Decorative illustration of diminishing returns

Diminishing Returns in Personal Finance

Some people are never able to satisfy their need for more money and will sacrifice everything else as they continuously increase the speed of the hedonic treadmill on which they spend their days. If we are to avoid this trap, it is important to ask ourselves what is enough. But, can we ever really get enough? Of course, we can. But, to get there, we need to liberate ourselves from the shackles of consumption, and the mindset that happiness is a function of how much money you spend.

Learning From Those Who Came Before Us

You don’t have to take my word for it, however. Instead, let us look at what those who already allocated the precious little time we get on this planet, and learn from their professed mistakes. Palliative nurse Bronnie Ware chronicled the most common regrets of dying people and recounted the top five regrets in this article by The Guardian. Do you think not working enough appears on the list?

It doesn’t. In fact, the second most common regret among the dying people Ware encountered, was “I wish I hadn’t worked so hard.” Every single male patient Ware met, that was close to death, had this regret. Here’s what she had to say regarding that particular regret:

This came from every male patient that I nursed. They missed their children’s youth and their partner’s companionship. Women also spoke of this regret, but as most were from an older generation, many of the female patients had not been breadwinners. All of the men I nursed deeply regretted spending so much of their lives on the treadmill of a work existence.

In fact, we can interpret all five most common regrets as people wishing they had been more conscious about what truly impacted their lives in a positive direction, and less time living up to the expectations of a consumer-centric society. I previously shared some thoughts on why more money in exchange for less time is a losing proposition for me. Although the inflexion point may differ from person to person, I believe this is phenomenon holds true for everyone, and that we can use a concept from economic theory to explain it.

The Law of Diminishing Returns

A fundamental concept in economic theory, the law of diminishing returns, relates to production processes and states that at some point the marginal increase in output will go down if we keep adding more of one production factor while maintaining all others constant. In other words, let’s say you produce small trinkets and sell them on Etsy for a living. Put simply, your one and only factor of production are the hours of labour you put in. Starting out, you improve your precision and efficiency as you put in more hours, and you can produce more and more trinkets per hour you work. Your marginal output is increasing.

Poorly drawn chart illustrating decreasing marginal output.
Marginal output, represented on the Y-axis, decreases as you apply more of a single production factor, here labour, represented on the X-axis, while keeping all others constant.

Eventually, you reach your maximum efficiency, and you are not able to improve the effectiveness with which you produce your trinkets any further. Conversely, you instead find that by adding more working hours, you produce fewer gadgets per extra hour worked because you become tired, and make more frequent mistakes. You may want to object and say that you can circumvent the law of diminishing returns by adding another pair of hands to your operation, and scale it up while at the same time avoiding the problems of fatigue. And, sure, you could, but how much space do you have? At some point, the “factory space” in the back of your garage will get cramped, and your subordinates will get in the way of each other, and marginal output will decrease. The law of diminishing returns will impose itself on your operation, sooner or later.

Does The Law of Diminishing Returns Apply to Personal Finances?

It may seem arbitrary to pick a concept from economics and apply it to personal finance. However, there is research indicating what looks like the law of diminishing returns imposing itself in personal finance. Before presenting what constitutes evidence in support, let us investigate the logical argument to see if it even makes sense to ask the question.

Consider our lives an operation, with the objective of producing a particular output. It is not up to me to tell you what your output should be because every person has different goals and objectives. For some, it may be happiness or contentedness, while others target wisdom or enlightenment. One of the very few wrong answers to what your output should be is the one that so many of us spend our lives chasing: Money. Coin only has value as long as it helps us achieve what we pursue. Or, put another way, if our lives are a factory producing an output, money is not the output, but rather a factor of production. One part of the many factors we use to “produce” happiness, wisdom, or whatever it is we pursue.

Starting out with no money, acquiring just a little of it gives tremendous results. We can purchase food and shelter, and if we get enough, we can cover all our base needs. Sorting out our core needs is of course extremely beneficial to our roles as factories trying to produce contentedness because it allows us to focus on the task at hand, rather than worrying about food and shelter. Our marginal output increase with every bit of money we acquire.

As we reach the point where comfortably cover our base needs, we will quickly find that throwing extra money into the production no longer yields incredible marginal increases in output. Yes, buying more stuff is awesome, and going for a swim in your cash pile every morning, Uncle Scrooge-style is pretty awesome. But it rarely adds lasting increases in our production of whatever we have defined as our purpose because money is just a factor of production with limited marginal returns in the long run. And, in most cases, there is a double effect to this, because money often comes at the expense of another of our production factors: Time.

As mentioned, several studies have uncovered results that seem to indicate the law of diminishing returns at play in personal finance. A study from 2010 by Nobel Prize winners Angus Deaton and Daniel Kahneman, as recounted in this Business Insider article, found that “everyday contentment” starts to level off after your income surpasses $75,000 per year. Other studies have found different numbers, while Financial Samurai has made a case for $200,000 being the optimal yearly income for happiness. Regardless of the number, all of these findings point to the fact that the law of diminishing returns is at play in our personal lives as well.

The Implication of Diminishing Returns

Two paragraphs back, I casually mentioned time as another production factor of what producing what it is we want from our life. In fact, I would argue, it is the most important factor of all. Unlike money, time is the one thing of which we only get a finite supply. While nobody can tell you exactly how much you will get, the only certainty of life is that at one point your time is up.

Realising, and internalising, this is important, especially when we consider the relationship between time and money, the perhaps two most important factors of production. One often comes at the expense of the other. With this in mind, consider the inverse implication of The Law of Diminishing Returns. If adding something you already have a lot of will result in decreased marginal output, the value of something you are in short supply of will be that much higher. Said in other words: If your life is a factory producing happiness, and time and money are the two factors of production, earning more money if you are already busy will not result in more happiness.

Illustration of relationship between the marginal utility of time and money
Money and time are inversely correlated, and as you increase the amount of money, the value of each extra dollar declines, while the value of time increases.

I have tried to draw the results of the above realisation in the illustration above. (I’m sure you’re wondering why I didn’t pursue a career as a graphic illustrator at this point. The short and long of it is I find numbers more interesting!) On the horizontal axis, we have money and time at our disposal. The further to the right, the more money, and less time. The vertical axis represents the marginal value of acquiring one more unit of money or time.

As we can see, and agreed upon earlier, as you are strapped for cash, it makes sense to sacrifice time for money. The marginal utility of acquiring more money to cover your base needs is higher than that of having extra time at your disposal. However, before long, the curves intersect, and it becomes clear that past this point, it is more beneficial to your purpose to take control of your own time, rather than focus on accumulating more money. We have seen that research results support this thesis. Unfortunately, as we know, most people fail to change their mindset at this point and continue to prioritise money over time.

Where Do The Curves Intersect, or: What Amount Of Money Is Enough?

Despite the best efforts of media and academics alike, nobody but yourself can answer this question for you in any meaningful way. Some people value resources and money higher relative to time than others, and that is fine. What is important, is to maintain a conscious relation to why you prioritise as you do, and never forget that, while covering your vital needs is pivotal, time is the only truly scarce resource in the production mix of your life.

Person jumping with joy in sunset.
Focus on discovering what truly impacts your life, instead of accumulating stuff.

Define your own purpose, and from there on do your best to balance between prioritising time and money. And don’t forget that by figuring out what really affects your happiness or contentedness (it is not more stuff!), you can increase your savings rates, and put more money to work for you, giving you more freedom to allocate your time as you see fit. If you haven’t already, be sure to read The Basic Principles of Personal Finance to learn more about this.

Header photo by Rabelais.

Sign at demonstration

Seven Charts to Challenge the Popular Middle Class Money Narrative

The concentration of wealth is a societal problem that society as a whole cannot afford to ignore, and it is not getting better. It recently emerged that the eight richest persons in the world possess as much wealth as the poorest half of the world’s population. Eight men hold as much of the world’s resources as 3.6 billion people.

Unfortunately, traditional media tend to conflate this increase of wealth among the very few at the very top with the demise of the western world’s middle class. The middle class, as the consumer, and product, of traditional media, generally tend to accept such tales of their demise. Doomsday prophecies, particularly those that affect your very own readership, are simply good business.

Here, I will present seven charts based on income, savings and consumption data from the United States over the past thirty years. My hope is that these charts will make you think twice before unconditionally accepting the narrative that the richest few are stealing the wealth of the majority, the middle class. Or at the very least, show you that you have a choice in whether or not you want to give your money to those at the very top.

Americans Save Less Money Than Before

Chart displaying average saving as a percentage of income from 1984 to 2015
Data source: Bureau of Economic Analysis

The average rate of saving as a percentage of income in the United States has dropped from around 11% in 1984 to around 6% in 2015, after bottoming out at less than 3% in 2005. Surely this should be used as an argument for a grand scale deprivation of the middle class, as declining saving rates can only be a result of decreasing real wages for the general population?

Chart showing US Real Median Income from 1984 to 2015
Data source: United States Census Bureau

Average income, as measured by the median, adjusted for inflation dropped since peaking at around $58,000 in 1999. The trend has however reversed in recent years, and for the period measured, from 1984 to 2015, it has increased by around 16%. The average American is, in other words, earning more and saving less.

Servicing Loans Is Not The Problem

One reason often cited for the reduction in saving rates is the increase in housing prices, supposedly far outpacing real wage growth (it is, in some areas, but not by much for the whole country on average) resulting in higher mortgage payments that in turn reduce the average American’s ability to save.

Mortgage debt service as a percentage of average income
Data source: The Federal Reserve Board

That claim does not have a base in reality. As the chart above shows, the average mortgage debt service payments as a percentage of disposable personal income were lower in 2015 than it was in 1984. Unsurprisingly, it did peak at just above 7% in 2006, but the trend for the whole period is more or less flat.

If mortgage payments aren’t to blame for the reduced rates of saving, then surely the increase in student debt and the cost of servicing those debts are the reason? At least, that what you would believe if you drew your conclusions from looking at headlines. The actual numbers, however, tell a different story.

Consumer debt service as a percentage of household income
Data source: The Federal Reserve Board

The trend for consumer debt service payments, which includes student loans, as a percentage of disposable income, is near identical to the one we saw for mortgages. In fact, over the observed thirty year period, the rate has indeed decreased.

The Real Reason Why Americans Save Less

I promised you seven charts. From the first five, we have established that average real income has increased over the past thirty years. We have seen the decrease of average saving rates, but the cost of servicing debt does not offer an explanation. The final two charts make it abundantly clear what is the actual cause behind the average American’s reduced rates of saving is.

Personal Consumption as a Percentage of Income
Data source: Bureau of Economic Analysis

Increased personal consumption is the reason why the average American saves less money than they did 30 years back. And before you jump in with “well, of course, that is because everything is much more expensive than it was back then” remember that we saw above that the average person has more money to spend today than back then. In real terms, after inflation. Logically, the conclusion that follows is that the average American is consuming more than they did 30 years back.

Chart showing Real Median Income development vs Personal Consumption
Data source: Bureau of Economic Analysis

I want you to study the above chart carefully, and observe and take in the point it conveys. It shows two graphs we’ve seen before plotted against each other: The development of the real median wage against the ratio of consumption as a percentage of income, and the trend of these two graphs are nearly identical over the observed period.

What this means is that every increase in real income is being spent entirely on consumption, thus increasing consumption ratio. While saving some of that extra income might sound like a good idea, in principle, the data shows that the average American ends up spending it on personal consumption instead. Thus, the average rate of saving decreases.

Chart comparing Saving Rates vs Personal Consumption Rates
Data source: Bureau of Economic Analysis

Our seventh and final chart shows that the saving rate and the personal consumption rate are near perfectly inversely correlated. And, as we saw above, consumption increases with increases real wages. If the middle class is being robbed, it is of their own accord. Or rather, they are, consciously or subconsciously, willingly spending their increased purchasing power.

Are you looking for a different way? Start with reading How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Saving Money because it all begins with taking charge of your personal finances.

Header photo by Tim Pierce.