What it means to “Spend out” (Commandment #7) and why it’s a good idea to spend out.

Probably the most idiosyncratic and cryptic of “My Twelve Commandments” (see left column) is “Spend out.” What does it mean?

Spend out encompasses several resolutions.

I have a miserly nature; by spending out, I mean to stop hoarding, to trust in abundance. I find myself saving things, even when it makes no sense. Not long ago, my last pair of jeans started falling to pieces. I made myself go shopping, bought two pairs — and yet, I’ve still only worn one of the pairs. Why am I saving the others? Not wearing clothes is just as wasteful as throwing good clothes away.

I also need to spend out by letting things go. I re-use razor blades too many times, I keep my toothbrushes for too long. There is a preppy wabi-sabi to soft, faded khakis and frayed cotton shirts, but it’s not nice to be surrounded by things that are worn out, or stained, or used up.

Spend out applies to creativity as well as to possessions. I find myself thinking, “I should save that story…” or “I don’t want to use all my best examples now…” But pouring out ideas is better for creativity than doling them out by the teaspoon.

The most important meaning of “Spend out,” however, is that I shouldn’t be a score-keeper, I shouldn’t stint on love and generosity. As St. Thérèse of Lisieux wrote, “When one love, one does not calculate.”

I have a bad habit of keeping a running tally of who’s done what.

“I gave the Little Girl a bath last night, so you…”

“I let you take a nap, so you…”

“I had to make the plane reservations, so you…”

NO! Spend out.

The vital notion behind spend out is that by spending, I create more gain.

I was intrigued by Arthur C. Brooks’s article in the November Portfolio magazine, Giving Makes You Rich, which presents analysis showing that people who give money to charity end up wealthier than those who don’t give to charity.

I was astounded by this quite literal proof that “Spend out” does work.

Somehow I missed this great post, A Zagat-Style Approach to Your Career, from the Shifting Careers blog when it ran last week. Ah, the joys of the RSS, so easy to catch up!

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  • Heather

    This is a great post. I love the concept of “spend out.”

  • pkzcass

    This is exactly what I needed to read today! It’s a great concept, and one I won’t quickly forget. Thank you.

  • sara

    I used to read your blog about a year ago, but it seemed like all you talked about was this spend out idea, so I stopped. Then, one year later, I check back in to see what you’re up to, and guess what? It’s spend out time again. Is this really how you define happiness?

  • adora

    I don’t have much problems with spending out except for paper.
    I love drawing and can’t resist when I see extremely good quality paper. I bought these watercolor paper from Italy 7 years ago, approx $2/sheet. I kept saving them and buy cheaper ones from the local store. Going to force myself to use it all up before buying new ones.

  • In Covey’s book “Seven Habits”, he calls it an abundance mentality. And yes, it is a core value that really works.

  • Kelsey

    In response to Sara: I’ve been reading this blog regularly for well over a year. When I read the title of today’s post, I thought, “Oh good, she hasn’t mentioned spending out in awhile.”
    I think it’s clear that the concept “spend out” is just one aspect of Gretchen’s definition of happiness.

  • I like that. I’m working to get over my own hoarding of things like crayons. I don’t use them much, but I always feel guilty for doing so! I’m working on it.
    Congrats on your self-awareness. 🙂

  • I think spending out is a lovely idea.
    I also think that (in that final definition) it’s the sort of thing that women are encouraged to do and men are not, and that doing it, as a woman, can reinforce a lot of the social power structures that make my life harder. If I spend out at work, help everyone and keep no accounting, do I get promoted? Do I get a commensurate raise? No. If I spend out at home, take care of the housework and the baby and not keep track of whether my partner goes out or takes time off as part of my bargaining, do I get time to myself? Or do I end up overworked and overstressed?
    I understand that UNDUE attention to parity is unhealthy and can create resentment and unhappiness. But from a feminist perspective, giving and giving can cause one to get walked on and used up – even if the other people involved don’t intend that as a consequence. It’s a hard line to navigate, and I’m never sure I fall on the right side of it, but I don’t think that advocating “spending out” without an acknowledgment of the gender dynamics involved in that makes sense. For every woman I know who needs to “spend out,” I know at least one other who needs to start balancing her life’s figurative checkbook and “keep track”.

  • Sara, it’s so funny that you say that. I decided to write about “Spend out” today because I’ve had several people email me specifically to ask, “What does that mean ‘Spend out’ commandment mean, anyhow?” So I figured I was being annoyingly cryptic!
    You were probably reading my blog during the month that I was particularly focused on spending, buying, money, spending out, generosity, etc. (I think that was last July.) I go in phases with my research, so I’m sure people get a bit bored with my hobbyhorses when I’m riding one hard. Like finally I had to make a rule for myself a few weeks ago: no more mentions of Flannery O’Connor!
    Very interesting point about the need to hold back enough to keep yourself sane, to demand what you need and deserve, etc. I never thought about “spend out” in juxtaposition to those goals. I want to think about that more…but I will say that, although certainly not in every context, in more contexts than you’d think, to spend out is to receive back. A mystery.
    I myself never worry about spending out too much. Sheesh. Score-keeping is my issue!

  • Cara

    As a recovering doormat, I definitely think it’s possible to give too much. From my observations, men don’t seem to worry as much about whether they’re being selfish. Women seem to be socialized as “givers” and therefore more prone to thinking that they’re never giving enough, even when they’re tapped out.

  • I love this post, as well as the idea of spending out. It’s actually something I wrote about earlier today without having read your blog yet! (Must be something in the air.)
    As I read the comments posted by people who fear the doormat syndrome, I had to go back to St. Thérèse of Lisieux’s sentiment: “When one loves, one does not calculate.” I think that can be broadened to the idea of giving. When we give without expectation, as Gretchen said, it always comes back to us. Maybe not from the source we think it will, either.
    For those who fear being taken advantage of or feel tapped out, it made me think about giving without expectation. When we remove conditions to our giving and let it come from a pure place, at least for me, it feels like I’m expanding my heart and fueling a really good place within me. I don’t feel like I’m being depleted.
    I used to, though! I used to give and give and give, and told myself I was doing it because I was generous and kind. Truthfully, that’s not why I did it at all. My real agenda was that I gave hoping to be validated as a result. I wanted people to notice and respond to it. (But I’d never consciously admit that to anyone during that time!)
    We all do it, though. Whether we realize it or not. It takes practice, love & compassion for ourselves to move to a place of “spending out.” It’s something I’m still working on, and brings me huge joy when I’m able to practice it.
    Thanks, again, for writing about this.

  • Harumph. I think what Sara said was RUDE. If you are no longer interested in what someone has to say, why state that explicitly? Would you walk up to two people in conversation, listen a while, and say to their faces, “Gosh, you were talking about this last week and I don’t think it is interesting.”
    If you aren’t interested, then don’t stay. Don’t drop your rudeness bomb first. It annoys the hundreds of Happiness Project readers who are quite happy with the site.
    Gretchen, your response to her was very gracious. I, on the other hand, am “keeping track” of this bad behavior 🙂

  • Chris

    I like your use of the concepts “wabi” and “sabi” to refer to the comfort we find in old clothing.

  • K.

    I’ve always had the packrat tendency, thinking “I’d better save this because I might need it later” – followed by the more dangerous “I can’t use this thing now; what if I need it later?”
    Having to pare down my possessions for an international move showed me just how bad my hoarding had become. I ended up giving away or throwing away most of those precious artifacts and supplies that I “might have gotten around to using someday.”
    Several times I found myself thinking, “I can’t part with this; it’s a family heirloom! I’ll never have a use for it, but my parents entrusted me with its care…” Finally the lightbulb came on: my parents had unloaded that object on me because they had no use for it either! I’m finally understanding that memories of stuff gone by are usually more valuable than the stuff itself, especially if it’s only taking up space and you can’t find it anyway.
    As an aside, I love the phrase “riding a hobbyhorse.” What a succinct description for what I’m constantly reminding myself: That pet social issue of mine is not relevant to every conversation – and no one else at the office cares about my favorite TV show.

  • Cara

    “When we remove conditions to our giving and let it come from a pure place, at least for me, it feels like I’m expanding my heart and fueling a really good place within me. I don’t feel like I’m being depleted.” From my experience, this works only if I also follow the commandment “Be Cara.” When I was in my doormat phase, I gave to the point that I practically disappeared. I did what others asked of me, became who they wanted me to be, all in the name of being “generous” because I didn’t want to hurt their feelings or disappoint them in any way. I acted like I had no wants or needs of my own (this is where “act as if” doesn’t quite work). In the end, I had to learn that spending out is possible only if there is a self to spend out from.

  • I tried an experiment and started spending out by creating my hdr blog a few months ago to try and do my part to help my state (Michigan). The amount of joy and interesting experiences it has brought to me is really surprising and proof to me of this concept.

  • There is a buddhist koan that seems related. I think of it like this “Act like it’s already broken.” Let’s take the pair of jeans – someday, you’re going to drop a glass of red, red wine on them, or they will fray at the knees, etc. That day will come. So you may as well enjoy them now. If you accept that they won’t be with you forever (and they won’t), you’ll be able to appreciate and enjoy them now.

  • Heidi

    I just found this blog today and this thread is resounding with me big time. I’ve been holding on the boxes of stuff, little stuff, stuff I’ve only used once, recipes, new paper clippings I thought I’d refer back to. I am starting to be overwhelmed by my stuff. Today, not tomorrow, I will get rid of a box and tomorrow I will get rid of a box and so on till the boxes are gone. I will let go of that stuff. I will say to my stuff, “I enjoyed you and now it’s time for you to go.” Thanks for writting this and for being here for me to find.

  • A friend of mine in college used to tell me that if you want to make more money then give what you already have away. Although that always sounded very un-altruistic to me.