Christmas on the cheap and loving it

White gift box with red ribbon

When I was 25 years old, I had my tonsils removed.

It was a miserable experience that kept me from eating solid foods for about two-and-a-half weeks.

By the time I was able to eat normally again, I was keenly aware of every bite that went into my mouth.

I noticed everything about the food, from its flavor to its texture to how it felt in my stomach.

I paid more attention and ate less food, yet I still felt full.

I had accidentally stumbled upon a technique called mindfulness.

A similar strategy, done deliberately, can help you enjoy more and spend less during the holiday season.

It's called a financial fast, and it's designed to break some of the bad financial habits that we all develop.

We spend because we need or want the item in question, of course, but we also spend money just because that's what we do to nudge ourselves out of a bad mood or to reward ourselves for hard work.

What does the average adult plan to spend?

Year Amount % change
2012 $854 +32%
2011 $646 -2%
2010 $658 +58%
2009 $417 -3%
2008 $431 -50%
Source: American Research Group, November 2012 survey

It can take more than a chat with a friend or a resolution to make better spending decisions. Sometimes a complete reboot is in order.

Here's how to do it. Every once in a while, for a period from a few days to a week or so, don’t spend any money.

None. Zero.

Pay your bills a day or two before you start. Go grocery shopping for a week's worth of food in advance. If you take medication, make sure you have enough to last a few days. Stock up on toilet paper. Fill the car with gas and refill your public transit pass.

Then go about your life.

When you're hungry, make a meal or snack from the food you have on hand. If you run out of something, improvise. If you want to eat out, notice that — and then eat some of the food you have at home.

Don't go on any trips you can't handle with your existing gas and transit pass.

Instead of going to the movies, go for a walk. Take a bath. Call your mother or your uncle or your college roommate and see how they are.

If you're bored, find something to do that doesn't involve buying anything. Draw a picture. Sing a song. Play Scrabble. Build a fort out of sofa pillows. Read.

After a while, doing this starts to be a little like carrying a $50 bill in your wallet and seeing how long you can go without breaking it. You get competitive with yourself and want to extend your streak.

Of course, the holidays are a time of conspicuous consumption, but that only makes this a great time to try swearing off spending for a few days.

For years now on Black Friday, we haven't gone shopping. Instead we celebrate Buy Nothing Day, which we sometimes call We Have Everything We Need and A Lot of What We Want Day.

We expanded that day to the full weekend, which is so nice that it's spread to the holiday season generally. We are not exactly a retailer's dream come true.

This year, not even the kid has many items on his Christmas list.

We'd all really like to go to Germany for a cousin's wedding next summer, to see and enjoy our extended family. I suspect we'll set aside some money for that, money that we might otherwise have poured into Christmas.

Instead of tearing through a gift marathon, we'll cuddle the dog and tickle each other and eat stollen — a traditional German fruitcake — and take naps.

We'll open a few gifts, of course, but we'll notice them more because we have fewer.

It's weird, but it works.