Thursday 28 Sep 2023
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This article first appeared in Wealth, The Edge Malaysia Weekly on October 31, 2022 - November 6, 2022

There is a witty Malay proverb that says, “Besar periuk, besarlah keraknya” (“the bigger the pot, the bigger the crust underneath”), which means that someone who earns more will inevitably also spend more.

It is deceptively simple, but it delivers a stunning truth bomb about the nature of financial psychology. After all, it is natural to want more and crave bigger and “better” things as our income rises. 

We tell ourselves that we deserve it because we work hard and should enjoy the fruits of our labour. But lifestyle creep or lifestyle inflation is real. Before you know it, that occasional macchiato splurge is now a daily necessity for you to function and your online subscriptions become two pages long. 

By the end of the month, you either see your savings remaining stagnant or, worse, depleted, despite having a higher income. Where did it all go, you wonder?

Lifestyle creep is one of those aptly named financial phenomena. It is insidious and sneaks up on you unknowingly like that second Covid infection.

Unfortunately, most of us, especially millennials and the Gen Z who grew up as tech natives, have a weak immunity against such a wealth malady. An insatiable appetite for immediate gratification certainly does not help either. 

Bombarded by a sumptuous potpourri of glitz and glam, we are constantly being served a digital diet of lavish posts and epic stories in our social media feed. It is usually posted by people with pixel-perfect skin whom we may not even know telling us how great their life is. 

Whether it is vacaying in a private beach resort, flaunting new designer swag or posing next to a private jet with a snappy caption like “Catching flights, not feelings xoxo”, we have been conditioned to believe that this is the dream lifestyle you should relish and aspire to.

But whose and what lifestyle are we even comparing ourselves with? Are they even real? 

It’s all for the Gram

A video caught my eye recently on FinTwit purportedly showing the dazzling and carefree life of a day trader in Malaysia.

He wakes up in a spacious penthouse and works out for an hour in a well-equipped home gym. He proceeds to have a continental breakfast, catches up on the news and then boots up his Bloomberg terminal at his ergonomic work desk.

But, of course, every trader worth his salt knows how to throw a party. By dusk, he rides off into the hottest spot in town in his plush sports car and basks in the warm glow of his success as well as the company of his other glamorous friends. 

The video ends with a message to viewers that you can have his life too if you sign up for a short online course and learn how to trade.

Except it is all, of course, a façade. Leave it to netizens in Malaysia to investigate and subsequently discover that the car plate belongs to a luxury car rental company that owns a fleet of high-end vehicles. Photos of that same sports car was spotted belonging to different “owners” in the past.

This happens more often than we think, with many influencers faking wealth to grab your attention through luxury rentals and even editing themselves onto scenic spots around the world. Their closets are stacked with designer shopping boxes, but they are all empty of contents. 

An influencer was even exposed for taking a selfie in the interior of a fake private jet that, in reality, was just a well-staged photo studio.

Many of these are extreme examples of faking it till you make it. A more mercenary approach would be to get generous corporate sponsors to help fund their expensive lifestyle in exchange for branding clout.

Breaking the cycle of comparisons

In an age of materialism and hyper-consumption, where excess is celebrated and you need to flex your wealth and achievements to be even deemed worthy of attention, it can be nigh impossible to keep up.

Life is hard enough as it is without constantly comparing ourselves with our family, friends and things we see on social media (some of which are not even real).

So, before you get a case of FOMO and feel let down by yourself, remember to take a moment and also take it all in.

If the last two years of being cooped up during the pandemic has taught us anything, it is to treasure those simple yet precious moments that we take for granted.

Though, of course, being content with your current station in life is more than just a state of mind. There are completely valid economic reasons to want to upgrade our present financial and living conditions.

That is why it is necessary to set long-term goals and, even more importantly, not constantly shift them. Stick to the plan and prioritise the things that are important to you and not what some random billboard or stranger tells you online.

By being financially true to yourself, you can align your monetary intentions with your values to truly self-actualise and be successful on your own terms.

It is a noisy world, where we are constantly being told to emulate or be someone else to live apparently richer lives. However, the simple act of just being your authentic self (both financially and personally) can be a liberating act of defiance and individuality in the face of crushing conformism. 

Lee Sheung Un is an assistant manager of content and communication at Affin Hwang Asset Management. He previously worked as a producer for a business radio station. As a millennial, he is still finding the balance between wealth, purpose and passion. The views expressed are his own.

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