Abstainers and Moderators in Personal Finance

Gretchen Rubin, author of The Happiness Project

DH = Dear Husband

Effective indulgence?

I wrote a post at Fruclassity this past week entitled “Debt Repayment and Built-in ‘Cheats’“. It was about the anti-burnout benefit that can result from setting ourselves up to indulge on occasion. For debt-repayment as well as diets, some built-in blow money – or blow-your-diet food – can be a recharge that sets people back on the wagon with renewed energy for the long-term goal of debt-freedom – or weight loss.

“moderator” vs. “abstainer”

I received an insightful comment from someone who read my post via my Facebook page. She pointed me to an article written by Gretchen Rubin (author of The Happiness Project) at My experiments in the pursuit of happiness and good habits. “Are You an Abstainer or a Moderator?” is Rubin’s look at how universal the effectiveness of the periodic indulgence is. “Be moderate,” is the advice we have all heard. “Don’t have ice cream every night, but if you try to deny yourself altogether, you’ll fall off the wagon. Allow yourself to have the occasional treat, it will help you stick to your plan.” For some, those whom Rubin calls “moderators”, this advice is exactly right. They need to moderate to avoid burnout. A strict adherence to the regimen just does not last for them.

For others, however, that “treat” is the beginning of a slippery slope that leads back to destructive old patterns and habits. These are people Rubin calls “abstainers”, and she is one herself. “I find it far easier to give something up altogether than to indulge moderately . . . If I try to be moderate, I exhaust myself debating, ‘Today, tomorrow?’ ‘Does this time ‘count’?’ . . . If I never do something, it requires no self-control for me; if I do something sometimes, it requires enormous self-control.”

A little bit of both

The thing is, I see myself in both camps. On the one hand, if I believe in advance that I’ll never be able to indulge, I’m not likely to start. And if I do start, hell-bent on success, and then indulge in a weak moment, I throw up my hands in self-loathing defeat. So I’m not a good candidate for the “abstainer” camp. On the other hand, when I do set myself up to allow for the occasional indulgence, I have to be VERY careful – because I’m susceptible to that slippery slope.

I’m on a diet now, and it includes a “cheat day” – one day per week when I can eat anything I want. I’ve only been on this diet for 3 weeks, and already, I’ve had 2 “cheat days” that have expanded into “cheat week-ends”. Hmmm. . . And for debt-repayment? Right from the beginning, DH and I built in discretionary allowances – one for me and one for him – enabling us to do things like go out for a meal or buy a gift on occasion as we pursue our long journey out of debt. And while I do very well at managing within the confines of our common budget, my discretionary account is dismal. So I’m in the “moderator” camp, but I’m a challenged moderator.

Rules for freedom?

I think that there is a way for me to navigate, being as I am – a moderator with both the weaknesses of the abstainer and of the moderator. It lies in adapting my concept of “indulgence”/”treats”/”cheats” – which has been interwoven with an understanding of spontaneity and an absence of boundaries. There’s been an appealing freedom in it – but one that can become debauched in a hurry. As I continue on the moderator path, I will need to replace the unbounded freedom of my indulgences – replace it with a bounded freedom that includes rules for play. Just as one cheat day on my diet has to be kept to one (wonderful) 24-hour period, my discretionary spending will need to be guided by a more strict set of boundaries.

Doesn’t sound like much fun? I don’t know about that. I’m reminded of the scenes of balls in the Jane Austen movies that have been such blockbusters in the last couple of decades. Even if you’re not familiar with Austen’s books or those movies, just picture an early 19th century ballroom and the young people who are getting their first experience of it. So many rules to follow: the correct steps to all of the dances; the manners to use while eating and drinking; the polite way to thank and to greet; appropriate interactions with the opposite sex . . . You’d think they’d feel stifled by all of the proper ways of doing things. But they had so much fun! The anticipation before the ball; the thrill of the ball itself; enthusiastic reminiscences of the event for days to come . . . I’m sure that’s part of the reason why Austen’s books and these movies are all so appealing to millions of us. There’s a part of us that longs for “the proper way to do things” – even when it comes to moments of freedom, like dancing at a ball.

Imperfect, but still moving forward

Can I get this right? Will I stick to my diet as it’s supposed to be – with one cheat day? Will I learn to manage my discretionary spending, enjoying the freedom it’s supposed to give, while at the same time being guided by boundaries that will make it better channeled and more flush? We’ll see.

Whether I do or not, here’s something that remains true: Despite my poor management of my personal discretionary fund, DH and I have, to date, paid off $135,000 of our $257,000 debt. We’ve been moving in the right direction at a rate over 300% better than we did before starting our journey out of debt. (We know because we did the math.) And despite my difficulty in limiting my cheat day to 24 hours, I’ve lost 7 pounds since starting my diet.

Of course I want to move forward as best I can, and I think I’m on to something with this concept of moderator-with-tightly-controlled-indulgences, but I also want to raise a cheer for the imperfect. For those of us who mess up . . . on our way to success.


Are you an abstainer of a moderator? Do you have a hard time with “slippery slopes” that lead back to old habits? Your comments are welcome.

 

 

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28 CommentsLeave a comment

  • I believe you need to change your behavior over time. I’d love to eat ice cream every night but I know its not healthy to do so, but I also realize I don’t think I could give it up for the rest of my life. If I have it in moderation, say once a week or after I’ve completed a goal than it’s more meaningful. Same can be send for spending. I know I will spend money, I just need to have a plan and be thoughtful when I do. If for whatever reason I begin to slip I think I learned enough now to catch myself or have my family course correct me too.

    • Having members of your family as accountability partners is a great idea. I think it would work especially if you can say something specific like, “I’m going to make Saturday my ice cream day. If you even see me getting an ice cream on any other day, remind me of this – because I’m going to be tempted!” For me, it’s clearly not enough just to say, “Saturday is my cheat day.” Those boundaries have to be reinforced. I’m hoping that you’re right about behaviour changing with time. Thanks, Brian : )

  • I think about this a lot. I tried to be one of those people who ate chocolate “in moderation” but I found the taste of chocolate then just led me to wanting more chocolate, so for that case, abstinence is best. I once tried a 30-day alcohol challenge (just because, not because I have a problem) and I never felt more like and alcoholic because I felt deprived. So I realized that I can easily do alcohol in moderation and that’s better for me. So it does really depend. For you shopping I’m not sure what to say because it does sound like a slippery slope for you, but at the same time you guys are killing it with you debt repayment. I guess it’s one of those things you have to experiment with.

    • Interesting point here, Tonya! I think you’re right – you can be a moderator in one area and an abstainer in another. In my case, I think that with food, I’m a moderator, and with my discretionary fund, I’m better off trying abstinence. I will take your advice and experiment with this idea. Thanks!

  • I like the built in “cheats” the best. They work well for me because there are rules involved. Like, only indulge in no-no foods on Sundays. NEVER eat off the goody table at work. Things like that. If I don’t make rules for myself, I will go on sprees the likes of which you should never even have to imagine, dear Ruth! I’m counting down the days to Steak & Shake, I can tell you that! Whether hubby keeps the job or not, S & S has been planned for and marked on that calendar for a long time now (Hey, we skipped two whole weekends after all!). 🙂

    • I’m sure your “sprees” wouldn’t be too shocking for me, Kay : ) The thing about the rules that I require in order to make cheat days work is that they have to be SUPER clear and absolutely unbending. I’ve taken too casual an approach to them – and that’s why my cheat days turn into cheat week-ends. You enjoy that Steak and Shake!

    • It really IS a tough balance! Hopefully, the more aware we are of all of the subtleties of the pressure we deal with, the better we become at dealing with them. Thanks, Laurie : )

    • Some people can’t handle the temptations that come when they have that “cheat”. I’m testing out whether or not I’m one of them. I think I’m not . . . I just have to be careful. The “balance” you mention is so important, but so hard to find! Thanks, Jayson : )

  • I think of myself as a moderator, but differently than has been described above. I try to eat very healthfully by keeping our house stocked with only healthy foods (or unhealthy foods that I don’t prefer). But when I go to a party, I eat whatever sounds good and not really in moderation. Pasta, wine and cake in one night? Why not?

    My husband is more of a classic moderator. He’ll eat chips or cookies most days, but won’t go crazy. He only goes crazy at fast food restaurants, or if there is a beer that he really likes at a party. He can really only have one drink or he gets a headache, but in a party situation, he always wants two or three drinks.

    We’re both that way with money too. I don’t spend too much until I find something I really want, and then money becomes no object (at least we budget for these things). He’s more likely to spend $20 here or there just because he can.

    • There are definitely variations within the “moderator” and “abstainer” themes. It seems like you are very aware of where you and your husband are at on the continuum. It also sounds like you accept the differences between you completely – which is not always the case with couples. That’s a set up for success of more than one kind!

  • I love pondering this idea. I’m a huge proponent of “everything good in moderation”. I tend to be incredibly disciplined though. The downside is that I don’t tend to be the most compassionate or caring. That seems to be the flip-side to disciplined personalities. You’re right though, some personalities really struggle with indulgences and actually experience a greater level of freedom when they’re constrained. I think the balance between discipline and constraint is played out at households across America as couples (who often tend to be opposites) work through this issue. We’ve found our monthly “blow money” to really help in this department. I can use mine to buy something ridiculously boring (fabric or cloth diapers), and my husband can save up to buy a new gaming system.

    • I haven’t heard too many highly disciplined people admit to a lack of compassion – so good for you for having said it! I can’t help but think that the humility it takes to acknowledge such a thing will open the doors to a developing compassion in you. “Blow money” can act as a bit of a shock absorber for couples when the two aren’t very close to being on the same page in terms of personal finance. It’s great that you can accept your husband’s purchases of gaming systems without cringing – and that he can limit his purchases to the budget you’ve both set out. Sounds like you’re on to something that works : )

  • I’m trying to avoid sugary stuff, but I also know that eventually I’ll break. I did before, but knowing that I *would* break then led to me just trying to prolong the streak. So I knew I could have it, but chose to keep the streak going.

    It worked for 7 months. After a slightly-too-long break, I decided to go back on it. But I decided in advance that I’d cheat for my birthday. Because birthday!

    Do you have a specific cheat day? I’ve heard the recommendation is that it should be one set day a week. When I did it, it was Friday. But if you have trouble with weekends, make it hump day to get you through the week. Or Monday to keep you from absolutely hating it.

    I think it’s just good to realize you will slip. Then I suspect you’ll end up with the same mindset. “At some point I’ll mess up. But do I really want that to be today? Or can I see how I feel tomorrow?” For 7 months, the answer was to wait.

    • I like it! And the idea of choosing a day other than a weekend day for the cheat is one I hadn’t considered. 7 months is a pretty long time to go knowing that “At some point I’ll mess up.” So fascinating how we can adapt to the way our minds function and gain so much success! Every person is different, so there is no universal formula, but we can certainly glean a lot from what others have experienced. Thanks for sharing your particular formula. I can certainly glean from it : )

  • I’ve never been quite sure where I fall on the scale. I have a very addictive personality and issues with balance! In regard to money I definitely go through phases. I like to kinda bundle my spending/purchases.

    • I don’t know many people who don’t have issues with balance – so you’re not alone there : ) I think it’s so positive that you can recognize and acknowledge that you have an addictive personality. I hope that you will always be able to navigate your finances in such a way that the addictive tendency doesn’t latch onto purchases that bring you down into debt. I hope this “bundling” works in your favour : )

  • A good friend of mine, my financial guru, and I talk about life and finances quite a bit and a lot of our conversations always circle back to balance. Right now, within a few years of retirement, he is in a position (multi-millionaire) that most would envy. However, he acknowledges that after a lot of years focusing on accumulation, he is having a difficult time with the decumulation (withdrawal) plan and he feels like he is way out of balance financially. It seems to me that many people fail to appreciate that finding – and probably most importantly maintaining – balance takes continuous effort.

    • Wow! I have never even considered the need for a “decumulation” or withdrawal – even among people who are retired. I would think that investments would continue, and that he would be free to exercise a shift in where he devotes his energy – not a withdrawal of it. Have you written a post about him and his situation?
      I am among those who find balance hard to strike. And you’re right, it takes continuous effort. Once you find it, something in your life changes, and you have to find it all over again. Thanks for your comment, Savvy James!

      • This is super interesting! I’d love to see that post, too, James, if it’s ever destined to be written. (Know it can be sticky writing about other people’s PF situations.)

        I’m pretty much an abstainer when it comes to money. I plan pretty much all of my spending/saving, but every couple years I’ll have a super binge day, which ends in buyers remorse and returning almost all the things! It really depends on what the stimulus is, though, as to whether I’m a moderator or an abstainer.

        Is this the 4HB diet by any chance?

        • Thanks for your comment FF. I know this diet as the XBT diet – though it is probably modified from another one. I’m not familiar with 4HB. But I do know that this one is working : )

  • I have to abstain because moderation is not something I am capable of. I tried cheat days in my diet and they just led to more cheating. I wish I could be one of those people that had one bite of chocolate and was fine, instead of the one that eats the whole bag of chocolates.

    • Well, you’re in good company Tre! If Gretchen Rubin has navigated as an abstainer, I’d say abstainers have at least as much chance of reaching their goals as the rest of us. (It is kind of sad about the chocolates though : )

    • Thanks, Gary. More proof that there is a continuum between “abstainer” and “moderator”. We aren’t necessarily just one or the other. I’m sure that you’re understanding of your own personality helps you to move forward well in both the areas of food and finance.

  • On the other hand, I ve had a lot of success in limiting or moderating my intake, and it s helped me to lose weight and still be able to splurge once in a while. Abstainers would just say no to steaks, foreverandeveramen.

    • It’s great that you’ve had success as a moderator. Clearly, when you give yourself permission to splurge once in a while, you don’t slide down that slippery slope that sabotages the efforts of some people. Enjoy your success – and your splurges : )

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