How to Resist Lifestyle Creep and Still Have Everything You Want

by Philip Brewer on 31 December 2013 7 comments

Levels of spending on some things seem to automatically go with levels of spending on other things. But there's no rule that says this has to be true. (See also: Choosing a Luxury Eccentricity)

Overcoming the Lifestyle Problem

This is what I call "The Lifestyle Problem." It's expensive enough to support yourself and your family, but supporting all those people and a lifestyle? That's a problem.

Fortunately, the solution is easy: Don't do it. There is no rule that says certain expenses automatically imply other expenses. You are free to choose luxury in one area while choosing frugality in another. (See also: Little Luxuries That Go a Long Way)

For example, my wife and I have a set of linen sheets to put on our bed in the summertime. They're two or three times as expensive as cotton — but they're luxuriously more comfortable when it's hot, plus they're more durable. They might seem incongruous with our cheap apartment and our 23-year-old Honda Civic, but we're very pleased with the balance we've struck.

Splurge Strategically

Probably everybody you know does this in a small way — think of all your friends with perfectly normal budgets, except this one won't pay more than $12 for a haircut, that one won't go to movies in the theater, another insists on doing his own yard work (even though he hates it), and so on.

Not so many do this in a big way. In fact, the only place you're likely to see this idea expressed in full measure is in young bachelors. You can recognize the subtype easily because their apartment is furnished with a recliner chair, a king-sized bed, and no other furniture.

Do you want a fancy sports car, but are perfectly happy living in a cheap apartment? That's fine. Similarly fine is the reverse: cheap car, but a luxury apartment. Also fine: a cheap car, a cheap apartment, and a glorious annual vacation. You can have a few nice things without having to have all nice things! (See also: Why You Should Allow Yourself to Splurge)

Resisting Lifestyle Creep

Everybody knows this. And yet, it’s deceptively easy to upscale all your expense categories in tandem, without even noticing that you're doing it.

And that's without considering the social pressures to do this. Just as soon as you start being thoughtful about this — and not upgrading this or that expense—you'll find that everybody and his brother has something to say about it: Why do you have such an old car/such crappy clothes/such a small TV? Why don't you live in a bigger house/better neighborhood? Why don't you buy nicer furniture/better wine/a fitness center membership? You can afford it!

The unstated assumption of that last sentence is that everyone should spend all their money. There are a lot of people out there who seem pretty determined that nobody subvert that assumption. (See also: Is Peer Pressure Keeping You Poor?)

It is possible to resist that social pressure. You can do it just by determination — in fact, that's probably the best way — but here are two tricks that I've found help me.

1. Have a Style

Just about any style will do. If you have a style, it's easy to turn down the upgrades that don't match because, "They're just not my style."

Even if you don't pick a nameable style (bohemian, yuppy, whatever) people will still quickly figure it out — and will quit suggesting things that don't match. People don't tell yuppies that they need to buy a Lincoln Towncar for their commute or bohemians that they need to get designer onesies for the twins, and they'll be a lot less likely to tell you that you need to spend money on something that doesn't "go" with the things you do spend money on.

Just be careful not to let the causality go the other way. Just because you've decided to go with "preppy" is no reason to upgrade your wardrobe by spending a fortune on Brooks Brothers. (Not that you can't spend money on Brooks Brothers if you want to, and can afford it.) (See also: Refresh Your Wardrobe for $25 or Less)

2. Embrace the Eccentricity

Anybody whose spending is different from typical is, in fact, eccentric. Embrace that. Own it. But make it about something that matters to you:

  • You are the person who won't hire a yard service to get rid of their dandelions because you don't want herbicides sprayed on your lawn (not because you're too cheap to spend the money).
     
  • You're the person who doesn't go to movies in the theater because they turn the sound up too darned loud (not because you're too cheap to buy tickets).
     
  • You're the person who doesn't eat out because you cook better food than you can get in a restaurant (not because you won't spring for the check).

You can resist the tyranny of social rules to keep all your spending levels nicely lined up. Someone looking at my spending and trying to figure out what my "lifestyle" was would be utterly stymied — because the only rule my wife and I have is that we pay up for what we really want and spend as little as possible on the rest.

How do you resist the temptation to overspend on lifestyle?

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Guest's picture
Liisa

Yes! My husband and I are so fortunate right now to have a circle of friends in our new town that are even more frugal than we are (aka don't seem to want/need ANY luxuries!), and it makes all the difference. Friends in our old town were similar, and it helps us so much to have their support and constant example. They keep me grounded and encouraged as someone who has learned to be frugal but is a spender by nature. It is much easier than being around the handful of friends we don't see very often who are shocked and offended by how little we want to go out and spend money!

Guest's picture
Casey

"You are free to choose luxury in one area while choosing frugality in another."

Yes! They're only really luxuries if they stand out from your everyday items or experiences, right?

The fact that I have kids justifies a lot of my thrifty choices, especially furniture and other household items. Kids are just hard on things and there's no point in laying out $40 for a bath towel that's going to end up with tempera paint all over it.

I tend to splurge on things that will make or save me money, like our rooftop solar panels. That was a big expense I have never regretted.

It sounds like you and your wife have developed an authentic style of your own. Knowing what you want and how you want to use your resources is one of the keys to enjoying your life.

Philip Brewer's picture

Thanks for the comments!

Choosing the right friends (and right spouse!) is key to being successful—not just successfully frugal, but successful in general.

And, yes, I think developing a style is really useful as a way to reduce the amount of brain power that goes into thinking about where you spend your money. At a larger scale, thinking deeply about what you really want is essential, but having a style means that you don't have to think so deeply about every single transaction.

Guest's picture

In my house, we choose to be frugal about absolutely everything - except my son. He gets day trips and goodies that nobody else does.

Our friends and family think of us as the odd lot that decided to move out to the boonies - just deciding to live rurally is enough of a lifestyle choice that everyone gets it.

Guest's picture
Ellen Scott Grable

Great advice! I only buy vintage clothes (read used) and drive a car with 120,000 miles and dents, and won't be painting the house's interior anytime soon. I do however save all year to play during polo season at my local club school and keep a horse year around. I don't need a swanky gym membership because "it's not my style" riding and mucking is my style. I also cook better than most restaurants. Thanks for the perspective.

Philip Brewer's picture

Wow. Driving an old car while keeping a horse for polo at the club is such a good example, I wished I'd known about it while i was writing the piece! That's perfect.

Guest's picture
Rosaliza

...

I prioritize my spending habits.

I do my yard work and housework, cut my hair once every two years, mostly I brown bag my breakfast, lunch and dinner to work (I work long hours), yet I spend my money traveling.

I also splurge on myself as a reward for doing challenging things successfully.

I can say, I live life to the fullest...