Think back to your first job right out of school. Wasn't it liberating to have your own paycheck, your own cash, your own life to lead? I bet you loved it. Despite (probably) earning less than you do today, didn't it feel as though you had way more cash available than you do right now?

Certainly, the prices of gas, food, health insurance, property taxes, electricity, and other core costs of living have risen. Even so, you would have hoped that, with the kind of decent raises you've seen, you could have at least kept pace with where you started. So why does it seem to be tougher to make ends meet now?

Could it be that as your salary has gone up, your expectations have, too? By chance, have you traded in an old and ugly -- though completely paid-off -- car for a new one ... with payments to boot? Or perhaps you've moved from a cramped studio apartment to a spacious three-bedroom condominium. And when was the last time your dinner consisted of a package of ramen noodles and "whatever's in the fridge"?

The golden handcuffs
To some extent, it's certainly OK to see your costs and lifestyle rise as your income does. After all, you only live once. If you don't enjoy yourself along the way, you'll very likely look back with serious regrets. It's a problem, however, if your wants turn into perceived needs and rise more quickly than your salary does.

Unfortunately, that's all too easy a trap to spring. Once you get a taste of the good life, it's tough to go back, as financially beneficial as it might be. If you find yourself caught, the struggle you face is twofold. First, you wind up spending a larger chunk of your salary just to stay even with where you are right now. That leaves you less to save for later. Second, because your lifestyle is more expensive, you need that much larger a nest egg to support yourself in retirement.

Break free
A one-two punch like that can be absolutely brutal. You wind up saving less, in spite of really needing to save more. Yet amazingly enough, just by taking a slightly different perspective on life and what you truly need, you can escape the wealth trap. The next time you're out buying something, ask yourself, "What if I invested my money in this company, instead of buying its products?" As this chart shows, even a relatively small amount can add up substantially over time.



Value of $100 After 10 Years

McDonald's (NYSE:MCD)



PepsiCo (NYSE:PEP)

Snacks & Beverages


ExxonMobil (NYSE:XOM)



Citigroup (NYSE:C)



Tiffany (NYSE:TIF)



Target (NYSE:TGT)

Discount Retailer


Simon Property Group (NYSE:SPG)





*Performance from Dec. 1, 1996, to Dec. 1, 2006. Past performance is not a guarantee of future results.

One hundred bucks invested in each of those companies a decade ago would collectively be worth more than $3,000 today. On their own, a few small investments may not seem like a world-changing event. Make a lifestyle change to embrace investing, however, and all of those small stock-instead-of-product purchases can certainly add up over time to tremendous results.

The toughest part is getting started. Once you make those small but powerful adjustments to your life to release yourself from the trappings of wealth, the rest is simply that much easier to accomplish. To help you begin your journey to your personal financial freedom, take the next 30 days to look around Motley Fool GreenLight, free of charge. You've got nothing to lose, except the shackles that are keeping you from getting where you want to be. Click here to get started.

At the time of publication, Fool contributor Chuck Saletta did not own shares in any of the companies mentioned in this article. The Fool has a disclosure policy.