Things Are Experiences

There is a certain theme that comes up cyclically in reporting on personal finance issues: it’s better to spend your money on experiences rather than things. Sometimes this assertion is backed up by studies and sometimes not. The basic point is that experiences give you a great time and leave you with wonderful lasting memories, while the enjoyment you receive from stuff is rather fleeting and it just rots in your closet/garage/storage unit. Actually, phrased that way, it’s almost counterintuitive that experiences are supposed to be lasting and stuff is ephemeral.


This idea didn’t bother me too much the first 25 times I heard it. I liked it, really. I wasn’t buying too much stuff just for the reason of frugality, and we were doing a lot of domestic travel to weddings that we really valued attending, so the idea seemed to support our lifestyle choices at the time. But Kyle never bought into the idea, or at least the interpretation of it that you should spend all your money on traveling instead of buying things. Now I’m coming around to his side.


car and sky


My response to this idea now is: things are experiences. That is, your whole life is a series of experiences, most of which involve some degree of interaction with things. Your memories of experiences are impactful because they are out of your routine and probably quite fun. A short period of time is likely to have an outsized impact on your memory. But that, in my opinion, does not necessarily outweigh the memories you make from your daily routine. Those will affect your daily moods, your relationships, your productivity, etc.


To the degree that you buy something, use it once and never interact with it again, yes, that is probably a very low-utility use of money. But the stuff that you use on a daily or at least regular basis does have an impact of your life – a positive impact for high or sufficient quality and a negative impact for too-low quality.


Nothing I’ve ever bought has better illustrated this idea for me than my computer choices. I had a very, very bad experience with a Dell laptop in college. (Class of 2007, you know what I’m talking about.) I put up with this terrible computer for 3.5 years, and when it finally kicked the bucket I bought a Mac. It was the most incredible breath of fresh air I’ve ever experienced over a thing. I’ve been a Mac user ever since and very happy with my decision to spend more to have a computer that consistently works very well. This choice makes me happier on a daily basis as I use my laptop for hours every day – way, way happier than going on an extra short trip once every three years. (This isn’t to start a Mac vs. PC debate! Kyle is an anti-Apple person, despite the fact that two of his four electronics currently in use are Apple products. And I have an Android phone. It’s really just the laptop for me.)


I’m sure there are other great examples of times when spending money on stuff is really, really worthwhile. We have a great mattress, for example. I slept on an air mattress for 2.5 years when I was too broke to buy a bed, and while that was certainly serviceable and I would make that choice again, it is much nicer (and warmer!) to have a real mattress. Hey, you spend a third of your life (ideally) in bed – it’s an important piece of stuff! Other examples might be: an investment piece of clothing or flexible and functional shoes, a reliable car, higher housing cost for a shorter commute, or healthy food.


The great stuff really could be anything that positively impacts your quality of life, not even necessarily something expensive. My car, for example, is old enough that a mechanic told us we shouldn’t put $1,000 of work into, yet it’s running great now with no issues and I love it. The point is that all stuff translates into experiences, and when you use the stuff regularly the cost per use can become very worthwhile.


The flip side is that not all experiences are mind-blowingly amazing and worth the money. For example, our honeymoon in Belize overall was an awesome experience, but I was a bit disappointed in the beaches (I should have learned more about the local ecology to modulate my expectations), and the condo we stayed in the first night at the beach had ants in the bed. Kyle and I also recently chose not to go to Indianapolis to watch our university’s men’s basketball team win the NCAA national championship. (Of course, that winning looked like a long shot a week in advance factored into our decision!) We calculated the cost for the 3-day trip and considered how far away our seats would be from the court, the fact that none of our friends were going, and how we would have to travel separately, and decided that the experience wouldn’t be fun enough to justify spending that kind of money on. (We asked ourselves, ‘Do we really want to go or do we just want to be able to say we were there?’ and realized it was more the latter.) We will instead use that money for an experience of higher value like a longer vacation or, possibly, some great stuff.


I don’t want to totally reverse the experiences are better than stuff idea. I just think it’s important to remember that not all experiences are uniformly awesome and not all stuff is invariably wasteful. It depends on both the quality of the experience and for how long it impacts you, whether in your memory or your day-to-day life. I’m sure there are people who truly value only experiences and people who truly value only stuff, but most of us will land somewhere in the middle of that spectrum. We have to navigate the calculation of how much value stuff will bring to our lives vs. its cost and how much value an experience will bring to our lives vs. its cost. The decisions we make on how to allocate our money are never black and white.


Do you tend more toward preferring quality stuff you use regularly or wonderful, short-term experiences? What stuff have you been really glad you bought? Is there any PF wisdom that grates on you?


photo by Moyan Brenn


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17 Responses to "Things Are Experiences"

  1. Nice. I agree that investing $$ in really nice things if I’m going to use them a lot (furniture, kitchen equipment, clothing, computer) is very much worth it. I shudder to think how much I’ve spent on pots and pans and knives over the years, but honestly it was all worth it 🙂 (Plus, I don’t think I’ve spent a dime there in 18 months or so now; once you have a good solid set of basics, you don’t need to replace anything for a really really long time, if ever.)

    As for conventional PF talk that bugs the hell out of me: I do have one of those! I’m writing about it for Monday. It’s the story-of-two-savers thing where one starts at age 22 and the other starts at age 35 (or whatever years the storyteller chooses.)

    1. Emily says:

      Kitchen equipment is a great example. We don’t have a lot of it but we do have some nice knives and I really didn’t know how bad our old knives were until we got the new ones! I’m a very slow chopper so having better knives saves me a quite a bit of time.

      I’ll be interested to read your post on that investing example. Of course I see it very commonly but I’m not sure what bothers you about it!

  2. Lauren says:

    We just had this conversation.

    Generally speaking, we both lean heavily towards experiences and love to travel (but are also conscientious of how we spend our money on experiences and, for example, have a fairly high tolerance for cheap hotels and hostels).

    We just bought an expensive vacuum because Dan convinced me of the value a nice one would bring to my life. I vacuum several times a week due to the puppy and my allergies. It was incredibly frustrating to do it with our heavy 3 year old $90 unit that stopped working well, had a belt that was always detaching, and attachments that didn’t stay attached to the vacuum. Instead of being a frustrating and time consuming event, this week it has just been something I’ve done quickly and then moved on to better things. My floors have never looked better and Dan hasn’t had to hear a single complaint about vacuuming.

    1. Emily says:

      My point is really to be judicious about your spending on either stuff or experiences. Buying one or the other just for the sake of doing it isn’t likely to bring much satisfaction. And of course being frugal even with experiences makes your dollar go much farther. I’m glad the new vacuum has brought so much value to your life. 🙂

  3. Emily too says:

    There are also categories of “experience” spending that are things – for instance, buying a fancy snowboard is spending on an experience because snowboarding is fun, it’s not just more “stuff.” It’s not actually that clearly separated.

  4. Emily says:

    Yes, great point about the overlap. Stuff is experiences/stuff can enhance experiences.

  5. Here’s our experiences vs. stuff post. It all boils down to diminishing marginal utility.

    1. Emily says:

      Great point about the average American already being too stuff-heavy and experiences-light and that influencing the study outcomes. Not all of us are necessarily average!

  6. Mrs. PoP says:

    The more I try and draw a distinction, I think a lot of it has to do with accumulation vs regular use. I know people who have tons of clothes but don’t wear them all, and others that spend just as much (or more) on a very few items but enjoy wearing them and feel spectacular every time they do. It also puts a limit on the number of “things” you can call experiences because you only have so many hours in the day/week/month to be able to regularly use them and get the full experience.

    1. Emily says:

      Yes, I agree. Our whole life is an experience, but we can only fit so much interactions-with-stuff into the time we have.

  7. Kathy says:

    Who passed this law that we much enjoy experiences instead of things. Who the heck are they to tell me what I should and should not experience? My husband and I have taken a few trips that we loved, but now as we grow older, the whole experience of traveling is becoming less appealing to us. The cramped airline seats, the security lines, etc. makes it very stressful. Plus, I’m terrified of flying and the whole idea that I have to board that plane totally ruins even the time when we are trying to enjoy the scenery. We have things that I use every day that I get great enjoyment from and we are building a custom home that we will be in every day for hopefully another 20 years. Why go cheap on something that you will be in and use every day of your life in order to buy an experience that will only last a short while? I do think that many people simply want to impress others with what they’ve done or where they’ve gone….similar to your reasons for going to the NCAA tournament. I don’t need to impress others.

    1. Emily says:

      You and my husband are definitely on the same wavelength! He wants a high quality of daily life with where we live and the things we use on a regular basis. Although I think trying to impress others is likely to backfire whether that is through nicer stuff or nicer experiences!

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  9. I treasure every experience I have, no matter it’s good or bad. When there are chances of having some bonding experience, I tend to consider paying more money as most of the time it gives more quality bonding time, for example traveling abroad with family twice a year.

    1. Emily says:

      We pay a lot for the chance to see family face-to-face as well, although it is usually in their homes. I would love a chance to travel with loved ones the way you are!

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