Breaking Free From a Culture of Temptation

Money… can symbolize work, power, love won, or love denied. It can take the form of expensive homes, expensive clothes, expensive presents. Luxuries become necessities. Debt compensates for all shortcomings. “For people to admit they can’t afford things they want means placing themselves in a position of weakness, ” says Dr. Edward J. Khantzian, associate professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School. “They have to say no to themselves, and nobody likes that.”

-Time Magazine, October 1982

Prior to January 1st, 2009… On any given weeknight, you would’ve been just as likely to find my wife and me out at a restaurant, taking in a movie, or simply shopping as you would have been to find us at home. We were what some advertisers might call “The Perfect Consumers.”

When we got bored, which happened often, we would get in the car and drive toward town. Sometimes we didn’t even have a specific destination in mind, other than to go somewhere to spend money on food, clothing, or any other form of entertainment.

While we didn’t frequently blow money on large ticket items or live “lavishly, ” we did spend our money liberally and without purpose. We weren’t content, we weren’t saving, and we had no financial security.

And then it happened… Approximately six months ago, we experienced a financial rebirth. So what has changed in the time since then? Most everything!

If you’ve been following my articles here on FCN, then you know that we have:

Add these articles to what I’ve been writing about over at Debt Free Adventure, and you can see that we’ve experienced a tremendous amount of change in the past six months. We’re working against the grain to return to a simpler, less expensive, more resourceful and more satisfying way of life.

How does this relate to culture and temptation?

“‘Tis one thing to be tempted, another thing to fall.”

-William Shakespeare

My wife and I have worked hard to shake the mindset of “spend to be happy.” We’ve even gone so far as to cancel our satellite TV service, and yet… We’re still influenced by the long-lasting and far-reaching effects of advertising.

When I talk about the changes my wife and I have made in our pursuit of financial independence, most people think we’ve gone overboard. You don’t have to go back too far, however, to reach a time when our view was the majority view. In my opinion this change is the result of cultural changes that have been driven by the media and advertising.

Over the past six months we’ve worked hard to:

  • study personal finance
  • practice frugality
  • reduce our spending
  • increase our giving
  • increase our savings
  • decrease our debt

Although we’re now tempted by fewer things, we still have to work to consciously pass our decisions through a filter of frugality. And even after doing so, I still sometimes want to buy things that I don’t need. Here are a few recent examples…

Temptations that I’ve recently fought off

“A Red Ryder BB gun with a compass in the stock, and this thing which tells time”

-Ralphie Parker, A Christmas Story

1. A new bicycle for commuting to work ($600)

In an effort to save money and get more exercise, I’ve recently begun biking to work ten miles each way. My bike is not a commuting road bike, but it’s a high-quality bike nonetheless. It was designed for hardcore trail riding and racing, but with a few recent alterations I’ve successfully turned into more of a road bike.

In my efforts to transform the bike, I stopped by a local bike shop just to check things out and get a few supplies. Predictably, it was only a matter of minutes before I was salivating over the Trek FX 7.2 hybrid — a bike designed for commuting.

This may sound silly, but at that moment, this bike was my Red Ryder BB Gun! The price was actually reasonable at just under $500, and I promptly began coveting it. My existing bike was good, but there were a few things I didn’t like about it. The biggest issues that I as having were:

  • A lack of a rear rack, which is essential if you want to carry any cargo
  • A seating position that’s a bit aggressive for comfortably riding miles

While I didn’t need a new bike, I seriously entertained the purchase. In the end, however, I fell back a great technique for avoiding impulse purchases. More specifically, I decided to wait one day for every $100 that I was tempted to spend. After tax and additional parts (rear rack, fenders, and so on), I was looking at around $600 out the door, so I had to wait six days to make my purchase.

Over the next six days, I discovered that my old bike does indeed have rear rack mounts built into the frame — all I needed was the rack itself. I also came to the renewed realization that what I truly want is to use that $600 for debt repayment and/or emergency fund savings.

In the end, I came to the conclusion that I simply did not need the bike, regardless of how bad I wanted it. My bike is more than sufficient and, now that I’ve made a few simple upgrades/adjustments, it will work great for what I require of it.

2. A store-bought vermicomposting bin ($130)

Instead of buying one, I decided to make my own. I spent just a fraction of what I would’ve paid in the store ($22), and it works great. I hope to put together an article about this soon.

3. A store-bought kitchen composting bucket ($20)

Here again, I made my own… And only spent $1.50! This will likewise be the subject of a forthcoming post.

Both of these compost-related purchases were very tempting, and I really had to fight the urge to buy and instead choose the frugal road. Beyond saving money, I have more pride in these possessions — partly because I made/improved them, and partly because I know that I sacrificed my short-term wants for my greater goal.

So what’s the answer?

“Contentment is natural wealth, luxury is artificial poverty”


Do I believe that advertising is inherently evil, and that marketers should be drawn and quartered? No, absolutely not. I do, however, believe that the entire system has been spinning out of control for years, and I think that many people are finally ready for a change. I know I was!

This post is an attempt to raise awareness that we’ve wallowed in financial ignorance long enough! We’re bombarded with hundreds upon hundreds of advertisements each day. Do we run right out and purchase the item we are being shown? Sometimes, but not usually. However…

This constant bombardment has a long-term (detrimental) impact on our mindset. It predisposes us to spend rather than save. There once was a time when our nation’s mindset was something along the lines of work, earn, give, save, and reuse.

Nowadays, our mindset has been transformed to one of work, earn, buy, and dispose. As far as I’m concerned, it’s high time that we reclaim (or adopt) a healthy mindset that encourages us to “spend less than we earn” and invest in the ideas of compounding interest.
in my opinion, your mindset is the most powerful tool that you have.

To help get us back on track, I offer the following simple concepts:

  • Be content with what you have. Don’t run out and buy things just because you have a fleeting desire for them. Your financial freedom is at stake!
  • Turn off your TV and limit your media exposure. The most eloquent of contrarians could not argue against the fact that mass media promotes a spendthrift mentality. Your financial freedom is at stake!
  • Use what you already have. My bike may not have been my first choice, but it was my best choice. If tempted, go through your existing belongings and use what you have for a few weeks to curb your temptation. Your financial freedom is at stake!
  • And remember the adage… Spend less than you earn. If you don’t, you’ll soon be broke! Your financial freedom is at stake!

What about you?

Have you successfully battled against a strong temptation to spend and won? If so, how did you do it? If not, what would you do differently next time?

37 Responses to “Breaking Free From a Culture of Temptation”

  1. Anonymous

    My sister was doing research on shopping and she found there is a biological reason we want to buy — when we see something we want, we get a reward — a little shot of dopamine (neurotransmitter in our brain’s pleasure/reward centre), so it’s understandable that we want to purchase that item; we associate the object with the feeling of pleasure.

    What she found out that’s helpful is that you get that shot of dopamine from seeing and wanting the item NOT from buying it. So when I do see an item that I want, I recognize the little shot of pleasure that I get and happily acknowledge that’s the most pleasure I’m likely to get out of the object, and put it back on the shelf.

  2. Anonymous

    This is a very good post, but there is a bigger picture about our temptation culture that has been missed. At stake is not merely our financial health, but also our mental and physical health, our dignity and self respect, and even our social status. We are bombarded with messages about what we should covet, emulate, and value: physical beauty, youth, excess, extravagance, etc., while self-respect, self-esteem, self-control, knowing what “enough” means and feeling satisfied rather than deprived, developing a sincere belief that there will always be “plenty” to meet your needs, so much so that you can give to others… these are all potentially the casualties of a culture organized around temptation, and that what we have is inadequate and never enough.

  3. Anonymous

    I just think it is so annoying to be presented with so many choices over any item, whether necessary or not! I have to make so many unnecessary decisions as a consumer that it gives me a headache! And, I suspect that the differences, if any, between all of these similar items are minute. That dilemma is what really started calling my attention to live a simpler, more frugal life. To illustrate the point, I recently read an article about kitchen gadgets. It takes more work to use and clean these gadgets then they are worth, and they just add clutter and complications to your kitchen and your life! Just give me a simple set of knives, rather than a food processor with a gazillion parts to figure out how to use and then to have to wash after use. You will save money AND time!

  4. Anonymous

    Ok, with all this talk about NOT spending money, how about a post about when to spend money? I am fairly frugal and I don’t buy (literally) into the latest fad or gadget. There are places where I could do better, but overall, I think I am probably too frugal. I usually buy for the long term and take care of what I have. I dislike the disposable society that we have become. Essentially on many points, I agree with most of you, but at the same time, I think that we only get one shot at this life, so I should enjoy it. I have recently been thinking of how people go about deciding to spend money on certain things – toys for example. I know people that are broke, have filed bankruptcy twice, live in a house 4 times bigger than my own, have a huge RV sitting outside, and just ripped up the tile around their swimming pool for the second time. Granted, they are on the other end of the spectrum from me- spending wise, not income level. I live in a small house that I could pay off tomorrow and I drive a 7 year old car with over 100k on it. I don’t feel deprived. I have wanted to buy an RV and travel out west for the better part of 3 years now and I cannot bring myself to do it. There is just something about it that I cannot do. I could pay cash for the whole setup, so it’s not that I can’t technically afford it, but in my mind I cannot justify it, so I cannot afford it. Do you get the distinction?
    How do you justify spending your money on wants, not needs?

  5. Anonymous

    We stay home a lot and help each other plan menu’s, create homemade products, we have Netflix & watch a lot of movies. When we watch we either have healthy organic popcorn in our air popper w/real butter (from healthy, grass-fed dairy cows) & sea salt, or homemade ice cream.

    We only have one vehicle so we carpool. We tend the garden together, do house projects together (like our new paver patio & freshly installed back yard). We go for bike rides & walks, we read different books but in the same room & play peek-a-boo from behind the books. We chase each other around the house like little kids sometimes… giggling the whole time.

    You get the idea. We love each other & now that we are not so blinded by needing to spend money to have fun we are progressively more creative, interactive, & in love.

    It truly has been a blessed change.

  6. Anonymous

    I was just wondering, since you’ve gone from having mall outings and spending to entertain yourself, how do you and your wife entertain yourself now? I feel the same right now, that one of the biggest ways to enjoy myself is to go out and spend (although I avoid malls).

  7. Anonymous

    @lurker: I will be posting the vermicomposting/kitchen bucket info on DFA sometime this week. The two systems combined cost me just $9 for materials but $15 for worms! And that is actually a good deal on the worms, if you get them online you’ll pay around $30. I bought mine from a local lady I found on Craigslist.

  8. Anonymous

    Hope you’ll do the vermicomposting article, and also tell us about the kitchen composting bucket. I use an ex-kitty litter bucket, but I love hearing about how other people handle these things. Have you made a yard composter? The commercial ones are all too big for my tiny yard and they need too much sun. I’m trying to work out a small one that can move around as the seasons change.

  9. Anonymous

    The most important thing to help you break from temptation is to understand the difference between need & wants and assets & liabilities.

    My moment of awakening was when I read Rich Dad Poor Dad and it explained that assets are anything that generate income while liabilities are things that use your income. Once I was able to understand that I started focusing to spend my money on assets & liabilities… which had a side effect of spending more of my money on needs rather than wants.

  10. Anonymous

    @FYM: They sure were onto something with those Matrix movies weren’t they! I love the trilogy.

    @David: My advice is to ask yourself if you NEED the new vehicle, or if a used vehicle (which you can also get KILLER deals on right now) and do so through a filter of Frugality.

    @Justin: I will be posting the instructions on making my compost bin (and the kitchen scraps bucket) on later this week. I believe Nickel is going to link to the post on this page… once I put it up. Thanks for your interest! The compost bins truly do provide great value.

  11. Anonymous

    Nice post! Eventually, everyone has that moment of stepping back and saying this is out of control . . . thanks for sharing yours.

  12. Anonymous

    Yeah, I’m really struggling with this right now after being Mr Cheapie McFrugalpants for 18 months, because there’s so many killer deals out there on new cars and esp. smaller trucks and I am really tired of having one issue after another with my old car. This wasn’t a problem when I was able to walk to work, but that job evaporated in February and the new one is a short drive but too far to walk and the roads here are too narrow and dangerous for cyclists. Also: winter.

    FYI: NIssan and Suzuki are offering up to $3500 off of their Frontier/Equator trucks. These are the same truck, only with different badges.

  13. Anonymous

    This is a good post!

    I agree with the Harvard professor. People admitting they can’t afford something makes them feel week. I believe that is because the society we live in teaches that a person’s self worth should be determined by their net worth. That is the Matrix that must be broken.

    I feel that in a lot of cases if a person has a high self worth, they will be less “tempted” by the things they see that they don’t need.

    In my opinion, that is the key to being content with what a person has.

  14. Anonymous

    @Kevin: I love it!… “We’re like fish swimming in a polluted pond (the culture) and we’re taking in the dirt continuously in spite of our best efforts.” You have grasped the meat of this post in this statement. The good news is… there is a small pool located just above the polluted pool that you have to swim upstream to get into. It is a hard swim, but if you make it… the waters are much clearer here! 🙂

    @Jason: You have realized & address a main solution presented in this post! Which is… go through your existing piles of stuff around the house, basement, garage, barn… and look for suitable alternatives to buying new parts!! Most excellent my friend! 🙂

  15. Anonymous

    Thank you for sharing these great thoughts. I love the idea of re-using things you have and do not need to do what you want. Right now I have been thinking about building drawers for my work bench. So looking at rails for the drawers and they are $20-30. Not bad, but build 3 drawers and you are out about $75. So time to look around to re-use. At work we have some rails from old servers that are going to re-cycling. Hmmm I think we have a perfect, once adapted, set of drawer rails.

  16. Anonymous

    Really nice article. I love this idea: “More specifically, I decided to wait one day for every $100 that I was tempted to spend.”

    Wait a day for each $100 you’re thinking of spending. Great way to look at it!

  17. Anonymous

    Rosa (#14)–You’re on to something there. We live in one of those toney, high income areas (an accident of geography on our part) and you couldn’t be more right about the pressure to have. My wife and I can handle it, but for our kids it’s much harder.

    Around here, it isn’t that you merely think that other people have everything–most of them actually do.

    And here’s something peculiar I’ve identified in living here: the upper middle class is hopelessly conformist. If Neighbor A has the latest Toy Du Jour, Neighbors B thru Z will have it within weeks. I suppose you get thown off the Social Register if you resist, which might explain why we don’t get invited to the really cool parties 😉

    Speaking of parties, those toys seem to dominate a lot of party conversation. My wife and I mostly hang out with others of our ilk, the Toyless.

  18. Anonymous

    @MLR – oh I know, we can only limit it. But I can limit it – it mostly means changing my own behavior, which is hard but not impossible.

    One of the things about living in a lower-income neighborhood is the peer pressure is lower, and aimed a little differently. Some of it is worse (military advertising and recruitment, drugs) some of it is better (riding the bus, wearing hand-me-downs), some of it just misses us (the focus on hairstyles that just don’t work in his hair, church status stuff).

    We’ll see as he gets older, but for myself I’ve found it a lot easier to live here & socialize with people who don’t make a ton of money or don’t value income as much (or both – it’s a mix of low-income by choice and low-income not by choice).

  19. Anonymous

    Matt–“On any given weeknight, you would’ve been just as likely to find my wife and me out at a restaurant, taking in a movie, or simply shopping as you would have been to find us at home. We were what some advertisers might call “The Perfect Consumers.” ”

    You could have been describing me and my wife not so very long ago.

    One thing we’ve found that works is to go shopping ALONE! Two aren’t better then one when it comes to resisting tempation. You can actually reinforce one anothers temptations, if only to avoid an arguement. It seems this was an issue in the Adam & Eve caper, so it’s hardly new. We find we spend noticeably less when shopping alone, especially without the kids.

    MLR(#4)–In response to “who do you blame”, I’d like to take a stab at that. We’re really in the grip of “something” much bigger than we imagine. We can’t blame TV alone, it’s really an entire cultural business norm toward marketing, and technology has only taken the assault to new and unimagined heights. It isn’t only the ability of marketers to use technology in slick ads, but also our own deep-seated desire to acquire the new technology itself. Technology creates new technology so it’s a never ending cycle of gadgets to be “needed”.

    At the root it’s a spiritual issue. We’re like fish swimming in a polluted pond (the culture) and we’re taking in the dirt continuously in spite of our best efforts. The only chance we have to find virtue in the pond is to gain greater understanding of what’s REALLY happening around us and to consciously and purposefully work to resist going along to get along and change our own behavior. (OK, I confess to being a Christian as well…)

    That’s why these “confessions” by Matt and other bloggers are so helpful. They give us a chance to see that others face the same issues and tell us what it is they’re doing about it with concrete steps. None of us can do this alone.

  20. Anonymous

    @C. Coleman: I love it… “You’re thinking like a millionaire now! Great work on your changes. I’m interested to know where you live, my wife & I are looking for land & looking to kick suburbia to the curb!

    @MLR: The debate on keeping kids from advertising can be saved for a post specifically addressing it (it is an incredibly important topic). re:regulation – Suffice to say that I never promote regulation… on the contrary I always promote changing on an individual level. After all, that is the best & most powerful thing each of us can do. 😉

    @Thomas: I love it… “But last time I checked, my savings from last year are still looking pretty stylish.” Thanks for that, and point seconded!

  21. Anonymous

    I reversed one money attitude in the past couple years from “save later” to “buy later”. Just as I’d always bought things and thought “I really need to get around to saving more,” now I think “I really ought to get around to buying that thing soon.”

    I’ve developed a knack for putting buys off. I tell myself to wait and the next/new model will be even better, whatever it is. After a while, I appreciate the model I have and really appreciate the savings I’m racking up.

    The latest model goes out of style when the new one comes out. But last time I checked, my savings from last year are still looking pretty stylish.

  22. Anonymous

    Rosa —

    You can try as hard as you like but you won’t keep marketing from your kid.

    With public education being underfunded, who do they turn to? Large companies. For what? Books, office supplies, food products, etc… and all of this comes with advertising. (Those text books with ads make me sick)

    Even without that institutionalized effect, your kids will still play with other kids who have the Barbie Convertible or Lifesize Transformer. They will watch TV at their house. They will play video games.

    As much as we try, we can’t hide our children from advertising. All we can do is limit it.

    Matt —

    I asked what you thought we should do about it because it sounded like you were hinting at regulation ;p

  23. Anonymous

    Great article. You’re thinking like a millionaire now! Recently, we went through our “need” list to transfer things to our “want” list (when things hit the want list we no longer want them). We now watch tv/movies (,,, etc.) and we get our local news live-stream, and tune into or or any of the network news for their videos (this not only freed up the money we were sending to DirectTV but also freed up our time – we watch on our schedule, not theirs. We gave up our cell phones that didn’t work on our mountain property anyway. We changed the way we use water, power, airconditioning, and made ourselves a woodpile for this coming winter. We planted a small amount of vegetables for a garden. We also buy some of our foods in bulk – and we put in a pantry with lots of shelves for when we pick up food (when it is marked down) that we consistantly use. We pay ourselves by saving some money (it’s a pretty small amount now). Thanks to FCN, we don’t feel all alone in our little quest.

  24. Anonymous

    @MLR & Rosa: re: advertisers targeting kids – This is unfortunate, but is makes PERFECT sense from the advertisers standpoint. The stand to make a customer for life if they can form the mindset of the children. Also, it is probably not necessary to mention the fact that it is much easier to successfully market to a child, than to an adult (can’t teach an old dog new tricks). The tobacco industry knew this all to well…

  25. Anonymous

    I’m really good at avoiding temptation – we pretty much just don’t shop. If I have to go into the big grocery store I have a list and, since I know there’s nothing there I want, I can just skip half the aisles. We even go to the punk bike shop where half the time the staff will tell you the thing you’re lusting after is really unnecessary.

    But I’m really really bad at resisting temptation when I run into it. Christmas shopping kills me, and having to make a Christmas list (which my not-in-laws demand and then mostly ignore) means I put the energy into thinking about things I want and then end up buying them for myself after Christmas.

    MLR – my four year old is no more resistant to marketing than any other kid, but he hardly ever sees any of it (again with staying out of the things-we-don’t-buy aisle at the grocery store, and not having any kid-friendly TV channels except PBS). The other thing that helps is that we don’t just make buying decisions based on cost – there’s also environmental impact, packaging, sugar content, whether we could make it ourselves, and whether we already have something similar. Because of the glut of hand-me-downs and gifts, almost anything a kid could ask for mine already has – and the few things that we would be willing to have in the house but he doesn’t have, he can put on his birthday list or Christmas list.

    I do try to say yes to pretty much anything that fits those criteria, so it’s not always no, no, no. (This is why I now have candied kumquats – turns out, kumquats look alluring but nobody really likes them, so I had to do something else with them.) And I think it helps that we live in a lower-income neighborhood, so he’s not deprived compared to his peers.

  26. Anonymous

    @MLR: I didn’t know you rode across Europe on a bike, that’s awesome, congrats. Fenders usually come in sets, so I’m waiting to find just what I need off craigslist or freecycle, as you suggested. re:marketing… I’m not one for placing blame, I’m more one for taking responsibility & doing MY PART to change what I can in my sphere of influence. As I pointed out in the article, I do “believe that the entire system has been spinning out of control for years, and I think that many people are finally ready for a change.” So I suppose I would simply attribute the whole ordeal to human nature, and I think that a lot of times, as humans, we have to (sadly) get ourselves into trouble before we recognize the problem & the need to get out! 🙂

    @Linden: I am a Christian and I could not agree more. Thank you for your comment… my wife & I feel the same way. All of the “sacrifices” we have made have DEFINITELY turned out to be blessings!

  27. Anonymous

    Finally realizing that money is temporary and that God always gives you what you need will make you think twice about how you spend. We don’t even care about riches and luxuries anymore. If they come, nice, but living within our means and being thankful for what we have is above everything else.

  28. Anonymous

    I definitely combat spending on a frequent basis. When I moved into my new apartment and had no furniture, I didn’t just run out and spend a few grand furnishing it. I checked sales, craigslist, freecycle, etc until I found exactly what I was look for AT THE PRICE I wanted to spend. Sure, my apartment went unfurnished for a month, but I didn’t mind and it was worth the trade off.

    On the flip side, I am pretty horrible at spending money for things I do need (or maybe even just really want!). I have been trying to get better at letting myself spend money. One of my best and larger purchases has been my road bike that I used to tour across Europe. It was an $800 bike or so, and I got it on sale for about $500. It came direct from manufacturer so I assembled it myself. The bike is wonderful.

    For your needs, I think you found a great compromise! Learning to do the modifications yourself is crucial and saves a ton of money! Rear and front pannier racks are pretty cheap (you could prob find on craigslist or freecycle) and so are fenders. Although, if you are putting a rear rack on you could probably go without the fender.

    In re: to the marketing: Just curious, who do you blame? And do you think the only answer is that people practice restraint? The unfortunate part of marketing is that a lot of it is targeted at children. The marketing agencies spend a lot of money to appeal to the child’s psyche, so you can’t blame the child for succumbing to desire!

  29. Anonymous

    @Garry: Kudo’s on not succumbing to the “necessity” of the PDA. You are right, we don’t need them… advertisers just like to make us think we do – and they do a fantastic job of it I might add.

    @Dawn: My wife & I no longer go grocery shopping unless we have a list, and we RARELY go into shopping centers anymore. This helps… but what helped us A LOT more was canceling our satellite TV service and shutting off the tube! 🙂

  30. Anonymous

    To truly break that spending habit, you’ve got to stop going into stores unless you have a specific need. No more window shopping, that’s what will get you every time.

  31. Anonymous

    Great post.
    Personally I have just changed jobs and had to give up my work phone/pda. Straight away I thought I need a pda or I won’t survive. Then I had a think, what do I need it for? Phone, yep, word processor, no, email, no, tetris, sometimes. So in the end no pda and just a run of the mill cheap phone.
    I think impulse buying can be so dangerous, people just need to go away and think about the product before jumping in and buying it. Most of the time they probably don’t even need it.
    I am one of those people that advertisements very rarely work on. When being bombarded with adverts, there is always another around the corner trying to get your attention. Net result? no sale, just background noise.

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