complex simplicity

As I write this, there is a milk frother in my house. “Milk frother” might sound like a job title at Buckingham Palace, or maybe the local Starbucks, but the milk frother in my home is not a visiting Briton or a runaway barista; it’s a small, hand-operated device of unknown provenance. I’m guessing, with a high degree of confidence, that Amazon Prime was somehow involved.

Further research reveals that this item, available for less than $25 at many stores, allows one to make cappuccinos, lattes, and other fancy coffee drinks. The very name of the device — ”frother” — announces its nonessential status, also evidenced in the expression “cut through the froth.” Frother fans might argue that preparing one’s own froth enables one to bypass $5 per serving coffee drinks from Starbucks. But the subject of this column is not the frother, or the habit of buying overpriced coffee; rather, it’s the unseen culprit behind them both: Lifestyle Creep.

Lifestyle Creep is a concept, not a person—it refers to the idea of becoming accustomed, over time, to more expensive living. When spending rises along with income, and what were once luxuries become necessities, that’s Lifestyle Creep. But I find it makes for more vivid and effective imagery to present Lifestyle Creep as... well, a creep: an insidious, bipedal, skulking invader who, unlike his penurious kin Poverty Chic, makes life difficult... by making it nicer and easier.

Most readers of these pages have their basic needs met, in the form of food and shelter. But the definition of a basic need tends to expand as income increases; Lifestyle Creep is responsible for ever larger televisions, BMWs instead of Hyundais, and takeout sushi instead of homemade pizza. Meanwhile, the cost to meet those needs—in time, money, and stress—increases right along with that income.

Many people aspire to own a bigger house—one large enough to accommodate self, family and Lifestyle Creep. But Lifestyle Creep isn’t easily satisfied, and that bigger house brings with it higher property taxes and maintenance costs. The Lifestyle Creep makes his presence felt with new furniture, elaborate gadgets, and deluxe appliances to fill all that living space, along with increased expectations and expenses regarding the spacious yard area and driveway. Here, the Lifestyle Creep strikes with the regularity of the seasons: first, when the homeowner realizes the inadequacy of his trusty push mower and replaces it with a John Deere rider; then in autumn, when a rake gives way to a gas-powered leaf blower; and again in the winter, when a commercial-grade snowblower becomes essential. After a year or two of this routine, the Lifestyle Creep will plant and cultivate the idea of just hiring a landscaping service.

It will seem like a good deal, because now time is at a premium—that new job that’s supporting the bigger house is more demanding than the old one, and anything that lightens the load at home is worth it, isn’t it? The Lifestyle Creep chuckles and rubs his hands together eagerly. “You work hard,” he says, sipping a cocktail. “You deserve it.”

And maybe he’s not wrong. It’s okay to want lifestyle upgrades, and it’s easy to find examples of people who take Creep avoidance to unnecessary extremes, living in 200 or 300 square foot “tiny houses,” or subsisting on ramen noodles and eggs.

Still, as a Mephistophelian salesman, the Creep’s probably not giving you the whole truth. Specializing in the upsell, his commission isn’t a soul, but a subtle brand of wage slavery. People used to work until they reached a predetermined retirement age, or a certain length of service with a company. But fewer employers offer pensions today, and the future of Social Security is unclear; individuals have more control, and more responsibility, regarding their financial futures.

As someone who hasn’t been on a straight salary since 1999, I feel a certain kinship with today’s “gig workers,” and can relate to worries about health insurance and the absence of employer-provided benefits. But from this vantage point, it’s also much easier to discern a transaction-by-transaction path to financial security—or financial disaster.

Being a former certified financial planner and card-carrying tightwad penny-pincher frugal sort, I generally eschew frills, but no one is immune to the Lifestyle Creep’s temptations. In younger days, I’d use a single can of tennis balls over and over until they lost their bounce; now, a new can stands ready every time I play. Once, a $30 racket was good enough, but now I use one that retails for $150. I currently own eight wiffleballs, positively decadent compared to the one or maybe two I had as a kid.

There’s no more fighting to squeeze out the last remnants of toothpaste, and no sign of the Toothpaste Tube Squeezer tool that once helped to make that process more efficient. Now, when one toothpaste tube gets low, it’s into the garbage and on to the next! Bacchanalia!

Speaking of ancient wine festivals, there’s been a slow and steady uptick in the average price and age of a bottle of vino in our house, from $5.99 Sutter Home specials to $10 and $15 top picks from wine magazines. Lifestyle Creep doesn’t only apply to people, either. Our dog now gets a full Dentabone every night instead of her original ration of half. Her predecessor made do with a pat on the head.

These may be minor—dare I say, insignificant—examples, but they show how easy it is to succumb to the siren call of the Lifestyle Creep’s sweet nothings. “Sweet nothings” because, like candy, they offer temporary comfort, but little in the way of lasting satisfaction. Not to get all Zen, but at some point, the appeal of a new car and the latest smartphone tails off, which, for many of us, leaves thornier questions of purpose and meaning.

We’ve all heard that “the best things in life are free,” but that’s not really true. There’s a cost to everything we do, whether that cost is obvious or hidden, and the challenge is to make choices with both eyes open. It’s less about competing in the rat race, and more about not getting stuck going round and round on the hamster wheel.

Whether it’s buying pre-cut fruit instead of cutting it up yourself, or purchasing a vacation home to justify those long, stressful hours at the office, Creeper’s gonna creep. Enjoy life, but be alert, be wise, and beware the Lifestyle Creep!

Peter Dabbene’s website is peterdabbene.com. His latest work, “Ken Sollop, Agent of C.H.A.N.G.E.!” can be viewed at twinenterprises.com/the_fear_of_monkeys. His book Complex Simplicity collects the first 101 editions of this column, along with essays and material published elsewhere.