How to Free Yourself from the Trap That Makes Life a Grind

Like a lot of people, I was stuck on the merry-go-round of work and spend, work and spend.  It didn't make me happy, but I didn't know how to break free.

at work

What is the work/spend cycle?

  • You work long hours to further your career.
  • Come home tired and stressed, but still try to spend time with your partner and children.
  • Order lots of takeout food because you're not only too exhausted to cook and clean up afterward, but also to plan meals and shop for them.
  • Fill your online shopping cart and buy something nice to make yourself feel better.  The feeling is real (because: dopamine), but it doesn't last.  You need to shop again so you can get your hit of that feel-good chemical.
  • Increased spending in an attempt to make life easier and happier requires you to keep working long hours to pay for all of it – and crowds your living space with a bunch of stuff you don't need.
  • Working long hours drains your energy and makes your relationships feel rushed and distant, which makes you want a pick-me-up, which leads to shopping (and maybe overeating and one too many glasses of wine every evening), which leads to debt, which leads to working more, which perpetuates the cycle!

As I began to explore minimalism, I eventually realized that there were two obvious habits I needed to change.  Together, they impacted our clutter and stress levels and reduced budget pressures, which made life much more pleasant and peaceful.

Increase home cooking.

If you have a habit of eating out or ordering in four, five, or more nights a week, you could be spending $500 to $700 every month, or even more.  But dropping a habit like that cold turkey might be very difficult.

So pick one night, say Wednesday, to fix a meal at home.  This isn't the stressful beginning of the work week, nor is it the exhausted end of the week.  Wednesday is a good day to prepare chicken and vegetables in a slow cooker.*  Just add a green salad or some fresh fruit and dinner is ready.

* This blog is reader-supported.  If you purchase through my links, I may earn a small commission.

After a week or two of Wednesday meals, start doing meal prep on Sunday afternoon for Monday and Tuesday dinners.  Cook a large pot of vegetarian chili (I leave out the meat substitute and the result is delicious) or bake some ground turkey meatloaf (make two and put one in the freezer).  Either can be served with a big salad or a baked yam or Idaho potato.  These dishes won't take all of Sunday afternoon to make (yay!) and are quick and easy to reheat later.

Next, learn how to make a basic stir fry for Thursday dinner.  I like to stick with vegetables only, but you could add shrimp or cubed ham or tofu.  I serve the stir fry over cooked brown rice or whole grain noodles.

Once Monday through Thursday home-cooked meals are becoming normal, add the weekend.  On Saturday, the kids can help you construct a charcuterie board.  Break out a board game and gather around the table to eat and play.  On Sunday, serve breakfast for dinner – perhaps scrambled eggs, raisin bread French toast, and delicious homemade applesauce.

On Friday nights you can relax and get takeout pizza or burgers or go out for Mexican food or whatever you like.  You've cut your restaurant meals by 80% or more, which is great for your health and for your wallet.  You've developed an easy routine which makes grocery shopping more straightforward and meal preparation as close to automatic as possible.

Related articles: How to Bring Back the Joy of Cooking and 5 Reasons to Choose Simple Food

Control shopping overload.

Shopping used to mean a trip to the mall, usually with friends, and might have included lunch or a manicure.  It was always possible to overspend (and your friends might have modeled and encouraged that behavior), but you could also window shop and still have the emotional satisfaction of social bonding.  Shopping in this sense didn't necessarily require the addition of clutter or debt, and had a big payoff in terms of intimacy and understanding.

Enter online shopping, which has surged in recent years (44% in 2020 alone, according to, and the social and emotional benefits you might have previously gained from shopping are lost.  Now the only way to stimulate good feelings is through acquiring something new, whether you need it or not.

Buying something creates a little rush of dopamine, the brain chemical that anticipates a reward or pleasure.  Receiving the package provides another small thrill, even if you don't remember what you ordered a few days ago (a common situation).

All of our online browsing might be stealing time we could use to connect with others, either through a phone call or face to face.  Social media might be making us lonely.  And let's be honest – purposeless surfing is boring.  Boredom puts us in the perfect frame of mind to get excited about buying something new.

Online retailers make it easy to buy on a whim.  They save our shipping addresses and credit card information.  All we have to do is click, and our order is on its way.  We can do it over breakfast, when we're supposed to be working, while waiting for a dentist appointment, or even in bed.  It's much too easy.

That's exactly how online retailers want it to be.  Everything about e-commerce is designed to facilitate thoughtless, impulsive purchases.  And since our online behavior is tracked, targeted ads follow us everywhere, to every site and social media platform we visit.  (Not this one, though.)

6 things I did to make it harder to shop without a purpose

1.  I close my browser unless I'm researching something specific, even though I use my computer for work every day.  I focus on writing, not surfing.

2.  I unsubscribed from email marketing.  Those coupons and sales alerts are designed to make me shop even if I don't need anything, and I don't want them.

3.  I deleted my credit card details from shopping sites.  If I want to make a purchase, I have to get my card out and enter all the numbers.

4.  I wait at least 24 hours before making a purchase, even if I put items in an online shopping cart.  At least 80% of the time I don't remember what I put there by the next day, so it's easy to delete.

5.  I quit Amazon Prime.  The only things I might need overnight are available at my local grocery or drug store.

6.  I added an "allowance" to our budget.  It's for discretionary spending.  If something stays in a cart for several days, I'll go ahead and buy it if I still want it and I have the money.  By that point it's a conscious decision rather than an impulsive one.

Related article: Buy Nothing Update

Whether we're bored, lonely, or stressed, buying a bunch of things we don't need won't make us feel better.  Clicking on "Buy Now" might create a tiny moment of joy, but it doesn't last long.  And when the purchase is unneeded (as it often is), the joy is followed by guilt and regret.

If we need to help ourselves feel better, there are more worthwhile things we can do:  

  • listen to good music
  • get some exercise
  • get into nature
  • read a book
  • make something
  • write in a gratitude journal
  • talk to a friend or family member on the phone or face-to-face 

They're all better options – no purchase necessary.


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