“Work Hard. Play Hard.” It makes sense. You bust your ass at your job, work long hard hours and then when you’re free you play equally hard. The problem is, it creates a vicious cycle. In reality, it’s not a solution or a way to balance your life. It’s just a flawed justification for lifestyle inflation.
How It Happens
Young and Broke
You start out, broke. Maybe you’ve just graduated from college in debt. Or, you went to work straight from high school. You worked hard at entry-level jobs and don’t have much money.
When you travel, it’s road trips and camping or stays at the cheapest places possible. Hanging out with friends involves food and drinks at someone’s apartment. Then you played board games, hang out and talk, or watch movies.
Money is tight, but time seems plentiful. Life is mostly good.
Then, you start in your profession / career. You aren’t raking it in, but for a couple broke kids it feels like you have money. Your friends all move into their careers as well.
Suddenly, you have a little less time and a little more money. You start meeting out for drinks on weekends. When you travel, it’s for longer and to nicer (i.e. more expensive) places. Exploring the world replaces local road trips.
The same thing happens with friend time. You’re all hard workers, driven, and starting to see success in your profession. You start using the “work hard. play hard.” mantra to justify nights out and vacations. You’re getting together to forget about work for awhile.
You buy houses and start buying your second wave of cars. Car payments replace teenage beaters.
You are starting to have money, but less time.
Climbing the Ladder
You both put in long hours. Work weeks melt away as you race from weekend to weekend.
You step into management. 80 hour weeks become the norm. Similar things are happening to your friends. They’re moving into higher stress positions at the hospital. The software engineers are now responsible for product launches and all the stress that goes with that.
Some are having kids. One partner stays home, so the other takes on more work to keep the income up.
Nights in give way completely to going out as no one wants to host or clean. Drink choices go from common labels to top shelf. Dining gets progressively more lavish and expensive. For some it’s a status competition. For others, it’s just a perceived reward for hard work.
Instead of parties, you start attending “events.” Disguised as parties, they’re just a different form of work. You’re either donating to a good cause, or “making connections.”
You try to build a personal retreat by buying a larger, nicer, more expensive home. It feels like progress and the extra space or luxury is great for those few hours you’re actually home to experience it.
Close friends start to move away to follow careers. You travel to gather together. That limited time becomes precious, so you play hard together to recapture the good old carefree days.
Your vacations become intentional escapes from professional life. Short trips to Vegas expand from a couple nights to longer stretches. Camping and roadtrips change completely to tropical vacations to lay on the beach and recover. Every destination includes high end dining or nights at clubs. All pretense of adventure is gone, it’s now about relaxation and escape.
Time is tight, money is available.
Congratulations, you are working hard and playing harder.
The Problems with Work Hard Play Hard
Does any part of that sound familiar? Have you experienced it or watched it happen to others?
The description above is close to our experience. It was a slow and inexorable growth in our lifestyle.
We didn’t even buy a boat or jet skis! Yet, our expenses grew with our income.
At no point were we unhappy. We enjoy our jobs, have stayed close with friends from the early years, and in general feel good about life. Yet, happiness didn’t increase with our income.
It wasn’t ever about keeping up with the Joneses. We weren’t worried about status or doing anything solely because others were. Rather, it was an attempt to justify the incredible amount of time and energy we were putting into our careers.
We worked hard, so we played hard.
In hindsight, it’s easy to see that “work hard, play hard” is simply another version of “I deserve this.” It’s a justification for spending more money on ridiculous things.
As you acquire more things, or more spending habits, your lifestyle grows. Things that seemed luxurious or “fun” before now become expectations.
You think that ocean view hotel room in Maui is required to even enjoy a vacation. How did you ever enjoy that cocktail before when it wasn’t made with top shelf? How can you bear a long flight unless you’re in first class.
“Work hard. Play hard. You deserve it.”
It’s also a flawed attempt to balance out life. As work and life demands tighten, you find yourself trying to squeeze the maximum amount out of any free time.
That search for escape means that even relaxation or disconnection from work can seem like an additional job. Experiences that were previously fun can seem frantic or become a search for the newest high.
You have less time, so you demand more from it. It’s all a false balance.
If you’re working harder than ever before, how do you have more fun than ever before? Too often, it means spending more money.
As you spend more, you need to earn more. Money stress added to work stress compounds the need to escape by playing harder.
If your expenses keep up with your earnings (or worse, if they don’t) you aren’t saving much for retirement. You certainly aren’t building toward financial independence.
You look at the coming years and see nothing but a long stretch of hard work to keep paying the bills. (See: The Dream Purchase That Woke Me To Financial Reality)
Maybe someday you’ll have scraped enough together to walk away from work. For now though, you’ll work for the foreseeable future.
Playing hard is a choice. It means you have no choice but to continue earning.
What To Do Instead
“Work hard, play hard” lifestyle inflation just grew on us. It took years for us to recognize and start reversing it. We’ve made adjustments, and now see clearly how we should have responded instead.
Define What Play Means to You
One of the most curious things about work hard play hard lifestyle growth is how it easily leads to always looking for new or different. You can forget how much you enjoyed simpler things.
What part of a vacation is actually enjoyable to you? How do you most like to spend time with friends?
We realized that so much of what we’d inflated into was actually less enjoyable than before. At the very least, we shouldn’t have given up those things entirely.
A perfect example for us: road trips. When young, we loved road trips. They were a fantastic way to spend time and didn’t cost much. Somewhere along the way “playing harder” meant we traded it for longn flights.
This last year, we replaced our now-routine tropical vacation with an extended road trip. 2000 miles in 7 days and loved every minute of it. We spent a fraction of the money we’d normally have spent. It was fantastic.
Another example: game nights with friends almost always beat a trip out for expensive dinner or drinks.
You can play hard without spending more and more money. That seems obvious now.
Identify how you most enjoy spending time. Prioritize that.
Grow Your Lifestyle (and Savings) Intentionally
This is not an argument to always live like a broke new couple. Looking back, it’s easy to think that life was somehow more free or less stressful then. That’s nostalgia. Being broke sucks.
If you work hard and grow your career, it’s okay to spend money on those things you value most.
Just do it intentionally. Save intentionally as well.
If you work hard and increase your income, use at least 50% of the growth to pay down debt or save and invest. Spend the rest on things you love.
If we’d simply saved and invested 50% of our income growth, we’d already be financially free. Now, to catch up we are saving more than 50% of our total income.
Seek Other Forms of Balance
Don’t keep working harder to grow your income only so you can spend more to deal with the additional stress. Look for ways to balance out work stress that don’t cost more.
Find hobbies or pursuits that disconnect you. Reading, writing, outdoor experiences, and time with friends and family are all things that work for me. They can be done for relatively little. Yet, somehow I’d managed to spend more money doing less of the things I valued most.
Long bike rides work great for me as balance. They’re suffering events, not play. Yet, they cost almost nothing. It doesn’t hurt that it’s also good for my health.
I want you to avoid my mistakes. Find balance outside the play hard and spend hard approach.
Oh, and if you’re truly unhappy in your job look for other options. You can’t play your way out of being desperately unhappy at work.
Consider Future You – Set Goals
I don’t believe in suffering now for a mythical stress free future.
But don’t pretend spending wildly now improves your life. Recognize that it dooms future you to more of the same.
Build a vision of what your future looks like. This can both help the hard work of the present AND prevent you from making detrimental financial choices.
Setting long term financial goals and seeing progress towards those has transformed my approach to work and improved my life outside work. I feel more balanced in the now and see a future where I’ll have even more choice.
“Work Hard. Play Hard.” It’s a catchy mantra.
Just don’t use it as justification for lifestyle inflation.
We certainly did. Now we’ve recognized that there is a better way.
- Define what play means to you. Prioritize what you enjoy most.
- Grow your lifestyle (and savings) intentionally
- Seek other forms of balance
- Consider future you – set goals
Don’t let “work hard, play hard” become a justification for unnecessary lifestyle inflation. Enjoy life now and in the future by being intentional with your choices.