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How to Find Your Financial Comfort Zone
A few days ago, the weather here took a big turn toward heat. Temperatures shot well into the 90s with a wonderful dose of Midwestern humidity to boot.
One might think it was a perfect day to stay inside, but I actually spent much of it outside. I didn’t run around killing myself, but I went on a few walks, did a bunch of outdoor tasks and puttered around. I had some things I wanted to do outside and I wasn’t going to let the heat of the day stop me.
I went inside at one point and the house felt extremely cold to me. The air conditioning was running full blast and the whole house felt like an icebox.
One might think that such a feeling sounds great on a hot day, but it left me thinking. I didn’t want to feel cold. I just wanted to feel not hot and merely comfortable. I didn’t need the temperature to be anywhere near as low as it was in order for me to feel not hot.
So, I bumped up the thermostat several degrees. The air conditioning promptly kicked off and the temperature in the house inched upward.
My kids, who had spent less time outside than I had, were used to the “cold” temperature indoors, so it felt to them like the house was getting “hot.” I was inside and outside fairly regularly, going out to the yard or the garage for tasks, and to me the adjusted temperature in the house felt a lot better than the cold temperature it was at before.
In short, the house temperature that we each desired varied a lot based on what we had recently experienced, not some sort of “ideal” house temperature. After doing some stuff outside in the morning, my kids had been mostly inside, so their bodies had become used to 72 degrees. I’d been outside a lot in the afternoon, so my body had become used to 90 degrees — I wanted it a little cooler, but not 72 F, which felt frigid to me.
I decided to try an experiment the next day. I simply reprogrammed our (programmable) thermostat to not turn on that day at all so that the air conditioning wouldn’t kick on, nor would the furnace. I wanted to see how long before people complained about it.
The temperature in the house slowly climbed, but no one really said anything until it got to 77, at which point I said, “Sure, let’s turn on the AC!” and I set it at 76.
Believe it or not, everyone was content with this. I think there were one or two comments about how it felt a little warm in here, but most people just wore T-shirts and shorts around the house and felt fine. It wasn’t hot by any means, and everyone was comfortable.
Even better, the air conditioner ran a lot less than it did the day before. It wasn’t quite as hot out, but the temperature increase in the house was a huge factor.
You become accustomed to whatever your routine is.
The lesson I took home from this experience is that people become accustomed to whatever their routine is, and if that routine is expensive, everyday life is expensive, too.
For most of us, going without air conditioning at all would be miserable, but air conditioning didn’t exist throughout almost the entire history of humankind, and people found a bunch of ways to keep themselves cool without it. They lived near shade trees and planted them. They built terracotta shelters. They dug into the ground because it was cooler down there. More important than that, the heat didn’t seem so extreme to them because they were simply used to it. The hottest days weren’t pleasant, of course, but they didn’t need nearly as much cooldown as full-blast modern air conditioning provides.
Today, with a routine of turning on the air as soon as the weather gets warm and never even experiencing a home temperature above some fairly low threshold, my family had simply become used to the air conditioning coolness, so anything warmer felt uncomfortable to them. It wasn’t that being hot or being cold was strictly unpleasant, but that they had become used to a specific indoor temperature and significant deviation from that temperature was unpleasant. Out of a large range of temperatures that feel reasonably comfortable to people, they had become very used to a much smaller range, and only ones within that range were acceptable.
In other words, they had become used to a very specific routine, one much more narrow than the spectrum of what they might find comfortable and pleasant without leaning on that air conditioning, and anything outside of that routine had become unpleasant for them. Or, in simpler terms, they had adopted an expensive routine and deviating from that routine was unpleasant.
Obviously, when your routines become expensive and deviating from them becomes unpleasant, the baseline cost of your life goes up. You need a higher paying job just to maintain your basic idea of comfort, and with every element you add, that baseline cost just to feel comfortable goes up.
Or, to put it another way, if you constantly seek higher levels of comfort and get used to them, your life will become more and more expensive. That expensive life is going to come with personal, professional, and relationship stress just to keep it going.
Rather than chasing comfort, chase away discomfort.
There’s a much better approach, one that balances your daily comfort with the value of keeping costs low. Rather than seeking higher levels of comfort with higher levels of expense, instead, just seek to avoid discomfort and only seek additional comfort if it’s free or very small in cost.
For example, with heating and cooling, don’t keep changing the temperature to find a higher and higher level of comfort from running the AC or the furnace more and more. Rather, find the wide range of temperatures within which you’re not uncomfortable and use the air conditioning and furnace just to get within that range.
The same applies to food. Rather than seeking out more and more gourmet foods for a higher and higher baseline experience from eating, just identify a wide range of meals you like and look for inexpensive ways to vary them.
The same applies to cars. Find the least expensive car you can that’s not uncomfortable for you to drive rather than aiming for the most luxury and comfort you can possibly afford.
What about splurges?
What you’re trying to avoid with this strategy is lasting increased comfort. It’s the kind of comfort that you indulge in so frequently that it becomes your norm, and when that happens, deviating from it becomes unpleasant.
Splurging, on the other hand, is a rare event. It doesn’t become a routine if a splurge is done infrequently enough that there’s time before the splurge to anticipate it and after the splurge to either enjoy the new purchase quite a bit before moving on or enjoying the “afterglow” of a fun event.
It’s a splurge to have an amazingly well-crafted cup of coffee with just the right amount of sweetener and flavoring for $10, as long as you do it infrequently enough that it stands out as a real treat and you normally drink an inexpensive cup of pleasant-but-not-mindblowing cup most mornings. It’s a routine if you must have that amazing $10 cup every single morning and not having it feels like a genuine bummer.
Your core routine should be an inexpensive one that has inexpensive pleasures and avoids discomfort. Reaching up from that occasionally as a splurge should feel great. That kind of routine will be really inexpensive, enabling you to achieve your financial goals and find independence.
If your routine is an expensive one that has expensive pleasures, and not having those pleasures feels like misery, then you need to start pulling down that baseline a little bit. Try to find the “minimum pleasant” version of things in your life — the least expensive option that isn’t unpleasant for you. For example, not having a morning coffee might be unpleasant for you, so seek out the least expensive pleasant coffee for yourself (for me, it’s Eight O’Clock, served almost black) and make that your daily routine. Then, splurge occasionally with that perfect coffee so that you anticipate it and appreciate it. Not only will this result in a far less expensive coffee routine, but you’ll also actually find yourself appreciating the treat.
Seek out the “minimum pleasant” routine, not the luxury.
When you seek out comforts and luxuries beyond the “minimum pleasant” in your life, you really don’t gain that much at all. You start incurring a regular expense, and all you really get for that in exchange is a more expensive routine that just feels “normal.”
Instead, seek out the “minimum pleasant” version of all of your routines, so that it’s not actively unpleasant to you, but merely pleasant. Upgrade from that only when it doesn’t incur any ongoing costs. Splurge sometimes, but do it rarely enough that you anticipate that splurge and really enjoy it.
You’ll find that if you take this approach with everything in your life – from coffee to your air conditioner settings – life becomes a lot more expensive and, surprisingly, a lot more enjoyable. You don’t have unpleasant things in your life (as much as possible) and, at the same time, there are lots of splurges to anticipate and the splurges themselves aren’t all that expensive, either. For me, a $10 cup of amazing coffee is a huge, rare splurge that I anticipate and enjoy, but my daily cup is a quarter or two. Our household temperature is at the right temperature that no one feels unpleasant at home, meaning our energy bill is quite low.
Along with all of that comes much lower bills, more financial security, and the ability to really enjoy the little splurges in life.