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Will It Make Life Better? How to Know Before You Buy

Taylor Extreme Savings, Money Mentality 23 Comments

Sometimes spending money results in a direct increase of happiness. They are the purchases we dream about yet rarely achieve: the reliable car that cuts your bus commute in half or a blanket that lasts for years and never loses its softness. Whether big or small, purchases that increase happiness are awesome.

Money = Happiness (Until It Doesn’t)

I distinctly remember the day I signed a lease with my partner. It was my first time living without random roommates, and it was a pivotal moment because I had secured myself a safe, clean and private place to live for the first time in my adult life. Spending an extra $150 month provided me a direct and substantial happiness boost. I no longer had to deal with strangers entering my room at 3AM, gross bathrooms or stolen food.

There were so many small moments where I noticed a drastic increase in my quality of life. Some were absurd, like the time I realized I could sit on my own toilet without fearing germs or vomit. Some of the moments were big, like when I had a final to study for and had a quiet place to study without distraction. Overall, my quality of life drastically increased for the relatively small price of $1,800 per year, and there was a direct relationship between money spent and happiness acquired.

However, that isn’t always the case. I went through a period when I was 18 where I was obsessed with designer sunglasses. In less than two months, I spent upwards of $700 on Ray Bans, Marc Jacobs and Gucci frames. At the time, I truly believed the glasses would make me happy. Instead, I hardly wore them because I was worried they would scratch or break. 9 times out of 10 I opted for my $15 sunglasses from Target instead. Instead of bringing me happiness, my designer shades brought stress and guilt into my life. Two months later, I sold the 3 pairs for a 50% loss and felt instant relief.  It was clear that the sunglasses pushed me over the peak of my happiness curve.

What’s the Happiness Curve?

The happiness curve (or “fulfillment curve” as it is called in Your Money or Your Life by Vicki Robin and Joe Dominquez) is a graph that charts your happiness levels in relation to the things you buy. Dominquez and Robin explain that in the beginning, spending money resulted in increased happiness—food, shelter, clothing.

As children, our parents or caregivers provided most of the necessary items like food, shelter and clothes. Although we didn’t deal with the exchange of money for goods, we still understood that items like pacifiers, blankets, and bottles came from outside sources and brought pleasure and comfort.

When basic needs are met, we have reached the level of “Survival.” (Pictured below) Surprisingly, the “survival” level is only one level away from maximum happiness. In other words, we need less stuff than we think we do. For most adults, survival includes housing, food, clothes and transportation.

 

FullGraph.Survival

Graphs are courtesy of www.investmentmoats.com

 

After “survival” comes the “amenities” level (pictured below). For children, this level includes things like toys or special fieldtrips. For adults, it will typically manifest itself in extra soft bedding, coffeemakers or sporting equipment. Amenities are small comforts that make life more enjoyable.

 

FullGraph.Amenities

 

The next level is “luxury” or enough. As you can see, it is the peak of happiness because luxuries are still considered luxurious. It is the point of happiness in which a new Honda or Toyota is celebrated and living without roommates in a one bedroom apartment is considered a blessing. All of your basic needs are met, amenities are plentiful and luxury items are carefully considered before being purchased.

 

FullGraph.Luxuries

 

The jump from “amenities” to “luxuries” happens rapidly and typically occurs around 18-23 years old:

 

“Eventually we [all] slipped beyond amenities to outright luxuries—and hardly registered the change. A car, for example is a luxury that the vast majority of the world’s population never enjoys…Then there’s the luxury of our first trip away from home. For many of us, there was going to college. Our first apartment. Notice that while each one is still a thrill, it cost more per thrill and the “high” wore off more quickly.” (Your Money or Your Life)

 

Unfortunately, maintaining the peak of happiness can be difficult. Until we hit the peak, the standard formula of “more stuff = more happiness” is generally true. Your first car probably will make life easier and graduating from a tiny studio apartment to a spacious 1-bedroom will increase joy. But after reaching the peak, the formula stops working. More stuff becomes a burden and begins to increase stress instead of happiness. The fourth level is “overconsumption,” and it illustrates that happiness decreases despite increases in spending.

FullGraph.TooMuch

Still confused? Here’s an example of all four levels illustrated through housing:

1. Survival—My first apartment was a one-bedroom apartment I shared with two other girls. Although always dirty and regularly disgusting, there was a kitchen that worked, a desk at which I could study and a bed for sleep. (Strangers entering the bedroom to use the bathroom often interrupted my attempts at sleep, but the bed was present nonetheless.) Despite its problems, my survival needs were met. I had shelter, but not much more.

2. Amenities—My next apartment was a 500 square-foot studio apartment from the 1920’s. It was filthy when we moved in, but after a thorough scrubbing and the strategic placing of hand-me-down furniture, it became comfortable. My partner and I had a safe, quiet and clean place to live. Although a noticeable step up from the “survival” level, it left a lot to be desired. We had no bedroom, the kitchen retained a permanent layer of grim, we didn’t have access to laundry facilities and our balcony overlooked a somewhat questionable 7/11.

3. Luxury—My current apartment has ample “luxuries.” With over 1,000 square feet of living space, a full-sized bedroom and a delightfully large bathroom, it meets all of my needs and then some. It also boasts a clean updated kitchen, new carpet, communal laundry facilities and a private garage attached to the apartment in one of the best (and safest) neighborhoods in the city. Luxury has been achieved at all levels.

4. Overconsumption—Although I haven’t reached this level with housing, I’ll admit that I am often tempted by it. In my case, overconsumption would probably include a fully remodeled kitchen with very expensive stainless steel appliances I would worry about breaking, in-unit laundry facilities with corresponding maintenance issues and possible floods, and an extra bedroom (which requires extra cleaning and wasted space) for my occasional guest. For most people, housing overconsumption is characterized by an excessive amount of extra bedrooms and living space that is never used. The excess space causes increased consumption, stress and guilt.

Finding the Perfect Spot

Once you’ve reached the peak level of consumerism, you’ll know. Purchases will no longer bring you joy or increase your quality of life. Instead, they’ll steal your time and create stress with increased maintenance expenses or additional responsibility.

Recognizing where you are on the Happiness Curve is the best way to start. Think back to recent purchases and evaluate what level they fall under: survival, amenities, luxury or overconsumption. Once you’ve evaluated your current position on the chart and reviewed your purchases, embrace the idea of conscious spending.

In the same way it’s important to eat consciously in order to know when you’re full, it’s also important to spend consciously in order to know if it’s bringing you joy. Much like eating, you’ll know when you’re too “full” from spending by listening to your own wisdom. Once you’re “full” and decide to eat more anyways, you’ll typically end up sick. The occasional “what the hell!” extra piece of cheesecake is fun and even liberating, but if you eat that extra piece everyday on a full stomach, you’ll become unhealthy at a shockingly fast pace. Spending is the same.

The occasional luxury item or small overconsumption is fine, and even fun, but if it becomes a common occurrence, it will lose its ability to bring joy. Avoid the trap of desensitizing yourself to luxuries by keeping them rare.

What do you think of the Happiness Curve? Is overconsumption ever worth it?

Comments 23

  1. ThriftyD

    Hey Taylor! I love the blog so far. J. Money’s shout out on Budgets Are Sexy brought me here. :). I love your illustrations of the Happiness curve with common examples for each level. I think for me, this happiness curve can also relate to ‘experiences’ in addition to buying ‘stuff.’ I take pride that I live a mostly clutter-free life and I’m not too tempted by new and flashy physical goods, but I often struggle with fun entertainment experiences or experiences of convenience. I don’t always think twice when friends ask to go out for dinner/drinks, I “forget” to pack a lunch to work and end up going out to eat too often, I end up going to more movies, sporting events, concerts, etc than I should. It’s easy for me to lose sight of long term goals when I have an opportunity to scratch a short-term itch of fun and entertainment. Certainly trying to work on that though.

    I also like your analogy of eating. When we’re first faced with these opportunities for instant gratification and lifestyle inflation (upgrade kitchen appliances, buying a new car when our current car is just fine, going to a concert on the spur of the moment b/c our friends are going, etc) we are so caught up in the short term joy we will receive. And, as is the case with overeating, we often feel sick or guilty after the fact and nothing positive to show for it.

    For a couple of years I bought season ticket packages for my favorite basketball team. I love the team and enjoy watching them play. I spent waaay too much on these ticket packages for those two years and went to way too many games. However, after the season was done, I didn’t have fond memories or special recollections of one particular game over another. All the games just seemed like one big jumbled blur. All I was left with was an emptier wallet. Now, instead of doing season tickets, I coordinate with a few good friends and pick out two or three games to go to each season. It allows me to still enjoy my team but even more, it allows my friends and me to create a memorable rare/special experience. That’s just one example how I try to keep my Fulfillment curve at “Enough.”

    I look forward to following your blog!

    1. Taylor Post
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      Taylor

      Hi, Thrifty D! I’m so glad you stopped by 🙂 I completely agree, it can be super hard to think of long-term goals in the moment! One of the things that really helps me prioritize is the people I’m doing activities with. I have a handful of best friends and family I would gladly spend money to hang out with, or spend money to accompany them on an activity they really enjoy. For other friends, I’ve decided to give myself the freedom to say “No.” For me, this strategy really works because my number one priority is the people I love and prioritizing my spending in accordance feels good and I never regret it (even if the event itself is lame, which happens sometimes! haha) It sounds like you struck that balance perfectly with the basketball games and I love that example so much! It seems that you truly found the perfect spot at “Enough” while still enjoying life, friends and hobbies 🙂 Thanks for the inspiring example!

      1. ThriftyD

        Thanks for the reply! You have a great approach there. It’s imperative to make sure our priorities are right so that we spend our resources (time, money, thoughts, etc) on those that are most important to us in our lives. It’s a great way to keep ourselves in check in not spending time/money on people and things that don’t add meaning to our lives. And also, I think your approach helps to keep us in check from veering to much the other way…becoming a cheap miser. While it is not good to frivolously blow money on meaningless things, I think it’s also not good to forgo great experiences and occasions with friends and family all in the name of pinching every single penny you have. Sitting in a bare, candlelit apartment turning down every offer from friends to hang out is no way to live either. So striking the right balance is paramount and it seems like you’ve found a great approach for that. 🙂

        Thanks again for the reply, Taylor.

    1. Taylor Post
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      Taylor

      Thanks for stopping by, Sofia! It’s so easy to get stuck in the trap that “more is better,” even when I already have enough. It’s definitely something I try to remember everyday as well 🙂

  2. Aging Hippie

    I see the levels a bit differently. Between survival and comfort, I see Safety, Efficiency, and Convenience. You don’t need a burglar alarm or renter’s insurance in order to survive, but if you are trying to reach higher levels, getting your stuff stolen is not going to help. Your old light bulbs do an adequate job of providing illumination, but new ones are low cost and will lower your electric bill. And you can get by with that 10 year old flip phone, but a new smartphone will provide access to your work email, maps when going somewhere you’ve never been, and a list of ingredients found in fungilli so you don’t have to play 20 questions with the waiter.

    Other than that minor distinction, I like your approach to spending decisions.

    1. Taylor Post
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      Taylor

      Thanks for stopping by 🙂 I love that you added a few levels. It’s interesting (and helpful) to think about purchases and decide what they are or aren’t adding to our lives. It’s a very personal decision/thought process, so definitely agree with adding as many levels as needed! For me, most of the things you mentioned would fall under “amenities,” and the decisions that typically require a lot of thought are the “luxuries.”

      1. Aging Hippie

        Thanks, I had wondered if I was over complicating things. When I need to cut back, due to unplanned expenses or a shortage of earnings, I usually take them in reverse order – give up comfort first, then convenience, efficiency, and if I must, safety. Fortunately I haven’t had to dip below convenience in a long time, but it’s good to recall the strategy just in case.

    1. Taylor Post
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      Taylor

      Thank you, Our Next Life! I loved the book and parts of it made me think about everything differently. Thanks for the encouragement and support 🙂 It really means a lot.

  3. Tawcan

    Finding the perfect spot on the curve for you is definitely very important to determine how much money you can spend to “improve” your life. Another key importance is knowing that happiness is externally driven and can disappear after a set period of time. What we all need to thrive is achieve joy which is internally driven and can possibly last forever. Unfortunately so many people focus on “getting more happiness” so they continue spending more and more money hoping to get more happiness.
    Tawcan recently posted…Ask the Readers: how do you track your household finance?My Profile

    1. Taylor Post
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      Taylor

      Hi Tawcan, thanks for stopping by 🙂 I love the idea of separating “joy” from “happiness” because it allows you to understand the difference between internal and external. I hadn’t thought of it in such clear terms before. Thanks for the insight!

  4. DP @ Someday Extraordinary

    Really good article! Kind of like your “Your Money of Your Life” quote (still need to read that one!), Daniel Kahneman makes a similar point in his “Thinking Fast and Slow” book. He shows that the more money you have, the more enjoyment you may get out of life in general, but you also lose the enjoyment that you once experienced from the smaller events in life. Like you discuss, maybe you get less enjoyment out of a small trip or the purchase of a new outfit . . . that enjoyment wears off quicker. I think we always need to keep that lesson in mind to keep us grounded. Good write up! I like the graphs!

    -DP
    DP @ Someday Extraordinary recently posted…“Waiting for the Universe to Respond to What You’ve Been Manifesting”My Profile

    1. Taylor Post
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      Taylor

      Hi DP 🙂 I completely agree! I think it’s so easy to get caught up in the mentality that “More money = more happiness” Especially because up until a certain point of wealth/safety, it’s totally true. I love the idea of thinking about it as staying grounded. I’m interested to check out “Thinking Slow and Fast.” Would you recommend it? Glad you liked the graphs! All credit is due to: http://www.investmentmoats.com 🙂

      1. DP @ Someday Extraordinary

        Thanks for the graph site! I’ll definitely check it out. Yeah, I would highly recommend “Thinking Fast and Slow”. I’m finishing up the audio version and I’ve enjoyed it so much, I plan on purchasing a hard copy. Bit of a tough read at times with his writing style, but it REALLY opens up your mind to how decisions are made.

        Anyway, keep the great articles coming!

        -DP
        DP @ Someday Extraordinary recently posted…“Waiting for the Universe to Respond to What You’ve Been Manifesting”My Profile

        1. Taylor Post
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  5. Kurt

    Your Money or Your Life is maybe my favorite money book, though it’s really a lifestyle book. Loads of good stuff in there, including the Fulfillment Curve. A good friend of mine retired at age 41 after reading the book and following the program. When he reached the ‘crossover point,’ he quite full time paid employment and has never looked back. That was about 16 years ago!
    Kurt recently posted…Auto Insurance RantMy Profile

    1. Taylor Post
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      Taylor

      Hi Kurt! I agree, it’s the best foundation book for a great overall lifestyle of fulfillment 🙂 That is spectacular about your friend! Such a wonderful testament to the power of Your Money or Your Life and the changes come as result!

  6. Free to Pursue

    I absolutely love the fulfillment curve. It’s so important to not move up what we consider to be “enough” via hedonic adaptation (a good example of that is what a household used to consider “enough” in the 1970s compared to today).

    Your post reminds me of a quote I read in the book “Happy Money” recently: “Abundance, it turns out, is the enemy of appreciation.”
    Free to Pursue recently posted…Drowning in Dreams of LeisureMy Profile

    1. Taylor Post
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      Taylor

      I love that quote! & I agree that the comparison between modern households and households from 20-30 years ago is pretty shocking. I love the concept of “enough” and always trying to hit the sweet spot 🙂 Thanks for stopping by!

  7. Elizabeth

    What a great post. I can admit that last year I crossed into over-consumption for the first time as it relates to housing (I’d probably been there for years with regard to food but remain frugal in other categories).

    One interesting thing about marriage I’ve learned in the last 2 years is that people can have different ideas about what is enough based on their experiences growing up, etc. My husband really loves our home and truly enjoys and values the extra space we have which includes a rooftop garden. He spends a lot of time there each day. I would have been fine spending less and having less space, but on the other hand he doesn’t care about food variety or quality like I do so I spend much more there than he would.

    The difficult thing about the fulfillment curve is that it IS true that happiness = money = more stuff up to a point. Usually this continues until around $75K in annual income I’ve read. So once you’re above that level it is really difficult to understand and believe that more money and more stuff is not bringing increased happiness, because that’s contrary to your experience. Some people never get it, and for others it can take years or decades of trying before they abandon consumerism pursuits.

    The other hard part is trying to figure out what WILL bring fulfillment and making room for it in your life. It’s much easier to buy a luxury vacation or new car or whatever you fancy versus trying to implement habits that will actually increase satisfaction and wellness.

    Nice blog, I’m going to subscribe!
    Elizabeth recently posted…Is Giving Away Money the Point of Wealth?My Profile

    1. Taylor Post
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      Taylor

      Hi Elizabeth, thanks for the comment and wisdom! It’s interesting to think about everyone’s personal fulfillment curve because I definitely see differences with my partner as well (mainly with clothes—they don’t tend to bring me a lot of happiness, but bring genuine, daily joy to my partner) I love how thoughtful you are with your “luxury” items and think your spot on about the process of figuring out the items that are “worth it.” I really believe that it involves a lot of trial and error and a willingness to adjust accordingly. Which can be annoying, but so worth it in the end. Thanks for the kind words and stopping by—so glad you’re here! 🙂

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