The lifestyle creep

My brother dragged me to the FI movement. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve always been the cheapest person I know, and I love being surrounded (virtually) by people who nod and say yes, yes, finding those quarters on the ground was the best thing to happen to you all day.

But the movement itself, or, more accurately, how it’s manifested, sometimes makes me itchy. One of those ways is the way people talk about lifestyle creep.

Lifestyle creep: it’s a thing, and it’s a thing that we should avoid. It’s not, in my opinion, a thing that we should sneer derisively at, which is how it is often approached.

Thirteen years ago, my husband and I started our American life making $19,000 a year. We bought a condo, which you could do in 2006 with a salary of $19K, and we made it work. I took on an extra job, he got hired at Radio Shack, we bumped it up to about $30K. We made it work.

Nine years ago, we had a baby. We were still making about $35K together. We made it work.

We had one car for the two of us, we were taking on student loan debt, and when I got an unexpected bill for a co-pay in the mail, I called the doctor’s office, literally crying, I couldn’t even squeeze an extra $15 a month into a payment plan for it. A coworker mentioned painting her living room and I said we couldn’t afford it, and she said “a bucket of paint is 25 bucks,” and I said, “exactly.”

We started making more money. Our lifestyle crept.

When we bought our current house, I was pregnant with Viv, we were making about $45K, although less, because at that point, my husband was doing an internship and we were losing money because of how much the commute cost. We didn’t have enough money for furniture, we didn’t have enough money for a lawn mower, we didn’t have enough money for a snow shovel. I was 8 months pregnant before I scraped together the money to buy a $70 glider, up until then we had been sitting on the floor or on a cot. We made it work.

I’m here to tell you that being 8 months pregnant and having nowhere to sit but the floor sucks.

Now, we make about $150K when all is said and done. We spent many years living on $30K or less – why can’t we do that now? If we made it work before, why can’t we make it work now?

Here’s an example why: there was a dead tree in our front yard that threatened to fall on the house. When we made it work, we just let that go. We didn’t have a choice. Now, we have that choice. We can choose to make our house safer, even though it costs money.

Our lifestyle crept. We don’t have to cry ourselves to sleep over co-pays, or worry about the tree falling every time a storm comes up.

We have three kids now, and we bought a second car. We could do it on one car before, why can’t we now? Because we had to before. We don’t have to now.

Lifestyle creep: we should fight it. We should consider carefully whether we need a bigger house or a newer car or wardrobe updates or whatever. But we should also understand that living in poverty, or close to it, comes along with enormous stressors, and a lot of risks.

There’s a big, big difference between moving from “doing pretty well” to “doing better” and from “poverty” to “doing pretty well.” There are so many sacrifices that go into making it work at the low levels that there is a natural correction that takes place when salary increases. Do I aspire to make it work on much less than we make? Yes. Do I sneer at lifestyle creep? No.

Lifestyles don’t just creep because people are frivolous or thoughtless about money. Some creep is justified, justifiable, and reasonable.

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