Would you rather buy more stuff — or have more fun?

By Caitlin Kelly

This piece in The New York Times piqued my interest:

American consumers are putting what little extra money they do have to spend each month into eating out, upgrading their cars or fixing up their homes, as well as spending on sports gear, health and beauty. Spending at restaurants and bars has jumped more than 9 percent this year through July compared with the same period last year, and on autos by more than 7 percent, according to the agency.

Analysts say a wider shift is afoot in the mind of the American consumer, spurred by the popularity of a growing body of scientific studies that appear to show that experiences, not objects, bring the most happiness. The Internet is bursting with the “Buy Experiences, Not Things” type of stories that could give retailing executives nightmares.

Millennials — the 20- and 30-something consumers whom marketers covet — would rather spend their hard-won cash on out-of-town vacations, meals with friends, gym memberships and, of course, their smartphones, many surveys suggest.

More stuff!
More stuff!

I’ve been thinking about this a lot as we’re finally, gratefully, at a point in our lives we need very little additional stuff. We’ve renovated two rooms of our apartment and own an array of sports gear, art supplies, camera equipment, the things we use for pleasure and for work. (We do need to replace our old car.)

It’s a huge relief.

I’ve never been a mall rat, the sort of person whose favorite activity is shopping. I enjoy it and sometimes take an entire day to do it, but rarely come home with more than one or two things, and usually nothing huge or expensive.

Like everyone, I have specific weaknesses — anything seriously antique, jewelry and lovely things for setting a pretty table.

One of the most fun things you can possibly do -- dance at 7am! Daybreaker, in NYC
One of the most fun things you can possibly do — dance at 7am! Daybreaker, in NYC

We’ve also saved really hard for years for our retirement, so can now release a bit more of our income for pleasure; saving 15 per cent a year is no fun, but — yes, really — it adds up.

I’m more eager now to spend what extra money we earn on travel, dining out, enjoying the many plays, concerts, dance performances and conferences available to us in and near New York City. We do not have children or grandchildren, nor, as many of our younger friends do, huge student debts to discharge. Frankly, we feel like outliers — we are very far from 1%ers but we’re not panicked about money the way many people are; the average American has saved stunningly little for retirement.

A ticket to the theater is a joy --- and privilege
A ticket to the theater is a joy — and privilege

In the next few months, we’ll attend a weekend workshop (for business purposes); travel back to Canada (by car), attend a few shows and concerts. We hope to be back in Europe after Christmas for several weeks.

My Dad heads off soon for a month sailing with a friend in Greece; at 86, with a new hip, he’s lucky enough to have the good health, strength and finances to keep enjoying his life. In this regard, he’s very much a role model.

How many things do you want to own? How many experiences would you like to enjoy?

Unless you’re wealthy, every expenditure of money means making a choice — the time needed to invest in earning the taxable income to buy the stuff, store the stuff, clean and polish and upgrade the stuff — or an amazing afternoon/evening/week/month/year creating indelible memories.


We spent a recent Sunday in Manhattan (a 40 minute trip into the city from our home) seeing a show, On The Town, on Broadway, and splurged on box seats, at $101 each. I felt like royalty — they offered amazing sightlines and no squished knees; we sat in comfortable elegant Louis XIV-style armchairs. Before the show, we stopped in at Sardi’s, the classic, old-school bar and restaurant, for a Bloody Mary and a snack.

What a lovely, lovely day, creating memories we’ll cherish for years to come.

I’ve never once regretted any of the money I’ve spent on travel or meals or a day of skiing or a game of golf. But I’ve deeply regretted the money I’ve wasted on a pair of too-high heels (worn once!), clothing that just looked like hell or a really boring book that was, after all, a best-seller.

Sunrise from our friend's bedroom window in Maine
Sunrise from our friend’s bedroom window in Maine

Nothing that arrives in a box or bag is ever as pleasurable and satisfying to me as walking down a Paris street or having tea with a friend in London or catching up face to face with my sister-in-law in Toronto over a very long lunch.

How about you?

What makes you happier — stuff or experiences?

Any good ones you can share?

53 thoughts on “Would you rather buy more stuff — or have more fun?

      1. As a 30 something millenial I felt like you were speaking to me directly. I am in the transitioning phase of thinking of saving that extra cash vs. wants vs. needs.

      2. Terrific! Thanks for reading — and commenting.

        Saving $$$ feels boring compared to buying more stuff, but you’re buying something more powerful — freedom. To rest, to quit a job if you need to, to have a retirement, ideally.

  1. I agree. I’d rather spend my money on experiences over things. Depends how you phrase it though too. I spend money at coffee shops because that $5 buys me a couple hours of working on writing. So while I’m buying a “thing,” it’s really the time I’m paying for. A work space. And a caffeinated one! 🙂

    1. Good point…I was thinking of physical possessions and how much space they demand and, in some instances, care and maintenance. The fewer things we own, the less we have to worry about them.

  2. LRose

    Looking forward to an NYC getaway in Oct with a sister. Already have tix to two shows. While I’m very pleased with my new mattress and my kitchen remodel, I know I’ll be thinking back on the upcoming trip to NYC with sis for years to come.

      1. LRose

        That’s what we thought and it’s right after the conference, so perfect time all around. We’re seeing Fun House and our final night going to BAM to see Sean Curran Co. Art museums are on the agenda, visit with a friend, and otherwise staying flexible for serendipity. Only 3 days/nights, so we’ll be pooped, but in a good way!

  3. Experiences have always been preferable to me. I never really wanted or needed much growing up. When my parents would ask what I wanted for my birthday, I usually couldn’t think of much, what I did love were our family vacations and seeing shows with my dad or concerts with my mom. My family always lived below our means and splurged on vacations. I was lucky to see a lot of the world and always felt spoiled even though I never had the “right” designer clothes, phones or material items at school. Turns out none of that stuff even mattered and I wouldn’t trade my experiences. Great post. I definitely think that after the recession, people have learned to simplify their lives and now that things are getting economically better, are choosing to spend money enriching themselves rather than get more stuff because memories can last you through tough times but stuff breaks down and fails you in tough times.

    1. Thanks for this! Our family spent the bulk of our money on travel — so, like you, I have terrific memories. We never had new, fancy cars or designer anything but who cares?

      I get so annoyed when costly things like computers and cars needs fixes and upgrades or replacing. 🙂

  4. Definitely the experience. More so than ever. I realized how much crap I accumulated over the years when I was cleaning up this summer. Call each generation what you will. We’re all the same. We collect, hoard, then reject. We realize at some point that we tried to cover the pain with stuff and if we’re lucky enough, we then get rid of it and enjoy what really matters–the experiences.

    1. Thanks, Lisa…

      We’re still cleaning out our garage and 3 storage lockers. We just sold 5 boxes of books. One of the insights that’s scary is that it’s very easy to buy a ton of stuff — but can take, literally, days to sort through it if you want to get rid of it and try to get any $$$ back for it later. That’s wasted time, to me, but it has to be done.

  5. Experiences, 100%. Although we enjoy eating out, we are often frustrated that we could have done a better job ourselves. Travel is key for us, we love the adventure of exploring a new locale or returning to a place that feels like home.

    Are you stopping by Germany this time? Have a beer waiting for you. 😉

    1. So true. When you’re a good cook and have a nice home, it’s very frustrating to have a disappointing dining experience. Travel wins, every time!

      I hope so, actually. I am dying to visit Berlin, even (?!) in winter. It would be fun to finally meet!

  6. Oh I’ve been an experience over items person for my entire adult life. Things are not my thing. Things have to be maintained. Things take up space. I like nice things, even collect some, but I’m far richer in journeys and experiences.

  7. A great piece. I prefer experience over stuff, any day of the week. My husband and I recently moved (in preparation for a bigger move) and just purged a lot of stuff. It’s amazing what can collect, even if you’re not so inclined.

    We like to go out a lot, too, and also eat good meals at home with a great bottle of wine. Our one weakness is that we collect wine and have a pretty cellar – even if it’s not in a cellar at the moment. 🙂

    1. Oh, wine doesn’t count! 🙂

      Purging is soooooo tedious and so necessary; too many of my friends are now facing the exhausting drudgery of having to clean out their deceased parent’s homes and dispose of their things. We have no kids to do it for us, so we better stay on top of it.

  8. I told my husband that from now on, I’ll keep only 8 pcs in my closet. He retorted, “You mean 8pcs of each?”
    I used to live like that. Minimal stuff. But the busier I get, the more stuff I accumulate!

      1. Orrr we just forget we’ve got this pair of black pants already and then get another one. At least in my case. I don’t like dreaming in front of my wardrobe any more.

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  10. Experiences, definitely!

    An then I find that because we don’t buy a lot, we consider purchases very carefully when we need something. As a result, I think I appreciate the things we do have more than is typical. We just got a new car, after living with a bare-bones beater car for a while, and we are so thrilled with it!

      1. It’s a 2015 Golf Sportwagon (might be the Jetta wagon in the US). Not with the top-of-the-line features but very luxurious to us, and a good family car for the city (i.e. not a giant boat but still roomy). 🙂

  11. Jane

    I’ve never understood shopping as a past time. Why spend money on more & more stuff. Or going shopping when you’re on holidays – go see something cultural, not the inside of a store.

    Last year I saw a quote which has stuck with me “The best things in life aren’t things”. Experiences such as the theatre, spending time with friends, enjoying a beautiful spring day I feel are worth so much more than an extra pair of jeans or another handbag.

    1. Lack of imagination?

      Too much money?

      The latest issue of “O” magazine (Oprah Winfrey) has a feature that’s a little sick-making — featuring her BFF Gayle King needing help to cull her dozens and dozens (?) of shoes and handbags.

      1. Jane

        I think it’s both a lack of imagination (because these days I think people generally choose to pretty much only consume mass media & mostly don’t take time to read/listen to long form journalism) & definitely too much money. We are going through financially challenging times in our business & it definitely has pulled into focus where we spend our discretionary $$$.

        I have a significant birthday coming up & am considering putting No Gifts on the invite. I don’t want/need more stuff not chosen by me (& so possibly not to my taste but to be gratefully accepted on the day) in my house which will eventually be added to the piles of stuff that are destined for an upcoming garage sale.

        Good on Gayle for cleaning out her closet – perhaps she’s going to embrace the minimalist lifestyle. Somehow I doubt it!

  12. Experiences, hands down. But that said, certain things can enhance experiences. We are flying to the Czech Republic this week with our folding bikes. We bought them 7 years ago and have gone on several European bike trips. A great investment. Last year I bought an inflatable stand-up paddleboard, and I love my new sport. But I’m pretty careful. I’m not a great cleaner/ organizer and don’t want to spend my time dealing with stuff.

    1. Sports equipment always gets a pass in my book. 🙂 If you’re careful it can last for many years. It’s the endless cycle of shop/dump/shop some more that seems depressing to me.

  13. I love your blog. I know I always say this, but you give us such compelling things to think about.

    As I’ve gotten older (and recently moved across the country), I’ve realized that having more “stuff” is not a recipe for happiness. It’s quite the opposite for me. It weighs me down and complicates life. I’ve purged and purged my possessions and it feels great.

    At the same time, I don’t like to spend big bucks on an evening for a show. Sure it’s fun, but it’s so…temporary. I love to go away for a weekend or go to dinner, but not for a big blow-out vacation. I’d rather save money or spend it on something that will give me something back (either tangible or intangible value)–my home, a much better chair for my aching back, another rescue dog (someday), writing another book.

    So, I’m a little of both. No surprise, as I practice the Middle Way of the Buddhist…

    1. Thanks! 🙂

      Today I spent…a ton of $$$$. My oh my. Like (NYC prices) — $86 on parking (overnight then 7 more hrs.) Yes, really. Plus a bunch of other activities — eating out, a concert, a movie + popcorn. It’s rare I go that crazy in one day but I took the whole day off for myself and loved every minute of it.

      Back to the grindstone tomorrow.

  14. The tone of your article resonated with me. Bewildered, I watch as folks are more into taking pictures of their experiences than of having the actual experiences. Life is the experience and we all take from it what we will.

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