Essay by 49

Experiences vs. Things: My No-Buy Month

freedomfromstuff
I’ve always been someone who would rather spend money on experiences than things and a recent two-week vacation in Peru made me realize just how important experiences - especially travel – are to me. I’m not alone in my conclusion that investing in experiences over things can make you happier. Both The New York Times and Forbes Magazine published studies that prove happiness comes much more frequently from a real-life experience than from purchasing more “things.” But it’s easier to say that you’re going to stop buying things (and invest in experiences instead) than it is to do it.

As much as I love travel, I work online all day and there’s endless temptation to click “buy” at the drop of a hat. But if my vacation taught me anything, it’s that I want to keep that carefree vacation spirit with me in my day-to-day life at home, too. So I decided to put myself on a spending detox diet. I would not buy a single unnecessary “thing” for two weeks. And if it went well, I’d keep going for the rest of the month. The goal was to train myself to recognize which purchases were impulses and which ones were about investing in moments and experiences that would lead to greater happiness: time with loved ones, saving up for another trip or learning a new skill (like Spanish!). At the end of two weeks I learned to see the long-term reward behind changing my buying behavior and ways to avoid temptation and keep my eyes on the prize. -Amy

Click through for the full post after the jump!

The first step was defining, for myself, what was an experience vs. a thing. For example, I decided that restaurant meals were experiences. Drinks with friends? Experiences. New shoes? A thing. This might seem obvious, but I really want a new pair of shoes for skateboarding. A better pair of skating shoes would improve my experience on my longboard (I already had them picked out: perforated leather Vans), but I decided to hold fast to my decision to not bring any more stuff into my house. Now that I had my parameters in place, I was ready to set one rule: every time I wanted to buy a thing, I would put it on a “No Buy” list that I would review at the end of my two weeks.

So, how did it go? I only broke the rule twice. I was traveling to the Arkansas Literary Festival last weekend and my headphones broke (they only played in one ear). I tried to just deal with it, but the thought of three hours on a plane listening to a movie through one ear made me break my pact. I also managed to improve on the huge stack of magazines that I would have normally purchased for the plane and bought only one magazine on the way home. Not too bad for two weeks.

One of the best things that helped me through my detox diet was deciding what my next travel experience (my ultimate goal) was going to be. Looking at travel books (which I checked out from the library) and pricing out trip options seriously helped curb spending. Those Vans shoes basically equaled a night in a hotel and once I started looking at things through my travel goggles, I was much less likely to even consider spending the money on them.

My spending detox also had an unexpected benefit. Resisting buying stuff has made me want to pare down the existing stuff that I have. I already have a plan to go through my closet on Thursday and I’m constantly looking around my apartment to see what I can let go. Last week, I took a stack of mystery novels that had been in my closet for ages and made $60 that went in my trip fund envelope. Thank you, Strand. Now that I’m on a roll and can see the long-term rewards in investing in experiences over things, I think I’m going to try for another two weeks. Wish me luck…

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49 Comments

Katy H

I did the exact same thing last summer to very similar results (I expanded experiences to include allowing myself to purchase things like concert tickets, new albums and books- which are things I decided enhanced my experiences when at home). It was the best feeling! I’ve fallen off the band wagon the last few months, but this post has inspired me to do this again. Thanks for sharing and providing the kick in the pants I needed!

Krista

I love this! Especially the ‘no buy’ list, which can be reviewed later. It seems like an awesome way to determine if you *really* want something, as opposed to the immediate impulse to buy it off the shelf.

My boyfriend and are are big fans of going on small weekend trips around our birthdays/the holidays, where we spend money on the experience of traveling together rather than buying each other things. Collecting experiences & memories together. It’s wonderful. :)

kacie

Thanks for the excellent reminder that possessions should be lower on my priority list! I’m trying to focus on doing projects (which can be a magnet for stuff acquisition!) with what I have on hand. It can be difficult to turn down new tools or craft supplies, but it helps me complete projects instead of just shopping or doing research.

Lauren

This couldn’t have come at a better time, I’m making some major changes in my life that will only be benefited by paring down my things and buying less. Thanks for the inspiration!

Kandyce

i love this! i was inspired to do the same thing after watching ‘the story of stuff’ and have bought nothing during the 40 days of lent for the past 3 years. this year, i also mixed in getting rid of one thing per day (or fixing/ taking out of my to repair/ to sew pile) for the entire duration, too.

i have found every year that my list of things to buy very quickly pares down from need to want and then, if i’m really lucky, disappears entirely. :)

Rebecca M

This is a great reminder that so much stuff is not necessary, and often, you can get by without. I admire your willpower, too! Thanks for the inspiration.

Taylor

I love this! I always try to keep money for trips anyways, but I really like the idea of doing a 2-week detox! I may be trying this at the beginning of the month.

xoxo
Taylor

Zoë

I have every intention of doing this, but then one of my three children grows out of her shoes, or puts his knee through his jeans…I guess those might count as needs more than wants though. Our school doesn’t like their students to go barefoot.

But, I think I’m going to try again next month. The kids all have summer clothes and shoes (except my son DOES need new tennis shoes), as do I. And I don’t need another t-shirt from the festival we go to every Memorial Day weekend. And we love super hero movies, and to us, trips to the movies count as experiences as we don’t do that every week. I think I can do this in May.

ps Wait, do white mochas from Starbucks count as things or experiences? I don’t know if I can give up that treat.

Jenni

I didn’t buy anything new for the whole year of 2008! (I’ve since made up for it. :P) I did it for a bunch of reasons: to curb my materialism, to give away the money I would have spent on stuff I didn’t need anyway, and maybe as a protest against human rights (and human decency) violations in manufacturing in a lot of Third World countries. To be honest, it wasn’t that hard. I stopped going to the mall, stopped going to anthropologie.com every day to see the “New Arrivals,” and made a bee-line to the toilet paper section at Target instead of meandering past the home stuff. Ultimately, it was a great experience, but I still struggle (a LOT) with balancing my love of stuff (and really — seeing beautiful art in my home or sitting in an awesomely comfortable chair might require purchases, but also affords a very long-lasting and really cool experience, for me and everyone who comes over!) and feeling guilty for spending money on what are clearly not essentials when so many people are in need. :(

Jen

I have been on a mission only buy experience gifts for my nephews. They have a TON of STUFF. I like to think I am not being a grinch. Does anyone have suggestions for experience gifts for kids? I have given museum memberships and movie tickets, but they don’t live in the city so fewer opportunities.

Lauren

When we were saving for our house, we went on a spending diet — allowing ourselves only to purchase things that passed a mental checklist of questions ( do I have something like this? will i still have this item in 3-5 years, in what ways will this enrich my life?, etc.). Even though we reach our home-owner goal, I can’t help but continue to live this way.

I definitely think of financial habits the same way I think of health habits: You don’t have to do a 360 overnight, it’s the positive, habit-forming baby steps that make all the difference.

Tiffany

We have our financial advisor take out $200 a week from our checking account for a once a year dream trip. He puts it in a savings account we dont’ have immediate access to. It works. We used to do $100 a week but you do what you can afford and soon it all piles up. We also have a huge water jug in our office where we throw loose coins and extra bills we collect through the week for spending while on vacation.

Michi

I love this post. Like you I rather spend my money in travelling than shopping. Experience is better than material things because travelling makes memories and it makes me happy.

Janelle @ Two Cups of Happy

Loved reading your perspective on this. I find it so interesting (and useful) to discover the “mind tricks” people use with themselves for minimalism. Thanks for sharing!

aida mollenkamp

Such a great idea! Now if I can only control myself to stop convincing myself I *need* new clothes when I go on a trip! ;)

Julia C

This is great! I’ve been doing a similar thing for the last few months to save up for my wedding and it has changed how I think about buying new things. I haven’t bought new clothes in months and now I just think about how I can get rid of the clothes I already have and never wear!

Alix

Jenni, you didn’t buy a single thing for a whole year? How did you eat? Did you buy that toilet paper at Target? I’m wondering if you meant you only bought necessities. Either way, good for you!!

amy

I’ve been on a Craigslist-fueled purge of excess stuff for the last two months! Even if setting up appointments and sending endless text messages to prospective buyers can be a huge pain in the a*s, the reward of getting rid of something is well worth it. Plus, you can turn your “stuff” into “experiences”–like new shoes or dinner. Love it!

Jorge

My doctor recommended to save for trips and spend time with my gorgeous gf. So I took her to Peru!

Allison

@Jen – I too try to do experience gifts for my neices/nephews. A restaurant treat (probably desert) or art projects/craft kits are my usual go tos. Unfortunately the craft kits tend to have lots of packaging, but things like chalk don’t. You could also look into lessons (art,music, dance, sport), tickets to an event, or a punch card to the local rec center (pool, ice skating?). If you plan on spending more money, perhaps get them a small gift and contribute to their 529?

I’m trying to reduce my waste which also means making fewer and more thoughtful purchases. It can be a struggle to ‘just say no’.

Keshe

Great post, and a great reminder to curb my own materialism! I (similar to the poster above Jenni) also did a buy-nothing-new year in 2008. The aim was to buy nothing new for the whole year – anything I wanted I had to make, borrow, or buy second hand! I was successful (…just) and I blogged about it at http://www.thevintageyear.blogspot.com

nancy

I am still sad about the stainless steel dairy bucket I passed over for $10 at goodwill cause I was on a spending hiatus. Balance!

Berglind

So true!, you don’t realize how much money you are spending with a one, two, three (fifteen) clicks.

Fiona Duke

you are so inspirational I love your blog. I am so bad at buying ‘things’ and then feel so guilty when i bring them home and they nestle in with my other ‘stuff’ and you hardly notice them so I think… why did I do that.
My husband is always saying we should stop spending on ‘things’ and more experiences and you are so right. I will use you as my guru and try and do a detox. I think a week even will be hard. How pathetic does that sound. I agree, being on line all day it is just too tempting sometimes. Maybe I will keep a score and everything I see / want I will put the price down and then tot it up to see how much I would have spent and then go out for a fab meal !!!! Will let you know………..

Sandra

Moving cities and across the country almost three years ago meant going from a big old Victorian semi- detached home to a tiny 1930’s cottagey type house. And that meant downsizing to half my possessions and some smaller furniture.

I just realized that it sounds like I live in a dollhouse! Just one with much smaller rooms.

The move also meant less storage. Something comes in? Something has to go out.

I realized too that although I wasn’t a huge shopper, I did spend time shopping online when I was stressed about work. To curb that I made a list of things to do instead that I could quickly refer to.

I agree – experiences trump “stuff”.

Rachael

My husband and i moved across the world from New Zealand to Italy last year and we got rid of almost everything we owned. It surprised me how little I was actually really attached to. Now we live in a furnished apartment and know we will probably move back in a years time so try really hard not to acquire stuff because then we will have to move it all back! It is incredibly liberating being free of stuff!

Leslie Musser

This is quite a liberating perspective. Admittedly, I have a weak spot in my wallet for new clothes, shiny baubles, and lovely home decor pieces. But the perspective of acquiring experiences is tremendous. In my global travels, regardless of any knick-knacks I’ve purchased, the trip is far more memorable than the articles. I admire this resilience!

Stéphanie

I once read an article about the no-buy movement which opened my eyes to the other side of it. I am by no means an advocate for materialism, but I wonder where the line is drawn between materialism and buying from local shops, artisans, and makers? Since we live in a capitalist society, putting our money back into the economy is a way to support our community. I think that the focus should be on mindful spending, instead – even if buying from a major corporation.

Please don’t get me wrong! I love the no-buy challenge since it helps people realise the role that materialism is playing in their lives. I just wanted to put a different perspective out there. :)

Margaret

I actually have started to do this every March and deemed it Minimalist March. Not only do I not buy things – which is always a challenge as my current things have a way of wearing out (jeans always get holes in them) on March 1st – but I also use this time to cut down on food spending and try to also not buy breakfast or lunch (or coffee on the way to work when I get free coffee at work – ridiculous!).

Ruth

I love this post! So much that I wrote about it on my blog: http://talkforeigntome.com/2014/04/30/investing-in-experiences.

It’s so encouraging to get tips and insight from someone who’s on a similar journey to my own… I’m also trying to learn Spanish (and French) DIY-style here in NYC and then I hope to go abroad for immersion. Your post about facing your fear of learning a second language (a fear I share after many failed past attempts) inspired me to commit to an hour a day of practice.

So – thank you! And please keep these kinds of posts coming – I’m rooting for you and I want updates! :)

Amy

My husband and I do this every January. Just one month a year we have a pretty strict “no-buy” rule (with groceries, gas and bills the only exceptions). It’s something we’ve come to look forward to. Not only do we save a significant amount of money, it’s a good way to start the year to remind ourselves to live minimally. It’s also REALLY easy to do in January, living in Michigan, when all we want to do is hibernate anyway!

~Heather

If I may riff off your article…
S/he who buys what s/he does not need, steals from her/him self.
~Swedish proverb via Pinterest.

james

Brilliant advice – I always thought if you buy something then you will always have it – but now my place is filled with stuff = clutter = too much “junk” – but i delight in the memories of ‘event’s so much more than ‘stuff’ = thank you – its time to have an estate sale !

dawn

Nice article.

For the past twenty years, I have had a garage sale twice a year. I started this when we lived in Brooklyn with three littles.

Just had the spring one this past weekend and purging is the best feeling in the world.

Diana

Fabulous article. Plus, I appreciate the honesty in admitting where you broke the rule and more importantly, understanding why.

whatisinmyworld

Great post. I was just having a similar conversation. I crave for more experiences especially travel more so than things. Traveling feeds my soul and energizes my creativity. I just returned from Morocco and can not wait till my next adventure.I love connecting the do not spend with a goal of a dream vacation.
Good Luck

Loribeth

I think my husband would really enjoy this kind of challenge and it would be good for me to help get a better idea on how much money I waste out of our budget a month at Target, and the clearance at West Elm ;) We’re just starting our life together and our home will be way better down the road if it isn’t filled with clutter we don’t need.

Elisabeth

Amy,
Are you from Arkansas? I’ve been hoping for a while that someone would write about what to do in Northwest Arkansas, Fayetteville and Bentonville. I live in Seattle and folks here think Arkansas is a joke. They just don’t know about Crystal Bridges Museum or Pratt Place Inn and Barn. There is an Ale Trail with micro brews. We have way more culture and sophistication than the rest of the country gives us credit for.

jessvii

I am loving reading all of these great comments just as much as I enjoyed the article! You guys have some great ideas.

I think just writing things down can help… I also think that reminding oneself of the long term goal (a trip fund if you’re on a spending hiatus, a swimsuit body if you’re on a fatty foods hiatus, etc.) can help.

One thing I do not understand is why my spending went way, way down while I was staying at home with my newborn. Obviously there were less business lunches, wardrobe purchases and parking meters… But we’re talking like a reduction of spending by two-thirds. How was I saving so much money without even trying?

Nina

You reminded me of the importance of having an experience goal. When I have a trip planned, I’m much more careful with my money. Since I don’t have any plans right now, I’ve been spending more. Looks like I need to plan a trip!

Elaine

I’ve discovered that my life is actually so much easier when I just know that I am not going to buy anything. I started a spending fast/famine last summer when DH lost his job. Now I only buy groceries and a few household essentials (eg. toilet paper). My only indulgences are the daily newspaper and some favourite magazines every month. A strict no-buy policy has been liberating. No debating whether to buy. No dithering over choices in size, quantity, colour or style. No drama about shopping or budgeting or buyer’s remorse. It’s simplified my life enormously and it’s been incredibly free-ing. The hardest thing is going without a haircut or mani/pedi. It’s been almost 10 months and even though he found a new job a couple of months ago, I’ve decided to stick with the spending fast for at least a full 12 months and possibly longer.

YesGrrrl

I also love this post and have already been trying many similar things. I only buy “needs” (groceries, gasoline, soap), and save up the “wants” in a book to review at the end of the month.

Ironically, however, this blog is something that directly feeds a desire to acquire many pretty “things.” I rarely visit this or other sites anymore for this reason, and I have stopped buying magazines that focus only on shopping and fashion.

D*S is certainly not the only blog out there that features lots of THINGS, just saying that it definitely contributes to that mindset (for me as an individual and all of us as a culture). Sorry to be a downer, I know that it’s not the only thing it does, but I would rather focus on other areas for now.

Grace Bonney

YesGrrrl,

I see your point. As a blog that talks about design, we aren’t always focused on “essentials”. But I think this post, any many others (like our weekly recipes, city guides, business advice columns and DIY posts) are more reflective of the majority of what we post here these days. Since late 2013, we’ve made the decision to post only a small handful of shopping-based posts and we’ve made good on that promise to ourselves. I hope you’ll notice the change and join us every now and then.

Grace

Nadine

Life is all about choices. I travel. A lot. I am kind of broke. And still I travel. Because my priorities are not luxuries. My daily expenses are brought down to a minimum. I cook delicious meals with little money. I am a great DIY. I recycle. I sold my gold jewelry. And I travel on a very tight budget. But I have a great time. People with ordinary jobs wonder how I do it, and are jealous. In the mean time they have daily lattes, a sandwich for lunch, drinks with friends at night, they have expensive city trips, stay in luxury hotels, have expensive manicures, and pedicures, buy designer clothes, eat fancy food, … I focus on what counts, and that is traveling. So if you are slaving away in your office to maintain your luxury life style, don’t hate me. You want to enjoy life, change your life style!

sally

while this is a great idea, i just wanna know what you bought in peru!! please share details!

Stephanie

For JEN,
I am also an aunt who aims for experience gifts for my niece and nephew. They live about 2 hours away, so often we can do things together. I often make up a handmade certificate for the experience and give them that wrapped up for the b-day or holiday. Examples have been: crafting day with me (we carved a pumpkin, made Halloween decorations/drawings, sewed a cape for her costume); dough day (making homemade pizza dough and pizzas); camping; riding a train; going to a museum.
The grandparents often take them to performances.

Other ideas if you don’t live close enough to do the experiences together: pay for piano lessons and art lessons with local teachers. I’ve bought them a family membership to one of their favorite museums and to a local land trust whose preserves they go hiking in. Also give e-books, subscriptions to kids magazines (in print, old school and “stuff” but I still like it) and another idea is for online subscriptions to sites like craftsy etc.

Stephanie

Thanks Grace for your comment and the changes you have been making with D*S. I too had begun skipping the product posts, but enjoy seeing work by individual designers. The options to Pin or Bookmark are favorable to clicking to Buy. I can go back and experience things visually and inspirationally for free and without the physical consumption.
I did a year without purchasing any clothing/shoes/accessories. Not hard once I got going. The first week of January I bought a pair of socks, which I had had on my list already and in the moment I forgot about my “ban”.
I’ve just been living overseas for 4 months and not purchasing stuff while there, but now that I am back home, getting new shoes, a few clothing items and home items has proven difficult to resist.

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