This is a guest post by Scott L. from The Circular Ruins.

Last weekend I went camping with my wife and our children. Because I was the one who accidentally left the camp stove at home, I was the one who had to make breakfast over the fire. In the morning. In the skillet. Pancake batter getting soaked in the rain.

It was a very rainy morning, yet I had a big ol’ smile on my face, one of those deep smiles that goes all the way to my heart. Part of it was because I sometimes like the rain (though nothing wrecks a camping trip for me like wet toes), but part of it was because this experience symbolized a bit of a personal victory for me. Let me explain.

The irritation threshold
My car has a squeak. It’s not a serious squeak, just an irritating one — it drives me nuts. If you told me you could fix it for $5, I would give you $7.50 and invite you to keep the change. But if you said you could fix it for $50,000, then I would just continue to live with it. Somewhere between $5 and $50,000 is a line, a threshold of sorts: the Irritation Threshold.  On one side of the line I “live with it”, and on the other side I do what it takes to remove the irritation.

Just a couple years ago I was in graduate school. I finally graduated and got a “real job”. My income rose a bit, but my wife and I have remained true to our desires to not succumb to lifestyle inflation because:

  • We like the simple wholesome life.
  • We like to live debt-free, taking saving and our future financial security seriously.
  • We don’t like overindulgances or wastefulness.
  • We like growing some of our own food and being self-sufficient to some extent.

We left grad school happy, and still are. But a couple years have passed since then, and I’ve been observing something odd in my life: a drift in my irritation thresholds.

Irritation threshold drift
There exists some dollar value we put on each irritation, in our minds. Those dollar values change as our income changes, so that eventually the cost to fix something is on the other side of the irritation threshold.

It used to be, when my winter gloves grew threadbare and the snow crept in, I would live with it for a while longer. Of course, at some point I would decide it was a better use of my life to get some “new” gloves (often from the thrift store). I still do that, but the number of threads that need to be out before I make the transition has mysteriously shrunk a little over the last couple years.

The cost of new gloves has stayed the same; what has changed, as a consequence of my increased income, is how irritating the cold hands are: I’ve allowed the dollar value of warm hands to increase so that now it’s above the price of new gloves, so I get the new gloves.

I’m no more “indulgent” than I used to be — just trying to keep my fingers warm.  I’m no more picky about my shoes — just avoiding the ones that hurt my feet.  I’m no more a car snob than I used to be — just wanting one that doesn’t squeak.

But suddenly I find myself empathizing with a portion of the “lifestyle of the rich” that I had always eschewed: Why put up with an irritation if it’s essentially free to fix it? As my income has increased, my definition of “essentially free” has drifted.  As a consequence, the threshold at which I decide to pay for removing an irritation has drifted. 

Wanna know something that irritates me all to pieces? Finding myself more sympathetic to lifestyle inflation than I used to be. Argh! It means I’m choosing to be wimpier than I was just a few years ago — and this hurts double hard as my body gets creakier already: I don’t want to be an old wimpy guy…do I?  But what’s wimpy about getting that squeaky part of my car fixed “for free”?  Anybody would consider me nuts to not get it fixed if it were essentially free.

And yet Irritation Threshold Drift is multi-faceted: I can control the “irritation” as well as the “threshold”.

All in my head
Standing there cooking pancakes in the rain, I decided I could pull out some “Zen over body” skills and not let the rain in my pancakes bother me so much. It wasn’t so difficult, hence my personal victory and the satisfaction. I love being soaked to the bone. It somehow makes me feel “alive” — as long as my toes are dry.

But therein lies the rub.

  • Some portion of Irritation Threshold Drift lies in our minds, and is rewarding to conquer (like standing in the rain).
  • Some portion is very difficult to master (like wet toes, or being hungry because the soup kitchen is out of food this weekend).
  • And some portion is in that nebulous region in the middle (like deciding when a pair of jeans is too worn for me to keep wearing).

It comes down to Irritation Threshold Drift having two components: changes in the relative cost (caused by changes in my income) and changes in my head. There are two ways to control the Drift, both of which are empowering: using my mental powers to reduce leakage from my bank account, and consciously deciding to use my money to remove some irritation from my life. But both controls are limited.

Irritation is “life” — and it’s good to be alive — but I still hate hiking with wet toes.

Both abundance and lack [of abundance] exist simultaneously in our lives, as parallel realities. It is always our conscious choice which secret garden we will tend. — Sarah Ban Breathnach

Photo by Tombo the Tominator.