I believe it is better to spend your hard-earned money on new experiences rather than new things. Some people argue that paying for an experience means that you dish out lots of money and only get to do something once, as opposed to having a new possession that you can use as many times as you want. The problem with this logic is that usually you get tired of possessions faster than you think, and great experiences will last much longer than you think. With great experiences, you can recount the story of the experience with your friends and family, and look back with fondness at photos you took while having that experience.
Buying more stuff also means that you HAVE more stuff. When there’s no more room for your stuff, you need a bigger and more expensive place to hold it all, which you then proceed to fill with even more stuff. This cycle of accumulation can get out of control quickly. Things also tend to lose their appeal when you look at them every day. Yes, they may still carry meaning, but if you see them every day, you start to ignore them pretty quickly. This is an inherent part of all human beings, and allows our brains to not waste energy considering too many things at one time. In other words, it is not worth fighting this aspect of human nature.
I am definitely guilty of wanting some things though: an iPhone, a new computer, an iPad, a nice big screen TV, other toys, etc. But I also like to think that those things I do want will help to make experiences more convenient (like an iPad would make my life easier while traveling) or allow for new experiences (like a bike, which also increases the exercise you get).
Paying more for experiences and less for possessions also means that you tend to live a more outgoing and active lifestyle, which is terrific for your health and will likely result in greater overall happiness. I have also found that the more new activities you experience, the more you tend to enjoy new experiences. This is somewhat counter-intuitive: if you are always going out and doing new things, shouldn’t you run out of new and interesting things to do? However, the more meaningful experiences you have, the more you learn about other experiences that you will also enjoy. It’s synonymous with learning more and more about a particular topic. The more you become an expert in a particular field, the more you realize just how much there is that you don’t know. It’s the same with traveling and experiencing new things: the more you see and do, the more amazing activities and places you realize are out there and your thirst to experience them increases. This kind of positive feedback leads to more and more meaningful experiences, and before you know it your calendar is full and you’re having a blast a very high percentage of the time. This positive feedback cycle is the opposite end of the spectrum of the vicious downward cycle of buying new things discussed above.
A great gift idea for others is to buy them experiences instead of physical objects, especially activities that the person would be unlikely to pay for on their own. I was first inspired to do this when I was considering what to get my Dad for a gift (it was a birthday or Christmas present, can’t remember now). My Dad is very similar to me in his views about experiences versus possessions, and thus it is pretty challenging to find gifts that he really wants. So I bought a daily deal from one of those daily deal websites like Groupon and LivingSocial for a sushi dinner at an upscale sushi restaurant in Dallas. He later told me that he had a blast and that it was a fantastic meal. I couldn’t have been happier with the result, especially since I was able to pay 50% of the normal price.
I also highly recommend canceling your cable or satellite TV package. You will save an amazing amount of money each year and have many more meaningful experiences, from reading a good book to getting out of the house more often. And you will waste so much less of your life watching inane commercials!
Some people may wonder if they don’t have things like cable and a continual stream of new toys that they won’t have anything to do on the evenings and weekends, especially when they are looking to wind down and relax. I would argue that there are countless sources of free entertainment at your fingertips. Your local library likely has more books that you’ll read in a lifetime, and most have many movies available as well. Or you can get out and walk your dog around your neighborhood, or at the park. Or you can join local groups in your area that pursue activities that you enjoy, such as philosophy groups, book clubs, etc. And you will find that the more you engage with others, the happier you become.
One of the best experiences to spend money on is travel. Traveling provides you with innumerable benefits, opening your eyes to the events and lives of people around your country and around the world. It makes you a more well-rounded person, and increases your tolerance of other people’s viewpoints.
A great example of this effect is a conversation I had on my first trip to Europe, when my Dad and I visited Ireland. I was in a Dublin bar talking with people from all over Europe and the world, and I started having a conversation with several cute French girls. I was commenting how surprised I was that almost everyone in the bar knew the words to every American song that came on the speakers. They nodded vigorously, and said in broken English that they too knew the words to many American songs. I then said something to the effect of “Well, we are the only remaining superpower, so maybe it makes sense.” Instantly they all simultaneously said “Superpower!” with a mocking voice and an incredulous look that clearly communicated the following message: “Look at the arrogance of this American! Does he really think the rest of the world goes around calling the U.S. a superpower?” Despite the fact that I had consumed a few beers by that time, I will NEVER forget this conversation. In that moment my eyes were opened to the very different opinions that exist in different parts of the world, and I became a much more aware human being.
You can also apply the principle of spending more money on experiences and less on possessions WHILE traveling. For example, if you are faced with the decision of purchasing a souvenir when traveling versus taking a tour of an interesting attraction, I recommend taking the tour. You can’t bring the tour home with you, but you’ll be able to recount the story of that tour to all of your friends and family, and be able to look through your pictures to recall what a great time you had. You are probably not going to tell the story about how you bought a trinket while on vacation or look back at pictures of the purchase.
In the end, your entire life is simply a set of experiences. You can’t cash in all your stuff at the end of your life for comparable items in the afterlife. And right before you die, odds are that you will savor the experiences you had during your life vastly more than the possessions you accumulated. So on that note, go have a garage sale!