“I have no idea how we did it back then,” a client couple commented on a copy of their budget from fifteen years prior. They laughed as they remembered their early struggles. They knew that their life had altered over the years, but hadn’t realized how much it had transformed financially.
The changes that take place over many years can be hard to identify as you go through daily life, but looking back over time, the changes can be shocking.
Most people see their incomes rise over the course of their working years, and as it does, that extra money is added to what they spend. With more money to spend, lifestyle spending creeps up.
Lifestyle creep happens over years. When you were younger, you might not have imagined eating fine dining on a regular basis, or having the ability to shop at Whole Foods or to take vacations. Your own children have grown accustomed to having the gifts and luxuries you never had growing up.
We don’t notice the innocuous changes and grow comfortable with the gradual adjustments. Because it’s not a sudden change, we don’t make conscious decisions about spending. It just happens.
Lifestyle creep is normal and expected in life, but looking at it from a financial perspective, there can be negative consequences if you don’t plan well for it.
How lifestyle creep affects your financial plan
You become inured to spending money
The danger here is that you may not even realize it. An increase in income means an increase in spending. What use to be unimaginable, becomes the norm.
Your perception of money changes
Spending $20 outside your budget may once have thrown your finances for a loop. Now, you don’t even blink at $20 spent here and there, and may spend even more than that without a second thought.
Your lifestyle changes
While you were once able to live comfortably on a certain amount, several years later, that amount has increased. You value the experiences and luxuries of the life you enjoy now. You didn’t know what you were missing before!
Not only has your lifestyle changed, your friends and social circles have changed. Social expectations may include dining at restaurants that would have never fit your budget before. You may feel (consciously or unconsciously) that in order to maintain those relationships, you have to maintain the spending.
Your retirement numbers change
This is the most important way that lifestyle creep affects people. For most, the goal of retirement is to maintain how you are currently living your life, or even increase the amount you live on; meaning that your income level will stay the same or higher.
As your lifestyle spending slowly rises, the amount you need in retirement will also rise. A small lifestyle change now has a dramatic effect on how much you’ll need in the future. As a basic example, for every $1,000 increase in your yearly spending, or $83 per month, you will need to have an additional $25,000 saved for your retirement years to sustain that lifestyle.
People feel compelled to save more money as they near retirement. Saving money is very important, but the biggest impact a couple can make on their retirement is to decrease their expenses.
Proactively plan for lifestyle creep
Track spending and income
If you had a financial plan done in the past, be aware that your income and expenses are likely to have changed over the years. To keep current with the amount you need to be saving, track spending and income and revisit that financial plan often.
The most important element of a financial plan is the dollar amount that goes out every month. When that number changes, it is critical to let your financial planner know. Together you can determine an appropriate savings plan.
Many people intend to save their raises or bonuses. They plan on increasing their 401(k) contributions or putting extra money away for the children’s college fund or another financial goal. However, it’s far too easy to have good intentions and still miss implementing them.
Your expenses will always rise to your income unless you have a plan in place. A plan requires intentionality, energy and time. Frequently it’s on the to-do list, but can feel so enormous that it never gets done. Don’t let this happen!
Your first step is to realize how important this task is. These simple decisions to save or invest windfalls can be the defining point in your financial plan's success. Next, make the commitment to plan and take the time to put systems in place to make it easier to allocate that money. Set up an automatic investing plan or arrange to make extra payments on debt. Check into budgeting apps that help you save without thinking about it. Implementing these seemingly small steps throughout your life will yield big results.
Don’t let lifestyle creep wreck your retirement goals. Being conscious of your spending and having a plan in place will not only pay off financially, it will bring peace of mind as well.