by Melissa Face
Each December, my senior English students read “A Christmas Carol” by Charles Dickens. In addition to lessons on British tradition, I also try to incorporate something a bit more modern, to illustrate the relevance of the values and morals that Dickens included in his novella.
Earlier this fall, I found an article about a woman who went an entire year without spending. She paid her bills, then said goodbye to everything that wasn’t essential. Her efforts resulted in a savings of $23,000 at the end of the year.
My students and I discussed her accomplishment and whether or not we might consider taking on a similar, perhaps shorter, challenge in the future. They agreed that they could likely do without many of their purchases, but at first it might be a difficult adjustment.
Then I heard some murmuring among students in the back of the room.
“What is it? Please, tell me what’s on your mind,” I encouraged.
One of my seniors spoke up. “Okay, that’s great that she saved $23,000, but what did she DO with it?” Erickah asked. “I mean, did she feed the homeless? Give it to charity? The article would be much more compelling if she had made a real contribution with what she saved.”
I was caught off guard and had to pause a few moments before responding.
“I agree with you completely,” I told Erickah.
Without realizing it, my student had given me great advice, a wonderful plan to begin a new calendar year.
When I went home that evening, I told my husband about our class discussion and my modified plan. “I want to go on a six-month spending strike,” I told him. “Anything that isn’t essential will have to wait, and everything left over after paying bills will go to charity.”
Our family of four loves going out to eat and shopping at our favorite retail stores. We also really enjoy weekend getaways, so we knew that cutting out overnight trips would sting a bit as well. But we also knew we could put these simple pleasures on hold if we had a really good reason for doing so.
My husband was on board. He liked the idea of us getting back to basics for a while. And even though we intended to proceed with our plan regardless, we decided to ask our older child’s opinion before we got started.
We presented the idea to Evan and Delaney that night after dinner. Evan listened intently and when we asked what he thought, he responded, “Well, sure! I already have a great life!” His enthusiasm provided even more reassurance that my husband and I were doing the right thing.
On January 1, we put our plan into action with a few modifications to the no spending rule:
- We could go out to eat only if we had a coupon or gift card. We had saved gift cards we received for Christmas and those we earned from credit card rewards. We planned to use them for special occasions.
- There would be no charging unless we had a medical emergency or a necessary car repair.
- We would not purchase any new items unless they were presents for someone else. We felt this exception was appropriate in the event our children were invited to a birthday party.
- When we needed something, we would shop at a local thrift store.
The early weeks of our new lifestyle were very easy. We had a couple of significant snow storms, and we had no choice but to stay home and just enjoy being together. Plus, the children were still overwhelmed with their Christmas gifts, so there was no mention of getting anything new.
A few weeks later, Evan’s rec league basketball season began, and after his first game, my husband and I realized that Evan would need better shoes. So, off to the thrift stores we went. We were only at our second shop when my husband spotted a pair of gray and black Shaq shoes. Aside from the worn laces, they looked great. Evan tried them on and they were a perfect fit. Plus, they were only three dollars, and we knew we had some better laces at home to use in them.
Our kids took to thrift shopping right away. They saw it as a grand treasure hunt and loved that each thrift store had completely different items than the one before. We returned to thrift stores as other needs came up, and we used thrift shopping as a reward for good grades and behavior.
My husband and I noticed that our plan was also forcing us to connect more as a couple. We were talking about our money when it came in, and we were discussing all of our expenses, something we had struggled with in the past. We were talking deeply about what was important to us in terms of spending and saving, and we were making long-term goals that we planned to work towards once our 6-month stretch was complete.
We aren’t even at the halfway point yet, and so far, we have found our new lifestyle to be incredibly rewarding. We spend a lot of time together as a family: checking out books from the library, making crafts, cooking meals at home, and playing with toys that the kids forgot they had.
My husband and I talk more in the evenings and we are also enjoying the simple pleasures of reading a good book or watching a classic movie. We recently decided to continue our plan for an entire year instead of only six months. We had hoped to make a difference with our charitable contribution, but we had not planned on this experience improving our own lives as much as it has.
I’m grateful my family was receptive to this change, and I’m thankful that my student, Erickah, shared her comment that day in my English 12 class. I always look forward to teaching this unit on Dickens, but this year I was taught the real lesson on giving. I hope that we are able to give back as much as we have received.