THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING
The Color of Money

Try, if you dare, to give up shopping and plastic for 21 days. No cheating.

By Michelle Singletary
Washington Post / January 3, 2010

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I’m inviting you to take a 21-day financial fast in which you will buy only necessities. The fast is really about curbing the need to consume. It doesn’t matter if you’re a good steward or a spendthrift; we all consume more than we need. This fast is for you if you’re at your financial wit’s end. This fast is for you if the stress of money is causing pain in relationships with your spouse, friends, or family. It’s for you if you’re worried about retirement or saving enough to send your children to college.

Whatever your financial situation, I challenge you to spend the next 21 days fasting. The path to prosperity begins by breaking the yoke to buy and buy.

This isn’t some gimmick. The financial fast has been field-tested for several years in my place of worship.

I introduced the fast several years ago as part of a volunteer program. In this ministry, men and women who are good stewards over their finances become accountability partners for members who are struggling.

During this fast you will not shop or use your credit cards. You must refrain from buying anything that is not absolutely necessary. I mean the bare essentials such as food and medicine. Even window-shopping is off-limits.

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.

You are not permitted to buy gifts or gift cards. I often get a lot of objections on this rule. People are hesitant to show up empty-handed at a birthday party or wedding. So they ask if they can tell the birthday person or bride and groom that they’ll get a gift for them later. No.

Instead, use this opportunity to share with the honored person why you are fasting. Then find a way to bless them without purchasing something. (Offer your personal services. You could cook a meal, do chores, or baby-sit.)

You can celebrate life’s occasions without having to bring or receive a gift.

The second part of the fast 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 every month. Paying with plastic just makes buying too easy. Let’s consider the example of purchasing a flat-panel TV. If you had to stand at a register and count out bill after bill to pay, you certainly would contemplate whether the purchase made financial sense.

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.

People are quick to swipe their debit card, only to learn later that they didn’t have the cash in their bank account to back up the purchase in the first place.

This fast was designed in part to help those who have mismanaged their money to become good stewards, and to strengthen the financial skills of those who are managing well.

Michelle Singletary is a columnist for The Washington Post. She can be reached at singletarym@washpost.com.