A person gains a 20% salary hike, but becomes looser with his purse-strings and experiences no improvement in quality of life. Or, a manager who gets his employees to work 16 hours a day from 8, but slowly moves to a process that is half as effective, cancelling any gain in productivity.

In both cases, the person gains substantially, but becomes careless/complacent and thus regresses to their old state. What phrase describes what he is doing?

  • 1
    Parkinson's Law - work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion. Dec 14, 2015 at 17:18
  • 3
    I hope this isn't considered not proper enough, but in such a situation my mother refers to herself as having pissed away an(y) advantage/opportunity entirely, and in the especially frequent case where the thing that was supposed to be beneficial hurts or is actively harmful to you, 'and then some'. Dec 14, 2015 at 18:41
  • Something about squandering one's gains/advantages/wealth/opportunity, I'd say.
    – user1635
    Dec 15, 2015 at 5:40

7 Answers 7


I'd recommend "no net gain", as in:

The salary raise led to increased expenditures, and thus no net gain.


Overtime was accompanied by mismanagement of resources, resulting in zero productivity net gain.

Net gain: The overall improvement observed in some measure after all positive and negative influences have been fully accounted for.

Read more: http://www.businessdictionary.com/definition/net-gain.html#ixzz3uIw1imc5


There are two cases here, rather than just one.

If you are putting in more effort, but getting the same results, you've reached the point of diminishing returns. In your example, that would be about 45-50 hours a week, per person. At 80 hours a week, beating a dead horse might be a better phrase.

If you have access to more resources, but are wasteful because of it, you're penny wise, and pound foolish. Even in the USA, were you'd expect "penny wise, and dollar foolish", it's still "pound". It's an old phrase.

  • Related is the acronym R.O.I. Dec 14, 2015 at 21:16
  • "Point of diminishing returns" is an excellent answer; "Penny wise, pound foolish" is about something else altogether. Dec 14, 2015 at 23:15
  • @200_success I'd like to hear why you think that. It's literally related to monetary resources (as in the question), and metaphorically can be extended other resources (time, etc).
    – Morgen
    Dec 14, 2015 at 23:25
  • "Penny wise, pound foolish" is about losing sight of the big picture: putting a lot of effort into penny-pinching with small expenses but giving little scrutiny to large purchases that actually matter. Dec 14, 2015 at 23:29
  • @200_success It's been extended to mean that, but the base meaning refers to being able to manage a small amount (a Penny), but unable to manage a larger amount(a British Pound). dictionary.cambridge.org/us/dictionary/english/…
    – Morgen
    Dec 14, 2015 at 23:45

Consider, tread water

: to expend effort but make little or no progress to achievement of a goal or an end. American Heritage® Dictionary

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    It surely indicates lack of progress, but does it indicate increased complacence/carelessness? Dec 14, 2015 at 15:48

Perhaps cancel out could fit:

If one thing cancels out another thing, the two things have opposite effects, so that when they are combined no real effect is produced.

(Collins Dictionary)

Regarding one of your examples, you could say the salary raise was canceled out by increased expenses.

In addition, the expression rest on one's laurels indicates becoming complacent after an achievement:

to stop trying because one is satisfied with one's past achievements.



Swings and roundabouts, or more fully, "what you gain on the swings, you lose on the roundabouts". This isn't directly equivalent to what the OP is asking for, but it does cover the first example, where an advantage is counterbalanced by a disadvantage.


What you describe reminds me of the notion and outcome of “offsetting penalties” in sports, where a team fails to benefit from a mistake (penalty) made (committed) by its opponent because of its own mistake/penalty.
(example of usage from ‘The Handy Hockey Answer Book’ by Stan Fischler, via Google Books, where in hockey, except during the era of Wayne Gretzky, offsetting penalties result in both teams losing a player to the penalty box).

In your examples, especially the second one, you could consider using the notion of the verb “offset” (from M-W) as follows:

… increases in productivity were offset by …” (from ‘Productivity and Economic Incentives’ by J. P. Davidson, via Google Books).

The spendthrift and manager offset the benefit of their respective good fortunes by [making questionable decisions].

(example used with "the benefit" from 'The Benefit/Risk Ratio: A Handbook for the Rational Use of Potentially ...' by Hans C. Korting, M. Schafer-Korting, via Google Books)

Or for noun phrases (similar to offsetting penalties) to describe the phenomenon:

Offsetting events (example from ‘Including the Poor: Proceedings of a Symposium …’ via Google Books); or

Offsetting occurrences (example from ‘The Property Tax, Land Use, and Land Use Regulation’ via Google Books)

Their benefits were neutralized by offsetting events/offsetting occurrences.


You could consider using beat the air or beat the wind:

Continue to make futile attempts, fight to no purpose.

[The American Heritage® Dictionary of Idioms]

Also, "wasted effort" could be a good candidate:

useless or unprofitable: wasted effort


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