The conversation started when discussing gym membership prices with my brother. I’ve been going to EconoFitness, a budget gym downtown which sees approximately 3000 people trying to work out on any single piece of equipment at one time. I’m switching to another, more expensive gym, though still far from the expensive end of the spectrum. The question was, how much would you pay for the convenience of not having to wait for gym equipment, having clean equipment, and having showers at the gym? None of these things are essential in order to get a workout, so where do you draw the line? Would you pay even more for steam baths, saunas, warm towels, and top-of the line equipment?
In most things, there’s a balance of cost vs quality. And in some things, there’s a point where quality is reached and then surpassed, and you end up in the realm of luxury. An old beat up rust-bucket car with faulty seatbelts may be cheap, but is probably below most people’s bar of quality. An entry model Honda Civic is slightly less cheap, but likely reaches the bar of quality for most people. A Porsche Panamera definitely passes the quality bar, but goes above and beyond and offers things that are considered luxury, but that nobody (even the Porsche owners) would argue are essential for the car’s function and regular use.
The discussion that my brother and I had revolved around the definition of a baseline, which differs from person to person. It proved extremely hard to define, but I’ll give it a shot.
To me, the baseline is the most simplified form of
what you feel you need to live a fulfilling life.
Two important things to note before I go on: first, I’m considering material possessions or things that money can buy, not things like fulfilling friendships or love or work satisfaction. Second, the baseline is not the bare minimum on which you can survive. Most of us can survive on much, much less than what we have as long as we have food and shelter, so that’s not what we’re talking about here. We’re talking about a comfortable baseline (note that the word comfortable is problematic… more on that in a bit).
To give just a few concrete examples from my own life, here are some of my baseline needs:
- A car that allows me to drive to hockey, to visit my girlfriend in Ottawa, etc.
- Baseline example: a basic, functional, safe car. Above baseline example: that Porsche we were talking about.
- A bike that allows me to commute to work
- Baseline example: any functional bike that gets me to work and back. Above baseline example: a sweet road bike that feels fast and light.
- A workout routine for strength training
- Baseline example: Gym membership at Econofitness or even workout from home with resistance bands. Above baseline example: a fancy gym with steam baths and a sauna.
- Groceries that allow me to eat healthy
- Baseline example: Staying away from junky food, avoiding very expensive foods such as pine nuts. Above baseline example: eating only organic foods and ethically raised meat and animal products.
The problem is that the baseline is constantly moving. My brother argued that no matter what you do, your baseline moves up as you earn more and are able to spend more on things that make you more comfortable, like the Porsche or the swanky gym. You start to feel that you need to be able to access gym equipment right away, or have that top-of-the-line elliptical machine in order to satisfy your fitness requirements. You start to lose sight of what it was like to work out at the budget gym, and you would feel uncomfortable going back to that after getting used to the pricier gym. In short, as your income increases, you allow yourself to spend more for things that are more convenient or luxurious—that becomes the new normal.
I agree that this is what typically happens, and I believe that it’s a problem. This mentality is what causes people to be spoiled, to complain when things aren’t perfect, and to see the negative in everything that happens. It causes people to make illogical decisions about spending when income or life situations change, and it causes people to simply be less satisfied.
So what’s the alternative? Can you strive to live above your baseline, and treat yourself to things above this line, but maintain it so that you won’t be unhappy if things change? I think you can. I feel that you can keep your baseline low but still live above the baseline by observing your relationship to things that are above the baseline.
The first way to observe this relationship is to be grateful for the fact that you can afford that $80 pair of jeans instead of the $30 ones. The second is to constantly remind yourself that you would be absolutely fine with the $30 pair of jeans. Fine, meaning that you would be no less comfortable than you are with the $80 pair of jeans. More specifically, if you lost your job and had to buy $30 jeans, it wouldn’t cause you any amount of suffering—you would be equally happy. That doesn’t mean, however, that you shouldn’t get that $80 pair of jeans if you want them and can afford them.
As usual, I like to write about questions that I’m curious about and don’t claim to have solved. Hopefully, this can inspire you to think of the following questions as it has inspired me. What constitutes your baseline? What things do you currently do that are above your baseline? Are you grateful for those things? How much would your baseline move if your income increased or decreased? How would your life change if your income changed suddenly? It can be a fun thinking exercise.