The effects of lifestyle creep & ways to manage it


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You’ve heard about economic inflation — it’s why gas that used to cost $1 per gallon can now be up to five times that amount. But did you know that lifestyle creep is a thing, too? It’s one reason why many Americans keep earning more money, but still struggle with the same debt load.

Here’s how it works: During your college years, you could make a ten-dollar bill last a week. You were flat broke and crafty with your money. But then you graduated to a full-time job with a full-time salary. And all of a sudden, that $10 went from feeding you for a week to buying one fancy coffee.

Because you were earning more, you had the idea that you could afford more — especially as you watched your friends upgrade to nicer cars, clothes and homes. And each time you earned a raise, or a promotion, or enjoyed some other income, it equaled more purchases, and maybe more debt.

That’s lifestyle creep — upping your lifestyle to match your income. It can be tempting to see those extra digits as “fun money” that doesn’t need to be budgeted, but putting that money to work could potentially set you up for a more stable financial future.

So what’s wrong with using a raise to fund an artisanal coffee habit or upgrading to a luxury apartment? Letting lifestyle creep eat up that raise could set back important future milestones, like paying for a wedding, buying a house, or funding retirement.

What do you think your retirement account would look like right now if you had maintained at least some of that frugal creativity that got you through the lean years?

Related: How to get a raise: the ultimate guide

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What is lifestyle creep?

Lifestyle creep can be a common phenomenon experienced as one progresses through their career. Lifestyle creep, sometimes known as lifestyle inflation, is the process by which discretionary expenses increase as disposable income increases.

Disposable income is income that isn’t already budgeted for necessities like housing, transportation and food.

It could include anything from concert tickets to morning lattes to book buying sprees — basically anything that is likely to fall more into a “want” category rather than something strictly “needed.”

Lifestyle creep can put you squarely behind the 8-ball when it comes to getting out of debt, saving for retirement, or meeting other big financial goals. And it’s one reason people can’t escape the vortex of living paycheck-to-paycheck.

It might seem counterintuitive at first, but here’s a simplified example using a clothing budget. If you make $100 a month and set aside 5% for a shopping allowance, that’s $5 a month. If you earn a promotion at work and are now making $150 a month, that 5% now equates to $7.50 a month.

Lifestyle creep happens when you up your clothes budget to match the percentage, instead of putting the extra $2.50 toward savings or investments. Over time, those numbers can add up. And earning more isn’t all fun and games. It can also mean more expenses, and larger retirement goals.

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What causes lifestyle creep?

Graduating from the penny-pinching college life to your first full-time job is only one instance that can trigger lifestyle creep. It also can happen with any type of bump in cash flow that’s not part of your monthly budget, such as a raise, bonus, tax refund, gift, or winning a scratch-off ticket.

There are also psychological factors at play here, including the sometimes compulsive urge to keep up with the Joneses.

And before you blow it off as just envy with a lack of willpower, consider this: A recent examination of a lottery winner’s effect on the neighborhood found that the larger reward the lucky gambler collected, the more likely their neighbors were to incur more debt and even file for bankruptcy.

Say what?!

The social pressure to keep up with the consumption habits of family and friends, even when it’s conspicuous, can cause real and serious financial stress.

Social media can make matters even worse, with studies showing that post envy could be causing people to live beyond their means just so their feeds can reflect their acquaintances’.

But how do you resist the urge to upgrade your 2000-era sedan when your neighbor rolls up in a shiny new SUV? The answers might be simple on paper, but switching your mindset from “Should I spend this on a shopping spree or a vacation?” to “Should I put this money into savings or invest it?” can be easier said than done.

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Discerning needs versus wants

It’s normal to want to celebrate a new raise, but to avoid lifestyle creep, it can be important to make sure not to celebrate with something that will increase costs to the point of making the raise irrelevant.

For example, a person gets a raise that increases their income by $200 a month and then immediately trades in a fully paid-off car for a newer, fancier car (want), which results in a $300 monthly car payment.

Not only is the raise spent, but the amount of money available each month has also actually diminished. Sure, that person might have a car worthy of bragging about, but they may not be any healthier financially, even though they’re making more money.

On the other hand, for someone scraping by month to month, there might not be much of a choice but to fund some lifestyle upgrades with a raise — and lifestyle creep is not always a bad thing for someone working on being financially independent and secure.

Using the same example of the $200 monthly raise above, the recipient of the raise uses that money to buy a car needed to get to work to replace a lengthy public transportation commute each day, or perhaps invests in a professional development class to gain career advancement.

Either of those decisions might be perfectly worthwhile lifestyle changes that someone might be happy to pay for with a new raise. After all, part of financial wellness is investing in oneself when possible to achieve goals.

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Tips for avoiding lifestyle creep

It’s true – giving every extra penny of a cash windfall to a credit-card company doesn’t sound like much fun. But just knowing that lifestyle creep exists, and recognizing it in your own life, can put you ahead of the game when it comes to making better decisions with your money.

Here are a few possible ways you can avoid lifestyle creep while still enjoying the good things in life.

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Celebrating small

If you earn a raise, you should absolutely celebrate — especially if it’s higher than the average 2.9%. But to outsmart lifestyle creep, you may want to take a deep breath and resist the urge to run to the store for that expensive thing you’ve had your eye on. (What would Marie Kondo do?) Instead, consider a small way to congratulate yourself, like a dinner with friends.

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Creating a budget

One way to avoid lifestyle creep may be to give all of your income a job. Yep, that extra $200 a month shouldn’t just be chilling in a checking account with no purpose, like a freeloading cousin camping out on the couch.

Letting that extra money hang out in the checking account too long with nothing to do might lead to unplanned spending on a weekend trip or that budget-busting espresso maker that would be a tempting purchase. Putting that money to work might allow protection against impulse spending.

What exactly is “putting money to work”? It all comes down to budgeting. But don’t panic — gone are the days of lengthy kitchen-table sessions with bills and statements fanned out and calculations done by hand.

With the advent of online banking, most people are likely equipped with everything needed to make a budget right on your phone or computer.

Don’t have a basic budget already? Getting a raise can be a great time to crunch the numbers and be financially responsible with that money. If there’s already a budget in place, a new raise is a great time to reconfigure the budget to make sure it still ticks all the financial boxes.

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Avoiding mindless spending

Mindless or pointless spending might happen when there is unexpected extra cash sitting in the bank account.

Much like the itch to spend that crisp, new $20 bill included in a childhood birthday card, there may be psychological and emotional temptation to spend money in the bank account without considering whether or not those new, modern table lamps or that brand new gaming system is really needed.

Casually spending money on unnecessary expenses could mean missing an opportunity to put money to work for the future, sustainably upgrading a lifestyle by planning ahead for financial growth.

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Tracking your spending

When it comes to managing money, one question you don’t want to ask yourself is “Where did that money go?” Losing track of expenses could not only lead to a blown budget, but also overdraft fees, returned checks, or other unnecessary fees that could put you even further behind.

If you really struggle with this one, there’s an app for that. A large number of them, as a matter of fact.

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Turn on the auto-pilot

One of the easiest ways to ensure that you’re only spending what’s in the budget is to automate as many payments and contributions as possible. After all, money you don’t have is a lot easier to not spend.

This strategy can start at work. If you get a raise, you might elect to increase your 401(k) contribution (or start one if you haven’t yet). And while it means that your take-home pay may not change, your retirement account can painlessly grow.

You also can automate bill payments and savings and investment contributions, all with the intention of getting the money out of your tempted hands ASAP.

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Outlining clear goals

What’s your endgame? Do you want to retire early with a million dollars or more in the bank? Is owning a home a part of your plan? One key to avoiding lifestyle creep is to set long-term financial goals and keep your eye on the prize.

Two financial goals that can be beneficial to almost everyone include growing a short-term emergency fund and longer-term savings plan. But from there, the sky’s the limit and your goals are entirely up to you.

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Avoiding new debt

This might seem like a no-brainer, but you aren’t likely to get out of debt if you keep adding new debt to the pile. A recent report revealed that consumers are willing to spend up to 83% more using a credit card than they would with cash.

Ditching the credit cards is entirely possible — your parents and grandparents lived without them every day. Modern credit cards weren’t introduced in the U.S. until around 1950, which means that Boomers and their parents were raised on the philosophy that if you can’t afford it right now in full, you wait until you can.

And as the old saying goes, they turned out just fine.

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Getting your head in the game

Lifestyle creep likely isn’t impossible to reverse, but one could argue that the further you’ve allowed yourself to fall into the luxury lifestyle, the harder it could be to pull yourself out.

One way to get your head in the game is to make lists, starting with your needs (electricity) vs. wants (electric car). From there, you could prioritize your “wants” and start to cut from the bottom.

Are there things in your life that just exist because they can? Consider eliminating them completely, or finding crafty ways to keep them around in more affordable ways, such as shopping consignment vs. retail or eating lunch out one day a week vs. all five.

And the jealousy that can mess with your head? All that glitters isn’t gold.

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Choosing your friends wisely

Peer pressure is a powerful motivator, but the perceived wealth of your friends, neighbors and acquaintances can be a far cry from the actual state of their finances.

In fact, the truth is that eight out of 10 working Americans are living paycheck-to-paycheck. That’s a far different reality from the picture they might paint on the internet.

If you seem to find yourself in situations where there’s pressure to overspend, including kids sports activities, nights out on the town, or an invite to a destination wedding, you may want to consider finding a circle of friends who share the same financial goals as you.

After all, it’s a lot easier to say “Let’s just cook at home to save money” to a friend who won’t pressure you to try the trendy new restaurant in town.

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Spending your raise

So what exactly should someone do with extra money after a raise? Paying more into a retirement account, paying off debts, or just putting some extra dollars towards a specific savings goal are some approaches to take. A cash management account might be one helpful way to manage a raise and stay on top of a budget.

While a raise might often come with unintended lifestyle creep, a smart financial strategy could be budgeting that new money towards paying off debts or saving up for the future rather than blowing it on unneeded lifestyle upgrades.

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