If I think about all the things I’ve bought over the last 10 years, my five favorite purchases would be trips. If I had to pick 10, my iMac might make it in there, but in general I’ve found I like to spend my money on memories.
It was an eye-opener for me that when we were decluttering our house before our move, the more stuff I jettisoned, the easier it was to say goodbye. How could it be that all the things I absolutely had to have suddenly lost their value? In fact, as I sit here and try to think about objects I really wanted to buy in the past 10 years, my computer is the only one I can remember and it happens to be one of the few things I kept. But if you asked me about the great experiences I’ve had during that same period, I would have no problem listing 10-15 off the top of my head.
I didn’t know anyone had actually done research on this, but it turns out that when people spend their money on experiences, it increases their sense of well-being. There’s a guy at San Francisco State University, Ryan T. Howell, who has done some interesting research in this area. Published in the Journal of Positive Psychology in 2009, one study found that “participants indicated that experiential purchases represented money better spent, brought more happiness to themselves, and brought more happiness to others.” There is actually a lot of research that supports the idea that experiential purchases bring more life satisfaction.
Personally, I know I’ve made a lot of purchases over the years that were probably more for the joy of shopping than anything else, but which didn’t turn out to be as useful or enjoyable as I envisioned at the time. Sometimes, I just bought more than I needed. That was certainly true of art supplies. I was interested in more types of art than I had time for, and ended up with way more materials than I could conceivably use. According to Howell, materialism may be a typical coping mechanism for managing anxiety and insecurity, and I know that the purchases I’ve most regretted were made at times when I was down. As my life has become happier and more satisfying, I vastly decreased the number of regrettable purchases. The money we don’t save or spend on necessities tends to be spent on fun activities.
I wish I had been more aware of this phenomenon when I was younger. I spent too much money on things I eventually ceased to care about, but I never stopped caring about going places and meeting people and learning new things. It was only when I had to get rid of most of my belongings in order to move that I began to see how my focus had shifted. The idea of retiring surrounded by all my stuff instead of spending time traveling and having new experiences just sounds too sad to contemplate.
If you have been focused on accumulating stuff, how do you turn that around? Take a quick look around you and see how many things you own that you haven’t even touched in the past year, and get rid of anything you don’t absolutely need or love. If you have something sentimental that you don’t really need or want (like an old stuffed animal), take a picture of it and then sell or toss it. It’s most likely the memory that is important, not the object.
Instead of buying more stuff, try not to make any impulse purchases. Give yourself 2-3 weeks to think about a potential purchase. Ask yourself if you’re going to be just as excited about this in five years. How about in 10? Are you replacing something that has worn out, or do you just want the latest and greatest?
As for experiences, not everyone has the inclination to travel the world. But there are hundreds of experiences you can have close to home. Attend a concert, sign up for a class, take up a hobby, or plan a road trip. Of course, plenty of experiences are free, like volunteering, hiking with friends, or having a picnic. The point is, DOING anything at all is probably better than buying something you don’t need.
If you want to challenge yourself, go find 10 things you own and don’t need or want and get rid of them. Throw them out, donate them, or if you can, sell them. Reward yourself by arranging to do something fun that you’ve wanted to do for a long time. Try a new restaurant or take a class. It doesn’t matter what it is, just as long as it’s enjoyable for you.
If your plan is expensive, like take a trip overseas, then you need to start thinking more carefully about your expenditures. Every time you want to buy something that is a want and not a need, ask yourself if you would enjoy a new jacket or that trip more. If you would enjoy the trip more, put the money you would have spent on the jacket in the bank and start saving for that trip.
There’s nothing wrong with buying something frivolous every once in a while, but in the long run, that is probably not what will bring you the most satisfaction. I know what I will be focusing on. What about you?