consumerism lifestyle

Introducing the fulfilment curve

This week I’m drawing together the graphs and diagrams that will be in my forthcoming book, and it occurred to me that I’ve not written about the fulfilment curve on the blog. So let me remedy that, as it’s a useful little concept.

In their bestselling book Your Money or Your Life, Vicki Robin and Joe Dominguez suggest that the benefits of spending can be plotted on a curve.

Our basic needs don’t need a huge amount of money to satisfy. When it comes to basic survival, we get a lot of ‘bang for our buck’, so to speak. But who wants to make do with just scraping by?

We earn and spend a bit more, and it’s very fulfilling to move from the basics to a place of comfort and security. From there, we can spend some more and create an even better life for ourselves, a life of luxury. But only up to a point.

Robin and Dominguez argue that eventually there is a moment of peak fulfilment and beyond it, further spending has no effect on our satisfaction. It’s excess, and is essentially wasted. In fact, it may even lower our sense of fulfilment.

Take food, for example. It doesn’t take much money to move to the survival point, and there’s a huge jump in quality of life when we stop going hungry. But nobody wants to eat rice and beans every day for the rest of their lives. We aspire to more variety, and a little more spending will get to that point of comfort. Then we might start thinking about dessert. Or meat, convenience foods, alcohol, or takeaways – and all of those luxuries make a difference to our quality of life, though with diminishing returns for the amount they cost. There’s a peak in our satisfaction, and then more spending on food will actually be detrimental. Moving beyond luxury and into excess, the costs begin to mount up in food waste, obesity, and heart disease.

The fulfilment curve is a very general pattern. It will vary from person to person and across categories of spending. You can apply it to individuals or to societies, and in our book we use it as part of our argument that economic development leads to a point of peak fulfilment. We call that moment Arrival. Beyond that point, the benefits of further spending, or growth, begin to erode through climate change, inequality,  resource depletion and so on.

We navigate moments of ‘enough’ all the time, every day. Shouldn’t we talk about what a collective enough might look like too?

2 comments

  1. I’m not sure your food point is valid. In the UK poorer people who spend less on food are more likely to be obese or have heart disease. Wealthier people spend more on food but are buying more expensive artisanal food rather than simply more food or gold flecked chocolate. Or they eat out more at an ever increasing variety of restaurants. As this seems to gives people increased fulfillment the line is still curving upwards.

    And of course with all this is the question who decides what is enough for everyone else. Who says, ‘You are fulfilled enough’?

    1. Sure, but this is a general pattern that applies in each individual’s spending patterns, not a fixed definition of survival, comfort and luxury. My definition of luxury could be McDonalds.

      Nobody gets to say where enough lies for anyone else. Neither do they get to say that there is no such thing as enough.

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