A few years ago, my best friend said something that really stuck with me. The gist was this: It doesn’t matter whether you make $25,000 or $100,000 a year — you’ll still feel like you don’t have enough money.
That’s easy for someone making $100,000 to say, I thought at the time.
But here’s the thing. She was right. In the span of a few years, I went from being an intern to a legit professional. My salary doubled, but I was still living paycheck to paycheck.
The reason? Lifestyle creep.
“People who see their income increase, a lot of times they’re just not that much better off,” says Brian Madgett, head of consumer education at New York Life. “Because as your income changes, you give yourself permission to spend more money.”
You buy nicer clothes. You upgrade your living arrangements. You go on vacations. You pay for conveniences.
That permission slip can quickly lead to debt, especially if you give yourself the green light to spend beyond your means.
“You often see an increase in consumer debt when that salary increases (because) that increased salary gives someone the confidence to say, ‘Hey, we can buy this. We don’t have the money in the bank right now, but we’re confident that over time, we can pay that off,’” Madgett says.
Jumping off that roller coaster of large spending, new debt, large spending, new debt can be difficult. But curbing lifestyle creep in your 20s and 30s, when you’ll likely see your biggest wage increases, can give you more financial freedom down the road.
Don’t worry. No one expects you to have three roommates and live off ramen noodles for the rest of your life. Some lifestyle upgrades are OK. These tips will help you keep it from going too far.
Count your money
When you’re broke, you keep a close eye on every dollar. But that vigilance can fade when you have some cash to spare. Suddenly, your checking account is tapped and you have no idea where the money went.
Tracking your spending, via an app or an old-fashioned spreadsheet, will keep you tuned in to where your money is going. Then you can make informed decisions around your spending, like whether you really want to shell out that much money on takeout.
Plan for indulgences
Tom and Donna (RIP “Parks and Recreation”) know not to “Treat Yo Self” every day. Instead, make it special. And make it part of your plan. Carve out room in your budget for fun and set aside funds for things like vacations, concerts or big purchases.
You’ll enjoy indulging more when you know you have the money set aside, Madgett says.
“Some of the most successful people, lifestylewise — the ones who don’t have any stressors around money — bucket out money for all the things they want to spend on,” he says.
Keep pace with savings
If your income (and spending) increases, your savings should, too. This applies regardless of lifestyle creep, because living generally gets more expensive as you get older — you might buy a house, you might have babies, you might run into medical issues or have to care for an aging parent.
So get in the habit of bumping up your savings as you go.
“Set up regularly occurring automatic transfers to your retirement account, emergency fund and any other savings accounts,” says Logan Allec, a certified public accountant and owner of personal finance site Money Done Right.
And increase those contributions every time you get a raise. Otherwise, your savings might not keep up with your lifestyle, Madgett says.
“If you’re not taking a close look at your savings, you could wake up in 20 years with savings based on the income you had 20 years ago,” he says.
You don’t need to bank the full amount, he says. If you get a 10% raise, for example, bump up your savings by 5% and give yourself permission to spend the rest.
ignore the Joneses
Don’t get lured into someone else’s lifestyle, whether it’s a colleague, a close friend or an Instagram influencer. Instead, keep your eyes on your prize — the financial goals you’ve set for yourself.
“It’s way too easy to fall into the trap of keeping up with those around us because we want to look as successful as they do,” says Steve Adcock, founder of ThinkSaveRetire.com. “The Joneses are probably broke because they are trying to keep up with their neighbors.”