Lifestyle inflation is when your spending choices outpace your paycheck. Most people are familiar with the idea of YOLO (you only live once) but are less familiar with its less optimistic friend, YOYO (you’re on your own). What you don’t know about personal finance will cost you in longer debt, diminished savings and prolonged time needed to achieve your financial goals.
I was fortunate enough to work for a company that prioritized providing raises that typically covered inflation and cost of living increases. Including promotions, I realized an almost 20 percent increase in gross pay over a roughly seven-year period. However, when creating a budget didn’t solve the case of the missing money at the end of each month, I decided to do a detailed comparison of my actual year-to-year increases in expenses.
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Here’s a quick breakdown of what I found in some of the larger expense categories.
- Housing/Rent – $300 per month ($3,600 per year)
- Cable – $200 per month ($2,400 per year)
- Food – $100 per month ($1,200 per year)
- Miscellaneous Spending – $800 per year
Total Cost to Live the Good Life: $8,000 per year
If I kept on the same financial path, I would have spent $40,000 or more over the next five years. Even worse, the majority of increases in my annual expenses were impulsive spending choices I made without considering their total impact. Here is what I learned from this experience.
What Goes Up Doesn’t Always Come Down
According to a compilation of studies and surveys from GOBankingRates, 65 percent of respondents claimed they had mortgage debt. For myself, between upgrading to a larger apartment and yearly rent hikes at lease renewal, my housing costs alone increased 60 percent in just seven years.
Because housing is most individuals’ biggest expense, simple growth (or savings) in this area can have a significant impact on your overall budget. Previously, each year I was one signature away from a 12-month, 15-year or 30-year commitment. Using my new plan, I downsized to a reasonable place that still met my needs, but the lower costs put a few hundred dollars back into my pocket each month.
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Even Uncle Sam Has a Retirement Plan
It was easy to overlook how tax increases impacted my salary as I ascended the corporate ladder because whenever I got a raise, I only paid attention to the new adjusted salary. I didn’t take into account that I was moving up in tax brackets. Mo’ money, mo’ problems.
I may have gained 20 percent in gross income, but my actual take-home pay only grew about 10 to 15 percent. Once I figured this out, I was able to offset some of the new taxes by taking advantage of my employer’s 401k plan that maximized investment opportunities with pretax income. If offered by your employer, a health savings account (HSA) might offer additional benefits. As careers and incomes change, it is important to revisit your financial options with your employer or advisor to ensure your short- and long-term financial goals aren’t forgotten.
Spend Freely on Your Priorities and Cutback Everywhere Else
When I was spending without a plan, I purchased the largest cable package available as soon as I started making more money. There weren’t even enough hours in the day for me to binge-watch the 200-plus channels available to me, but everybody was doing it. I was paying over $200 per month to watch a few programs I enjoyed. This didn’t make logical or financial sense, so I cut cable completely and went with a streaming service for one-tenth the cost. If I’m interested in a specific show, I purchase the season a la carte, which has still proven cheaper than paying for a monthly subscription. Over five years, going without cable has saved me almost $12,000.
I also made it a priority to bring my lunch to work a few times a week versus eating out every day. This simple change saved hundreds a month. Reviewing my other discretionary spending found savings on an outdated data plan I had been grandfathered into years earlier. My new plan saved me money and came with a free movie channel that I used to pay for out of pocket.
A common rule of thumb for reaching financial independence is to spend less than you earn or earn more than you spend. I did the exact opposite of both these tenets for years. Whenever I got a raise, I spent everywhere I wanted until the money ran out. All this unconscious spending did was perpetuate a cycle of working to live. As my priorities shifted, I was surprised how little changes in my spending choices that had drained my bank account just months earlier helped me “find” more money.
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