My borderline obsession with personal finance, the road to financial independence, and overall money savviness has led to some pretty interesting conversations with acquaintances and close friends alike.
One stuck out to me in particular, because it was so illustrative of how pervasive lifestyle creep is. *record scratch* What’s “lifestyle creep”?
Lifestyle creep, also known as lifestyle inflation, is the all-too-familiar phenomenon of spending more as you make more. Sound familiar?
I remember when I first learned my salary. My jaw dropped to the ground when I saw my first paycheck. It was such a drastic jump from the $100 I’d get every two weeks from my parents in college. I’ll be able to save at least half of this, I thought.
Do you ever look at your credit card statement or checking account balance at the end of the month and think, “Surely there’s been a mistake! How could I have spent this much? What the hell am I even buying?” I remember going line by line in my Discover bill once because I was convinced I was frauded--"There’s no way I spent $2,100 this month."
Of course, I had.
Put simply, no matter how much you make, you’ll find a way to spend it.
This individual and I were talking about saving & getting off the consumerism hamster wheel—and they told me their parents, who were both making six-figure incomes at the time, had declared bankruptcy.
This is why cognizant spending is crucial to building wealth. We are conditioned by consumer culture to believe that acquiring new things (little “opioid bumps” throughout our day) will give us a frictionless life.
I want to encourage an attitude of conscious consumption—pay attention to the mood you’re in when you tend to buy things you didn’t plan to. Are you hungry? Bored? Sad?
While I’m actively trying to practice this myself, I never want to sound like I’m preaching as though I’m holier than thou. Obviously, I’m no expert, and as recently as last month I was impulse-buying my way through a shitty Monday to make the day pass faster.
Sharing actionable advice and philosophy with you (as I learn it myself) is my way of paying it forward (pun intended), as I’m already noticing the positive effects in my bank account AND my mindset.
Impulse buys represent the most dangerous of financial decisions because they are—by definition—unplanned for and oftentimes not carefully considered. In fact, stores are literally laid out by design to encourage purchases of this kind because retailers know how powerful that instinct can be.
They range from the $4 muffin to the $25 shirt in the Target casuals section (gets me at least 50% of the time).
There’s an inherent promise of excitement and a quick shot of dopamine with each—this is something you didn’t have 10 minutes ago, but for the low, low price of [insert any number under about $50 here] and a quick swipe of your card, it’s yours.
But that’s where it ends. Muffin or shirt acquired. Dopamine shot over.
Impulse buys are typically easy to justify because their absolute dollar amount is relatively low.
But consider how often you fall victim to impulse buys. (Cue my obsession with compound interest—and how small things add up over time.)
Here’s my challenge to you: next time you want to buy something, write it down (and its price) in a spreadsheet. Keep track. Make yourself wait two full weeks before purchasing it.
I bet it’ll save you from buying at least half of what you write down.
This means no more thinking of something in the morning and purchasing it in the afternoon (or worse, seeing something in the store and throwing it in the cart).
Log these items over the course of a month or two, and mark which ones you purchase and which ones you don’t after the two-week waiting period.
And—here’s the most important part—add up the total of how much you would’ve spent on all of it, had you purchased the day desire struck you.
Even IF the number isn’t astronomical (say it’s only $100 after the month is over), the philosophical underpinnings of eliminating impulse buys are far more profound:
What do you have to show for that hypothetical $100? A collection of artisan muffins that you forgot about 10 minutes after you ate them, a light-up phone charger, and a few articles of clothing that got shoved in the back of your closet with everything else?
Psychologically, an impulse buy is a pick-me-up. It causes your brain to release a chemical that makes you feel happy.
But what if, with a small amount of planning, you could regain control over your spending and loosen consumer culture’s grip on your life—the constant wanting, needing, buying more?
This isn't about deprivation or sacrifice--it's about becoming aware of the way we tend to lean on impulse buys to improve our mood, and recalibrating ourselves to find that same satisfaction in the digits in our bank account (and the stuff we already have).
The financial results will probably astound you, but I think the psychological benefits are infinitely greater—imagine waking up every day knowing you already have everything you need.
See a cute top? Who cares. You have 50 of them. You don’t need that top and that top isn’t going to make your boyfriend like you more or impress your friends for longer than a second or get you a promotion.
(If there’s something that tempts you frequently and you KNOW you buy a lot of it, literally count how many you already have. That number can bring awareness to your habit of binging on it. I counted the other day—I have 12 pairs of black lululemon leggings. No más!)
My own experimentation with this has led to some pretty surprising, creative outcomes.
The last two times I've wanted to run out and buy something to make my life easier, I made myself wait. Within two days, that item (or something that functioned similarly) appeared in my life for free or from someone offering to let me borrow it. Can you believe that? It almost felt like magic.
I ended up spending nothing on either of those things and but having or using both of them because I asked around and waited a few days.
Spending money is the least creative way to solve a problem.
Luckily, everyone else in upper middle class America is also swimming in a sea of material goods they've purchased but don't need, so often times, you can benefit from others' excess.
I challenge you to implement the spreadsheet rule for at least a month and practice monitoring your "impulse buy" mood. Mine's boredom. Share your results with me when you're done—I want to feature someone! Like an inverse Money Diary: "These are all the things I wanted to buy but didn't."
The young woman's money guide to all the things you're too embarrassed to ask your friends. Build the life you thought you were too broke to afford through managing your spending habits, travel hacking, and simple, smart investing.
Full-time Brand marketer at Southwest Airlines, part-time Yoga Sculpt teacher, occasional Waffle House Model and reformed materialist.
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