Hacking Hedonic Adaptation to Get Way More For Your Money

After three years, wall-mounted toilet paper has become the latest thrill.

When I built our current house, I decided to do as much of the work as practical myself, because I learned years ago that this is the most satisfying way to live.

I love sitting back late at night, especially during cold winter nights or intense summer rainstorms, and looking up at the high ceilings and the ornately framed windows and thinking about all that structure holding itself together and protecting us so nicely inside. Satisfaction.

Sure, practicality also required some compromises – for this particular house I hired out the big, repetitive task of drywall, and hired friends to work with me on the heavy parts like framing the roof.

But as soon as the house was even remotely habitable, with plywood kitchen countertops and no bathroom sink, we moved in. This allowed me to keep working on the place without being away from the family, and also to move out and stage the previous house nicely so we could put it on the market.

That was in early 2014, and true to my nature I’ve never really stopped working on the house since then. The first things were urgent, like quality countertops and sinks and faucets, appliances and light fixtures and functioning closets, so I did these things quickly. Then I installed a really nice woodstove before that first winter came, then built the second bathroom, and moved on to renovate our son’s room in the old wing of the house that had not been part of the fully rebuilt section. Then more closets, trims, cabinetry, little features here and there as the need arose, and even the rather major feature of the detached Rock’n’roll Studio.

There have been a hundred little upgrades, always arriving with random timing, as time permitted.  And the interesting thing about them has been this:

Each little upgrade – whether big or small – has brought a similar amount of short-lived but genuine happiness.

When I upgraded the countertops from plywood to quartz, we were all thrilled at the new, smooth and easily cleanable nature of the kitchen. Then after a week or two, this thrill became the new normal, and gradually faded into the background.

But then, I added shelves to a closet, and fighting with piles of clothes in laundry baskets became a joyful flip through a row of hanging shirts and nicely folded pants on smooth wooden shelves. Another thrill! For another few weeks.

On and on these small upgrades went, each one accomplished by my own two hands, so that I got the satisfaction of a job well done, and also lived in a house that was constantly getting just a bit better every week.

Looking back, this has been so much better than just moving into a pre-made, perfect, fancy house that somebody else built for me, and doing it this way has also saved me hundreds of thousands of dollars at the same time. And even if you’re not a carpenter yourself, you can get the same benefits by understanding the human psychology at work here.

Hacking Hedonic Adaptation.

You may recall me cautioning you in this long-ago MMM Classic, to avoid buying yourself fancy shit, because the thrill of every new life upgrade – whether it is a nicer dishwasher or a faster Mercedes – always wears off, and your overall life happiness returns to exactly where it was. It’s quite an un-intuitive result, but if you watch yourself over time, you will notice it is uncannily accurate.

For example, I started this blog seven years ago in 2011, and distinctly remember being very happy with life, even way back then. Sure, I had problems just like everyone else, but on balance it was still a great life, because I was already pressing most or all of the actual buttons for human happiness

Some of the recipe for happiness (a slide from my WDS talk)

Since then, I have stumbled into a few upgrades:

  • A nicer house
  • A nicer bike (several, actually)
  • A nicer car
  • A nicer dishwasher
  • Internet fame
  • Several times more money than I had before
  • A really fun new business (the MMM-HQ coworking space)
  • And many, many other nicer things (clothes, electronic gadgets, interesting trips, and so on)

And yet, I’m still not really any happier than before, sitting here right at this moment. My life looks more prestigious and luxurious on paper, but since I was already pretty damned happy with life before, there was not much to improve.

This brings up a strange paradox. Because I also remember feeling quite giddy and thrilled with each of these upgrades as I made them. Those happy feelings were genuine. What Gives?

The Happiness Bump

The phenomenon at work was the temporary thrill of a new life upgrade. If we were to sketch it out on paper, it would look like this:

The Short-term Happiness Bump from lifestyle upgrades

As you can see, you make the upgrade, and you do get some genuine thrills for a short time.

The key thing to know about your happiness is that you have a ‘baseline’ level. Some of it is genetically inherited, but you can also have a strong effect on it yourself, by pressing the genuine happiness buttons in the diagram above.

Most lifestyle upgrades (cars, dishwashers, or even my new toilet paper holder) do not press these buttons, unless they truly address a shortfall in your previous life.

If your dishwasher was broken and tormenting you every day, then an upgrade may feel quite meaningful. But if the three year lease simply expired on your still-nearly-new Mercedes and you went to the dealer to swap it for an even newer model, you will likely get a far less significant buzz – because the old car was probably not causing you daily pain.

In the best possible outcome, you might make a life change that helps you gain new skills, increase your health, or improve your life’s core relationships. This could stretch out the shaded “Actual Benefit” part of the graph to be much longer, in the extreme cases for your whole life.

But in the typical outcome, most of us make changes that produce only a short bump, and then may even come back to haunt us with a payback time (which I labeled the “debt hangover” in the picture). Anything that puts you into debt, makes you less healthy or otherwise compromises your ability to live a happy life fits into this category.

Putting it into Practice

Your job as a wise, badass Human is to understand your strengths and weaknesses, and then arrange your life to make the best of things. The temptation to pursue  shiny but useless upgrades is one of our biggest weaknesses.  So try the following hacks:

  • Consider each potential change (whether it is a purchase, a trip, or a lunch out at a restaurant) from the perspective of one year in the future. How much better will your life be in one year, if you make this decision right now?
  • Delay everything and space it out as much as possible. The anticipation of a treat often provides at least as much joy as the consummation. Simply doubling your waiting period will cut your spending on this stuff in half. 
  • By cutting your upgrades into smaller pieces (as I did with the piecemeal home construction), you get to experience the thrill more often.
  • Put your priority on upgrades that remove a strong daily negative or a barrier to happiness. Keep your existing cars, clothes, and furniture if they still work. But make a list of stuff that taunts and torments you every day – a messy basement or garage, perhaps, or a clunky bike or kitchen faucet. Since you use these things every day, you’ll get lasting satisfaction if you upgrade them to reliable, beautiful, painless-to-own condition.
  • Find ways to modify each potential upgrade so that it presses more of your happiness buttons. Make it more challenging, do things that require you to learn or accomplish something first, choose things that allow you to create or strengthen friendships, and choose the healthier options out of any alternatives you are given.
  • Use your temptation to buy or consume new things as a habit trigger: catch yourself in the moment of weakness (because this happens automatically and frequently), and use this to do something good for you instead. For example, every time I walk by my fridge and gaze longingly at the handle, thinking of pulling out a cold beer, I am reminded to go out to my back patio and do 100 push-ups instead. In really disciplined times (like the last few months for me), I back this up by also not keeping any beer in the house. But even if the end result is a bubbly reward, I have improved the reward bump by packaging in a permanent benefit (fitness) with the otherwise very short term reward of a drink.
  • And finally, keep a list of your top life priorities on your fridge door, or your work computer monitor, or somewhere else that you see it many times per day.  Stuff like better friendships, better parenting, health, financial independence, happiness, personal growth. Looking at this list before you decide to do anything – whether it’s planning a lunch or moving to a new house, can serve as a surprisingly powerful anchor to help you fine tune your happiness bumps – stretching out the good parts and eliminating the hangovers.

Happy Hacking!

In the comments: which life upgrades have you made that ended up producing neutral results or even regret, and which ones have provided more lasting happiness?

  • Scott April 10, 2018, 3:49 pm

    Been working on our house for 35 years now-everything from clearing stumps with a 1952 Allis -Chalmers track loader with one frozen stearing clutch to pouring foundation, framing, drywall, roofing and custom cabinetry. Our friends thought we were crazy. Well…yeah, we probably are but nothing to blame on our long-term project. We would do some things differently if doing it again but the main thing is we lived below our means all the time. We wasted a lot of money on several new cars along the way, but OTOH we drove a $75 Oldsmobile station wagon in college and even for a couple years after we got married. I could have gotten huge college loans and driven a BMW….but anyway I don’t think EVERY item you build gives you the “short bump of satisfaction”. Many or most do, but I still drive up and on occasion really admire our beautiful cedar siding, or our big barn/shop or whatever. And living somewhat frugally allowed us to retire at 62 while we are still healthy, and now I can spend all the time I want doing vegetable gardening-which is a healthy pursuit. And we get to travel like vagabonds in our travel trailer with our dog which is awesome. I see a lot of people our age who make a ton of money but are locked into such a high-stress lifestyle just to keep up with the taxes and maintenance on their homes and cars. High BP, multiple meds, it all takes a toll that for most people is probably not a good thing.

  • Mr. Tako April 10, 2018, 3:57 pm

    I’m with you MMM — I love to build things also. Sure, I have the money to buy anything. I can buy a life upgrade but the upgrades that I build myself last soooo much longer.

    The pride I feel when I put a tasty beverage on a coffee table *I built* is a much longer lasting form of happiness. Even if it costs me *more* money to do it that way, it’s worth it.

  • Cathy April 10, 2018, 4:00 pm

    We stalled and stalled and stalled buying a new mattress until my dog dug a hole into our old one. I’m glad we got as much life out of it as we could, but I have to say even months later I still give a little sigh of contentment settling into bed, and I have more energy day-to-day now that I don’t wake up with lower back pain in the mornings. I hope this purchase will continue to improve our quality of life for many years.

    Conversely, my hubby really wants new kitchen cabinets. The cabinets we have now are generic and not much to look at, but they’re well laid-out and they do their job just fine, so I have a hard time seeing how we’ll get much joy out of having pretty cabinets that hold our dishes vs. regular honey oak cabinets that hold our dishes just fine.

    • Ingrid April 12, 2018, 10:39 pm

      Have you thought of painting them? There are different techniques that yield amazing results; some involve lots of prep work and others less prep but a bit more maintenance. As long as it’s done right, it can be an amazing transformation for very little money!

  • Caroline April 10, 2018, 4:18 pm

    I would agree with many of the other comments, prioritizing trips to visit my family with my kids has been the most rewarding thing ever. Mostly now that some of them are gone. Memories last forever.
    Biggest regret was upgrading to a much bigger house for our new blended family (well my partner blended with my three kids and I!). It seemed like a good plan then, everybody was excited and happy (that was the plan). We were getting a much nicer & bigger house for all of us! We all hate it already and miss having a much cozier home.

  • Earthmover April 10, 2018, 4:31 pm

    Makes perfect sense, just wish I were that handy. I’m more courageous with exterior tasks, so I’m scheming on the construction of a chain link fence, both for more privacy and to restrict the wanderings of a toddler. I’ve gathered most of the supplies from Craigslist so cost shouldn’t be a big factor – and plenty of manual labor involved in the recycling/reuse of others’ neglected fences, too. So, provided it works out, I expect it will make me happy, much more so than continuously seeing a new fence that I paid richly for a contractor to install. I better get to it, just need a few more parts…

  • Macer April 10, 2018, 4:32 pm

    Regret: a boat
    Neutral: upgraded tires
    Long term happiness: my dog

  • Mike April 10, 2018, 4:35 pm

    Travel has certainly brought me more lasting happiness than other purchase. But, the best investment of time for me has been language learning. The cost has been minimal (maybe $100 over two years) but the joy of communicating competently with people in another language is revelatory.

    • John N April 11, 2018, 1:00 pm

      Hey Mike, what did you spend your $100 on? Lessons? Books? CDs? (those were the days)

  • Kent April 10, 2018, 4:40 pm

    Nice post. What is it about lists… I like them. So easy to read and based on a model. Win, win. For me moving to Victoria a year ago was just the freedom I needed. And spending the last 3 winters in Hawaii was realizing a lifelong dream. While I’m a little lacking in the community department being a snowbird, I have friends all over.. in fact I just agreed to attend an event in NB next month with a buddy I met in 1st year Uni at Waterloo. So the friendship thing is going on. Today I cycled and walked because I can. And I’m resisting buying an income property because it’s too damn fun not having any debt! All in all I’m lovin’ life!

  • Becky O'Brien April 10, 2018, 4:51 pm

    Just wanted to be sure everyone here was aware of the book “The Art of Frugal Hedonism.” I have only read one excerpt that was published by NewDream.org, but the excerpt was great. (I’m on the wait list for it at the library). It’s very aligned with this post–check it out at http://www.frugalhedonism.com.

  • Becky O'Brien April 10, 2018, 5:09 pm

    Regarding the “smaller pieces” strategy–I love using this for travel. I usually get months of pre- and post-enjoyment from trips (including two-night instate camping trips). I thoroughly enjoy scoping our campgrounds and campsites or Air BnBs, researching hiking trails and attractions in the area, checking event calendars, etc. While I’m doing those things I’m already getting so much enjoyment from a trip I haven’t even taken. The trip itself is great. And then when I’m home, I love sharing memories with friends, looking back over photos, and for the bigger trips putting together a Shutterfly book. And all that pre- and post-smaller pieces work make my brain remember the trip as being longer than it even was. I get so much more mileage out of my travel experiences this way.

  • ED April 10, 2018, 5:29 pm

    Best purchases:
    -My Kindle- I went from never reading to reading constantly thanks to free ebooks from the local public library that I can download form the comfort of my home.
    -Roomba: vacuum cleaning robot. Went from never vacuuming to always having a clean carpet. Have used it weekly for almost 4 years, well worth the money, I enjoy the clean carpet every day.
    -Sonicare electric tooth brush- no cavities since buying this

    worst purchases:
    -unused gym membership
    -expensive hair dryer that broke after one year

  • Ilona April 10, 2018, 5:52 pm

    We have a townhouse with a large backyard outside Toronto, Ontario, Canada. Family and friends have asked why we don’t move up and get a better house. We paid off townhouse in 9 years. We repair what is needed – roof, steps, fence. We enjoy the large floral garden and enjoy growing veggies (psychologist = $300/hr; gardening therapy= priceless). Now, the population is growing as others found our great neighbourhood. We’re not moving! It’s our house. It’s paid for. It makes us happy to come home to — and there’s farmland locally with pick your own produce and farmer’s markets. Our secret paradise :)

  • Kara April 10, 2018, 6:29 pm

    In 2001 (back in the olden days), we bought our first house, a serious fixer-upper. In the 7 years we lived there, my husband and I put a lot of sweat equity into it. We replaced all the electrical, plumbing, drywall, roof and anything else you can imagine, basically rebuilding our home while living in it. There were many times when we stood back and looked at a completed project with great satisfaction. It added to our happiness in the short term. But, by the time we moved, we were very tired.

    Fast forward to 2014. We had just moved to Colorado and in the market to buy a home. We looked and contemplated buying another fixer-upper to save some money doing work ourselves. In the end, we decided to buy a home that needed no work. It is simple, but modern. Light floods into all the huge windows. It was well below the price range any bank would have said we “could” afford (a ridiculous standard) and definitely more expensive than a home in need of work. We’ve been here four years and I can honestly say this home has added to our happiness over the long term and we’ve never regretted it. It provides us an environment in which we can enjoy hobbies and just being home, while still living below our means.

    All that to say, I think happiness is both individual and dependent on place in life. Had we put ourselves into a position to remodel another home while working full time, it would have been a negative. All the nagging projects would have added additional stress and detracted from our hapiness. So, as you show in your happiness buttons, it’s important to consider what your core values and needs are, and to recognize that they can change over time. Who knows, maybe when we retire, we’ll be ready to sign up for demo #2.

  • john April 10, 2018, 6:30 pm

    For me I get object oriented happiness in fixing things around the house and garage, which tends to be a repeating cycle. Keep nice old stuff running, and buy only materials to do so. Not much of a cost, except in time, which can be fun time if not too much fixing all at once.

    The other object oriented happiness is not really worrying about money anymore, I am over the hump in the savings curve at this point. In large part due to my low spend habits.

  • John April 10, 2018, 7:30 pm

    The happiness bump also works in reverse for those who are stretched thin by a materialistic lifestyle. I used to have a big fancy house, a BMW, and many other luxuries. When I decided I wanted to pursue financial independence at a young age, one of the first things I did was downgrade to a cheaper house. For a short time we missed our fancy house, which would be the opposite of the happiness bump in the graph. But just like with the shortlived happiness bump of a purchase, we soon returned to our previous level of happiness. We adapted and the cheaper house became normal to us. Similar occurrence when I got a cheaper car. So anyone who fears downgrading material items in the name of FI should rest easy. You will adapt!

    • Krista April 12, 2018, 1:26 pm

      I really like this! I didn’t think of it but it’s so true. Plus, you start to appreciate the things you used to take for granted. I used to eat out ALL THE TIME, and since starting this journey I have been cooking at home. If we ever do go out, it is a treat! I really appreciate it. And, as this blog says, if you add in the mindset of “learning’ in the process of downgrading it becomes easier to handle

  • wendy April 10, 2018, 9:43 pm

    I don’t regret spending on travel experiences, museums, national parks, etc…. it can suddenly reorient your view of the world and permanently change how you think. Learning is a never ending challenge and joy.

    I love spending my time on people that are important to me, including helping someone learn English… it’s usually the best part of my week.

    I regret many of the THINGS I have bought over the years on a whim, or because I thought that’s what you were ‘supposed’ to do when you grow up… Much of it fits the bill of immediate hedonic hits and nothing afterwards.
    However, two years ago I made a major (for me) purchase by buying high quality linen/cotton blend sheets and I appreciate those suckers EVERY NIGHT. I’ve also spent money on merino wool clothes that make me happy every time I wear and travel with them.

    In November, after getting tacit approval from a certain blogger in October, I joined a gym & hired a personal trainer to get me over my 20+ year procrastination about being more physically active. As someone with a lot of intellectual but sedentary hobbies, I designed a system that’s much harder for me to avoid… now I have a habit that feels good, is good for me, is interesting, and is improving my quality of life. After five months of build, I don’t regret this spend one bit.

  • Emma April 11, 2018, 2:43 am

    Regret – spending 20k+ on an around-the-world trip with a toddler in the ‘fiercely independent’ stage. We knew it’d be hard (as we did it with his older brother at the same age but there was 2 adults to one kid then) but not as hard as it was. Life lesson – wait until they are 4. Everything is easier at 4. We still had some good times but faaark we were so happy to get home.

    Lasting happiness – upgrading to a 2000 Toyota Corolla with actual working windows from a 1992 Diahatsu with no windows, no heater and noisy af brakes. To most people I talk to, it seems an 18-year-old car is not an upgrade, but to me, it’s like winning the lottery. Every time the sun shines, my window is down and elbow is propped. Every time I’m grinning like a Cheshire cat. $4000 well spent.

  • The Rhino April 11, 2018, 6:25 am

    Have you ever made a mason’s mitre joint using a jig and a router?

    I think that would be very satisfying if you made a good job of it..

    Funnily enough I need to do exactly that for a kitchen windowsill – I have the router but no jig currently

  • Paul W April 11, 2018, 7:08 am

    Life upgrades: Duolingo. Starting from nothing, I know 100-200 Chinese characters after 30 days. I can almost feel my brain growing; a real confidence booster. It’s also nice to brush up on my Spanish which has dulled from its sharpest point ~15 years ago. Paid for the ad-free service because I don’t want to spend my life looking at ads.

    Google Pixel with Project Fi: Great camera quality, free unlimited Photos storage, makes sharing photos with friends and family hassle-free. Project Fi has a simple price plan, simple to add lines, and you can cancel whenever (though I’m not planning on it anytime soon).

    Backbuddy: Pretty sure Tim Ferriss brainwashed me into buying this. That doesn’t mean it isn’t great to set aside time just to release some fascia, though. Feels great and it’s like $30, even made is USA, I think.

    • Paul W April 11, 2018, 7:14 am

      Also my honeymoon to Scotland (5 short years ago!)

  • Flo Schlueter April 11, 2018, 9:09 am

    Great Article, thank you MMM. I have plenty time, but actually I have a hard time finding “ugrade fun projects” that make me happy. I wish it was carpentry like in your case, but since the materials and the tools are quite expensive and I am not used to doing DIY stuff, I do not want to spend the money on it. Currently I am thinking about turning our attic into a new bedroom, but i just don’t do it because a) i haven’t done it before and b) i don’t really need more space so why bother and why spend the money. Same with a basketball court for the kids in the garden. Would be a great thing, they play nicely in the garden without it.
    I really have a hard time deciding what updates to do and which not. I usually don’t do them and rather keep the money.
    How do you decide what is worth spending money on? I usually opt for taking a bike-ride and not spend money.

  • David April 11, 2018, 10:46 am

    This is a bit off topic, but where did you learn all the skills needed to basically build your house from scratch ? From what I’ve read, you have a software engineer background, so where did you learn all of this ? Don’t you have any norm that you have to follow to be able to live in your house, like needing a professional electrician (or at least a diploma) for the electricity or something ?
    This is really neat stuff and I’d like to do the same kind of things one day. But they don’t teach carpentry in computer science class…

  • Kevin April 11, 2018, 11:03 am

    hahaha, i have one that should appeal to the younger generation – Pokemon cards!

    yeesh, there was so much social currency attached to them back in the day, and i spent a considerable amount, even in adult terms, of allowance money on those dumb things. now i dont even know where mine are. probably gathering mold and dust in my parent’s basement. no happiness added. but boy o boy, the anticipation of buying a new pack, or getting a new card to show off to your friends. irresistible for young minds.

    it’s a good lesson, cause i think kids are particularly susceptible to marketing and peer pressure, and parents are wired to give them what they want.

  • Jack April 11, 2018, 11:25 am

    Best upgrade I made was relocating apartments and neighborhoods. I was in a perfect mustachian find in a poorer neighborhood in New York. 1 bedroom, $1500/month, walking distance to work. January of last year an opportunity came up to rent the top floor apartment in a building occupied by two close friends, but it came at a price, nearly $500/month EXTRA rent.

    I originally balked at the financial pain. Technically it was in my budget, but at the cost of substantial reduction in my savings. However, since I knew the cheaper apartment wasn’t a fit for me, I decided to take the plunge. After all, it was only a year lease if it didn’t work out.

    I haven’t looked back since. I have more natural lighting which has been great for my mental health (and has reduced by electricity costs by around $10/month). The extra windows and benefit of being closer to the river means remarkably cooler temps than the sweatbox apartment in a taller area. I usually don’t need the AC until the temperature far exceeds 80 degrees thanks to the cross breezes. In the other apartment the stagnant air of the neighborhood and lack of good ventilation meant my summer electric bill would often be around $120/month. Now it’s usually around $80/month. My gas bill is covered by rent (another $20/month savings), and I split internet with my dear friends (saving $50/month from having a separate plan). I am further from work, but have more public transit options, and am closer to CitiBike docking stations (saving roughly $30/month averaged over the year).

    So net net the move was only $350/month extra. Still a lot, but I get:

    1. living with two very close friends and having that comraderie lift my spirits on crappy days.
    2. an overall better neighborhood for a 29 year old (younger, hipper, prettier, singler as opposed to the older, more established families of the other neighborhood)
    3. a quieter bedroom facing the small private garden (as opposed to the old place where my bedroom was over the noisy street) I’m better rested at the start of every day.
    4. access to a large park less than 5 minutes by bike that has a running track, and bodyweight exercise stations (pullup bars, dip bars, situp benches) as well as a free skate park, and a HUGE public pool with dedicated swimming lanes/times in the summer.
    5. closer to subways/buses that other friends live near, meaning more time with them as well.
    6. a landlord with whom I’ve developed a trusting relationship, as opposed to renting with a huge impersonal company

    I don’t miss the extra $350/month, which has more than been made up by bonuses at work thanks to increased performance due to all the other factors anyway. I’m still saving around a third of my income, and thanks to the money saved up over the 4 years at the efficiency place, I’ve got another healthy chunk of cash automatically reinvesting and growing already (dividends, interest, and cap gains were another 15% of my total income last year). Eventually I’ll be looking to downshift to up my savings even more (preferably after adding a mustachian wife to the picture) but for now, I’m enjoying minding my tens in my twenties while also having all the trappings of a fast lane NYC lifestyle. ;)

  • Jen April 11, 2018, 11:43 am

    Yes! We renovated our 1960s kitchen back in 2014, without gaining much storage or counter space in the process. Since then, I long entertained the idea to add additional cabinets on the one remaining empty wall in our eat-in kitchen, but kept trying to shake the idea that this would really improve our lives, especially when it comes to acquiring something for the main purpose of storing more STUFF. But reality is, we are a family of 4 in a 1000 sq ft house, and if being able to live comfortably in this house means spending a couple thousand on more cabinets (or on better, more accommodating furnishings, etc.) and not feeling the need to “move up” in house (which would cost easily $100K more in our market), then so be it.

    So, in line with MMM’s recommendations above, I waited a couple of YEARS and finally got the cabinets installed last summer. (My husband even bartered with our highly skilled carpenter neighbor to install them in exchange for some Microsoft Word formatting he needed done.) THEN it took me another few months to get a proper countertop, so yeah I can relate to that too. And, holy shit, these cabinets have lived up to ALL of my expectations that they would improve my life.

    This was my lesson that, while it is important to be intentional about spending, I should go with my gut more often. It’s easy to let “Mustachianism” get in your head and think certain material improvements are more facepunch-worthy than they really are; this post does a good job of articulating how to find that balance.

  • Florida Mike April 11, 2018, 11:51 am

    I built my own home as well back in 2000 (took 2.5 years as I did it all) so I agree on the feeling of satisfaction. I guess the item often overlooked is the lack of debt I have in doing so. I just take that for granted.

    I mention this as MMM’s comment about not being much happier now than he was in 2011 struck me. Could it be we overlook the things we have achieved and do not recognize the happiness any longer? By that I mean MMM is now FI and maybe that too gets overlooked (and not just by him but by many who are) in the same fashion that folks look at me and say “Wow, you built your own home and have no mortgage!” Yet I just take it for granted? We have always been happy yet those milestones along the way helped make it so.

    All the while I am looking at all of you who are FI and thinking “Wow, I wish I was you!” Would I be happier if I didn’t have to go to work each day? YOU BETCHYA!!! :)

    Maybe its all just human nature…

  • Ryan April 11, 2018, 12:07 pm

    The upgrade that I’ve made that still provides me with lasting happiness is a nice bamboo cutting board that I got for my wife and I to use. Still gives me a warm and fuzzy feeling whenever I pull it out to chop stuff up! Also the whole part of preparing your own food probably plays into the feeling.

  • TVRodriguez April 11, 2018, 12:19 pm

    “And finally, keep a list of your top life priorities on your fridge door, or your work computer monitor, or somewhere else that you see it many times per day. Stuff like better friendships, better parenting, health, financial independence, happiness, personal growth. Looking at this list before you decide to do anything”

    This caught my eye, as I am currently trying to figure out what is next on my life list. I really like the idea of keeping it front and center on the fridge or computer.

  • SoberFinance April 11, 2018, 12:37 pm

    Unless there is a significant increase in income, switching to a job with much more variable hours has been one of my regrets. Control over one’s time is usually taken for granted until you get that call at 10 PM and you have to switch on the ‘ol computer and start updating project materials.

  • EJ April 11, 2018, 12:46 pm

    Best thing: $20 Pizza delivery bag. By far the most net happiness per dollar spent on a thing. I have gotten at least $300 dollars of happiness out of it in the last 11 years.
    1) It was a gift that DH actually liked. A lot of initial joy was had because I actually thought of a gift that he really wanted and didn’t know he wanted.
    2) Since buying pizza is a sporadic event, I still get a lot of “Better Than” glee every time I get a pizza. Seriously, I look at all the suckers driving their hot pizza home with no insulation and I smile. Those poor fools are missing out on the true joy of really hot pizza and they don’t even know it. I know this is generally the worst kind of happiness for a mustacian (e.g. my neighbor just bought a new Lexus so I must buy a new Jaguar) but much like hacking hedonic adaptation this motivation can be hacked to encourage good choices.
    3) I get the joy of really hot pizza. I haven’t done a scientific study, but it makes an impact on the first slice and even more on the second.

    Do yourself a favor, if you get takeout pizza more than 4 times a year, buy a pizza bag.

    Worst thing: Engagement Ring. Don’t get me wrong: I love it. I love him and the love it represents. It is shiny. It is beautiful. People still compliment it often. But it was one of our last big purchases before the discovery of ERE and it is a reminder of less financially sound decisions. I look down and think it could have been 3x more money if invested in the stock market. Instead I could sell you for maybe 80% of what I paid. And I either have to worry about it being lost or stolen or insure it for almost 1% of its value every year. At the end of the day, it still makes me happy, but happiness per dollar is low.

    Do yourself a favor, get a CZ and some engagement VTSAX.

    • Chuck 2na April 11, 2018, 1:23 pm

      LOVE THIS: “Do yourself a favor, get a CZ and some engagement VTSAX.”
      I think there’s a new marketing scheme here for Vanguard (and others): A bridal registry at your favorite discount brokerage!
      I would follow it up with: Do yourself another favor, skip the wedding and get yourself some marriage VTSAX! (that’s what we did)

    • Laurie April 11, 2018, 1:32 pm

      Funny you should mention engagement rings/happiness. My enormous cubic zirconia brings me SO MUCH happiness (and my husband, too!) for the low, low price of $35. A regular old diamond would have made me very unhappy.
      I love sticking it to DeBeers every time I see it sparkle. :)

    • Jennifer A. April 11, 2018, 9:06 pm

      True story: My now-husband-of-almost-12-years got me a modest engagement ring. He then got me an “engagement Roth IRA” (two years of maximum annual contribution). I love the ring and don’t worry about keeping it in a safe or losing it. I love the Roth IRA and it has increased very nicely in value over the years.

      Highly recommend trying to convince your future spouse that she wants the bulk of her engagement gift in the form of a mutual fund investment account in her name!

  • Conner April 11, 2018, 12:49 pm

    The roll of toilet paper reminds me of something that my parents still do. They were born before WWII and saving resources during the war was a necessity. Today, they still squeeze the new roll of toilet paper into an oval before putting it onto the toilet paper holder. The oval shape keeps the paper from spinning out 10 feeeeeeeeet of paper at one pull, which is nice reminder when grand-kids and guests come over for a visit.

  • Eddie April 11, 2018, 12:53 pm

    This is great (as always)!

    My girlfriend and I are remodeling a 32 year old duplex that has been neglected over time. With a lot of the interior work finished, my attention has finally turned to the yard, which has been ill maintained for probably decades-there are piles of leaves that are a foot deep in places, and overgrown trees/shrubs etc all over the place. My city (Austin, TX) recently started a composting program, and every week I fill up our 64 gal. can with a backlog of leaves, small branches and other compostable debris from the yard and take it to the curb on Friday, where it is emptied so that the process can begin again.

    I get a little bump every week from seeing the slow but steady accumulation of progress, and since I’m limited to 64 gal. at a time I never feel overwhelmed or overworked-once the can is full I’m done until the following week. It’s deeply satisfying-I’ve been at it for a few months now and at this point I’ve uncovered areas that haven’t seen the sun in years and begun laying the groundwork for larger scale landscaping improvements in the future.

  • Tom April 11, 2018, 12:56 pm

    I’d respectfully disagree on the car upgrade when it comes to a Tesla. We bought a Model X 2 years ago and it continues to delight most times we drive it. Its just so much nicer than a gas car, the acceleration never gets old, over the air updates improve it over time, autopilot on the freeway is great during commutes and road trips, the safety factor for our small children (and falcon doors for car set ease), and every time you drive you see gas cars polluting the air which is a constant reminder that we aren’t.

    Along that note, we added solar panels last year, and that gives you a monthly reminder of your clean energy use with a super small electric bill!

  • Xan Ricketts April 11, 2018, 1:00 pm

    Hello fellow MMM followers! Some of the worst buying decisions have been:
    Speakers (because I always want something bigger and louder)
    Candy or desserts (because they last a few moments, then disappear, taking away my false happiness)
    Cheap watches (they look good, but break instantly, making me mad and frustrated)
    Now, some of the best purchases have been:
    A head lamp for night hiking (it lasts a while, is needed in order to safely hike, and I didn’t have one before)
    A $99 bike from Wal-Mart (never had one before, and I use it to ride to work almost every day)
    Camping gear (nature brings me happiness and this allows me to fully appreciate nature every time I go camping)


    -Xan Ricketts

  • Ralf April 11, 2018, 1:06 pm

    Funny that you mentioned a wood stove..

    My latest life upgrade, which will also save me a ton of money due to ricing electricity costs is a new wood stove. Yeah, heating with electricity running heat pumps is very common here due to a historic abundancy of hydro electricity. But more and more export cables are built and prices will go only one way.

    Contemplated this for several years, before pulling the trigger. Stove arrived before easter and I installed it myself of course.

    470kg of clean burning extra air injected soapstone with internal channels to absorb maximum of the heat of the firewood before going into the atmosphere. Those 470kg and 2 meters heats the living areas for 8-10 hours with just one load of wood into the firebox. Burn one load in the morning, one after work and one before going to bed, and I will enjoy 24/7 radiant heat. Stove never heats enough to burn the kid, and dont get hot enough to burn dust. I love it even if I now have had it running for some weeks.

    Cutting my own firewood is a joy. All the money the utility company will never see from me is even more joyful.

    Here is the investment in case you are interested: http://www.norskkleber.no/en/products/stove/octo-50-6seksjoner

    (And dont forget that your enjoyment of work also can be viewed from a stoic point of view)

    • Chuck 2na April 11, 2018, 1:24 pm

      dead link to the stove.

    • DebtFreeLife April 13, 2018, 12:07 pm

      “they warmed me twice, once while I was splitting them, and again when they were on the fire”

      from Walden, Henry David Thoreau

  • HenryDavid April 11, 2018, 1:06 pm

    For clothing–which can be a pleasure but will instantly destroy your wealth if you get it retail–a good hedonic adaptation hack is the slooow, patient wait for the good stuff to arrive at the thrift store, in exactly your size, for the price of someone else’s coffee and bagel run. You get the anticipation, the fun of the hunt . . . maybe for a year or more between good finds . . . and then, when you’re wearing your Paul Smith blazer that normally costs the price of a really good bike, you think: hey, if something happened to this jacket, that would be not great, but not the ruin of a super-expensive jacket either. Way more relaxing.
    And then people go “nice jacket.” And you go “thanks.” And you get more secret fun, because you know the real story. Fun times all round.

  • laneyreamrod April 11, 2018, 1:31 pm

    Since reading this blog I’ve learned to be more intune with what I’ve already got so practicing gratitude allows me to be happy about the things I have over and over.

    I have a long commute (I know I know) and unlike lots of readers can’t work from home. After college family scared me into leasing ::facepalm:: an AWD crossover to ensure my safety. I did and thankfully with a yr left on the lease I found MMM and made better decisions when my contract was up. Did I mention it was a second car ::facepalm:: that’s my negative, I always beat myself up for that mistake. Now my positive–> so now I continue to drive my very reliable front wheel drive college car I affectionately call “the roller skate” and got a great thrill of happiness with every snowstorm and safe journey I make with my great snow tires that were about as much as a car payment but a one time deal. People laugh at me – you still drive that little death trap? Yes I do, and it’s amazing. And gets 35mpg and is paid off.

  • Moshen April 11, 2018, 1:33 pm

    I must be fundamentally different from Mr. Mustache and the others who’ve commented here, as “upgrades” disrupt my life and I am much happier without them.

    I love where I live and often walk around feeling blessed that I have so much quiet and solitude. I don’t want it improved or changed at all. Ditto usually for haircuts, home “improvements” and especially tech gadgets or software upgrades.

    Maybe another antidote to hedonic adaptation is to learn to be intensely grateful for what you have (if it does suit you). I could live years like that – honestly.

    Another benefit is that you can notice more about what you have when you have it every day, with this attitude of gratitude. For example, when I swim in the ocean every day, I notice how different it actually is from one day to the next. It’s a self-reinforcing circle: When it doesn’t change, you see and feel that it really does change in subtle ways, and you appreciate it all the more.

    • Mr. Money Mustache April 13, 2018, 3:32 pm

      YES! Thank you Moshen – your perspective is the next level above what I have suggested in this article. Really, it is possible to increase your joy with whatever your current situation is. But, from a practical perspective I do want the readers of this blog to keep striving and inventing stuff and advancing society. Instead of being content with living a fossil-fuel world, for example, be content with working to change it ;-)

    • Ann April 15, 2018, 7:13 am

      I get a rush of amazed gratitude by giving things away, not because of altruism but because it
      shows me how much stuff I still have, reducing the desire for more. It also gives me more space. I also put things liked framed photos and ornaments like away in drawers and cupboards, then bring them out when I want a change. This satisfies the needs for novelty and creativity.

  • Val April 11, 2018, 1:39 pm

    I like this!

    The key to happiness (and sustaining happiness) for me is cultivating gratitude. I can get as much pleasure out of a beautiful day as material reward. I mean, I think part of this is temperament and personality-based, but that’s one reason I enjoy your blog, because you seem to be similar.

    We all like to have nice surroundings and treats, but using consumerism for a “fix” can be really expensive and blinds you to other everyday things that are happy-inducing. Having free time is the ultimate luxury!

  • Justin Abbott April 11, 2018, 2:13 pm

    My happiness level gets bumped every time I plant something that will provide years of returns in the form of fruit. Currant bushes, raspberry bushes, fruit trees, etc. Every time something goes into the ground, it’s like a small investment in the future. Permaculture is pretty great.

  • classical_liberal April 11, 2018, 2:27 pm

    Two great “back to basics” articles in a row. Happy reader here! I particularly like the concepts of anticipation increasing the reward and modifying how one satisfies a perceived need. The former I’ve successfully integrated into my life years ago with resounding success, the latter is something I’m striving towards now. Actually, I ‘ve found anticipation is often more happiness producing than the actual events, particularly if its something that is shared with others. A simple example for the second; going out to grab a quick meal fills your belly, but cooking a healthier meal with friends or family does the same and satisfies so much more with similar effort.

  • Boswell April 11, 2018, 2:28 pm

    MMM I’m right with you on the earning a beer, we don’t keep booze in the house it has to be earned by walking several kilometres to the supermarket

  • Mary April 11, 2018, 3:25 pm

    We recently adopted a sibling group of 4 small children, bringing our child count to seven. (Don’t worry, we were not going for frugality in having seven children!) Once we took those children, sitting down for even 10 minutes became the most amazing luxury imaginable, and having a cup of coffee or a nap was like a two week vacation. Our happiness bump continues 2.5 years after we took them, as we daily are able to make them happy. The things we do without seem very unimportant now. So I guess that’s a pretty good hack. I see on the clock that I’ve been sitting down for exactly 22 minutes to take a short break from caring for and teaching all of these children, and it felt amazing. The hack is going strong!

  • Stefan April 11, 2018, 3:48 pm

    An upgrade that brought continuous happiness to my life: Purchasing a Bike Friday Folding bike. Whenever / wherever I travel now including for work including on a plane, train, or bus I take my bike with me and bike wherever I go.

    Travel has also brought continuous happiness including cycling across India on my folding bike. I have great memories, stories, and feel enriched.

    And then there is a downgrade that has brought continuous happiness: Getting rid of my car 2.5 years ago. I bike everywhere now including through the freezing Michigan winter to work in the morning. My blood pressure is amazing, I haven’t gotten a single cold this winter (not over yet here in the Upper Midwest, so knock on wood), and I continue to feel liberated.

  • Katie April 11, 2018, 4:33 pm

    I’ve heard from people LSD has this affect- that you appreciate everything around you. Maybe I am just simple minded, or maybe having a chronic illness that almost killed me in my 20’s, but I have never had a problem appreciating the vast amazingness around me. Hell, I thanked God (or the powers that be, whatever you prefer) that I get to experience life this morning! i saw a bird’s nest in a tree and thought it was cool, and a snake’s nest in the woods – baby snakes! how fascinating!
    It really is all about your attitude. You can be annoyed that you only have 1 sink in your bathroom (oh, the indignity!!) or be willing to appreciate that your grandparents (great, or great-great, depending on your age) would have flipped their lids to have indoor plumbing! I always remember my great grandparents in NYC, who had to share a bathroom with their whole apartment floor! One for the whole floor! and I get my own private toilet- how fortunate i am.
    Now that I sound like a total crackpot, I will end my rant.

    • Linda April 11, 2018, 8:14 pm

      I agree! I try to appreciate the little things every day. When I’m in the shower I think “ahhh. I can adjust the temperature any time I want!”
      And running water. If you’ve ever had to haul water, this is such a luxury.

      And flush toilets? Yaaaaaay!

    • kruidigmeisje April 13, 2018, 6:26 am

      I am from NL, where 1 bathroom is standard for a(ny) house. Inside the house, I will admit.
      So help me out: why would one want more than 1 bathroom in the house? Perhaps it is because I really hate cleaning, but I do not understand why a family (usually 2,1 kids) would want multiple bathrooms. If the 6th kid or so arrives, I kinda get the point of it, somewhat.

  • Mike April 11, 2018, 4:55 pm

    Going to Hawaii at Spring Break? Meh.

    Reducing daily commute time by two-thirds by moving closer to work? Best thing we’ve done in a decade.

  • Bronnie April 11, 2018, 5:13 pm

    Long time reader, long time fan :-)

    We always take a VERY long time to decide on purchases – especially if they are larger in nature. For example we needed to upgrade our fridge as the one we had was small and not working properly. We researched purchasing a fridge for nearly a year.

    We checked out brands, pro’s and cons of fancy add on’s (like included sodastream), the finish durability and the warranty. When we finally made the decision to purchase we were so happy with the fridge – and still now when I fill up a glass from the water dispenser it makes me happy! Cold, fresh and filtered – delightful. No regret on this purchase at all and still bringing happiness.

    Our next purchase which we have been working on for going on two years now is a wood fire – not really a big necessity here in the Gold Coast Australia however we know the joy it will bring, the heating and the entertainment during winter. I am currently collecting wood and pine cones at the dog park for fuel which I find fun! Think we will have it in by the beginning of winter. (we are also going to make our on hearth to save money).

  • Lady Dividend April 11, 2018, 5:21 pm

    Golden! I love the idea of having little bumps in happiness rather than making a big purchase.

    The happiness you derive from doing something really contrasts the happiness from buying something. When you buy a lot of the happiness is in anticipation- of using the product, how cool you’ll look wearing it, etc.

    When I do something I enjoy the happiness flows throughout. Like playing a challenging chess game or playing an instrument I enjoy. My emotions are less erratic when I’m getting my joy from doing something.

  • Torrey April 11, 2018, 5:34 pm

    I found great happiness after buying a $50 countertop water filter. On-demand clean drinking water is life changing!

  • MsNakayoshi April 11, 2018, 5:41 pm

    I have a question for you, dear Mr Money Mustache. You didn’t include family as one of your buttons in the slide. Do you cover family under friends or community?
    I enjoy your blog immensly. Warm wishes!

  • Felipe Carvalho April 11, 2018, 6:21 pm

    Hey MMM!
    I believe its the first time I’ll chime in some ideas.
    Last year I took some gardening classes and startet taking this as a hobby to improve my home. And it has been just wonderful. Best “delayed improvements-reward system ever”. Let me list some pros in order to bring some more people to this awesome life:
    – You can get fit by growing gardens. Nice, smooth exercise.
    – You can even eventually try it as a second job or a better job than your current job (one of my goals, actually).
    – You’ll get satisfaction right during and after the job (implementing a garden or even maybe just putting your plants in new bigger vases), but also after days latter (when new buds start popping), and probably your garden will continue to amaze you from time to time (when a plant reaches a goal high, or when good animals start appearing, or when flowers come, etc etc, you get the picture).
    – Its also mental satisfaction since you must study it and keep your knowledge growing like your plants.
    – Its a really cheap hobby to get in to. You won’t be spending much, or won’t need to, unless you really want lots of mega big vases in one go.


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