Comfort creep: the one aspect of your financial wellbeing you can control

I implore every undergraduate and high schooler I meet to live like a student as long as they can bear it.

Remember those days? As an undergraduate, it was Weet-Bix for dinner and Carrington Blush for celebrations. My brown 1988 Mitsubishi Magna was considered luxury, saving me a hilly 5km walk to uni. House sharing was a given, not optional.

Since I was 10, I’ve saved half of every dollar I’ve earned. I’ve done so by living cheaply. While I also had luck on my side, it’s part of how I could afford to buy my first property at 19 as a second-year engineering student. Without it, I doubt I could have reached financial independence at 31.

For a decade I’ve been delivering financial education through my business and now my book, both called Money School. My students have a common goal: financial independence. The idea behind financial independence is you own assets like bonds, shares and property. These assets pay you an income such as coupons, dividends and rent. That income covers your living costs, so you no longer need to earn a wage – unless you want to.

Your financial wealth converts you from time poor to time rich. You choose if, when, where, on what and with whom you work, giving you the final say in how you spend your days. Great news! You only need follow three rules to improve your financial health: save, buy assets and avoid bad debt.

Financial independence is desirable but not many people make it there. Often, it’s for reasons we cannot control – but there is one thing we can avoid: comfort creep.

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We’re wired to spend everything we earn. Our brains want us to spend every dollar in the bank to get a hit of feel-good chemicals. For example, I rarely eat Weet-Bix for dinner these days. At 37, my expectations are higher. Food, alcohol, entertainment, car, accommodation – in every aspect of my life, I want it tastier, healthier, safer, more eco-friendly and swankier than I did as a student.

It will come as no surprise that my costs have risen commensurately. In some cases, that’s good. Healthier food, less sugar in my wine, a more robust car: these are justifiable, even laudable, but only to a point.

Somewhere between living the poverty-stricken-student lifestyle and luxury, your spending rises to reach a perceived better quality of life without delivering a permanent benefit to your wellbeing. From that point on, you’re in comfort creep territory. It’s insidious.

That extra comfort is akin to a drug. It starts out sensational, like the first time you get upgraded on a flight. The legroom, cloth napkins and attentive cabin crew feel indulgent. You revel in the experience. Next time, you’re back in cattle class. Economy was acceptable pre-upgrade; now it’s hideous. For a split second, you even consider forking out the extra dosh for a business class ticket. You need that hit of luxury each time. Anything less is deprivation.

If common sense wins the day and you resist the extra spend, I have good news: if you opt to fork out extra for every flight, it eventually stops feeling special. It becomes business as usual. Spending the extra money on business class just means you’re as happy as you were in economy to start with.

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That’s comfort creep spending. Your costs go up, but your happiness reverts to the same level.

As I tell my students: of all the things that affect your financial wellbeing – your wages, your investment choices, what the economy is doing, your mindset, even when and where you were born – comfort creep is one thing over which you have a lot of control. So, control it.

Yes, I know commerce is conspiring against you. It used to be much more difficult to part you from your hard-earned cash. Before Eftpos reached Australia in 1984, you had few spending options. There was the cash in your wallet. You could write a cheque. If you had one of those new-fangled credit cards, the cashier could take its details using a beast of a thing called an imprinter. Somewhere between a week and 21 days later, the charge would appear on your credit card statement. Which you got via snail mail.

Thirty-six years later, “frictionless” is the name of the transaction game. Forget wallets – your cash departs via a wave of your card, phone, watch or even a ring. This is good news for the people selling you stuff because they can sell you more. They only need to grab your attention for seconds. A few clicks are all it takes for little drips of money to start leaving your account each month and landing in theirs.

“And why not?” you might exclaim. “I deserve it.” You won’t get any argument from me on how worthy you are. You probably worked for your cash. Years of slogging away, every pay increase earned in sweat. “I work hard so I can enjoy myself,” you might say.

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True. But unchecked comfort creep is wasteful. You’re wasting your time. You had to earn every dollar you spend. Would you work for free for hours, maybe even days or weeks? Heck no. So don’t waste your time by carelessly wasting your dosh for little to no benefit.

Not sure how much comfort creep is costing you? Download last month’s transactions and add up any spending that fits your criteria. These transactions are a great place to start when you’re looking to cut comfort creep spending.

You’re also wasting resources. Yours and ours. You’re wasting the stuff we’re all supposed to share. You’re using more raw materials, more energy and more human effort than you need to. If you’re serious about sustainability, you’ll sleep better knowing you’re cutting wasteful spending wherever you can.

The more you cut, the more you can save. The more you save, the more assets you can buy. The more assets you buy, the more secure your future will be. And if you get to financial independence, you’re free to choose how you spend your time.

So, cut the comfort creep. You’re worth it.

Money School cover

Money School cover Photograph: Penguin
  • Lacey Filipich is the author of Money School, out 18 February through Penguin, $29.99.



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