Gretchen Rubin, author of The Happiness Project
DH = Dear Husband
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.