift cards. I often get a lot of objections on this last rule. People are hesitant to show up empty-handed at a birthday party or wedding or any event where a gift is expected. So they ask if they can tell the birthday person or bride and groom that they'll get a gift for them at a later time. No.
You can't tell them you will buy a gift later. Don't promise to purchase a gift after the fast is over. Instead, use this opportunity to share with the honored person why you are fasting. Then find a way to bless them without purchasing something. This may be particularly hard if you have children. As any parent knows, birthday parties have become grand coronations with children expecting a table full of presents. We parents could help each other out by asking party guests on occasion not to bring gifts. At one party, in lieu of gifts for her child, the mother asked partygoers to bring books to exchange. I loved that idea. It took the focus off of receiving and put it on giving. "I really wanted him to know what fun is without expecting toys," the mother said.
Children's birthday parties have created a small but not insignificant dent in many household budgets. Besides, year after year of overindulgence at these parties can make it harder to teach your children about moderation later. Already we have an epidemic of overspending among adults. Perhaps this is how it starts.
One woman wrote to me that her five-year-old son was invited to two birthday parties during the fast, but she didn't allow him to go to the parties. However, that wasn't really necessary. While I loved that this mother was trying to stick to the fast, her son could have gone to the parties, only without a gift. "Just goes to show you how conditioned my mind was to spending money," Trina said. "I would have never thought about making a gift; I always purchase something instead."
It's okay to have fun on the fast; you just can't buy anything that isn't a necessity. If your child or teen is invited to a party during the fast, call the birthday child's parent or guardian and explain that your child would like to attend but the family is on a financial fast. Your child can make a gift from supplies you have at home or make a wonderful handmade birthday card.
I want you to internalize that you can celebrate life's greatest occasions without having to bring or receive a gift. I know this will be tough, but what in the world do most of us need anyway? What's most precious is the very thing money can't buy—time. So be creative. Find a way to give of yourself without spending. The purpose of the fast is to eliminate spending on absolutely everything that is not essential.
THE PERILS OF PLASTIC
Curtailing your consumption is just one part of the fast. The second part is eliminating the use of plastic, both credit and debit. There's a real danger in relying on credit even if you pay off your credit card bill every month. Paying with plastic just makes purchasing too easy. Swipe, and within seconds you can be mired in debt. Let's consider the example of purchasing a flat-screen television. If you had to stand at a cash register and count out bill after bill after bill after bill to pay the hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars for a television, you certainly would contemplate whether the purchase made financial sense. You might even do some mental accounting to calculate what debts you could pay down or pay off instead. Plastic doesn't allow for that deliberation.
There are two kinds of credit card users—those who carry a balance and those who pay off their charges every month. Those who pay off their charges often assume they are in control of their credit card usage. After all, you have to admire the marketing might of credit card issuers. They have done a stellar job in persuading otherwise smart people that using plastic can come with no price. This group of convenience credit card users is convinced that they are pulling one over on the card companies. They point to the reward points they receive or the fact that they never, or seldom, pay any credit card interest. But I assure you there is a cost. You may be able to bear it, but there is an extra cost to using credit.
The banks know and studies have shown that even those of us who think we are using credit wisely are being duped. That's because when you use credit, you often spend more than you would if you use cash. Even if you don't pay interest on the money because you settle the bill before the next billing cycle, or if you collect a plane ticket or two as part of a credit card reward program, you're still spending more. That means the banks win and you lose.
In one study aimed at marketers, Greg Davies at Britain's Warwick University found that customers using credit cards spend more than those paying with cash or checks in purchasing situations that are otherwise identical in every other respect. Davies concludes that credit cards boost spending because of how our brains work. He found that credit cards reduce the pain of payment because we don't do the same mental accounting as we do when we pay with cash.
I know from experience that many people do not make the same purchases when they pay with plastic. This isn't just a feeling or anecdotal evidence. Researchers have found that people's willingness to purchase more products or ser vices increases with the use of plastic.
Over the years that the Prosperity Partners Ministry has conducted the financial fast, some business professional or small business entrepreneur inevitably objects to the no credit card rule, arguing that he or she may need to use credit during a work trip or for other business purposes. Generally speaking, during the fast, the rule about avoiding credit card use applies only to personal credit card use, but I would still ask you to consider if there is a way around using credit even for business reasons. Too many small business owners are unnecessarily deep in credit card debt.
You should also limit use of your debit card. If you must use it, limit your purchases to groceries and/or gas.
WHY LIMIT DEBIT CARD USE?
Through my work in Prosperity Partners, I've found that even debit card users, especially those without credit card debt—still whip out the plastic far too easily and spend more than they would if they were limited to using only cash. Many debit card users who have participated in the fast argue that they can't spend more than what's in their checking account; therefore, it's the same as cash. But that's not true. If it were true, the banks wouldn't have introduced overdraft protection, a common debit card feature that allows banks to rake in billions (yes, that's with a b) in fees.
About 90 percent of banks' consumer-fee income comes from overdraft and insufficient-funds charges. An overdraft study published in 2008 by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation found that at least 81 percent of banks allow overdrafts to take place at ATMs and through point-of-sale/debit transactions. An overwhelming majority of banks in the FDIC survey did not inform customers until after the transaction had been completed that they didn't have enough money in their bank account to cover their electronic transaction. Only about 8 percent of the financial institutions informed consumers that funds were insufficient before transactions were completed, thereby allowing them an opportunity to avoid a fee.
A debit card is a cousin to the credit card, and it poses a similar problem—it allows people to buy stuff with cash they really don't have. People are quick to swipe their debit card, only to learn later after getting an overdraft notice that they didn't have the cash in their bank account to back up the debit card purchase in the first place.
So you see, a debit card is not the same as using cash, since you can still spend more than you have in your bank account.
WHAT YOU CAN AND CAN'T DO DURING THE FAST
People find ways around the fast. I know that. I can't possibly come up with a list of all the don'ts that may violate the fast. For example, I tell people to only spend money on essential things. However, one person's essential is another's want. I can easily go twenty-one days without going to the hair salon. I'll throw my hair in a ponytail in a minute. Other women who've done the fast say if they went without visiting the hair salon, they would look a "hot mess" and possibly jeopardize their employment.
Here's a quick overview of what you can purchase during the financial fast:
Essential items such as food and medication.
Essential personal hygiene products.
Essential clothing items that would be required for your job, such as pantyhose, work shirts, or a uniform. However, you should not buy clothing simply because you think you need a new outfit for work. If you're a professional and your work requires a certain standard of dress, then you should try to make do for the next twenty-one days with the clothes you already own.
Excerpted from 21-Day Financial Fast by Michelle Singletary. Copyright © 2013 Michelle Singletary. Excerpted by permission of ZONDERVAN.
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