Handsome, debonair, intoxicating. Beautiful, alluring, sexy. I see it. I like it. I want it. I buy it. Everyone finds the Lifestyle Creep hard to resist.
But a couple weeks later, the credit card bill comes. It nearly wipes out the checking account. And the hot romance of the previous week is gone. It’s at the bottom of a heap of clothes to take to the dry cleaner on the same day the car payment arrives in the mail. What? Already? $400 out the door?
I remember when I bought that car — the smell of new leather, the Bluetooth, the push buttons. Now every cup holder is filled with the week’s Starbucks runs, the gym bag that sits untouched despite the best of intentions and yesterday’s takeout ordered and eaten on the fly. The car dash that seemed so new now looks dated after the Creep took me to look at and "sit in" in the latest models.
How long do I have on that car loan anyway? $400 a month? Three more years?
Gosh, these Creeps seem so attractive, but their beauty doesn’t last. They show up only when they want something — my money — and the love affair flames out as quickly as it came. The funny thing is their uncanny timing. They show up right about the time I get a pay raise, which is how I acquired the new car payment in the first place. Or they come creeping around at tax refund time, urging me to check out the new spring clothing line. Or when I have $100 left in the checking account at the end of the month and they entice me with the very real need for a mani/pedi, stat.
The problem is these Creeps won’t go away. The cops can’t help. No matter what you say, they always come back. You beg them to go away, you reason with them, but they keep coming back.
Except now I have a toothache that I know is going to mean a root canal. That’s gonna be at least $1,000. Guess it will have to go on a credit card, which will take me a few months to pay back. But as soon as the card is paid off, there is no doubt that the Creep will be right back on my porch in Amazon prime boxes. He always comes back.
But this time is different. I am not reasoning with him anymore. I am not threatening anymore. No, I am taking action.
"Lifestyle creep," aka the slow climb of spending on nonessential items as your standard of living improves, is no joke. And if the Creep always visits as my brain adapts to how much money is in my account, then there is only one clear answer: Never tell the Creep where the money is! Get the money out of there before the Creep can see it. And yes, I mean literally get the money out of there.
Obviously, I want to get my retirement money safely put away before the Creep can get his hands on it. Trust me, when retirement comes around and I’m out of money, he will be nowhere to be seen. So, I march into HR and sign up to have 10% of my pay literally leave my paycheck and get deposited into the company retirement account before I can even touch it (and I can’t touch until I retire).
Next, for every root canal there are 10 more things that could happen that are true emergencies. I will set up an emergency fund, or what I like to call a "walk away fund." Bad job? Sayonara. Abusive relationship? Bye, bye. I will have the money to live in the meantime.
And if I never have an emergency? Then, well, I have a pile of cash. A pile of cash is better than a Creep hanging about the place. But this Creep loves to talk me into spending that emergency money on non-emergency things, so I make it harder for him to see that money.
I set up the emergency fund account at a different bank, name that account "walk away fund," jot down the account number on a piece of paper, long enough to hand it to payroll in HR and ask them to send $50 of every paycheck (or the number that makes sense) to that account. Then ceremonially burn that account number. Forget I have it. In an emergency, I will find it.
But I don’t stop there. I want to keep that Creep from stealing my true joy in life: vacation. This time I go to my bank and set up a savings account named, you guessed it, "vacation." I dream up my next vacation to take place in a year, figure out how much it will cost, divide that by 12 and then put that amount on auto-transfer from my checking account to the vacation account. If I estimate it will will $2,400, then I set up monthly transfers to fund that account by $200.
When the Creep comes knocking to go see if we can go buy a tube of toothpaste at Target (knowing I will forget the toothpaste and end up with $200 of stuff he has apparently convinced me I desperately need), he points out that there is just enough money left in the vacation account.
This time I slam the door in his face. Even Target can’t be better than vacation. When it’s time to take the vacation, I’ve got the money.
Rinse and repeat. I realize the power of saving for things that bring joy or security — and then I take that concept and I apply it to car repairs, saving for a down payment on a home, saving for birthday gifts and college, etc. I end up with seven savings accounts that I auto draft small amounts into at the beginning of the month.
I get the money out before the Creep gets it.
Then, I safely spend the rest of the money in my checking account, knowing that I am saving first, spending last.
Then I kick lifestyle creep to the curb.
Sarah Catherine Gutierrez is the founder of Aptus Financial, co-founder of the Save10 Challenge, a permanent trustee for the Donaghey Foundation and runs the blog Ladysplaining Money. She holds an MPP from Harvard University and the CFP designation. Her passion is to solve the retirement crisis for women and to inspire young girls to save money at an early age.