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If Your Spending Is Eating Your Savings, You Might Be Experiencing 'Lifestyle Creep'

Transfer of money from hand to hand.
New charges can add up at the end of the month.
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/
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The cost of your lifestyle can creep up on you, like mold festering in your refrigerator. You don't notice it until one day — bam! — the impact is clear, and it's not pleasant.

When did you decide to join all these subscription services? Have you always shopped online so frequently? When did you go from batch-cooking dinner to getting sushi delivered?

Without much thought, all these charges add up to a much larger bill at the end of the month. This uncomfortable growth is called "lifestyle creep" or "lifestyle inflation," and it happens when you have access to more money.

Maybe you've advanced in your career and have a higher salary. Or maybe during the pandemic, you've had fewer expenses and more discretionary income. Perhaps you've moved in with a partner and are sharing expenses. However you got here, now you have more cash in your bank account, and instead of investing or saving it, you've only ballooned the cost of your lifestyle.

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Writer, artist and financial planner Paco de Leon shares tips about how to manage your money, as well as your emotions, to achieve inner wealth and prevent lifestyle creep.

Save Money Dynamically

If you're making more money, your savings rate should also increase. Adjust how much you save based on what you earn. If you have the option, ask your employer to make a direct deposit into your savings account so that the saved money is automatically set aside.

During times of inflation, it may be harder to do this, but always pay attention to how much you're saving and whether it's going up with how much you're earning.

Avoid Impulse Purchases With A "Buy List"

To avoid impulse purchases, make yourself what de Leon calls a "buy list." Put the items you desire on a list. Then, after a predetermined time (like a week or a month), if you still want that thing, go ahead and buy it. You can even build the concept of shopping off your buy list into your life so you have items and experiences to look forward to.

De Leon says a buy list "re-creates the experience of shopping" but prevents her from buying things carelessly.

Know That It's OK To Treat Yourself Sometimes

It's OK to spend some of your money on yourself! Staying strict with your spending can cause you to "explode in ways that are not so great," says de Leon.

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To "satiate the beast," she gives you permission to treat yourself. Just do so thoughtfully. Ask yourself, "How do I expect this purchase will make me feel? What do I want it to make me feel? What feelings am I trying to avoid by buying it?"

Asking yourself these questions before treating yourself can help you avoid the "hedonic treadmill" — the never-ending pursuit of one "thing" to bring us happiness after another. Although buying a gift for yourself can give you pleasure initially, research suggests you often return to how you felt before — that is, until you settle on a new "thing" to make you feel happy and the cycle begins again.

Ask Yourself: What Is Enough?

Lifestyle creep can show up in both our tiny lifestyle choices and our big ones. Everything from a daily coffee habit to a desire to live in a single-family home is a reflection of the life we want for ourselves and how much we're willing to spend to achieve that lifestyle.

When you're thinking about what will make you happy, de Leon says to be careful about measuring contentment through a consumerist lens, because it's rarely just one thing that will make you happy. You may think you want just a nice jacket, she says, but then you need attractive shoes to go with the jacket. When you're on the hedonic treadmill, it's never just one thing.

The antidote to lifestyle creep, de Leon says, is deeply considering the answer to the question, "What is enough?"

Often, our life goals are this moving target, says de Leon. To decouple these goals from material things, think about how you want your life to feel on a daily basis. Ask yourself what would truly make you happy and joyful. What would that cost you? How much money do you need to make, how much money do you need to save for emergencies and what do you need to invest for the future?

Use these answers as building blocks to get to a place where you can appreciate what you have instead of always desiring more.

Work On Your Mental And Emotional Health

"Our relationship with money is a mirror," says de Leon. "How we choose to spend or not spend our money is a reflection of how we feel about ourselves."

Insecurity, jealousy and other negative emotions can lead us to spend money needlessly. Take care of yourself so that when you have to make financial decisions, you're in a clear state of mind and less easily influenced by outside factors. A good night's sleep, breathing deeply, listening to music that makes you feel happy and spending time with people who appreciate you for you can go a long way.

"The more you work on your relationship with yourself," says de Leon, "the more you're going to see your relationship across all other things in your life improve."

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The audio portion of this episode was produced by Michelle Aslam, with engineering support by Brian Jarboe. We'd love to hear from you! Email us at or send a voice note to LifeKit@npr.org.

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