The Fine Line Between Stuff and Experience

As part of doing my research for All The Money In The World, I’ve been reading a lot of studies on money and happiness. It is a truism of this literature that experiences make us happier than things. We anticipate experiences, and enjoy replaying them afterwards. Repeated happy experiences also have the upside in that they are always slightly different. Variability helps forestall hedonic adaptation — our tendency to get used to things, and hence not enjoy them so much anymore.

I’ve certainly been trying to keep this in mind as I go through the massive acquisition phase that accompanies buying a new house. But here’s the issue: the line between stuff and experience is more blurry than one might first imagine.

For instance, one of our first purchases was a teak table with chairs and an umbrella that goes on our back porch. A dining room table is, most emphatically, a thing. It is even cited in this paper on money and happiness as the opposite of spending money on an experience, like getting together with friends at a bar. The friends are always enjoyable in a varying fashion. Whereas the table just sits there.

But… one of my goals this summer was to eat outside as often as possible. Since moving to this new house, we have been eating outside every night, and often for breakfast too. This morning after I came back from my run (athletic gear = another category of stuff that I really enjoy spending on) we sat on the porch and ate cereal and pineapple and enjoyed the backyard. The backyard is brimming with flowers. Flowers are also things, but enjoying them is an experience. My spending money on stuff (table, flowers) has enabled me to enjoy the experience of eating outside.

So where is the line? The problem, of course, is that one can justify any purchase in this fashion. I’ve been trying to figure this out with buying rugs. It turns out that one can spend any amount of money on rugs. There are probably some people who are really into rugs, who view them as art and would enjoy sitting in a room and just taking in the intricacies of the stitching. These people should spend a lot of money on rugs, but I’m not really one of those people. So I’m always looking at a rug price tag and thinking “what else could that rug buy?” A trip to Europe. A lot of babysitting. You get the picture. But my table has already bought me 5 lovely outdoor meals, and hopefully will buy a hundred more before the end of the summer. Unless that whole hedonic adaptation thing kicks in and I decide that eating outside isn’t so special anymore…

What objects have you been happy to spend money on? And which do you view as a waste?



9 Responses to The Fine Line Between Stuff and Experience


  1. Denise R says:

    Our outdoor furniture was one of our best purchases too. The joy of eating outside is special in locales like ours b/c it’s new each spring/summer. My boys love it. We also bought plastic plates/cups so I didn’t have to worry about breakage. After 10 years I still enjoy their cheery design.

    Our small backyard pool was also a purchase that makes the kids happy, as does an outdoor playset, which we don’t actually have, but they enjoy at other people’s houses.

    My older son recently learned how to ride a two-wheeler and my younger son love to ride too. I figured we could wait until next year to get a bike rack for the car, as we are trying to limit purchases until I return to work in September. Boy am I glad he ignored me and bought the hitch, rack etc. We went riding at a state park this weekend and it was one of the happiest days we’ve had. The kids are excited to go again. None of this would be possible without the purchase of a thing–that leads to experiences.

    Now that we have a hitch on the car, we are thinking about purchasing an RV to travel and have more experiences.

    Smaller past purchases for experiences– roller skates/blades for the family, my piano, tap shoes, books, yarn, air conditioners, our Wii, our Empire passport that gives us access to state parks, beaches and the list goes on. Now that I think about it, we really only purchase “things” that will make our life easier or more fun.

    Wasteful purchases–a TV for the bedroom.

  2. Heather says:

    One of my rules for this summer is ‘Experience Over Things’. When I find myself questioning a purchase, I ask what my kids and I will remember from the purchase. If it is great day of fun at a museum or national park, then I am OK with the expense, but if it is something that I have to drag around with me for the next 2 months (we are on a 3 month road trip) then I think twice about the purchase. New paddle for the kayak? That is a no-brainer as the kayak will get lots of use. Tshirts from the places we visit? No thanks (but postcards that get mailed home are OK).

  3. Twin Mom says:

    One of our best purchases was a swingset, wooden, purchased by seeking on craigslist. It has a sandbox in the bottom, slide, horizontal ladder, rope climbing wall and swings. I can’t figure out how NYC moms get anything done without sending their children out in the yard to play. :)

  4. Cara says:

    Like the swingset idea; have been toying with it myself. We have a plain picnic table probably 50 years old or at least 25. It is probably not worth more than $150 and it came with the house — I don’t think it is the table that gives you the backyard goal — I think the flowers, the tablecloth if you need one which you do on a picnic table, the utensils that are easy to use out there, they all help — but there are bigger things — if you are going to have dinner in the backyard as a family either with or without the hubby — you have to commit to it, set your work schedule so you have some food to put out that young kids will eat, make sureeveryone is home and you can stop work by 5 o r 5:30 or 6 with these long days etc. maybe your hubby has to commit to be home at that time or you have to have a plan for what to do if your kids are too little to sit very long at the table — an area for them to run around — a gate to make sure they stay out of the street etc.
    maybe put a gate in or make sure the yard is closed off, do something about the bugs that will not be too toxic to your kids — but I don’t think it is the expensive table that makes it happen — and this in American culture is where we get confused… the expensive table the spending on things is not necessarily what makes the goal happen — it is the goal setting and committing to it. EAting outside with the family and enjoying it is the goal — the cost of the table you do it on is relative to your individual financial situation but you don’t need to spend a lot of money to make this goal happen.

    • Denise R says:

      You are right about that. The dishes etc help, but the commitment is the biggest part. You could eat on an old blanket as long as you put all the effort and people together to make it happen.
      We have also eaten outside more b/c I finally found candles that really keep the bugs away (Yankee Conceal, and a Thermocell mini)

  5. Lisa says:

    My dog — $120 at animal control and about $50/month in maintenance. Best investment ever.

  6. Nihara says:

    I think your outdoor dining table is definitely an experience disguised as a thing! It will bring you much happiness during your country life.

    On rugs, I love home decorating and will occasionally splurge on my home, but I just couldn’t get jazzed over rugs for some reason. I knew that they would be walked on and rolled on and spilled on . . . and I couldn’t spend my life stressing out over that stuff. I bought fairly inexpensive rugs from Home Goods and they look fabulous. Oddly, I spent less on my rugs than I did on my ottoman, but for me that has been worth it. One more tip: avoid buying rugs online. They look totally different when they arrive, and they cost a gzillion dollars to return.

  7. LaDawn says:

    Laura: Purchase some lunch trays. I got mine from Tupperware. I prepare their lunch, set it on the trays, and we go outside to eat. No crumbs or spills in the house! This works well as the children get older and they carry their own tray out to the table. Plus, it prepares them for school lunch if they don’t brown bag it.

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