What is lifestyle creep? Detecting and preventing lifestyle creep

This article was written by freelance writer Jessica Ward.

For three years, I’ve been patting myself on the back. The household expenses remain the same every month, and we’re getting out of debt. In spite of increases in costs, we’ve found efficiencies and made room. But, as they say, after pride comes the fall. I discovered this month that we’re actually making less progress every month now than when we first started making monthly budgets!

Initially I thought this was a short-term trend, but when I looked back a little farther in the old budgets file, I discovered that we’ve really been on this path since day one. We have succumbed to “lifestyle creep.” Subtle upticks in our family’s expenses that don’t necessarily fall into line with real costs of living.

Slowly and stealthily, our lifestyle has edged back up. An extra meal out here, a technology upgrade there, all unnoticed because we haven’t spent beyond our planned expense cap, but unchecked because we didn’t notice that we had slowed progress towards our goals.

What is Lifestyle Creep?

Lifestyle creep refers to the phenomenon where your standard of living improves as your discretionary income rises. As people advance in their careers and earn higher salaries, there is often an accompanying increase in spending. This can lead to a situation where, despite a higher income, the financial strain does not decrease. It’s a pattern that can prevent long-term financial planning or saving.

Identifying Your Budget “Creepers”

We use a zero-based budget. Money in equals money out, every month. Sure it might go “out” into a savings account or towards debt, but the checking account ideally zeros out every month. I neglected the second step of allocating everything. By way of example, here are some expenses that crept up on us this year, virtually unnoticed:

  1. Family gym membership, $1,200 year. (We did elect to keep it for 2012, but are making other cuts to accommodate.)
  2. Data plan on my husband’s phone (he doesn’t even know how to text). We cut this in July, but not after spending $240 for the year on unnecessary data charges.
  3. A digital camera upgrade (rationalized with the old “it’s a business write-off” excuse) at $400.
  4. An average of $200 per month additional eating out expenses, or $2,400.
  5. An average of an additional $200 per month in charitable expenses, or $2,400 a year.

All told, we experienced an increase in lifestyle (and decrease in goal progress) of nearly $7,000. Had we minded our budget better, we’d be out of debt by now. That’s embarrassing.

Other people will have other areas of budget creep. Fancy coffee, storage unit, unnecessary gadget upgrades. Little upgrades like premium cable can be adding hundreds to your household expenses every year.

How to Budget Against Lifestyle Creep

If you’re feeling the budget creep, take the following steps to get back on track.

  • Set your budget, including all expenses, by prioritizing your household bills and financial goals, treating them just like a bill.
  • Revisit your budget and revise based on actual changes in costs. While our spending remained fixed, some expenses (fuel, food, and homeowner’s association dues) went up, and we sacrificed about $200 per month towards financial goals by not revising our spending (and income) expectations upwards or another area of the budget downwards (without sacrificing your progress to goals). When costs go up, it’s time to ramp up the “side hustle” income.
  • Maintain your diligence about buying bargains. Have you relaxed your efforts at coupons, sales, used/consignment, bargaining or trading? Have you even stopped price-comparing? Just because it’s in the budget, doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try to get a better deal.
  • Have old habits crept back? Extravagant gifts, daily lattes, extra vacations, and weekend getaways, or just too much eating out? Many of us have old financial habits that break our budgets. Keep a wary eye out for them.

Please, tell me I’m not alone in this budget faux pas? Has your budget suffered from creep?

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