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The idea of anything creeping in unnoticed is enough to unnerve the bravest among us.
In the world of personal finance, it’s the subtle, sneaking changes in spending habits that may be most chilling. The phenomenon is known as lifestyle creep, and it’s one of the biggest — and most overlooked — barriers to building long-term wealth. However, once you know what to look for, there are strategies for keeping lifestyle creep far, far away.
“Folks agonize over negotiating pay or maximizing their returns by just a couple percentage points, but it's lifestyle creep that kills a lot of folks,” says Ami Shah, a certified financial planner in Washington, D.C., and CEO of Steward, a financial planning software tool.
What is lifestyle creep?
As income rises throughout your career, often expenses will, too. More disposable income might mean signing up for another streaming service or eating out more frequently. Or, it could mean buying a second home or a new car.
And it’s here, “when your expenses continuously increase in lockstep with your income,” that lifestyle creep can set in, Nilay Gandhi, a CFP and senior wealth advisor with Vanguard, said in an email interview.
On the one hand, it’s only natural to increase your spending as your income rises. After all, we work hard to buy and do the things we love in life. It’s when that higher spending happens mindlessly, rather than intentionally, that it becomes problematic, says Mary Lyons, an investment advisor and founder of the Benchmark Income Group in Dallas.
Perhaps you’re spending more so your lifestyle can match that of your friends and family, or because you feel it’s expected of you. You may even feel that by working so hard for it, you’ve earned the right to spend more.
However, these thoughts and feelings may be signs that your higher spending is happening automatically, rather than intentionally, Lyons says.
“I think there’s something to be said for living a life of design, as opposed to a life of default,” Lyons says. “And when you allow lifestyle creep to take over, then you end up with a life of default.”
Lifestyle creep can happen to anyone, no matter their income. Shah says that when her organization asked high earners (those with salaries of $100,000 to $500,000) to name their top financial challenge, nearly half stated an inability to save enough.
This highlights an important fact: There’s no outearning lifestyle creep.
Why is lifestyle creep destructive?
One of the most detrimental side effects of lifestyle creep is that spending more inevitably means saving and investing less. This problem is particularly acute for younger savers, who have the most to gain from investing early.
Thanks to compounding, even small investments have the potential to grow significantly over a long enough period, said Gandhi, who's based in Malvern, Pennsylvania. But if your spending consistently increases with your income, there’s none left for investing.
For older investors planning for retirement that's about five to 10 years away, lifestyle creep brings a different danger. These savers tend to be at the peaks of their careers in terms of salaries and bonuses, and often spend more lavishly on luxury items, such as homes and cars.
However, if they’ve been earning that high salary for only a short period, their savings may not be sufficient to continue that lifestyle in retirement.
“This either forces them to work longer or cut expenses in retirement — and both options can be difficult to stomach,” Gandhi said.
Lifestyle creep can also lead to additional life stresses, Shah says. For example, if your lifestyle becomes dependent on a certain level of income, what happens if you want to switch jobs or careers?
“I’ve seen far too many people who are stuck in a job they hate because of this,” Shah says.
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How to prevent lifestyle creep
There are several ways to keep lifestyle creep at bay, but Shah, Gandhi and Lyons all agree the best place to start is to create a financial plan and a budget, and stick with both.
For Shah, the first line of defense is not overspending on housing, often someone’s highest expense. Generally, she suggests clients keep housing costs below 25% of their net income. And, if the amount they’re saving falls below 20% of their net income, that could be lifestyle creep crawling in.
Lyons suggests paying yourself a weekly allowance to remain intentional about your spending, no matter how much money you make. She recommends her clients — even those earning more than $1 million a year — set up programs to automatically pay essential expenses. And then with what’s left, they decide on an appropriate budget on a weekly cadence, rather than monthly.
“And what that does is really get rid of impulse spending,” she says.
For example, if you’re out of money on Thursday and your allowance comes on Friday, it’s easy to decide to put off a purchase. But if you have to wait two weeks for a paycheck, it’s much more tempting to charge it and pay it off later.
Earning a raise is a great opportunity to ward off lifestyle creep, Gandhi said.
He advised putting a certain percentage of the raise — 75% is a good rule of thumb, he said — into a pot that will help you meet your financial goals, whether that’s retirement, stock investing, saving for a down payment or paying off debt. Then, whatever’s left is yours to use however you want.
“This approach still allows you to reap instant gratification from every raise,” he said. “You have 25% to allocate to your budget as you see fit while ensuring 75% is put towards your goals.”
This, he said, is one of the best ways for anyone to set themselves up for financial success while evading the subtle-yet-destructive march of lifestyle creep.