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Make it a Treat

Ecuador Galapagos Beach

Make it a treat.” These four simple, yet powerful words, just might be the key to both financial success and continual happiness.

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The phrase was introduced to me by the smart, sexy, and sassy comedian, Sarah Silverman. How’s that for alliteration?

She discusses the concept in her autobiography as applicable to a particular act that may or may not occur between consenting adults, and to using a “medication” that is only legal in a few states. She goes on to explain that “make it a treat” should be applied to all sorts of things we might find enjoyable, like dressing to the nines, or eating chocolate.

“Make it a treat” is a mantra she lives by, which in my mind pretty much qualifies her as a personal finance guru. How so?

If you want a special experience to remain special, you’d best not make a habit of it. If you let it become routine, you’ve transformed what was once a real treat into something ordinary.


How to “Make It a Treat”


Enjoy fine dining? Make it a treat.

Like drinking fancy wine, scotch, or ale? Make it a treat.

Business class upgrade? Make it a treat.

That thing you do that makes her feel special (like roses on a random Tuesday, a surprise date night, or washing the dishes 😉 )? Make it a treat.


If you’re like me, you probably experienced some lifestyle upgrades when you started making a decent paycheck. Some of those upgrades make a lot of sense. A newer car might be safer, more reliable and fuel efficient. A larger home might be needed when you start a family. Paying a small premium to support local merchants, farmers, brewers and vintners is good citizenship. Buying fresh fruits and vegetables, fish and lean meats may cost more than Cheetos and processed frozen meals, but they will keep you healthier.

Once you’ve established a comfortable, healthy lifestyle, paid off some debt, and started investing for retirement, you may find that you’ve got extra money for the first time in your life. You’ve worked very hard to get to this point, and you deserve to reward yourself. But not every day.

As a kid, our parents told us what we could and couldn’t have. Sodas were limited, as were ice cream, cookies, and favorite meals, like steak fondue. When we got to have them, it was exciting. That root beer tasted really good, and if it happened to come with a scoop of vanilla, it was incredible!


A little root beer float

Sadly, the prospect of a root beer float doesn’t float my boat like it once did. I enjoy them just fine, but I can have one whenever I want. I may have overdone it in college when I first got to do my own grocery shopping. A couple 2 liters of A&W, one pail of ice cream, and a bag or two of Cheetos. The first float was great! The second one quite good. On the fourth day, I’m forcing them on my roommates. Eventually, I’m dumping the last liter of flat root beer. I took a special treat and made it unspecial.


“Make it a Treat” Saves You Money


It should be pretty clear that adopting a “make it a treat” attitude will be easier on your wallet. Doing expensive things occasionally will cost less than doing them often. The connection with happiness may be less clear. Wouldn’t you be happier if you had dinner at Morton’s twice a month instead of twice a year?

Probably not.

It turns out that our clever minds adapt fairly readily to whatever baseline we set for them. When we dip below the baseline, we become a bit uneasy or unhappy. When an experience exceeds the baseline, we find pleasure.

For example, if you are used to staying at a 3-star Comfort Inn, you might feel kinda icky at the 2-star Motel 6, but the 4-Star Westin will be super nice.

If you normally stay at the Motel 6, the Comfort Inn will be very, well… comfortable, and the Westin simply incredible.

If the Westin is your standard, it takes a Ritz-Carlton or Four Seasons to impress you, and you’ll be downright nauseous at the Motel 6.

I could run a similar scenario using restaurants, automobiles, cruise lines, or theme parks (can you tell I just got back from vacation?). The bottom line is that you choose your set point. Positive and negative experiences are realized when you depart from your chosen set point.


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The Role of Hedonic Adaptation


Studies have backed the “make it a treat” theory. One such study from 1978 compared lottery winners and newly paraplegic accident victims. As you might expect, the lottery winners experienced a big surge in happiness; the paralytics suffered a serious decline. In time, both the positive and negative effects of the profound change diminished. After a short while, both groups had returned to a similar baseline happiness.

The term for our tendency to adapt to a situation and reset to a new baseline is called hedonic adaptation. Science and experience tell us that repeatedly doing something that makes us happy once (and may cost a fair amount of money) will not continue to bring us the same joy it did the first time. We become used to it, and may seek bigger and better experiences or objects to experience that same joy. Desensitization to the finer things makes them seem pedestrian after a while.


Ramen. Still Good.

McDonalds was a treat when you were used to ramen. Applebee’s was a treat when you were used to McDonalds. Morton’s was a treat when you were used to Applebee’s. If you’ve gotten used to Morton’s, you’re making reservations at some seriously high-dollar joints to get your dopamine release.



This sort of observation was published as far back as 1621. Robert Burton’s Anatomy of a Melancholy quotes St. Augustine, “A true saying it is, Desire hath no rest, is infinite in itself, endless, and as one calls it, a perpetual rack, or horse-mill.”

Take Sarah’s and St. Augustine’s advice to heart, and your pocketbook will thank you.

Keep a special thing special. Make it a treat.

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23 thoughts on “Make it a Treat”

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  7. This is great. We’ve started doing this with our Friday night Mexican food. We Cook in all week then we go get cheap Mexican food on Friday night. Makes it special and makes it so we look forward to it. We could go get cheap Mexican food when ever we want, but it’s a treat!!

    • Traditions can make treats even more special. This one gives you something to look forward to at the end of the week.

      Waffles on Wednesday, Chimichangas on Friday!

  8. Yep, this is my theme song!

    This is why I refuse to get my easy-to-get favorite bakery goods every weekend. PiC would happily, and did, bring me a box every Sunday, but I didn’t want it to become a habit that I stopped appreciating. We now get it only when we host guests and it’s a treat and a great experience to share with people who haven’t tasted the nectar before.

    No matter how well off we may be on paper, we maintain a simple lifestyle where we can savor all the small things in life as much as we do that big wins and big treats. Too many people keep raising the bar: home renovations, fine dining, a five star restaurant every month, and then whine when they miss a date night.

    I can’t remember our last date night, but I do cherish the fact that every single evening we eat dinner at home together, even with a toddler and zir unpredictable ways with food, and then we have a fun bath, then read together as a family before bed. Our partnership is stronger because we prioritize the same simple routines and do them together. And occasionally, the treat is that one of us will handle the night time routine alone while the other one gets some alone time. We are the cheapest dates ever.

  9. This post made me think of where we choose to live and where we choose to vacation. I grew up in a HCOL tourist destination that many are envious of when I tell them I’m from there. However, as I’ve grown older, seen more of the world, I’ve come to see how my childhood home as a visitor is different than as a resident. Visiting is like a treat, you have money to spend, time to enjoy the sights/sounds, time to avoid traffic/crowds, and just be able to relax and absorb the desirable aspects of the area. Living there however, was different, all the desirable aspects became monotonous and normal. I moved back as an adult for a few years, and when I first moved I was excited to do all these activities and see things, but after awhile I loss interest in those things and it became nothing special. Additionally, as a resident, you have to deal with the negative aspects of the area too, which included traffic, crowds, politics and HCOL, which is the part visitors don’t think about and would probably make the area seem like less of a treat. Now, 1000s of miles away from my childhood home, I start to consider where I want to settle, I start to think about the desirable aspects of my childhood home that I would enjoy as a visitor, but have to remember the negative aspects or regularity of living there as a resident. Apparently, this same view is shared by some friends who also grew up in desirable areas, who came to realize that the desirable aspects, that feels like a treat at first, became normal over time and are often not worth the cost.

    • I hear you, JSA. We’re spending the week in Hawaii (thank you, CME fund!) and it’s easy to focus on all the great features, but when thinking about something like a year-long commitment, there would be some real challenges and drawbacks,


  10. “to get your dopamine release”………….fabulous to include physical exercise on par with luxury experiences to get the release.

    • Thanks, Gasgal! Another anesthesiologist, I presume? I’ll keep the posts coming; I have no plans of slowing down anytime soon.

  11. Thank you visitors, for not jumping down my throat like a few commenters on an accompanying Lifehacker.com article. An excerpt was displayed there that included the “washing the dishes” line. My attempt at humor worked well on the homefront (made my wife giggle), but it did not sit well with some readers. That line was meant to be understood as sarcastic, but was maybe too much of an inside joke. I’ll add a little wink to make that a bit more clear.

    To make amends, I’ll be doing the dishes tonight.

    On second thought, maybe we should go out for dinner… it’s been awhile… yeah, that’d be a real treat!


  12. I like this approach a lot! It all relates back to the idea of the ‘hedonic treadmill’ – that a comfy, luxe life becomes part of your ‘set point’ the more you live it. The ‘make it a treat’ approach allows you to have the fun, but not make it part of your new baseline. Thanks for sharing!

    • Without a doubt. I see the hedonic treadmill (more like a Stairmaster) with doctor friends of mine, needing more and more to be content.
      Best of luck to you Mr. FireStation, 9 days until retirement I believe. Keep us “posted”.

  13. Changing your frame of mind…simple but I could see it being effective. This would be a great way to avoid lifestyle inflation. Thanks for sharing.


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