How much is enough?

Defining what’s enough for you and how to avoid lifestyle creep

I’m intrigued by the concept of enough, and how enough is different for each of us. Not only does what’s enough vary from person to person, what’s enough for each person changes.

Think back to the first car you bought or the first place you rented. Maybe it wasn’t much, but it was what you could afford at the time and it was yours. You gained independence by being able to drive yourself places or live away from family for the first time, and perhaps you felt a sense of pride, like you’d finally arrived.

But soon, your excitement began to fade. You became used to your new surroundings and before long you grew dissatisfied with what you had. You noticed the nicer-than-yours cars and homes your friends had, and before you knew it, you spent any and all increases in income (or worse, took out debt) to get the prettier, better things.

This happens to all of us, and it can be explained by the theory of hedonic adaptation which states that regardless of what happens to people, their levels of happiness eventually return to their baseline. In other words, our circumstances don’t account for most of our happiness. A positive side of this theory is that even when bad things happen, as time goes on we return to the level of happiness we were at before. The not so positive side is that the opposite is also true.

“Getting the goalpost to stop moving – or at least move slower than your income grows – is the only way to both be happy with what you have and ensure you don’t push beyond the limits of what you can handle.” —Morgan Housel, Getting the Goalpost to Stop Moving

When we get an exciting new promotion that comes with a raise, it doesn’t take long for us to get used to what we have now. And unless we’re careful the money we expected to make our life better can become, yet again, not enough for us to be happy. We want more, so we spend more. We get used to more, so we want even more and then we spend even more.

Welcome to lifestyle creep, the pattern of spending more money (or taking on more debt), as your income increases or you pay down debt. Instead of saving more, you spend more. Lifestyle creep isn’t limited to upgrading your car or home. It can come in the form of spending more on non-essentials too, like subscriptions, more expensive clothes (and more of them), eating out more often (and at nicer restaurants), and taking more frequent and costly vacations.

A sign that you have a problem with lifestyle creep is you haven’t built an emergency fund. It’s likely that your income has increased in the years you’ve been working, but your standard of living has increased, too. You’ve gotten used to more and “better” things instead of maintaining your lifestyle and putting your money toward your savings and long-term goals.

If this sounds like you (a.k.a. if you’re human), take heart! Human desire is mimetic, meaning we learn to want what other people want. While you can’t change your human nature, there are things you can do to promote your happiness and curb lifestyle creep at the same time, which brings us back to the topic of enough.

I encourage you to begin by considering what enough means for you today and what your enough for the future might look like. The poem How Much Is Enough? by The Minimalists explores the concept and ends with a beautiful definition of enough:

“Less than enough is depriving.
More than enough is indulging.
Enough is the sweet spot in the middle,
the place where intentionality intersects with contentment,
where lust doesn’t get in the way of creating something meaningful.”

The trick to your long-term happiness and ability to combat lifestyle creep is to turn blind wanting into intentional wanting, to decide what is worthy of your pursuit and what is not. (For more on the impact of mimetic desire in everyday life, read Wanting by Luke Burgis.)

Here are some other ideas for promoting happiness and curbing lifestyle creep:

• Automate your savings. The more money you save, the less you’ll have available to increase your lifestyle spending. Begin by saving a percentage of your income automatically each pay day, and aim to save 20% of your income. It’s okay to start small and increase the percentage incrementally until your goal. Remember to adjust the savings amount as your pay increases.

• Unfollow social media accounts that increase wanting—whether for things, a lifestyle, or experiences—especially for those that are beyond your means.

• Take good care of what you already have.
Maybe your kitchen counters could use an update, but keeping them clean and clutter-free can help you appreciate them and their functionality more. This idea can be applied to pretty much anything you already own.

• Uninstall shopping apps from your phone, don’t save your card information on shopping websites, and unsubscribe from sales emails and newsletters. You can remove the temptation to spend on things you don’t need by introducing friction to your online shopping experience. And remember, 25% off is still 75% on. You have to not spend money in order to save it.

• Instead of spending money, spend your time developing habits that are good for you, like getting outdoors a little every day, reading more books (bonus points if you save money by using your library card), journaling, developing your cooking or baking skills, exercising regularly, and drinking enough water. When you feel good about yourself, you’re less likely to feel like something is missing that can be solved with the swipe of your debit or credit card.

Does this week’s article spark any ideas you’d like to implement or thoughts you’d like to share? I’d love to hear from you in the comments!

Until next time,