Some Thoughts on the Fulfillment Curve

YMOYLOne of the best concepts from Your Money or Your Life is that of the fulfillment curve. Basically, the idea argues that there’s a sweet spot for anything that maximizes the fulfillment you get out of it. If you spend more, your fulfillment starts to actually decrease.

I often reflect on this concept. I see it popping up again and again in my own life and I find that if I put in some effort finding that peak fulfillment, my money just falls into line right behind it. I’ve come to believe that if a person has their basic needs covered, overspending is caused by going over the far end of the fulfillment peak.

I hinted at these ideas

a while back, when I discussed the book in detail:

The middle portion of the first chapter focuses on the “fulfillment curve,” which basically refers to the idea that once you reach a certain level of luxury in your life, anything beyond that level is merely diminishing returns.

My conclusion at that time was to tie it to consumerism and clutter:

One of the deep problems of consumerism is that the average American tends toward buying more. They would rather have more stuff that, per item, they have less time to enjoy than less stuff that, per item, they have more time to enjoy.

This is connected directly with the clutter problem, also discussed here. This tendency to buy extra luxury items gradually fills a home with lots of clutter – unnecessary stuff that just sits there taking up space when the money invested could be used to help build a more fulfilling life.

Later reflection has led me to believe that it’s not necessarily these factors. It’s more of a matter of finding balance, akin to riding a bicycle.

Here’s a visual example of the fulfillment curve (I’ll explain the numbers below):

Fulfillment curve

Let me give you two examples of how the curve works, both pulled from my own life.

Example #1: Video Games
1 – I’d like to play some video games, but I don’t own a console or a single game.
2 – I own a console and a single game, which is quite a bit of fun, but it gets boring after a while.
3 – I pick up one game a year from the used game store. After the three month mark, though, I’ve beaten the game and then I feel unfulfilled until I get another game several months later.
4 – I pick up a game every three months from the used game store, right in line with when I’ve mastered and am getting tired of the previous game. I always have something fresh to play and master and don’t have to spend too much keeping up with the hobby.
5 – I get a game every month from the used game store. It isn’t financially pinching me, but I’m building up a pile of games I’ve barely played.
6 – I get a mix of new and old games, two or three a month. I can handle my credit card bills, but it’s a little higher than I like. I also don’t like looking at that pile of unplayed games.
7 – I buy a new game every week. I play it for about five minutes, then I feel guilty and I put it on a giant pile of games that are barely played, making me feel really guilty. I do it so I can play the “latest and greatest,” but I usually just feel really guilty, and I’m having a very difficult time keeping up with the credit card bills.

See the progression there? That middle point – 4 – is where I’m really enjoying a hobby that I have. I can easily afford it, I get to thoroughly enjoy each game I get, I have plenty of new stuff to play to keep me happy, and I have no guilty feelings about it. If I spend less, I’m not enjoying my hobby as much as I’d like – I feel longing. If I spend more, I start to build up games that I don’t play, I build some guilt, and eventually it gets really expensive.

My experience with video game fulfillment A few years ago, I was somewhere around 6 on this fulfillment curve. When I finally went through my big financial panic, I veered wildly in the other direction, selling everything and rushing back over that fulfillment peak to 0. As our financial life became stronger, I slowly climbed the curve and now stand fairly close to that peak – #4.

Here’s another example (with a picture of the curve again, for visual aid).

Fulfillment curve

Example #2: Home Buying
1 – We’re essentially homeless. We live in our car.
2 – We live in an extremely cheap, extremely small old apartment. The rent is extremely cheap, but there’s barely enough room for sleeping space for everyone or room to do anything at all. We’re embarrassed to have guests at all.
3 – We live in a nice apartment or a small house. There’s enough room for everyone to sleep and have meals, but we’re sometimes pinched for space and there’s more clutter than we’d like. We have some of our friends over, but we feel pretty self-conscious about the place and don’t have the dinner parties we’d like.
4 – Our house is just the right size for our family. We feel comfortable having any and all guests over, the housework doesn’t overwhelm us, and the bills are completely manageable.
5 – Our house slightly exceeds what our family needs, but it gives us some room to grow. The bills are slightly painful, but we can manage things. We spend a bit more of our weekends on home cleaning and maintenance than we’d like, but we feel quite proud giving dinner parties and inviting people over.
6 – Our house is a McMansion. We can afford the bills, but just barely, and only if we eat everything at home. The bills make me feel kind of guilty, and there are times where it feels like all we do is upkeep.
7 – We bought a house nine times our annual income on an ARM and it just adjusted. Our house is mind-blowingly awesome, but we’re getting foreclosed tomorrow. We have no equity and we have no idea what we’re going to do. I wish we’d never come here.

My experience with housing fulfillment When we first got married, we lived in an apartment that was probably about a 2.5 on that curve – we were buckling down and saving. After our first child was born, it slipped down to about a 2 – we were in a serious space pinch and we became sort of ashamed to have guests over because of the massive clutter. We bought our first home and now we’ve happily settled in at about a 4, but we looked at some homes that would have been a 5 or a 6 on the curve, I’m quite sure. I think this house might slip to a 3.5 or a 3 if we have two more kids, but we’ll cross that bridge when we get there.

Some Fulfillment Curve Thoughts and Strategies
What does this curve mean in your own life? How can it help you get ahead? Here are some suggestions.

The fulfillment curve applies to everything you spend money on. The basic principle applies to almost everything in your life, from food to clothing to shelter up to hobby-oriented activities. In almost every aspect of life, the point of maximum enjoyment is not the point of maximum spending – spending too much reduces fulfillment.

Guilt is one of the surest signs of the downside of the curve. If you feel guilt about your spending in any area, you’re likely spending more than your natural fulfillment peak. It’s likely that if you take the time to seriously look at every area in your life where you feel some guilt about money, it’s a result of spending too much to try to chase fulfillment. Pull back on that spending some and you’ll almost always find that things become more enjoyable as a whole.

Your fulfillment curve peak might actually come with spending no money at all. For example, I almost always find that when I spend much money on extra things for my kids, neither one of us gets much extra fulfillment out of it and a good chunk of the time I feel like I shouldn’t have spent the money. Here’s an example: the best time I’ve spent with my kids recently was last Sunday when we went to the library, went to a free art festival, then went home and read books for an hour. The cost was virtually nil, but it was a peak on that curve. Fulfillment curve peaks don’t have to cost you.

Routine frivolous purchases – like a $5 coffee each morning – are beyond the peak, whether you actively notice it or not. If you do it every day, it’s no longer a treat. It’s not something special to really bring you fulfillment. Try drinking cheap coffee at the office all but one day a week. You’ll find that the one good coffee you do drink brings you far more fulfillment than it used to.

Spend some time understanding what things really fulfill you. I feel much more fulfilled by a well-designed item that will last basically forever than just about anything. Reliability is really a strong fulfillment point for me – I tend to like things that I’ve had for a long time that still work like new. That’s why I often do so much research before a purchase – I know I’ll get more fulfillment out of it if the item just does its job reliably and easily.

Good luck applying the fulfillment curve to your own life!

Trent Hamm

Founder of The Simple Dollar

Trent Hamm founded The Simple Dollar in 2006 after developing innovative financial strategies to get out of debt. Since then, he’s written three books (published by Simon & Schuster and Financial Times Press), contributed to Business Insider, US News & World Report, Yahoo Finance, and Lifehacker, and been featured in The New York Times, TIME, Forbes, The Guardian, and elsewhere.