Let me know if this sounds familiar. When you were younger, you had less money than you have now. You worked hard, and every dollar you earned was a new opportunity to support yourself, buy something fun or have an exciting experience.
As you progressed in your career, perhaps you upgraded different parts of your life. You worked hard, and every dollar you earned was a new opportunity to support yourself, buy something fun, or have exciting experiences with new people. As you made more money, you probably bought more things. Maybe you upgraded from an apartment to a house. Or from an inexpensive area to the center of a city. Or from a cheap used car to buying your dream car.
How far down this path you go depends on when you pause to reflect. Some people never do and end up with piles of debt, cluttered houses, and empty hearts.
There’s a name for this: hedonic adaptation (also called the hedonic treadmill). Over time you add more luxuries to your life. You start using a dishwasher. Each adult gets their own car. You buy an Instant Pot. As time goes on, this life becomes your new baseline. The cost to support your lifestyle climbs ever higher, but it’s hard to figure out what you could cut out.
Did you know that you can change the speed of your treadmill? You can choose to slow it down and to live a more simple life. You can even lower the speed and bring the life you love with you. Let’s look at a few thought-exercises you can do today (or at any time) to nudge your mindset in a new direction.
1. Find What “Enough” Means To You
For everything in life – from money to possessions to relationships – there’s a sweet spot. Too many relationships, and you’ll be overwhelmed. Too few, and you’ll yearn for more connection to the world (just ask 2020). The trick is finding the sweet spot where you have enough.
Yet most of us, myself included, don’t think about how much enough truly is. If you never reevaluate what enough means to you, how will you ever know when you’re there? You might even have reached enough already but don’t even know it. You could slow down the treadmill while maintaining the same level of happiness you have today.
The concept of enough spans many aspects of your life:
- Enough relationships – Does that mean one life partner? 5 close friends? 5,000 Instagram followers? A group that goes to brunch every week? What do enough relationships look like to you?
- Enough money – Is it being able to pay bills and support your family? To afford an education? To create a better future for those you love? Is it enough to become financially independent and retire early?
- Enough novelty – Shopping and buying are so convenient today that it’s easy to get that “high” from buying the newest gadget, exciting toy, or clearance item. If you buy too much, it might be a coping mechanism. Too few, you’re starting to feel deprived. If you like variety and often buy new things, but want to live a minimalist lifestyle, borrow things instead of buying them. Today’s libraries not only offer books, movies, and music but a wide range of items like video games, board games, baking pans, and kids building kits.
- Enough experiences – Traveling and exploring can be life-changing and is a priority for a lot of people. You can still cut back the amount of money and time you’re spending without feeling deprived. Whether you cut back on the number of vacations you take a year or start to look for travel deals, focus on your bucket list activities vs. saying yes to every opportunity that comes along. When exploring your local area, think about the places you would want to see before moving or free activities like state parks.
- Enough fame, prestige, or power – Do you want to be seen as an expert? Looked up to? Asked for your advice? Many people strive to be revered. Ask yourself what enough of each of these looks like for you.
“Enough” isn’t a concept we talk about much in the United States. We’re raised in a culture that values work above all else, where companies are rewarded for maximizing profits. I’ve never heard a for-profit company say, “We’ve made enough money, so now we’re going to donate everything from here on out.”
That’s a different story in Sweden (for people at least). There’s even a Swedish word for it: lagom. Lagom doesn’t have an exact translation into English, but it roughly translates into:
Lagom, noun: Just the right amount.
Lagom isn’t about deprivation. It’s about finding balance. Not too much and not too little. It’s Goldilocks eating the porridge that’s just the right temperature and sleeping in the bed that’s the right size.
It’s making an effort to not look at the world as black and white. Lagom, and the concept of enough, are focused on finding that sweet spot where you’re happy with what you have and happy with what you don’t have.
2. Take the Route to Slow Minimalism
A few years ago, you couldn’t turn on the news without hearing about Marie Kondo. Her book The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up (2011) and her Netflix series Tidying Up with Marie Kondo (2019) started an entirely new conversation about consumerism and minimalism.
Her work focuses on a single concept that’s funny when you first hear it yet rememberable: does it sparks joy? If it does, keep it. If not, thank it for its service and let it go.
Books and TV shows give an unrealistic look at what change looks like. Going through a lifetime’s worth of possessions will take a vastly different amount of time if you live in a 500 sqft apartment versus a 3,000 sqft home in the suburbs with a garage.
Luckily, ending credits don’t start to scroll after a single day of work – or even a single year. The process of editing your possessions down can take as long as you want it to take.
I went through a similar editing period after my mom passed away when I was 23 years old. I inherited the house I grew up in and a lifetime of possessions, many of which she inherited from her parents. Marie Kondo’s advice to sort through everything within a weekend wasn’t an option for me.
Instead, I decided to reframe my approach. I’d tackle a different room each month – donating or removing what didn’t spark joy. This concept of slow minimalism helped keep me from feeling overwhelmed while continually improving my surroundings.
When reducing clutter, you’ll find things around your house that you never used or are in excellent condition. There are lots of places you can sell these items online. You might want to travel more or have more spending money; the proceeds could help you meet your goals.
One month I added new storage and organization to the garage, making it easier to do more yard work (but unfortunately, just as sweaty). One month I reorganized my kitchen, making it easier to reach pots and pans, which led to more home-cooked meals. Each room’s changes resulted in happy productivity – I was using the spaces more in the way they were intended.
During this first pass, I wasn’t focused on beauty – that would come later. The first step was making these spaces functional. The value of slow minimalism is exponential growth. Your environment won’t change overnight, but one day you’ll be able to look back and see how far you’ve come.
In my case, these spaces were outright broken. Minor improvements let me reach a point of “enough” for each space without spending $30,000 on a complete kitchen remodel. Slow minimalism can give you the same wins as a major overhaul without the same price tag.
3. Reconsider Your Big 3 Expenses
Your largest three expenses – usually housing, transportation, and food – are the area where the smallest changes can make the largest impact on your budget. These can also be the most difficult changes to make! Moving homes and changing vehicles come with a hefty price tag.
After I graduated college, I immediately followed the advice I kept hearing over and over on the news: “renting is throwing money away.” I did the “financially responsible” thing and bought a house. Buying a house is the largest purchase most people ever make and my largest by far.
Unfortunately, I bought a house in 2006, immediately before the housing market bubble popped. To add insult to injury, the total of my mortgage + property taxes was about 53% of my monthly income!
Since the housing market bubble, most of today’s mortgage companies won’t lend above a 43% mortgage to income ratio. Those numbers don’t include maintenance, lawn care, and the occasional burst pipe that always happens at the worst possible time. Without realizing it, I had completely overextended myself.
I was fortunate. My salary increased over time, and my then-girlfriend (now wife) and I began splitting expenses. Skip to a decade later, and our housing cost was down to 20% of my income.
But was that the right decision? Should I have stuck it out? Or should I have cut my losses and moved somewhere cheaper? I’ve thought about that question a lot since then and have come to a realization: I was scared to admit I made a mistake.
I liked the house but didn’t love it. The cost and time to maintain it was far more than I budgeted. If I had accepted my mistake sooner, we could have moved to cheaper accommodations, had more flexibility in our budget, and many fewer worries.
When we eventually sold that house and embraced apartment living, it felt like a weight lifted off my shoulders. Sure, we sold it for much less than we bought it for (thanks, Florida), but it felt refreshing to have a new start. We may move into a house again in the future, but an apartment feels right for now.
When you think about your big three expenses, you may have made decisions in the past that you wouldn’t make again. Whether these were mistakes or just changes in your preferences, accept that you’ve changed! Learn from your current situation and make a list of what you like – and more importantly – what you don’t like about it. Use that criterion to plan your next home, your next vehicle, and your next big purchase.
4. Focus on What You Can Change
Change is complicated. It’s the cause of most of our stress and most of our comfort. When we initiate that change, it can be stressful. When change happens to us, it can be overwhelming.
Organizational reshuffling, landlords changing terms, and even friends changing plans at the last second. Changes we’re in control over feel much more solid: like we’re building the life we want one decision at a time.
Lifestyle deflation and optimizing your budget can feel like either. You can choose to feel like something is happening to you or like something you’ve initiated. Which one you choose will determine your success and your stress level.
One of my favorite quotes about control comes from Epictetus, a Stoic philosopher from around 50 A.D.:
Some things are in our control and others not. Things in our control are opinion, pursuit, desire, aversion, and, in a word, whatever are our own actions. Things not in our control are body, property, reputation, command, and, in one word, whatever are not our actions.Epictetus, Enchiridion and Selections from the Discourses
When it comes to your finances, you’re in control! You can choose lifestyle deflation or inflation. You can decide to change your hedonic treadmill’s speed all a once or do it little by little.
You can also change your housing, your car, your everyday spending habits. It’s even possible to change how you think about money! As actions and thoughts, these are all in your control.
Even deprivation is a feeling you’re in control over. Two people shown the same lifestyle can see deprivation or abundance. The trick, if you want to call it that, is to slow down your hedonic treadmill little by little without hitting the point where you feel deprived. Part of doing that is accepting that you’re in control of your own actions, your own mindset, and your pace.
5. Decide What You Want To Strive For
Is there something in your life you strive for with all of your heart? Something that you wake up thinking about that comforts you, and that gives you butterflies in your stomach?
Perhaps there isn’t – and that’s OK! There have been many times in my life I haven’t had a project, goal, or dream. But whenever I do have something to dream of, you can guarantee that I’m happier to be around, more driven, and more focused.
When optimizing your budget, it’s easy to go overboard. Months with higher spending are often followed by months of austerity. It’s this kind of yo-yo budgeting that I see all the time by people who start to optimize their finances.
What I’d encourage you to do is this: make a list of 101 things you want to know, have, or do – a list of what to do with your life.
Let your mind run wild when creating this list. Include places you want to travel to, goals you want to accomplish, and career dreams. Include who you want to be – a great mother/father, a friend people confide in, a shoulder to cry on. List out what you want to create in life and what you want to learn.
Creating this list won’t be easy! Most people can come up with about 30 items before it gets difficult – it was for me. Push through that feeling! Write down what you really want, not just what you’d admit to with acquaintances. Be honest with yourself and take as much time as you need. If it takes a few days, that’s alright!
The next step is the important part. When you think about your spending, keep this list in mind. If you somehow find yourself cutting all expenses on this list then you’ve gone too far. Add back in expenses that bring you closer to your goals and dreams. Shoot for a life that you’re in control of that balances your dreams and your budget – with enough of both.
This post was written by me, but originally published on Your Money Geek.