Posts Tagged ‘materialism’

Photo by Werner Kunz

I attended a birthday party a couple of weeks ago, and I had a conversation that’s become stuck in my mind. I was talking to a friend who was foregoing travel for a period of time (maybe a couple of years) in order to save up for a car he really wants. He said something like, “I always prefer spending money on things instead of experiences because I can keep on having great experiences with material objects for a long period of time.”

This statement caused me to begin questioning the culture of consumerism and my own relationship with the materialistic world. If questioned, I would have answered the exact opposite of my friend, that I prefer to spend money on experiences because those experiences will make me happier and more engaged in my life as a whole. There’s even research supporting my viewpoint.

But it’s not that simple, is it? I like material things as well as anyone else. My husband and I own a house, and we just purchased a new car since my old one (a ‘95 Corolla) has become finicky in its old age. Plus I have my three consumer weaknesses: books, sheet music, and clothes & jewelry. Hence the main storage problems in my house are bookshelf space and closet space.

I remember when I was starting my studio business, and I had to strictly prioritize my budget to make my earnings stretch. I allowed myself to buy sheet music (within reason) because I used it in my business. I only bought books on special occasions (thank goodness for libraries), and pretty much only mass market paperbacks even then. I did go clothes shopping, but I was careful to visit stores like Mervyn’s, Target, and Ross, where my money would go a lot farther.

In return for this thrift, I allowed myself experiences that I desperately wanted. I always allowed myself gas money if I wanted to drive somewhere to visit friends or enjoy a particular sight. I’d occasionally splurge on a dinner out with friends. And I’d save everything else for my annual trip abroad—the experience of travel and seeing other cultures was my highest priority. Sometimes I wished I could buy “pretty” things, but more often I worried about unexpected medical expenses taking away my travel budget. Experience trumped all.

One year, however, after I had received some gift money, I splurged and bought the complete set of Buffy the Vampire Slayer DVDs. I was so excited about this purchase, and I don’t even know how many times I’ve watched those DVDs—over and over, and I’m sure I’ll be watching them many more times in the future. So I understand what my friend meant about material objects giving lasting pleasure. What about a good piano? Does that count as a material object or do we purchase what a piano represents: the experience of making music? And driving in an expensive car (like my friend wants) is a completely different experience than driving my rattling old Corolla.

I wonder how often when we’re spending money on something material, what we’re really buying is the experience the object represents. I think I’d personally still prioritize straight-up experience expenses over more object-oriented ones: a night at the theater, a delicious meal, being able to spend time with non-local friends, traveling around the world. But perhaps my friend and I aren’t so different in our thought processes after all.

In which case, here’s the lesson I’m taking away from this: if I am making a purchase, I will try to remember to stop and consider what experience a given object represents, and then decide whether it is an experience that I truly want and that the object will actually deliver.

Objects are never going to be what makes me the happiest, however. My husband, my dog, my friends, intellectual stimulation and challenge, music and stories—these are the most important to me.

Which do you prefer—spending money on experiences or physical objects? Care to share a particularly memorable experience or purchase? I’m all ears.

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