If you have a materialistic attitude to life and, to make matters worse, you feel the urge to compare yourself to others in terms of who has more possessions, the joy you get from buying a new thing fades in an instant. An example? As soon as it turns out that the neighbour’s car is more expensive or equipped with superior technologies, some people are unable to enjoy their car any more. We know this from experience, don’t we?
Toxic comparisons take the fun out of it
One of the reasons why we enjoy new purchases for only a brief time is that it’s easy to compare them with the things other people have, and immediately see if ours are better – or not. Things are easier to compare than experiences. Both the price and the measurable qualities of a given product facilitate such comparisons, and their effects can have a negative impact on our mental state.
With experiences, it’s hard to tell who’s had more fun because even when different people try the same things, their emotions vary. If several people drink the same wine, attend a concert or admire a painting, there’s no way of quantifying who derives more joy from the experience. It’s even more difficult to compare experiences from different contexts. Even if several people were asked to rate their joy on a scale, it would still be impossible to determine precisely who actually had a more pleasant experience.
Why is it usually more satisfying and, in the long-term, more enjoyable to spend money on experiences rather than things? What lessons can we learn from this to increase our sense of well-being?
Importantly, as far as experiences go, price is no indicator of the level of enjoyment. A wine with twice the price tag does not give you twice as much pleasure. What’s more, some free activities can give you more fun than something you have to pay for.
Consequently, if someone – even a very wealthy person – wants to build their sense of worth or success based on how many expensive items they can buy, they fall into a trap. There will always be someone who has more material possessions than them!
Some people find it easier to spend money on things than on experiences
Smart spending is one of the 9 areas of financial management. To maintain a sense of mental well-being, in addition to buying things you need to strive for pleasant experiences.
Different approaches to money can be observed by reviewing the purchasing decisions of people with different types of financial identity. I’ve described these types in the article “Financial identity: its impact on how you handle and feel about money”.
While hedonists are happy to spend money both on things and experiences, during financial coaching sessions I’ve come across people with the financial identities of “penny-pincher” and “worrier” who find it even more difficult emotionally to spend money on experiences than things, because experiences are fleeting... Some have even given up concerts of their favourite artists or dream holidays, because “a concert ticket costs as much as a pair of shoes, and instead of traveling abroad money could be saved towards buying a car”.
These people find it easier to rationalize paying for tangible things. At the same time, they feel that by restricting their spending on pleasure-inducing experiences they reduce their sense of happiness.
Pitfalls of overspending on things
When Poland was under Communist rule, and all goods were scarce, stocking up was a very rational strategy. People used to buy things in larger quantities for later use, also for their children. However, things have changed. Stores are packed full of everything you might want, and the media do everything they can to make us buy more than we need...
Even though surrounding ourselves with objects can bring pleasure, create a false sense of security and joy of spending money on “something tangible”, after buying things we really need we are more likely to increase our satisfaction with life if we spend more on experiences than physical things.
What’s more, people who chase after the next new thing have less time to cultivate relationships. It’s not that you need to spend time on earning money, if you want to go shopping, because many experiences can be pricey as well, for example a ticketed concert.
However, the more clothes, books, china or appliances you own, the more time you have to devote to looking after them. Objects need tidying up, maintenance or other activities. They need time that you will never get back. They can also result in additional costs. For example, silver jewellery requires occasional cleaning, just like cars need maintenance and repairs, and clothes – even if you don’t wear them – need refreshing.
Things take up space, so you need a bigger house or storage facilities, for example self-service storage units, to keep them. And that means more spending. If you have two cars, you also need two parking spaces. If you’ve bought lots of clothes, books or electronic gadgets, you need bigger wardrobes. However, they take up more space in your home, so you have less space for yourself and your loved ones.
Also, objects may get lost, while your experiences are forever yours. They are etched on your memory regardless of whether you are rich or poor, or how your life unfolds.
Sometimes you think that as soon as you buy something from your wish list, your happiness level will increase. You hope that the joy of buying a car you’ve always wanted, clothes or electronics will stay with you for a long time... However, the mechanism of hedonic adaptation, or the tendency to get used to good things quickly, diminishes the perceived pleasure within a very short time.
The good news is that when it comes to experiences, hedonic adaptation proceeds more slowly than with things. In other words, even though at some point you grow accustomed to pleasant experiences – such as eating in posh restaurants – this usually does not happen as quickly as getting used to driving a more expensive car, having a high-end smartphone or wearing designer clothes.
Sometimes the best things in life are free For example, you can visit museums, art galleries or historic buildings free of charge once a week. Many beautiful places are free to explore, including historic churches, parks or nature reserves. Even in small towns there are free cultural and sports events, open lectures, shows, and training sessions. You don’t have to pay anything to admire the sunsets and the beauty of nature – or to enjoy time with your loved ones. Remember the words of Michał Bajor’s song “I am rich” (“Ja jestem bogaty”):
I am really rich,
I have stars in the sky,
And you, and the flowers.”
To conclude, make an effort to strike a balance between buying new things and creating positive experiences.