Without restriction, how do you avoid overconsumption?
Can you throw off the shackles of budget culture without destroying yourself or the planet?
Here’s a serious question that comes up often when I critique restrictive budgeting: Without imposing restrictions, how do you avoid crossing the line into overconsumption?
When you imagine “overconsumption” — whether it’s eating too much food, spending too much money, collecting too many things, burning too much gasoline, whatever — you can see the obvious potential for harm to people and the planet. Our consumer culture makes so many things so attractive that it’s surprisingly easy to eat until we feel sick, spend to our credit limit, fill our spaces until we have to literally rent more just for storage and use so many fossil fuels we’re straight-up making our planet uninhabitable for ourselves.
Those are real and vivid concerns. It doesn’t surprise me that people get edgy when I say we need to do away with restriction.
But I’m still saying it.
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The fear of overconsumption is budget culture talking. It’s telling you you can’t trust yourself with money. It’s telling you you’re to blame for all this harm to people and the planet. It’s convincing you of your individual responsibility to fix everything.
But individual restriction isn’t the fix for overconsumption.
Don’t conflate consumption with spending
The conversation about consumption and our consumer culture is important, but I don’t want to conflate it with the conversation about spending.
Money is meant to be spent. It’s how we survive and participate in any part of our society. Restricting spending for the sake of a budget plan or any other arbitrary rules is unhealthy and unsustainable.
Our uneasy relationship with consumption and our cultural tendency for “overconsumption” is a symptom of capitalism, where people are encouraged to consume because it drives money and power toward capitalists. They create a competitive environment where we're judged on the type and amount of things we consume (think: hairstyles, clothing, makeup, houses, cars, activities), and present consumption as a solution to the problems this environment causes.
All of this has to change for the sake of our humanity and our planet — but we cannot put the onus for that change on individual consumption. The social and environmental harm caused by consumption happens at an institutional level, and the changes need to happen at that level, too.
Rather than encourage individuals to restrict spending, we have to:
Regulate production to reduce the harm caused by the things we buy.
Address structural inequities that force some people to buy things to avoid discrimination.
Recognize, accommodate and treat the many human conditions we currently bandage with consumption.
My stance is anti-restriction, full-stop
In my budget-free approach, I don’t leave wiggle room for restrictive practices or advice; the point is to smoke them out and eliminate them. That’s in part because budget culture pushes restriction so hard from the other side that adding some voices in stark opposition is probably the only way to find a middle way that works for anyone.
But that doesn’t mean I encourage boundless indulgence.
The opposite of restrictive budgeting isn’t unfettered consumption. It’s conscious spending, an approach to money that means listening to your gut and trusting yourself to use money.
Conscious spending means embracing opportunities to spend money when you might have previously avoided it, but it absolutely includes saying no to buying things that don’t serve you.
When you tune into your gut (or inner voice), you’ll likely find a lot of ways our culture entices you to act in capitalists’ best interest instead of your own. You’ll learn to recognize and address things like anxiety, depression or fear at their root instead of quieting them with consumption.
I don’t consider it “restriction” to abstain from things that don’t serve you.
I don’t eat whole bags of gummy bears in one sitting (anymore), because it gives me a stomachache; that’s not diet culture “restricting” my food choices.
The opposite of restriction isn’t overconsumption; it’s mindful and self-affirming consumption — conscious spending.
Is it mindfulness or restriction?
Finding the line between conscious spending and enforced restriction is tricky. It requires ongoing mindfulness and self-awareness that take practice to cultivate.
In addition to any formal mindfulness practices that speak to you, there’s a simple way to add consciousness into your relationship with money: Ask yourself questions.
The weight inclusive personal stylistshared a useful example in a recent conversation (that sparked this post!): “When does it cross from resisting restriction and into actually harmful to us as a human…I have been asked this question by a follower who is literally spending her retirement savings on clothes.”
In this situation, there are tons of questions you could ask yourself to figure out how to best calibrate the way you’re using money. Some examples:
Is buying clothes a way of using consumption to mask another issue? (e.g. Maybe treating yourself soothes mental health challenges. Maybe you face job insecurity or status anxiety, and expensive clothes make you feel more confident.)
Are your actions pointing toward a need to move away from your comfortable, well-planned life (a 401(k)) and toward a subconscious desire (like a career in fashion!)?
Is retirement saving not actually an important goal for you, but one you think you’re supposed to pursue?
As you answer these questions about your spending, you can figure out why you consume the way you do and whether (or not!) you want to change anything.
If you do want to make a change, make sure you tap into the root of the problem you want to solve. If you’re soothing mental health challenges by shopping, for example, you can’t just impose restriction and call it a victory. That just gives you another challenge to deal with! Find other ways to address your mental health — and keep the shopping in your spending plan in the mean time.
🧘♀️ Want more guidance for a conscious approach to spending and managing money?
My Budget-Free Fundamentals series gives you everything you need to gain a fresh perspective on your relationship with money. In a few short lessons, you’ll gain tools to use money the way you want without relying on restriction, succumbing to shame or following advice rooted in greed. Paid subscribers have full access to this and all Healthy Rich classes.