The Benihana Effect: Lifestyle Inflation in Action

Kris turned 42 yesterday. And as we've done for 24 consecutive years now, we celebrated her birthday at the Japanese restaurant Benihana.

This year was different for a few reasons. Most obviously, we're no longer in a relationship. (Although we're no longer married, we continue to maintain a friendship.) But also, Benihana has changed their menu slightly. This might not sound like a big deal, but it was kind of odd to us.

You see, for 24 years we've been ordering the same thing. Every year, Kris orders the “Splash and Meadow” combination, which consists of shrimp and beef. And every year, I order “Rocky's Choice”, which is a combo of beef and chicken. (Plus I get fried rice.) We've been ordering these same birthday meals every June for more than half our lives. That's kind of amazing.

Benihana Grill

In the Beginning
When we first started this tradition, we had just finished our sophomore year of college. We were both waiting tables to bring in spending money, and we couldn't afford much. We did our shopping at the discount grocery store. If we went out to eat, it was to Dairy Queen. That first trip to Benihana was an extravagance!

I don't remember exactly how much we spent on Kris's birthday dinner back in 1989, but I'm sure it must have been about $50 or $60 after tip. I remember getting the check and feeling overwhelmed. That was like a week's worth of tips from my job in the coffee shop at the Holiday Inn. It almost felt obscene to spend so much on one meal.

(In the years that followed, of course, I'd charge most of these birthday meals to my credit cards. In those early days, when I wanted to splurge, I had to splurge with cash. It's all I had.)

As time passed, our incomes grew. Kris got a job teaching high school. I started selling boxes for the family box factory. Our annual trips to Benihana still seemed expensive, but not terribly so.

Then, one year, something changed.

Lifestyle Inflation in Action
Benihana CookingIn 1998, we took a one-week vacation to Vancouver and Victoria in British Columbia. Because the exchange rate was extremely favorable, we decided to eat in some fancy restaurants. We'd never done that before. And wow! what a discovery. Turns out food in fine restaurants is better than at Dairy Queen. Who knew? We ate well on that trip, and for cheap.

When we returned to Portland, we began to dabble in some of the nicer restaurants in town. We learned that we liked them. But eating out was expensive. Again, it cost us $50 or $60 per meal.

The next year, we returned to Benihana for Kris's birthday. Again the check came to about $50 or $60, the same as always. But this time, something was different. Though the total bill was the same, it seemed much less. We'd grown accustomed to paying for nice meals, and now what used to seem like an extravagance somehow seemed acceptable.

And here we are in 2012. Now, after 24 years of birthday dinners at Benihana, the price for our dinners remains virtually unchanged. My Rocky's Choice costs $25.75 and Kris's Splash and Meadow has a similar price. After tip, our meal costs about $60 or $65. (Well, that's not exactly true. It cost closer to $100 this year because I ordered spicy tuna rolls and then we both had a cocktail.)

Whereas this $60 used to seem like a small fortune, today it seems perfectly reasonable. During the last couple years of our marriage, we had many restaurant meals in this price range — and we'd often spend more.

By the Numbers
Benihana DessertLong-time readers know exactly where I'm going with this. The “Benihana Effect” I'm describing here is a classic manifestation of lifestyle inflation. Normally when I write about lifestyle inflation, I describe it by saying it's what happens when you increase your spending to match the increase in your income. That's not exactly what's happening in this case. Instead, something with a (relatively) steady price has seemed to grow less expensive over the course of time. As our incomes increased, the relative cost of the Benihana birthday dinner decreased.

Here's what I mean:

  • In 1989, the meal at Benihana cost about $50 or $60, which was the equivalent of about two days of my work.
  • In 2012, the meal at Benihana cost about $60 or $65, which is the equivalent of about one hour of my work.

So, this Benihana Effect represents lifestyle inflation, but seen from a different perspective, from the perspective of a fixed point.

Lifestyle inflation used to play a huge role in my life. Not so much anymore. For one thing, I maxed out my consumption some years back. Since then, I've been de-flating my lifestyle. I'm not ready to live in a tiny house (like some of my friends do), but everything I need — and then some — fits into this 735-square-foot apartment.

If there's still lifestyle inflation in my world, it takes the form of the products I choose to buy. It used to be that I'd pay middle-of-the-road prices for middle-of-the-road products. Not anymore. Today, it's all or nothing. I'll pay top dollar for top quality, or I want to buy the cheapest possible option. My quest for quality could be viewed as another form of lifestyle inflation, I guess. But you know what? I'm okay with that. It's also a form of conscious spending.

Footnote: I've begun dating. As a result, I'm meeting a variety of women with a variety of relationships to money. It's fascinating. It's curious to see where people choose to spend, and to see who does (or does not) have strong financial habits. But it's also interesting to see how much a date costs now compared to what it might have cost when I was in college. Talk about lifestyle inflation! If this keeps up, I'll be posting a list of “100 fun and frugal date ideas” — but I sure hope it doesn't come to that…
More about...Food

Become A Money Boss And Join 15,000 Others

Subscribe to the GRS Insider (FREE) and we’ll give you a copy of the Money Boss Manifesto (also FREE)

Yes! Sign up and get your free gift
Become A Money Boss And Join 15,000 Others
guest
60 Comments
Oldest
Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Nicole
Nicole
8 years ago

If I went by the suggestion from YMoYL to look at each potential purchase in terms of hours worked, I would spend a lot more money than I do now, and I don’t think I would be any happier. That’s what happens when you have a high hourly wage. How you frame purchases is so important in terms of whether or not something is “worth it”. (I’m no longer on a candy bar exchange rate http://nicoleandmaggie.wordpress.com/2012/03/19/what-is-a-dollar-worth/ )

On the other hand, we probably should do more outsourcing of unpleasant tasks– if only good help weren’t so hard to find.

Lance@MoneyLife&More
8 years ago

I’m glad you guys are staying friends 🙂 It is always nice to see a post by you every once in a while! Lifestyle inflation can be a problem but I think as long as you keep it in check and keep it reasonable you will be OK. Just make sure you are increasing your savings rate as well. Some should also keep in mind a change in how you value different things may not necessarily be lifestyle inflation.

Marta
Marta
8 years ago

I would still like to see “100 fun and frugal date ideas” 🙂 but you are correct that $100 used to be a great sum of money and now, depending on the object I’m purchasing, it doesn’t seem like a large sum.

Lindsay
Lindsay
8 years ago
Reply to  Marta

I second the vote for the 100 frugal date ideas! I know those lists exists elsewhere, but I would be interested in a J.D. spin on it. (I’m a first time commenter, by the way, but I’ve been reading since 2007 so that’s why I talk as if I know J.D. already.) I’m in the $60-is-a-freaking-lot-of-money-for-dinner phase of life, but still I have noticed some changes in my perceptions in other areas. It used to seem crazy to pay for a good online back-up system to me, so I would try to cobble together CD and jump drive back-ups and… Read more »

Mikey
Mikey
8 years ago
Reply to  Marta

For a lot of us working class folks a hundred dollars is a lot of money. Not all of us all of us are well-off yuppies. it’s that attitude of “its only a hundred dollars” that gets a lot of people into trouble.

Michael
Michael
7 years ago
Reply to  Marta

I have this strange paradox with the $100 thing – about six months ago I got my own place for the first time, having been living with my parents or at university before then. The lifestyle I can afford is about the same as before, but now that I pay for rent, utilities, insurance etc., $100 doesn’t seem very much. That’s not to say I spend any more on discretionary items, just that the purchase seems far less significant when I do.

Stephen
Stephen
8 years ago

Amazing that the meal has actually got “cheaper” in real terms since 1988. Few places could have done that. Inflation puts your $50 in 1988 at $97 today.

csdx
csdx
8 years ago
Reply to  Stephen

That about what I wanted to mention, at least part of the reason it seems cheaper is because it really *is* cheaper. Real inflation mean you need to spend more in the future just to buy the same thing, so you’re spending more even without ‘lifestyle’ inflation

Jane
Jane
8 years ago

I think there are certainly valid cases of lifestyle inflation, but it can also be just a better understanding of what things cost. As you get older, you start to realize price points and are less appalled by them. An example from our life is home renovation. When we first moved into our home, we got some bids on renovating the basement. We were appalled by the prices. Well, five years later we are spending TWICE those bids for an addition project. Sometimes I ask myself – what changed? Are we just more complacent about our savings? Are we growing… Read more »

Nicole
Nicole
8 years ago
Reply to  Jane

I know exactly what you’re talking about. It’s taken my husband awhile to get accustomed to spending money because he didn’t have any before we got together. Not that we are rich or blow our money by any means but we’ve grown a little more relaxed about it and try to use it to enjoy events verses things. We are still frugal with our needs but you also have to strike a balance and enjoy yourself. If you save everything all your life for the future who knows if that future will ever materialize? You can’t take it with you.

Sara
Sara
8 years ago

The “Benihana Effect” — I love it! Thanks for yet another thoughtful/insightful post, JD. Like Jane said, a little lifestyle inflation can be a good thing when your income increases. I would add as a qualifier: … so long as your spending increases don’t outpace your higher income, you maintain healthy emergency and retirement funds, you’re still practicing “conscious spending” to ensure it’s on things that really matter to you, and you don’t bind yourself into contractual obligations that would too seriously impair your options for the future (i.e., in case you want/need to make changes in your life that… Read more »

Tvo
Tvo
8 years ago

This is kind of on and off topic at the same time. If you join the Benihana’s Chef’s Club (free signup) during the month of your birthday they will send you a $30 Benihana Birthday Certificate. Been eating at Benihana on my birthday since college because of this program to counter the lifestyle inflation that has been mentioned.

You sure?
You sure?
8 years ago

Wait, you said “the price has remained pretty much the same,” but then you said the price increased by 2/3 because you got an appetizer and drinks? And then continued to say it was pretty much the same and just seemed less expensive because you have more money? Isn’t THAT lifestyle inflation in action – just ignoring the extra $40 you added onto a $60 meal and saying that $60 seems so cheap now?

J.D. Roth
J.D. Roth
8 years ago
Reply to  You sure?

Well, I’m intentionally trying to compare apples to apples here. That is, I’m comparing the core meal — the Rocky’s Choice and the Splash and Meadow — from 1989 to 2012. Though I do mention the drinks, etc. to show that we’re buying more, the actual comparison (the part where I say costs are mostly similar) is with the main meal itself. Does that make sense? I tried to make that clear, but maybe I didn’t do a good job.

chacha1
chacha1
8 years ago
Reply to  J.D. Roth

You did fine. 😉

Holly@ClubThrifty
8 years ago

I am starting to enjoy a little bit of lifestyle inflation now and I don’t mind one bit. I used to obsess about everything from the electric bill to the price of bread. Now that we have worked so hard to get where we are financially, I don’t have to do that anymore.
And when a $60 meal was at one time out of the question, now we can do that occasionally and it doesn’t bother me at all! I guess that that is the reward for years of frugality and hard work.

Great post!

Stacie
Stacie
8 years ago

Hmmm I do not necessarily agree that this is “lifestyle inflation.” I think that is when you think hmmm a $60 meal isn’t good enough for her birthday. We need a $80 meal…then a $100 meal…and so forth.

I’m at a point in my life where a $60 meal is still pretty expensive and reserved for only special occasions. And there’s a restaurant my boyfriend LOVES but it’s $150 for a couple…so we won’t be going there for a long time (as long as we’re paying :)).

Becka
Becka
8 years ago
Reply to  Stacie

Sure it is. Not the definition, perhaps, but certainly a symptom of it. If a $60 meal just keeps seeming cheaper and cheaper because you go from one such meal every year to spending that much (or more) every other week – after all, you can afford it now – that certainly sounds like “lifestyle inflation” to me.

Dog Lover
Dog Lover
8 years ago
Reply to  Becka

But it is “cheaper” because the restaurant has not changed its prices to match inflation over 20-some years, as Stephen pointed out in comment $4. That’s not lifestyle inflation.

Becka
Becka
8 years ago
Reply to  Dog Lover

That’s absolutely true, but that’s also not the only factor at play here, and it’s foolish to claim otherwise, especially since JD makes it clear that the change in perception happened rather suddenly after a lifestyle change wherein he and Kris began eating pricier meals a lot more often.

Money Beagle
Money Beagle
8 years ago

Buying a home can net the same effect if you stay in it long enough. That $1,000 mortgage payment might represent 30% of your income when you sign, but if you get raises along the way, it might be 20% in ten years or so, plus it doesn’t go up in cost like other things do. I don’t know what side of the fence you stand in regards to home ownership, but this is one often overlooked reason to favor owning versus renting.

EMH
EMH
8 years ago
Reply to  Money Beagle

So true! Our mortgage payment used to be 25% of our take-home pay. As our income grows, we add more to the mortgage payment every month so what we pay is still around 25% even though the actual amount due is only 9% of our take-home pay. We did this so we could combat life-style inflation although if we were honest with ourselves, we could pay even more towards the mortgage and stop eating out all the time. Baby steps.

Nicole
Nicole
8 years ago
Reply to  EMH

Sadly we’re going the other direction! No raises but property taxes have been going up. That’s the problem with living in a one industry town (and working in that industry) dependent on the whims of the state legislature…

Rosa
Rosa
8 years ago
Reply to  Nicole

Us too. My income has been dropping in stages ever since we had a baby, and my partner’s has not gone up enough to cover it. At the same time our property taxes & various assessments (like sidewalk repairs) have gone up and will continue to go up until the real estate market stabilizes and there aren’t so many empty/foreclosed properties to shore up around here.

Dan
Dan
8 years ago
Reply to  Money Beagle

The same can also be true for student loans. So much of my loans are at rates fixed under 5%, that when I pay off my variable rate loans, I will be in no hurry at all to pay off the rest.

That’s why I don’t give Honey Smith too much crap for having a wedding while having $200k in outstanding student loan debt.

leaf (the indolent cook)
leaf (the indolent cook)
8 years ago

Quite surprising that the price of the meals there has barely budged over the years. Also, I know what you mean. I’m still a frugal person, but some of the things I buy now, as someone with a full-time job, are things I wouldn’t, or couldn’t have bought ten years ago when I was a student. And it’s great! In fact, part of the reason why I can now buy these things without agonizing over them is because I have remained frugal over the years, and have savings. Also, happy dating! It certainly doesn’t have to be expensive. In fact… Read more »

J.D. Roth
J.D. Roth
8 years ago

Yes, Kris is doing well and has begun to dabble with dating too.

LauraElle
LauraElle
8 years ago

Well, I’m interested in the 100 Fun and Frugal date ideas.

Maybe readers could post their favorite fun and frugal date ideas and then JC could compile them and post them? Or am I making more work for JD, lol?

LauraElle
LauraElle
8 years ago
Reply to  LauraElle

PS: Here’s a frugal date idea if you have kids. Go out with your spouse or partner while the kids are at a friend’s house or spending the night with a friend [or even at the grandparents’ for a few days]. Recently, my husband and I went on a date while our son was at a birthday party. [When my son was younger, like 4, I’d stay at the birthday party but not at 8.] My husband went out for drinks/dinner [used a living social coupon] and then a movie [used a gift card I got for Christmas]. If we’d… Read more »

Rosa
Rosa
8 years ago
Reply to  LauraElle

We trade occasional date nights with my goddaughter’s parents – it’s why we each get to have a real date on our anniversaries. The kids enjoy the sleepovers, too.

Isela
Isela
8 years ago

For me the comparison was with my mortgage payment, how much could I paid of that monthly expense if I buy this other thing.

Is a really good way to control personal inflation, comparing it with your own historical data instead of others. For years and years I was making exactly the same amount of money, but as I paid my debts I had more money available, so I could afford more.

Great post!

susan
susan
8 years ago

The bigger question to me is: Why Benihana? With all the amazing food in Portland, the chain restaurant is the last place I’d go on my birthday (or anyone else’s).

Credence@Toddlerisms
8 years ago
Reply to  susan

Ha ha. I used to find myself asking the same question every summer back when we lived in LA. See, my French husband has a dear friend (who happens to be a reasonably well known actress over here) who would come to visit each year.

The first place she ALWAYS wanted to go for dinner? Benihana of Beverly Hills.

(The second place was always Taco Bell. Go figure.)

Dee
Dee
8 years ago
Reply to  susan

Because, as J.D. made clear, this is a sentimental tradition.

partgypsy
partgypsy
8 years ago
Reply to  Dee

ditto

Allison
Allison
8 years ago

I’ve watched this happen to two of my girlfriends who have both moved to LA within the last 5 yrs. They both have husbands who earn high incomes and they have gradually acclimated to the high prices of LA and the LA lifestyle. They now think $150 shoes are “not bad” and $13 mimosas “more affordable”. I’m certainly not perfect and do spluge now and then, but I do get a chuckle from my girfriend’s new perspective! P.S. They are lovely girls and very generous friends 🙂

KarenJ
KarenJ
8 years ago

Kind of reminds me of a recent decision we made to take a road trip to Niagra Falls. It used to be I’d be happy to stay in any motel on the side of the road. When I was in my teens and 20’s, I even went tent camping. Now that I’m in my 50’s, I value luxury when I travel a lot more, but I do what I can to get the most for my dollar. I was able to get a 4-star hotel on Hotwire for $98 a night. I could stay somewhere else for half that amount,… Read more »

Jim
Jim
8 years ago
Reply to  KarenJ

Funny you mention hotels.

We just got back, and I was thinking how we have changed over the years in the motels we pick.

At age 60, we now value the luxury of nicer hotels, and we are willing to pay for them. Thirty years ago, we may have slept in the car if we couldn’t find a cheap enough motel.

Joe @ Retire By 40
Joe @ Retire By 40
8 years ago

You’re right. We spent $50 on lunch at a seafood restaurant in Newport a couple of days ago. I would never spend that much when I first got out of school. The fresh seafood was worth the price though and I don’t mind paying once in a while. 🙂

SMB
SMB
8 years ago

I really do hope Kris is doing well.

Guest
Guest
8 years ago

I hope Kris is doing well too. As someone going through a painful break-up, I can’t imagine how much it must hurt to have the world know that my ex is starting to date. It’s bad enough knowing it myself. Take care.

krantcents
krantcents
8 years ago

My wife and I would celebrate our birthdays and anniversary with just two good meals a year. I never thought it was extravagant because dined at inexpensive places all year. It becomes a choice!

Zina
Zina
8 years ago

I’d love a post about cheap dates. My boyfriend and I often go walking on this nice trail near his house. It’s a great way to get outside, get some exercise and talk privately without being in a crowded restaurant. We took a lot of walks too when we first started dating.

Valerie
Valerie
8 years ago

Frugal date ideas 🙂 I have a ton of them!! I fully believe whether you are married or in a long term relationship or just starting to date —- you never starting your partner.

Dylan
Dylan
8 years ago

I just want to know if IKEA will make the “100 fun and frugal date ideas.” 😉

AvonLady
AvonLady
8 years ago

Am I the only one who doesn’t think that lifestyle inflation is a big deal, provided that you are already in a good place financially? Of course I am going to spend more on food and such than I did when I was in college. I’m also saving and planning for my future much more than I did then.

For people who are struggling, but then get a raise and squander it all on unnecessary things, sure, I get that. But for anyone who is fairly secure financially, it’s less “lifestyle inflation” and more “enjoying the fruits of your labor.”

Becka
Becka
8 years ago
Reply to  AvonLady

You’re definitely not, and I don’t think that’s what JD’s trying to say either. There’s nothing wrong with spending more money on wants as long as you’re still funding the needs (and savings, and hopefully charitable giving) appropriately. But it’s important to be conscious of the way your spending habits change, and whether they continue to match your priorities.

partgypsy
partgypsy
8 years ago
Reply to  AvonLady

I remember working with an undergrad in grad school. Her definition of having enough money-wise was to “to be able to go out to a chinese restaurant and not worry about the cost”. It made me chuckle, because though I’m sure her goalposts are higher now, most of us have been there.

Kathleen @ Frugal Portland
Kathleen @ Frugal Portland
8 years ago

I don’t like this author! 😉 Just kidding. I love the Benihana effect. Classic. When everything needs to be pinched, of course $50 on dinner is a ton, but if you’re really talking lifestyle inflation, let’s see how comfortable you’d be spending two days of work on dinner now!

amanda
amanda
8 years ago

Kris’ meal should be FREE! If you sign up for the “birthday club” at Benihana they email you a $30 off coupon. 😉

Love the article though.

Carla
Carla
8 years ago

“100 fun and frugal date ideas” would be nice. Breaking down how much you spend on a meal out for every hour you earn money is sobering. The more I think about it, the less I want to go out! Fortunately I can’t remember the last time I spent more than $10 on myself on a meal (its not hard to eat well/healthy for less than <$10 in PDX).

Samantha
Samantha
8 years ago

“But also, Benihana has changed their menu slightly. This might not sound like a big deal, but it was kind of odd to us.”

Wait… did Benihana change their menu or did they not? This is not really the point of the article, but I’m trying to figure it out. It sounds like the cost was the same, and you didn’t have to order anything different…?

bethh
bethh
8 years ago
Reply to  Samantha

That bit confused me too – I thought it meant that the old standbys “Splash and Meadow” and “Rocky’s Choice” were no longer offered, so maybe they ordered the analog, but I’m not sure if that was the message or not.

chacha1
chacha1
8 years ago

I also experienced lifestyle inflation followed by lifestyle deflation. As income rose, DH & I spent more & more on eating out. Then we got jaded and were enjoying the experience less.

Then I got disemployed for a while and all of a sudden learning to cook seemed like a good idea.

Now I would rather make the Ruth’s Chris dinner at home … just as good, faster, and cheaper. Or, not cheaper but with much better wine. 🙂

bethh
bethh
8 years ago

What an interesting observation – that’s one in the plus column for having a ritual like that, for sure.

I am imagining your dates’ post-mortems with friends: “…and then he asked how much I make, and *then* he asked what I spend on coffee every month, and THEN he busted out a spreadsheet with pie charts and everything!!” Hee.

ipenka
ipenka
8 years ago

An interesting aspect is how someones “sense” of money can be so different. For instance, my parents were frugal but relatively well off. I never wanted for any necessities but my mom loved to negotiate, haggle and search for bargains. We would go out for good food as a family every so often though (think Japanese) which for a family of 5 and my dad drinking would easily hit a bill or two. In college it was easy to survive because everyone around me was struggling and I lived very frugally. Once I graduated though, the standard of living my… Read more »

AT
AT
8 years ago

JD, your comment about the cost of dating makes me wonder if you think it is appropriate to quit spending money on date-like activities once you are in a committed relationship. If so, that’s what we call a bait-and-switch.

It seems to me that you have a better chance at long-term happiness if you stay within your values when dating. Don’t do anything on a date that you wouldn’t do 5 years into a relationship. If the person you are dating doesn’t enjoy the date, then that person would not make a good partner for you anyways.

Edward
Edward
8 years ago

I find the opposite is happening to me. As I accumulate wealth, I’ll now balk if I think something is priced too high. When I was younger, I didn’t seem to care because I didn’t have any savings anyway. Back then I’d order a $25 any old time I wanted. …Now I see that as money that could be put into savings. I would think that I’m becoming a stingy, old man but once a year now I go to Europe for vacation and to the Caribbean in winter. While away, I give no regard to money and stay at… Read more »

Edward
Edward
8 years ago
Reply to  Edward

That first paragraph should say “$25 pizza”. …Yep, ordered a few of those every week.

David
David
8 years ago
Reply to  Edward

Wow. $25 for a pizza!? At the best pizza place in NYC (and therefore, the world) a large pie is still only $16!

shares