The Irritation Threshold and Lifestyle Inflation

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.

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UrbanSpeaker.com
UrbanSpeaker.com
11 years ago

Wow, that is so true. If you think about frugality, it’s alot of “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” and a lot of “do I really need that”. I think your Irritation Threshold is related to these two things.

plonkee
plonkee
11 years ago

I guess it’s somewhat inevitable because irritation is relative. And, relatively speaking our remaining lives are getting shorter and our incomes are increasing.

Probably I should work on being less irritated by things as it will make life better. That it might save money is really just a fringe benefit.

jb
jb
11 years ago

Intriguing article. I’ve experienced the exact opposite effect since leaving debt and college behind, but I’m curious to whether the threshold will creep. One more thing to track, besides my receding hairline. . .Good post!

EscapeVelocity
EscapeVelocity
11 years ago

I put up with a lot, but I always have this little voice in the back of my head saying, “If you had any self-respect, you wouldn’t put up with that.” And I do sometimes have friends tell me they couldn’t put up with what I put up with (like not having a dishwasher). On the other hand, they put up with a lot of stuff I wouldn’t put up with (like working weekends).

Momma
Momma
11 years ago

We’re experiencing the reverse situation. Well, my DH is. I’m not. As his income has grown unsteady by starting his own consulting firm, he has begun weighing his choices more carefully. He tolerates the small irritating things far better than he used to. I hope it lasts for long after his firm takes off.

Susy
Susy
11 years ago

Mr Chiot’s and I also love camping. I don’t mind the rain unless it happen the day we’re leaving and we have to pack up a wet tent. Otherwise we love making coffee on the stove inside the little tent vestibule and enjoying the sound of rain on the tent. Good for you for fighting lifestyle inflation. It’s a tough one. One way we try to fight it is to make sure we buy really good quality things that will last a long time. Keen sandals, expensive, but 10 years later I’m still wearing them and I will be for… Read more »

downwithdebt
downwithdebt
11 years ago

I try to turn the irritant part around. As a more positive type of view. I look at my well used car which looks not so good anymore(OK it does not look good at all!), and not everything works like it used to, but it still does what it needs to, provide transportation. Instead of saying I need something better, I say I love my car that owes me absolutely nothing, for 8 years it has served me well, and yes I will replace it someday. Just wondering how long of a threshold that will be when the car actually… Read more »

Funny about Money
Funny about Money
11 years ago

What an interesting essay! It’s occurred to me, too –as EscapeVelocity and Momma suggest — that your needs expand to fill your means. As your available funds increase, you almost unconsciously increase your spending, even though you’re not deliberately changing your lifestyle. As I contemplate a probable layoff, I realize that not long ago I lived on $20,000 a year less than I’m earning now and didn’t feel deprived. Part of that change has to do with inflation — I spend more because things cost more. But a large part, ’tis true, is because I get stuff and I do… Read more »

ThrowMoney
ThrowMoney
11 years ago

Interesting post. I’ve been thoughtfully watching people throw money at irritations for years. Examples include buying “snack” sizes of food instead of putting a handful into a snack bag. For that matter – buying snack bags so you don’t have to wash a re-useable container. Or buying a reusable container instead of reusing one that came with another product you bought. Or – buying things so your children will stop irritating you 🙂 Also, the more we own, the more expensive it becomes to keep those things we own from becoming irritating when they need service. What is it that… Read more »

Don
Don
11 years ago

Good post.

RT
RT
11 years ago

Ha! I’m a totally (self-induced) victim. Over that last few years I’ve found myself taking the car to the carwash rather than doing the job myself, buying my veggies from the big-name grocer rather than making a secondary stop at the lower cost market, and paying a sitter rather than finding other mom’s to ‘switch’ kids with.

For me, the ‘irritation’ is my lack of free time. I’d rather spend the money and have an extra hour a day to do as I please, than have the extra $50.00. Even three years ago, this would have been unthinkable.

Dan
Dan
11 years ago

Great article! The emotional and mental side of finance is fascinating. We each have our own set of ever-changing rules with moments of strength & weakness. For me, winning this battle usually brings me more satisfaction than the actual dollars saved…my accounts just happen to be the scoreboard.

Rachel
Rachel
11 years ago

SO TRUE. I’ll continue to work on the “mind over matter” thing as even “essentially free” purchases add up…but I know just what you mean.

Michael
Michael
11 years ago

Love the post, thanks. I love hearing ways in which psychology affects our economic behaviors. I will consider my Irritation Threshold the next time I think, “Well, now that I make x dollars, I really should…stop wearing shirts I owned in high school…hire out home repairs rather than spend a whole day with a library book trying to do it myself…wear nicer shoes…purge my house of second-hand furniture…stop insisting on ordering off the happy hour menu…” the list goes on and on.

ThatGuy
ThatGuy
11 years ago

My irritation threshold decreased dramatically once I started making money out of college. However, I suspect, the reason for this was not the money but the sudden loss of time. In one’s youth you have so much free time that you can deal with pain and minor annoyance, but the moment you get a job free time goes away. Ever hour, no, ever minute means more because it is yours. You want to spend ever free moment in comfort, cause “you” deserve it for working (or so the flawed logic goes). It is ironic that the lack of free time… Read more »

Grace
Grace
11 years ago

It is always fun to come across a totally new (for me, anyway) concept such as your Irritation Drift. Kudos! For me, the change is not so much a drift as it is as a shift in life personas. When I was 20, I wanted to learn how to hang glide and bungie jump. Finances got in the way and I did neither. But I desperately wanted to. Now, you couldn’t PAY me enough to try either one. I have changed! My perspective in life has changed and my wants and needs along with it. I believe that the continuum… Read more »

Aya @ Thrive
Aya @ Thrive
11 years ago

I think its funny because we have an irritation threshold that makes us buy new or better things, but there are something that we never want to replace. A hole in a glove will eventually convince us to buy new gloves but a hole in a pair of our favorite jeans won’t make us go for a replacement pair of jeans. Of course, some people just love buying jeans anyway, hole or no hole.

C
C
11 years ago

I take a very intense yoga/conditioning class and when we are holding a difficult pose, quads burning, sweat dripping, our instructor reminds us that “there is nothing wrong with being a little uncomfortable.” Shooting pain is bad, of course, but a bit of discomfort is necessary if you want to gain strength and endurance. Forcing yourself to stay in the pose becomes more of a mind game. I find myself applying this to many other facets of my life, including my finances. Yes, my irritation threshold has drifted, but when I become aware of that, I can try to “hold… Read more »

Shara
Shara
11 years ago

I have been conscious of this but my thinking has been from a different perspective. If one doesn’t *have* the money for new gloves then one doesn’t think of buying new gloves, but if the money is there and it is only a force of will that is keeping you from buying them then the added strain of willpower increases your irritation. In other words it isn’t that your threshold is lower but that your irritation is higher. It is much like when you are on a diet and you rid your house of junkfood. If it isn’t there then… Read more »

FranticWoman
FranticWoman
11 years ago

Nice post – it is good to read in words what I’ve been thinking/experiencing for years. I’ve always had a very low irritation point and very low patience. I’m at a constant war with myself of what I should do to maintain but not go over a setpoint because I always want the easy/convenient way out. I do notice as I get older I dont care about some things I used to but have upgraded on others. Example: I used to be a total clothes whore who shopped weekly, now I like having a few quality pieces that last and… Read more »

Steph
Steph
11 years ago

I think what Scott’s experiencing is the need to find is own values now that his response to irritation isn’t artificially limited by his income. I don’t think it’s Threshold Drift so much as Threshold Establishment. When I was poor, I couldn’t throw money at a problem to fix it, even when that was clearly the most efficient way to solve it. I had to creatively find ways to either work around or cope with something. Now that I make more money, I get to decide whether to cope creatively or spend money. Now I have to find my threshold.… Read more »

Lilblueyes
Lilblueyes
11 years ago

Great post! This is mostly what I’ve personally called for years: “The Personal Cost-Benefit Ratio” When I was young & totally broke, I would’ve rather washed my car for free at my MIL’s house, than take it to the $8.50 car wash because that $8.50 was just way more expensive to me than the benefit of having a clean car. Now, I pay $17.50 for a car wash, and I would hate to spend a half-hour to an hour of my time washing, drying, vacuuming, windexing, wiping down, scrubbing wheel wells, etc. on a nice Saturday afternoon. The cost in… Read more »

FranticWoman
FranticWoman
11 years ago

“It’s “easy” to be frugal when you have no choice (life isn’t easy, but really, what choice do you have?). As your income increases, frugality by choice requires a much greater commitment. Life may be easier in that you’re not choosing between dinner and gloves, but consiously choosing every day to resist the temptation to solve every irritation with money is incredibly difficult.”

Nicely put; I was discussing just this the other day with a friend of mine.

TeresaA
TeresaA
11 years ago

LOVED this post. Probably because I am such an advocate of mind over matter. I had to pass this one along to my husband because we are such opposites when it comes to the “irritation threshhold”.

Chris Johnson
Chris Johnson
11 years ago

As others have pointed out, the value of your time increases as your income increases. The way I’ve been able to look at spending choices (after getting out of debt) is knowing what my monthly budget is and knowing that buying something, or fixing a squeak, or maintaining the “stuff” I have means that money can’t be spent on something else. As long as you’re within your budget, new (or gently used) gloves are fine. Or enjoying a cup of cocoa with the full amount of cocoa powder. That may mean eating out less, or buying the off-brand cocoa, but… Read more »

Kristen@TheFrugalGirl
11 years ago

So true! My irritation threshhold for a lot of things has drifted in a good direction recently since electricity rates went WAY up here. The temperature where I used to turn on the AC and the heat has changed a lot, the amount of work I’m willing to do to dry laundry has gone up a lot, and so on.

Dawn
Dawn
11 years ago

Interesting post! I agree with Steph above. I think you’re being a little too hard on yourself. What is the point of making more money if not to enjoy your life a little more? Why should you deal with cold fingers when you can buy new gloves? I did the mac&cheese/ramen thing as an undergrad and grad student and guess what? I don’t want to do that my whole life — in fact, that’s why I went to school! I’m not saying that money buys happiness — of course it does not. But it can buy you time, and as… Read more »

Tyler Karaszewski
Tyler Karaszewski
11 years ago

I think this article sort of looks at things backwards. The point of frugality, and of all this time we spend trying to come up with the best ways to manage our personal finances is *not* to live on as little as possible. The purpose is to make the most of what we have. The term “most” here is extremely flexible, and it’s up to each of us to decide if “most” means “nice house” or “time with our families” or “new gloves” or whatever it is that we value. What seems obvious to me though, is that in order… Read more »

mbrogz3000
mbrogz3000
11 years ago

I think the exception to this rule is in the case with tires for a car. When my car and steering wheel get the side-to-side ‘squirmys’ when driving in the rain on a highway, basically my irritation threshold to get new tires.

The tire purchase is usually irritating because the tires that stick to the road best in the rain usually end up wearing out the fastest. Tires that squeal like pigs and that break loose dangerously easily in the rain are usually the tires that last 60,000+ miles.

erika
erika
11 years ago

I’m not sure that I agree with the sentiment of several of the comments that “being frugal is easy” when your income is limited. If it were easy there wouldn’t be such an abundance of consumer credit card debt! I loved this post! This is something I have recently discovered and been pondering over in my own life. It’s definitely a psychological issue. I find that reading this blog, the I Will Teach You to Be Rich 30-day challenge, and various other frugality sites helps to keep me focused on my goals even as my discretionary income edges up and… Read more »

Misty
Misty
11 years ago

Thanks for the post, it was interesting. My husband and I used to be very frugal when we first got married–he was in the military and I was a full time student. Our income was low but we scrimped and lived within our means. Once our income crept up, our lifestyle changed and our frugality went by the wayside for a while. Just this past year we went back to our old ways because and we are much happier for it. Our washer broke about a month ago and we have been going over to my mother’s house and washing… Read more »

Slinky
Slinky
11 years ago

Great post. I’ve definitely noticed this trend in my own life as I adjust to post-graduation income. In college, frayed turned up cuffs on my jeans were good enough, but now I want jeans that aren’t so worn out and that actually fit. Of course, that’s not completely ridiculous since I wear them to work everyday.

alison
alison
11 years ago

I love the ideal of enjoying pancakes in the rain, not particularly because of its implications for frugality and finances, but because of its implications for not letting little things bother you, and enjoying the simple life. My husband claims to be the ‘voice of reason’ to temper my ‘extreme frugality/conservationism’ (in his view). He often points out to me that my efforts to reuse things like plastic bags and styrofoam cups have little to no impact on the environment. And that my efforts to save money in comparison to our quite adequate salary are often out of proportion (i.e.… Read more »

RenaissanceTrophyWife
RenaissanceTrophyWife
11 years ago

Thanks for raising this issue. Irritation is definitely something we’d all like to eliminate, but I don’t think you necessarily need to beat yourself up too much over lifestyle drift. What in the world are we saving money for, if not to provide comfort for ourselves and our families? The definition of comfort will vary widely, and can include educational opportunities, dry toes, McMansions, new gloves, healthcare, or a steaming hot cup of cocoa. You worked hard to progress in your career to a point where you can afford extra comforts. Why not reward yourself? The small perk may help… Read more »

Jan
Jan
11 years ago

This is an illustration of the idea that stuff is worth exactly what you are willing to pay for it. For me, the specific example is toothpaste. I have always been prone to outbreaks of painful canker sores. I have found that (here’s my unsolicited commercial) Rembrandt canker sore prevention toothbreaks significantly reduces the incidence and severity of outbreaks. But the stuff costs like $7.99 a tube. It’s hard to pay that much when it’s right next to a toothpaste that costs 99 cents, especially when I’m rinsing out sandwich baggies to use them again! But if I have a… Read more »

Jeremy
Jeremy
11 years ago

There was a comment years ago on how much Bill Gates made per year/day/hour/second, and it was shown that, if Mr. Gates spent 5 seconds picking a $100 bill lying on the ground, he’d lose money. Of course, it’s completely false since his money is mostly passive now – there wouldn’t be a drop in income no matter what he did… But for most of us, there is. If you make $40 an hour, would it make more sense to take the day off and fix your car, costing you $320, or pay a mechanic $200 to do the work… Read more »

Gena
Gena
11 years ago

I think this “irritation threshold” is one of the top reasons my husband and I are 1. saving more money than others in our age group [mid-twenties] and 2. are happier because of it. We don’t care that our furniture doesn’t match and that’s its donated from friends on from craigslist, that we have 12 year old cars with some dents and squeaks, that generic tastes or works just as good in almost every situation, and that we wear our clothes till they fade too much or get too big or small and not because they go out of style.… Read more »

Stephen
Stephen
11 years ago

When it comes to the squeaky car. It might be your front ball joint. To your pleasure you may discover that the squeaking will go away. To your displeasure after that point you may discover that your tire may become separated from your car. Most likely while the car is moving. This will end up costing much more to fix. To check take the tire off your car and look for worn out rubber bushings. You can then fix the car yourself or go to a mechanic to do it. (This is where the essentially free to fix part comes… Read more »

djc
djc
11 years ago

@Jan – post 35

Sorry to get off-topic, but I have discovered that if I use toothpaste with sodium lauryl/laureth sulphate in it, I get a canker sore within hours. I now only buy the brands from the health food stores that don’t contain it. Of course, they are a lot more expensive, but you only actually need a pea-sized amount of toothpaste anyway.

Steph
Steph
11 years ago

Erika – When I wrote that it’s “easy” to be frugal when you don’t have any money I was trying to make the point the decision making was made easy. Sure, you could decide to go into debt but if you choose the frugal path you really only have to make the choice once. Once you choose frugality, then you live on what you have. Period. When you make more than is required to meet your basic needs, then *every* decision is about frugality and savings v. convenience and spending. You have to continue to choose every day to be… Read more »

Luke
Luke
11 years ago

On a lighter note, this post really reminded me of the camping trips from Calvin and Hobbes where it is raining and everyone is in the tent except for the Dad who is out gutting fish.

Tim
Tim
11 years ago

I guess irrational depends on whether that squeak is a symptom of a larger problem. If you choose to tolerate or ignore the squeak without getting the squeak checked out, i’m not so sure if you can make an accurate assessment. however, i guess it was assumed the squeak is cosmetic.

Karen
Karen
11 years ago

Actually, the cost of the new gloves has gone down. What used to cost, say, 5% of your income for that day, now costs, say, 1% of your income for that day.

Whether or not your irritation threshold has changed is a separate issue.

Shara
Shara
11 years ago

Good point Karen. I thought we were now measuring the cost for anything in terms of how many hours we work for it. 😉

Aleks
Aleks
11 years ago

What an incredibly timely article; I bought a new car today. Well, new to me. My previous car had a lot of eccentricities, most of them for the entire time I’ve owned it. The rear defrost indicator light didn’t work, the fan settings were all offset by one increment, the trunk leaked, the stereo has recently just stopped working periodically, and something occasionally makes a squealing noise when it’s wet. All of that I can live with. Now, however, it’s started dying on the road. It’ll stall, then won’t start for a few minutes, and after that it’ll start right… Read more »

Jeremy
Jeremy
11 years ago

@Shara
It depends. I know a musician who counted in how many albums he could have bought instead: “Nice jacket, but 3.5 CDs is a bit much…”

I usually think in terms of future income. On the assumption that I can earn 12% on my money, each $100 invested gets me $1 a month. So a $3,000 purchase to me looks like $30 a month forever. That’ll put you off a lot of purchases. Do it with credit card payments and you’ll hardly buy anything on credit!

Shara
Shara
11 years ago

Jeremy,

I know what you mean. My mom measured everything in gallons of milk. I measure mine by my power bill. By tying it back to something with meaning to you it can make the *value* more tangible.

My comment to Karen was because JD had a post a week or so ago about determining actual take home pay and translating cost into hours worked for a purchase. When you look at this example of gloves it drives home the point Karen was making about *cost* being relative.

Scott
Scott
11 years ago

Thanks everyone for the discussion, I’m learning lots from your comments. A handful of follow-on thoughts have been spawned by this, which are now stewing around in my head. I’m learning lots — I should share my rainy pancake days more often! 🙂

Jade Cow
Jade Cow
11 years ago

This is a very insightful post. I certainly remember this very strongly in the transitions from being a high school student with no money, to my first job in college, to my first “real” job. However, I prefer to tackle the problem in the other direction. I want to set my financial goals first – amount for paying off debt, amount for retirement savings, amount for other savings, amount for bills. Then, with whatever is left over, I buy whatever my heart desires. It is “free” money because I already took care of my goals and obligations. If I want… Read more »

Robert
Robert
11 years ago

This post makes a great deal of sense. Just last night I was working late and left the office almost 2 hours after I normally leave to come home. On the way home I found myself sorely tempted to follow the easy route for dinner, and call a local pizza shop to pick something up. I was to the point of actually having the cell phone out and about to hit the button to place the call when I realised that for the cost of a pizza and some wings, I could pick up some fairly quick to make food… Read more »

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