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OPINION | SAVE YOURSELF: Secret to saving is plain: Don't believe your lying brain

by Sarah Catherine Gutierrez | September 14, 2021 at 1:58 a.m.

I am celebrating two milestones today. First, Save Yourself is celebrating its first full year. A year! I can't believe that you all tolerated an entire year of reading week after week about retirement. Second, I am celebrating the end of my No Spend month which also lasted about a year.

Writing this column is difficult to describe. The writing is always fun, but Tuesday mornings waking up at 4 am and not knowing what will happen is exciting and sometimes stressful. I have made mistakes. Some readers have gently highlighted them using the always appreciated critique sandwich: positive comment, critique, positive comment. Some readers prefer a more blunt approach. Some burned their eggs that morning. I am just grateful for the communication.

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I know you all have been waiting anxiously to see how I made it through a whole month only paying bills and only buying groceries. Bottom line is we saved a lot of money. The truth is that it wasn't easy, but I came to a serious conclusion: my brain is what made it not easy.

First the easy stuff. We refinanced our house for a net $150 monthly savings, lowered our phone bill, completed an energy audit with Entergy, and canceled unused or redundant recurring payments. In all, we "found" over $250 per month by my estimation that wasn't even a sacrifice and will endure past this month.

But you didn't come for the easy stuff. I see your popcorn -- you came for the drama.

The no-spend month messed with me. I watched humorously as my brain tried to convince me to buy things out of the blue and with urgency. One afternoon, my brain was sure that it would self-destruct if I didn't run out and buy a new stove. I didn't and still managed to cook dinner that night. I remember one morning I woke up and realized I had an event that night with nothing to wear. That's because I had just worn my "go to" dress to speak at a public event -- what would people say if I wore it again? I wore it again. No one said anything.

The list went on of things my brain wanted to buy, like a second paddleboard so that I could paddle with a friend. But I kept saying no.

My brain started getting the memo by week two that I meant business, so it started to fight unfair. It changed tactics by nudging me to buy little things. For instance, we discovered cute little bike shorts from Sam's Club for my daughter to wear to school. They were $6 for a pack of three, and how much she loves them. My brain told me to ask my husband to pick up another pack at the next Sam's Club run. I said no, but then my brain reminded me that my daughter's entire happiness and ability to assimilate in her new school depended on me buying her more bike shorts. I responded by reminding my brain that we are fortunate to have a washing machine and dryer and do laundry every day. We have not endured one morning deprived of bike shorts.

Then my brain decided to involve the puppy.

Now my kids have accused me incorrectly of loving my dog, Messi, more than anyone in our house. Wrong. They evaluate love, apparently, by what I freely buy for the dog versus them. Well, maybe that's fair. Every month when I go to Doggy Daddy to buy Messi his food he sprints to the back of the store to get doted on and fed as many treats as he can fit in his mouth. In the spirit of the moment, I then heap pig ears and elk antlers and cheese chew bars and doggy tricky treats onto the counter.

But on this doggy food run, we could buy no such treats per the rules of the month. It was especially tough because I really needed to buy him a collapsible water bowl. My brain really pressured me -- no treats, and now you are going to kill your dog on your next run with no water? Brutal. Alas, we made it to the counter with only a bag of dog food, and when the sweet owner realized it was the dog's birthday, he gave Messi a free doggy birthday cookie! Then, as all luck would have it, the next week a friend dropped off some clothes that her girls had outgrown and by absolute sheer luck, wouldn't you know -- there was a collapsible dog bowl in the bag.

I have to come clean, though. I cheated once. We had canceled Disney streaming, so I decided to be a hero to the family and bring home the adorable Peter Rabbit movie sequel for the kids from Redbox. Just a couple bucks! Well, as luck would have it, the rental didn't work (it must have been scratched), and we forgot to take it back the next day. Then the day after that I couldn't get the DVD to return. My husband realized I had the DVD backwards, so he returned it on day four -- our DVD in the end cost us over $10, which at that point was more than the monthly Disney streaming service we had canceled for the no-spend month. Thanks a lot, brain.

The trickiest part was figuring out Dinner Club night with friends, which my brain had a serious issue with. Dining out was a no-no, but my friends really wanted me to come anyway. I decided to go and not order anything and contented myself ahead of time that the conversation and joy with friends was better than wine or food. My brain disagreed. It concluded I would be miserable.

Well, you can guess how that story actually went versus what my brain anticipated. The server took drink orders from my three girlfriends. They all ordered the same glass of wine, to which he suggested that a bottle would be less expensive than those three individual glasses and offered them an extra free glass. Then they all ordered meals, letting me nibble off an assortment of yummy food, and there was still extra food leftover.

My brain and I have always been so collaborative. It wants to buy something, and I oblige. But when I started saying no, it started yelling, ridiculing, judging me. It tried desperately to convince me in those moments to just let it go. Spend. The. Money.

Yes, I could have. But I didn't. And, contrary to my brain warnings, it always worked out. The only suffering I experienced was my mind's anticipation of disaster -- worrying for something in the future. The future me dressing my daughter for school and seeing her distraught when we couldn't find the bike shorts. The fears of being a mooch or disrupting the dinner at dinner club.

The reality of those moments in the present had no suffering, no feelings of deprivation. Every single issue worked itself out. I paddleboarded more this month than ever in my life -- alone. I discovered that the solitude was deeply needed, and I was grateful for those moments alone in the water. And the fear of dying alone because I was bitten by a water moccasin was solved by discovering a handy whistle in my life jacket, oh, and my cellphone that worked at every location at all times on the water. My dog always had water because Little Rock has water stations for animals in several running places.

Folks, look what our brains do to us! They tell us lies -- all the time, every day. It's all from our hunter gatherer days where if it's a pretty day, and berries are sprouting in the fields, then turn off the Netflix and pick those berries now lest you go hungry for weeks.

But now, it's not berries. It's spending. Our brains convince us to spend what we have today. Accumulate stuff -- urgently. The future is unknown and scary.

Finally, let's not forget the most incredible byproduct of a no-spend month. We had extra money in our checking account at the end -- quite a bit of it, really. We more than doubled our Arkansas 529 contributions for this month and automated them to continue monthly. I am locking in these gains. Take that, brain!

I will do this no-spend every single year, realizing it's less about the physical act of saving and more about the reminder of the need to understand and tame the brain. My brain is a far more powerful adversary than I had ever given it credit for, and we need to re-establish who is in charge from time to time.

Sarah Catherine Gutierrez is founder, partner and CEO of Aptus Financial in Little Rock. She is also author of the book "But First, Save 10: The One Simple Money Move That Will Change Your Life," published by Et Alia Press. Contact her at [email protected]

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