Cars, the Ziploc bag and the hedonic treadmill

In much of America, a car is necessary if you want to get anywhere. And so, while I’ve seen various figures, it appears that roughly 9 in 10 American households own cars. Since they are necessary, and expensive, I imagined that transportation would consume a larger share of the budgets of lower-income families than upper-income families.

This assumption turns out to be wrong. According to this analysis at Forbes, families in the bottom 20% of the income distribution spend 14.7% of their budgets on transportation. Families in the top 20% spend 17.4%. The explanation? As you earn more, the kinds of cars (and the quantity of them) that you find acceptable changes. You start thinking, “Hey, I can afford new cars,” or “It’s really annoying to share a car with my teenager.” And next thing you know, money that could be used for other things winds up in the transportation category. Indeed, as income rises, it takes more and better cars for many of us to avoid feeling like we’re getting a bad deal.

Wikipedia defines the hedonic treadmill like this: “As a person makes more money, expectations and desires rise in tandem, which results in no permanent gain in happiness.” You see this in various categories. The rich and poor spend nearly identical percentages of their incomes on clothing. That first luxury handbag is delicious. The second? Less so.

But is the hedonic treadmill inevitable? And what does it mean for how we raise our children? This is a question I’m pondering as I work on my money book. I don’t own a car, so I’ve actually been thinking about these questions in light of a much more simple item: the Ziploc bag.

We brown-bagged it at school most days when I was growing up, which means that my family went through a lot of sandwich bags. We usually had the nameless kind that you either fold over or secure with a twist tie. I didn’t think much about it, until the summer of 2006, when new airport security measures required us to put our carry-on toiletries in Ziploc bags.

Have you ever pondered how wonderful Ziploc bags are? The plastic is nice and thick. You can see what’s in there, but the zip closure keeps everything in place — even loose items like Cheerios. Anyway, I was hooked. I started taking big handfuls from those piles they’d give away in airports for people who forgot their baggies. I would hoard and re-use them.

And then, about a year ago, it occurred to me: I could buy Ziploc bags.

The first time I pulled a package off the shelf, and paid $2 or so more for them than the generic, non-zip ones, it felt terribly decadent. This summer, we bought a whole case of hundreds from Costco. Every time I pull one out to pack our snacks for weekend outings, I get a little thrill.

But here’s the question: how long will I feel this thrill? I am guessing that, 10 years from now, I won’t be that excited about Ziploc bags anymore. You can try to step off the hedonic treadmill by reminding yourself how excited Ziploc bags one made you, and I will certainly try, but this requires battling a pretty fundamental human tendency. And here’s an even more important question: how can I make my sons feel excited by Ziploc bags? They will never have known life without them. I am not about to get rid of them just to engineer some faux deprivation. But because I am not, I change their expectations.

I am researching what people have found about these questions, and I’d love to hear from you all, too. Which items made you happy when you first got them? And how long did that happiness last? Do your children take these things for granted?  What do you do about that?

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22 Responses to Cars, the Ziploc bag and the hedonic treadmill


  1. Karen Allendoerfer says:

    I think that saving and re-using them keeps the thrill alive a bit longer. You get sort of attached to your different ziploc bags if you see them every day and they start to take on individual characteristics–that’s the one for carrots, that’s the one for the sandwich, that’s the one for the cookies. And then you feel a little sorry when they get so grungy they have to be replaced. Whereas using a fresh new one and throwing it out every day encourages the mindset of taking it for granted.

    • @Karen – now that is a brilliant idea. Better for the environment. In general, I like the idea of buying better stuff and using it longer. Of course, it’s hard to know at the moment of purchase what will last and what you will love so much you’ll use it forever. I’ve taken to joking about magazine articles on “classic clothes you’ll wear forever” because, inevitably, there is another article with new and different clothes that are destined to be classics the next year. So we’re still buying new clothes every year, we’re just pretending that we’re in it for the long haul.

  2. Bonnie says:

    I can recall the first time we had cable TV. The channel we turned to most often was the local weather radar. Any time, day or night, I could look at the radar and see the intensity of a storm and change my behavior accordingly.

    The Weather Channel was also exciting. (I don’t really see myself as obsessed with weather. Really.) I could see our local weather if I waited for a few minutes. But I think their appeal was based on a relentless drive to improve. Hurricane and tornado forecasts got better. Phone calls to local TV stations changed to video feeds, which changed to TWC hosts & cameras on location.

    With satellite I don’t get the 24/7 radar. I rarely turn on TWC, though I check their forecast online regularly. I think it lost it’s appeal for me when weather radar became ubiquitous. Every newscast, local or not, has radar. I checked it without leaving this browser window, but it’s not as exciting…unless I need it. When we’re under a tornado watch, it’s suddenly exciting again, if only for a short time.

    • @Bonnie – now there’s an example of an adaptive treadmill… it takes a tornado to get excited again! I was remembering the other day that when The Wizard of Oz came on one a year it was really exciting. Now, kids have DVDs or can TiVo what comes on the 500+ channels so they can watch whatever they want whenever.

  3. Philip Meyer says:

    Did you know that the Bureau of Labor Statistics has worked out a method for hedonic adjustment in making historical price comparisons? It’s necessary because comparing the price of a Model T Ford in 1913 to the price of 2010 Ford wouldn’t otherwise make sense. The methodology is built into the Consumer Price Index:

    http://www.bls.gov/cpi/cpihqaitem.htm

    • @Philip Meyer – that is an excellent data set… and exactly the kind of thing I am starting to hunt for. Finding the American Time Use Survey was a big breakthrough in writing 168 Hours, and I’m looking for various money data sets to make different points…

  4. Zarah says:

    Well, it’s not a “thing” exactly, but I still get a little thrill out of the fact that I get to wear jeans to work on Fridays, even after 3 years on the job. I work as in-house counsel for an airport – big change from having to “suit up” every day at the law firm I worked for before!

    • @Zarah: After 8+ years in a home office, I almost get a thrill out of putting on a suit! Talk about adaptation…

  5. Denise says:

    I am still in awe of ziploc bags. I am a re-user too. I just discovered the giant size ones with handles, that now store all my holiday decorations and toys waiting for my second son to be ready for them.

    Since we are a family that buys new cars, keeping them an average of 10 years. I was thrilled to get my 2010 mini-van. It’s been 6 months and each time I press the auto-lift-gate button I still get the thrill, and remind myself of the joy this brings me, but I too wonder when it will feel routine.

    I, too, wonder about the fact that there seems to be so little that is ‘special’ or new for our children; but mostly the lost sense of anticipation. (I remember the excitement for Wizard of Oz myself) My older son had no understanding that I had to wait 1-2 years for each Harry Potter book to come out and that the movies did not immediately follow the release of the book. It saddened me to think that he will miss out on the joy that anticipating something brings.

    As you said, Laura, it is hard to deprive them of an everyday object just to make it exciting, but I feel we’ve got to try in some areas.
    Locally we had 6 street fairs in the past 2 months. We only go to 1, so as to make the carnival rides seem like a special occasion, not something you can do all the time. I only DVR TV shows, so they don’t realize that you can watch TV 24/7. It’s a start, but I’d like to see how I can build anticipation in more areas–especially the everyday ones.

  6. Karen Allendoerfer says:

    With cars, I was excited the day I got a car with a rear window wiper. I still like the rear window wiper, it’s about the only thing I do like about driving on rainy days!

    I find that a big problem with keeping up excitement and anticipation about everyday things is dealing with other people’s cynical attitudes. For example, someone actually made fun of me for being excited about the car rear window wiper–he’d had one for years, of course. He didn’t intend to make me feel bad, but it did highlight the difference between my small, inexpensive car–like all the cars I’ve ever owned–and his, which probably cost at least 2X as much.

    Or, the first time I ate Brie cheese–I was in college–I really liked it and I thought it was exotic and kind of grown-up (it was certainly a contrast to the bright-orange, plastic-wrapped squares of “cheese” that I’d been familiar with previously). And that time it was my then-boyfriend who laughed at me. I felt small, like a little country mouse in the big city.

    I’d be curious if people have found ways to respond effectively to others if they unthinkingly make you feel bad, or like a naive country mouse, for being excited about a small, everyday thing.

    • @Karen – I’m reading a ton of personal finance literature right now (gone through 6 books in 2 weeks!) and while I feel like I should be getting hazard pay for a lot of the stuff I’m wading through, I took at least one thing away. I am now thoroughly convinced that the car one drives says very little about one’s finances. Indeed, it often says the exact opposite of what one would expect. A car’s purpose is to reliably get you somewhere. Since it is a depreciating asset, people who are focused on building wealth usually do not want to pay more than they need to for one that gets them where they are going. That is cash that could be put toward purposes that would actually produce returns. Since one cannot see most appreciating assets, there is a negative correlation between “looking rich” and “being rich.” (At least until you get into the upper stratosphere… a $20 million portfolio can easily go up or down by $200,000 in a day, which can encompass most consumer expenditures).

  7. Gwyneth says:

    Traveling to other places where all the same things you’re already used to aren’t readily available is a great way to maintain or rekindle your excitement about them.

    I always keep a cache of Ziploc bags of different sizes in my suitcase, because they have a thousand and one uses when you’re traveling, and up until quite recently, they weren’t even available in Europe, let alone the Third World. And of course I wash and re-use them at home until they spring a leak. And was excited to discover a whole new size I’d never seen before (taller and skinnier than a quart) at the farmers’ market, containing squash blossoms.

    After spending time in countries where there’s no plumbing at all and/or where it exists but doesn’t work well (again, this includes Europe!) I’m convinced America’s other great contribution to world culture besides Ziploc bags is reliable plumbing! I guess I’ve lived long enough in bad plumbing situations that the thrill of taking a shower at all–let alone one that’s as long as I want and as hot as I want with as much water as I need every day–still hasn’t worn off for me.

    Similarly, after spending time in countries where the water isn’t safe to drink and/or where they don’t have public drinking fountains (Europe again!), it’s still totally incomprehensible to me that people in America pay through the nose to buy bottled water that is often identical or inferior to tap water instead of drinking tap water that’s safe and available unlimited for free in public places or for pennies at home.

    And after trekking in the Himalayas, where it’s so cold that when you’re not actually hiking, there’s nothing else you can do but huddle inside your sleeping bag with all your clothes on to keep warm, you will never, ever hear me complain about my overheated New York apartment. Every time I come home and open the door and it feels like I’m walking into a sauna, I am so grateful for all that heat, it feels like bliss to me.

    What is it they say about new cars? As soon as you drive it off the lot, it loses half its value, right? It’s easy to see that the high turnover rate for cars in this country has more to do with status than necessity, just by comparing the age of the cars you see on the road in wealthy, urban areas like the New York suburbs to those you see in more rural, less affluent regions. Or in other countries: in formerly French parts of Africa, they’re still driving the same models of Peugeots my parents drove when I was a kid, and in Cuba they’re still driving those gigantic American cars from the 1950s and 1960s, refitted with diesel engines to make them fuel efficient.

    Why respond at all to cynical people who rain on your parade, other than to feel sorry for them being so jaded they miss out on all the thrills you’re having. Probably they’re trying to kill your joy because they’re jealous of it.

  8. Gwyneth says:

    Forgot to mention an article I read within the last couple of years about how designer clothes from upmarket labels that used to be locally made and better made than similar items from lower-end brands to justify the higher price tags are nowadays just as likely to be outsourced and mass-produced in sweatshops, so they don’t wear any better or last any longer, and you’re literally only paying for the label. Don’t remember where I read this–probably the New York Times or the New Yorker.

    • @Gwen: I would believe this. I remember a few years ago during the pet food scare when it came to light than in fact all the brands, regardless of price point, were manufactured in the same facilities. I am quite willing to pay more for clothes that I will wear for years. Unfortunately, even some of the higher-end pieces I’ve bought have fallen apart. Sometimes I think that men’s clothes are better made for long-term wear, though I don’t have any evidence of that.

  9. Pamela says:

    About ziplock bags…..my cousin used to go to Russia quite frequently about 10 years ago. He used to speak in schools and would take school supplies packaged individually in ziplock bags to give as gifts. After distributing the supplies he noticed the students would dump out the pens and pencils and erasers and play with the bag….zipping and unzipping them repeatedly!

    • @Pamela – how funny! I guess I am not the only person with a thing for Ziploc bags… Maybe I should start buying and donating them! That might be a way to make sure I don’t take them for granted…

  10. Joanna says:

    HI Laura! Egged on by my friend Sneha (a journalist) who was in my book club and always loved my book reviews, i have decided to start writing them on my blog. And the first book I have reviewed is your: 168 hours. I really liked it and feel quite inspired by it. Thanks.. I hope you like the review:
    http://foodcoach.posterous.com/168-hours-book-review

    • @Joanna – thanks so much for your kind review! I like it! I’m not the kind to do exercises in books either. I’ve been kind of surprised (and pleased) by how many folks have *actually* done the ones in 168 Hours. I appreciate your giving the book your first review, and I will be sure to check out your future reviews.

  11. dmd says:

    I was just introduced to your book and blog from a link by Lenore Skenazy/Free Range Kids and I love it. I stumbled onto this older post and agree with the first commenter – I have always reused Ziplocs. The subtle environmentalist in me just can stand the thought of using them once and tossing. As for things that give a thrill, we had to rebuild our house after Katrina. So for a long time, our house was a thrill. I’d never had a dishwasher before, and everything was new. I’d never lived in a new house. It was a big thrill! That has waned as toys spread out, dust collected, and it was not so new anymore. :-(

  12. Dane Findley says:

    I have a blog about Living Longer, and recently a post I wrote about “Creating More Free Time” stunned me by instantly becoming the most-viewed post out of 115 posts!

    It was kind of a shocker, because here I am curating this blog on life-extension and my viewers are saying they’re fascinated by my take on time-management.

    And then it struck me… and I made the connection:

    people know they need to improve their self-care protocols in order to be healthier, but they think “free time” is what’s preventing them.

    Your post on the hedonic treadmill is the best post I’ve read in some time. After I type this comment, I’ll be sure to share it on Twitter and Facebook, and especially to send all my friends over to print up the *free* time-tracking sheet you offer. Nicely done! I think I may have just become your new biggest fan.

    { twitter = @danenow }

  13. FRANCES says:

    AIR CONDITIONER TO SLEEP. A luxury we did not have as children. I got one when I married and my son’s now sleep with it every night. We still don’t use it during the day as some people do.

  14. FRANCES says:

    OH YES THE 3 ROW SUV with TV/DVD. The children are so used to that now they think all cars come with TV and expect it.