When the Hedonic Treadmill hits Ludicrous Speed

By Jimmy Turner, MD
The Physician Philosopher

This post, which was originally featured on Physician on FIRE, goes into the depth of despair that can be caused by getting stuck on ludicrous speed while on the hedonic treadmill.  Sometimes the smartest thing we can do with our money isn’t to earn or save more.  It is to be content with what we have.  This Saturday Selection is featured as part of the White Coat Investor network. 

When the Hedonic Treadmill hits Ludicrous Speed

If you are a reader of personal finance blogs, you have probably been introduced to the idea of the hedonic treadmill.
The concept, which I referred to in posts about having enough and financial freedom, essentially means that the benefits of lifestyle inflation tend to be short-lived as you rapidly reset your baseline to the new normal. The shine of the new and improved object or experience tarnishes and the only way to get it back is to upgrade again. It can become a vicious cycle. Continuing to upgrade to more, bigger, and better things essentially has you on a treadmill going ever faster and you’re doing all you can to not fall flat on your face.

It’s not having what you want. It’s wanting what you’ve got” – Sheryl Crow, Soak Up the Sun

The problem is there will always be something better than what you’ve got. When you get something better, you’ll eventually want the best. When you get the best thing, you find out your boss has two of them. And he’s jealous of the guy who has more, or something he had never heard of but is actually better than what was thought to be the best! Take flying, for example. The basic economy folks might like to fly business class. The business class envies the first class passengers. The first class cabin dreams of one day having a NetJets subscription. Once you start using that subscription, you see jetsetters with their own private planes, each wanting to do one another with bigger and better airplanes. No matter how many times you upgrade, there will always be someone with something better. I try to stay off the treadmill by keeping special things special as I outlined in Make it a Treat. It’s an important lesson to learn and your life will be better and your pockets fuller once you embrace the concept of the hedonic treadmill.

Further Reading on the hedonic treadmill:

Spending Millions Monthly

Perhaps you saw the headlines recently. Johnny Depp has been appearing in them regularly, and lately it’s been mostly negative press. Did you happen to read how he’s been spending his money? He sued his money managers who in turn filed a countersuit detailing why Mr. Depp is having money troubles. Some of the more outrageous findings are:
  • He has spent $75 million on 14 residences.
  • He spent $18 million on a 150 foot yacht.
  • $3 Million was spent to shoot Hunter S. Thompson‘s ashes from a cannon.
  • His 45 luxury autos, 70+ collectible guitars, art and memorabilia cost untold millions.
  • He has 40 employees on payroll earning nearly $100,000 a year on average.
  • Wine for personal consumption totaled $30,000 per month.
  • He has dealt with credit card debt, numerous overdrafts, and personal debts in the millions of dollars.
I think Johnny’s treadmill has been speeding up for years and the wheels started coming off when it hit “ludicrous speed.” E-mail exchanges between financial advisor and him show just how out of touch Mr. Depp has become. Around the holidays, he wrote, “I am doing my very best on holiday spending, but there is only so much i can do, as i need to give my kiddies and families as good a Christmas as possible, obviously within reason.” I can’t help but wonder what “within reason” means to someone who reportedly burns through $2 Million a month.

Lessons from Johnny Depp

The number one lesson I take from the revelations is that any income can be overspent. In peak years, Johnny Depp earned $100 Million or more. Somehow, and it took Brewster’s Millions type spending, he was able to spend hundreds of millions of dollars. I should point out that despite the lawsuits and bad publicity, it does not appear that he is destitute. This site estimates his current net worth at $200 Million although the bulk of that may very well be tied up in the assets he has purchased (homes, yacht, art, etc…)

But is he happy?

Circling back to that Sheryl Crow quote, I think it’s fair to say that a man who spends $2 Million a month is not content with what he’s got. He’s chasing more. Perhaps he’s chasing happiness. I have no idea how happy the man is, but if I went through an expensive divorce, had my dirty laundry aired in a multimillion dollar lawsuit, and attracted the attention of the President’s Secret Service all over the course of a year, I don’t think I’d be a particularly happy camper. I recently read that regardless of income, a survey showed that people consistently say their ideal income is 20% higher than their current income. Whether a person makes $30,000, $300,000, or $3,000,000 a year, we are programmed to believe more would be better. I think we’d all be better off if we learned to happy wanting what we’ve got.

Speaking of how much we’ve got, following your net worth can be a helpful exercise!  I follow The Physician Philosopher portfolio using Personal Capital.


  1. Steveark

    While Depp is quite an example of overspending a huge income it does bother me sometimes that high spending rates often seem to be criticized as being inherently wrong behavior. You didn’t do that but many people have criticized Depp, not for outspending his income, but for the spending itself. If Depp had managed to earn that $100 million income for ten or fifteen years and saved half of it each year he would have had a billion or more in investments with a reasonable rate of return. At that point spending two million a month would have been something like a three percent withdrawal rate, something this community generally would praise as remarkably frugal. So spending two million a month is bad if he can’t afford it but is it just plain bad regardless of net worth? And if so then is spending one or two hundred thousand a year, like you and me, really reasonable in a world where the median family income is less than ten thousand dollars? I don’t have an answer to that question myself. I tend to think it is OK based on my net worth but if that is true I have no basis to criticize a billionaire for spending two million a month. Again, you didn’t do that but I think many do see any level of spending that would be unaffordable for themselves as being inherently wrong, even for people that can afford it.

    • ThePhysicianPhilosopher

      I’ve got zero problems with people who want to spend the money they make if they are meeting their financial goals (one of which I hope is giving to those in need). If you make $20 million each year and want to spend $5 million per year, be my guest. You won’t see any judgement from me.

      That said, it does make you wonder what the money is being spent on and if it provides any more contentment than what you and I find when we spend $50,000 to $200,000 per year?


  2. Poppi

    Great post!
    We’re all susceptible to the hedonic treadmill, we live in a culture of more, more, more. Most of us don’t even realize we’re on the treadmill, until we reach the limit of our physical and mental capabilities to continue running, or the treadmill breaks!
    I try to remember: The only thing in this life that you need, is the recognition, that you already have every thing in this life that you need.

    • ThePhysicianPhilosopher

      Amen to that last point! Teaching contentment is probably the most important lesson in life when it comes to both personal finance and satisfaction.


  3. Abigail @ipickuppennies

    I definitely think I’d be happier with a little more income, but only because it would mean saving a little more income. Not to buy up a bunch of stuff.

    Still, I make more than enough, and I try to remember that when I envy people who make over $100k a year. What matters is that I’m making plenty of progress toward my goals. Besides, I’m vastly overpaid for my job, so I really can’t in good conscience ask for more. And I do get a small raise each year. So… I should really shut up and just enjoy what I have. Which is my day-to-day goal.

    • ThePhysicianPhilosopher

      I would argue only one thing in what you said, Abigail. You are worth as much as you think you are. Don’t fall to limiting beliefs (that you are overpaid). Maybe they value you for who you are and what you do.

      Otherwise, I 100% agree with everything you said.


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