How Much is Enough? The Fulfillment Curve

In the beginning of our lives, more possessions did indeed mean more fulfillment. Basic needs were met. We were fed. We were warm. We were sheltered … We then went from bare necessities (food, clothing, shelter) to some amenities (toys, a wardrobe, a bicycle) … Eventually we slipped beyond amenities to outright luxuries – and hardly registered the change. A car, for example, is a luxury that 92 percent of the world’s population never enjoys … For many of us there was going away to college. Our first apartment. Notice that while each one was still a thrill, it cost more per thrill and the “high” wore off more quickly. But by now we believed that more money equals more fulfillment, so we barely noticed that the curve had started to level out … More money brought more worry.”

Joe Dominguez and Vicki Robin, Your Money or Your Life

Have you ever noticed that the bigger your purchases in life get, the more work, worry, and hastle you must endure as a result? Joe Dominguez and Vicki Robin in their book Your Money or Your Life describe this as the fulfillment curve.

From Your Money or Your Life; Penguin Books, 2008

The fulfillment curve shows us that the first purchases we make for necessities like food, water, and shelter increase our fulfillment at a very high rate for each dollar spent. Think about the immense satisfaction you receive when you step into your warm home when it’s cold outside or when you take a first bite of food when you’ve been very hungry.

The curve also shows us that larger purchases, perhaps a luxury car or a bigger house, can send us sliding down the wrong side of the fulfillment curve very quickly. The luxuries themselves may be wonderful, but they often come attached to a higher paying, more stressful job needed to pay for them. Also attached to these luxuries are higher maintenance hassles and insurance costs, which again tie up more of our time and money.

“I also have in mind that seemingly wealthy, but most terribly impoverished class of all, who have accumulated dross, but know not how to use it, or get rid of it, and thus have forged their own golden or silver fetters.”

Henry David Thoreau

Thoreau was talking to those of us stuck on the far side of the fulfillment curve. So called-luxuries, what he called dross or clutter, become fetters or chains locking us to our luxuries. During the initial purchase we think these extras will make us more fulfilled, but over time their weight can actually make us less free.

The most important place on the fulfillment curve is the peak, the place called Enough.

“At the peak of the Fulfillment Curve we have enough. Enough for our survival. Enough comforts. And even enough little ‘luxuries.’ We have everything we need; there’s nothing extra to weigh us down, distract or distress us, nothing we’ve bought on time, have never used and are slaving to pay off.”

Enough is sort of like a financial plateau where you can rest, breathe more easily, and start to think about what you’d really like to do with your life. But, our challenge is to discover our own peak because Enough is a different place for everybody.

Wouldn’t you say that learning your personal peak of the curve is an important task? If you are endlessly running on the treadmill of work and life, would it not help you to figure out whether you are still moving up the curve or already moving down?

If you are working a grueling job to earn a little extra money yet you are not happier for it, WHY are you doing it? Is it paying for your survival or is just buying you clutter?

I’m still working these questions out for myself. It is a liberating process. I challenge and encourage you to do the same.  Let me know what you find out!

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