Buy experiences, not things, (plus these two other things) if you want to maximize your happiness ROI (Return on Investment).

young couple talking in sunny meadow, text overlay "how to buy experiences not things ideas"Many of us have learned over the years that physical things do not make us happy. Sure, there’s the fleeting excitement of making a new purchase and playing with a shiny, new toy. But if you are looking for real, bone-deep happiness, then spending money on items is not the way to go.

Does that mean that spending money does not bring happiness at all?

It turns out that it depends on what you purchase with your money. When given a choice of what to purchase, using your money towards an experience is better than spending your money on an item.

Money Can’t Buy Happiness…or Can it?

We all know that money has the ability to make us completely miserable if we mismanage it or fall into ill fortune. But, can money buy happiness?

Most people say “No — money can't buy happiness.”

It's one of those thoughtful phrases with a lot of depth that people continue to pass along when they want to sound wise. Because of this, no one seems to want to debate it (the money can't buy happiness debate).

I mean, it appears to be true most of the time. We know this through examples of extremely wealthy people who commit suicide, suffer from great bouts of depression, and the many literary stories about the poor-rich man.

Yet the rest of us live our lives on the other side with limited resources, secretly suspecting that money can play a role in happiness.

The question is, how much can it add to our happiness, and in what way?

Do Experiences Make Us Happier than Possessions? — Experiences Vs. Possessions

According to a study titled “If Money Doesn’t Make You Happy Then You Probably Aren’t Spending it Right”, money can buy us a small amount of happiness, particularly when we used it for experiences and when we use it to benefit others.

Study author Ryan Howell, from San Francisco State University, first introduced this concept when he presented his findings at the 2009 annual meeting of Society for Personality and Social Psychology.

Howell found several reasons for why experiences make us happier than things, starting with “memory capital.” You might get bored with a new item after six months or so, but having an experience to remember and think about will bring repeated happiness over a lifetime. Experiences also make us feel alive by increasing our sense of “vitality, vigor, and sense of being connected with your social world.” Finally, experiences are less susceptible to social comparison than belongings (i.e. you may look at your neighbor’s new flat screen television with a green eye, but comparing your last canoe trip to your neighbor’s canoe trip is not as likely).

If you're looking for real, bone-deep happiness, then spending money on items is not the way to go. Click To Tweet

But you know what else money can buy that can make people happier (according to me)?

People enjoy having more control over their circumstances, which money can provide (financial freedom). People also find happiness in love, friendships, and social interactions. While money cannot purchase any of these, having enough money can create time, and with that time we can all nurture relationships.

How to Increase Your Happiness on a Low Budget

What excites my frugal heart about these study's findings is that the cost of the experience doesn’t matter in terms of the amount of happiness it will bring.

So long as it is an experience, you can spend $0 or $3,000, and you'll still gain the same amount of happiness.

How great is that?

This means that last Saturday when I learned how to bake my grandmother’s famous chocolate cake with her beside me, she and I reaped just as much happiness and memory capital as a couple who spent $50 going to dinner and a movie.

Yet our checking accounts stayed intact!

Buy Experiences Not Things — Ideas

Here are a few ideas to start reaping some happiness (without breaking your budget).

#1: Find Free Events on Eventbrite.com

Did you know that you can filter your search results on Eventbrite.com for just FREE events near you? I've found all kinds of cool ones within 10 miles of us in Houston.

Search for events in you zipcode, then click “More Filters”.

screenshot with arrow pointing to "more filters"

Click “Any Price”, then toggle down to “Free”.

arrows pointing to "any price", and then "free"

See what you can find!

#2: Host Board Game Potlucks

Once every other month or so I go to a friend’s house for her board game potlucks. These are so much fun! I get to compete against others, learn a new game, socialize, and then we all bring ingredients or dishes to help with a meal afterwards. The cost is very low, and the social and entertainment value is very high!

#3: Go on Wine Tastings

Wine tastings typically cost $0-$10. There are lots of places around Houston and outside of Houston to do this, and you can do some research to find wineries and vineyards near your own town.

Get a group of friends together or your significant other and experience either local or global wines. If one wine tasting place is not enough, then map out a few to travel to (ensuring you have a designated driver).

#4: Meet Up for Coffee

In the last several months I have met up with two different friends at a coffee shop. For less than $5 we spent a few hours chatting, giggling, and having a great time just catching up with each other.

Howell states that, “surprisingly little is known about the processes by which one may resist urges to buy material items and invest in experiential consumption.” While he and his team continue to figure that out, I hope you will implement his current findings into your life by choosing to spend small amounts of money on experiences rather than on things.

#5: Go on a Staycation

I've got an ultimate resource guide for how to set up your staycation (plus tons of staycation ideas) to make your own staycation an incredible experience. For starters, you want to make it intentional, and set a theme.

You'll want to research the hottest things to do in your area of this world (or within an hour or two), and then actually create an itinerary.

Oh, and one more thing — you'll definitely want to set up your home so that it feels like you're on vacation!

#6: Take Your Child through a Car Wash

One of our luxuries as little kids was when a parent took us through the automatic car wash. It was so neat watching the car get a bath and rinsed off while staying nice and dry inside.

#7: Hunt for Gems

My father would take one or two of us with him when visiting other farmers/neighbors. One of these farmers in particular had beautiful rose quartz in their meadow/barnyard. Each time we went to visit I would spend an hour or so hunting for rose quartz (like finding treasure!). Also, at the edge of one of our fields was rumored to be arrowheads. My sister, brother, and I used to dig for these every so often. I don’t think we ever found anything, but how entertaining it was for us! As a bonus, one year I was given the Rock Tumbler as a Christmas gift, which gave us a way to polish any stones we found.

#8: Camp Out in the Backyard

Several times my brother, sister and I would pitch a tent in our front yard and go “camping” for the night. This usually coincided with some sort of eclipse or meteorite show we wanted to stay up for (and we never actually stayed awake long enough to see whatever we had wanted to begin with). This was a great way to get us excited, planning, and out of the house for awhile!

#9: Visit the Pet Store

I always remember my mother running a ton of errands. Fortunately for us, whenever we went to this one shopping center in Thorndale she would allow us to visit the pet shop next door to the store she needed. Of course, we knew we could never actually buy one of the pets (and we had a hundred or so “pets” on the farm anyway), so allowing us into the store was not a dangerous thing.

#10: Blow Bubbles

This is just one of my all-time favorite activities. When I am over at people’s homes that have children and they bring out the bubbles, I enthusiastically count myself in on the fun. In fact, at our wedding I gave out bubbles to all of the guests so that we could be engulfed in them while walking back up the aisle; I could not think of a better way to start our new lives together. My Aunt Anita taught me that bubbles are not just for kids when, for a retirement dinner, she purchased each of the guests these cool teddy bear bubble bottles where you push in the belly to get the wand. What fun we all had!

#11: Actually Play with Playdoh (No Kids Needed!)

Through innovation activities at the market research consulting firm I used to work for, I learned that playing with things at your desk (and away from your desk) is a great way to spark creativity. If you’re sitting there thinking, why not think with some playdoh in your hands? I have a set on each of my desks at home and in my cubicle (you can purchase your own cheaply at craft stores and dollar stores).

#12: Ride the Ferris Wheel

I used to look forward to our local carnival and the boardwalk in Ocean City MD each year for the rides. I was into the haunted houses, roller coasters, mixer, or really anything with a bit of a thrill to it. I am sad to say that I have not ridden a carnival ride in years. I have mentioned for the last three years that we should do one of those haunted houses that pop up around Halloween, but haven’t gotten to one of those either!

Here’s to greater ROIs (return on investments) for all of us!

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Amanda L. Grossman is a Certified Financial Education Instructor, Plutus Foundation Grant Recipient, and founder of Frugal Confessions. Over the last 10 years, her money work helping people with how to save money and how to manage money has been featured in Kiplinger, Washington Post, U.S. News & World Report, Business Insider, LifeHacker, Woman's World, Woman's Day, ABC 13 Houston, Keybank, and more. Read more here.
53 replies
  1. Crystal
    Crystal says:

    Awww, I’m so glad you like our potlucks!!! Or at least, I am assuming you are talking about ours, lol. They give me a great happiness ROI too (less than $30 usually spent for the main dish and some potluck basics and hours and hours of fun).

    I also agree that coffee shop meetups are fun and cheap too. I am also a big fan of rotating movie nights at different friends’ homes every week. 🙂

    Reply
    • FruGal
      FruGal says:

      Ooohhh, I knit as well! I just joined a knitting group that meets about once a month only two miles from home. Can’t beat that!

      Reply
  2. Joe
    Joe says:

    Having fun and generating great experiences don’t have to be expensive. Buying stuff is fun too, but the high wears off so quickly. We don’t have room for more junks anyway.

    Reply
    • FruGal
      FruGal says:

      Neither do we! I love to keep things simple and uncluttered; I find that it really allows me more mental space and energy to create.

      Reply
  3. Brick By Brick Investing | Marvin
    Brick By Brick Investing | Marvin says:

    This is an awesome concept that I really like! Definitely something a couple looking to get out of debt should start implementing immediately.

    Reply
  4. David
    David says:

    This is such a wonderful post! My girlfriend and me were recently discussing this because I am very fiscally conservative and she is not yet we never let discussions of finances interrupt our relationship and the happiness we both bring to each other’s lives. Great Share!

    Reply
    • FruGal
      FruGal says:

      Paul and I have certainly taken on more of each other’s traits with money (he was never a big spender, but moreso than I am, and of course I am much more frugal than he was to begin with). It’s interesting to see how a couple meets in the middle after taking on some of each other’s traits. For us, it was a good thing, as I needed to open up a little bit about money and he needed to buckle down a little bit more. I hope the same sort of thing happens for you guys.

      Reply
  5. cj
    cj says:

    Fantastic post!! My wife and I just wrote a book together. This actually cost next to nothing, but the experience has been profound, unforgettable, exhilarating. Oh, and we wrote just about the entire book at our two-person coffee meet-ups each morning. Very cool backing this up with a scientific study too! Thanks!

    Reply
    • FruGal
      FruGal says:

      How neat that you guys wrote a book together! I think that’s an awesome idea. I also like that you do coffee meet-ups each morning.

      Reply
  6. Money Beagle
    Money Beagle says:

    There are a group of friends that I used to see regularly that I now see very infrequently, simply because now we all have families and we’ve moved further and further apart as circumstances have led for us. It’s funny because when we get together, there’s one guy that always wants to do something like go golfing or go to a great restaurant or something else, and I have to point out (every time) that it’s more about seeing each other and catching up than doing something spectacular (that’s also expensive).

    Reply
    • FruGal
      FruGal says:

      That stinks that one person always wants to do something expensive. It’s nice every once in awhile, but you are right, it should not be a deterrent for you all to get together.

      Reply
  7. Jennifer
    Jennifer says:

    I got nostalgic after reading the content….I still remember the numerous visits that I used to look forward to along with my parents during summer vacations. Now a days everything is changing so fast and getting mechanical. Yet here we are, modern parents with our gadget-mad offspring, seeking to return in numbers to those days of freedom and innocence from our own childhood where the best entertainment was free and summer days seems endless.

    Reply
  8. CreditDonkey
    CreditDonkey says:

    I always have fond memories of my granny in her wheelchair, telling me stories of my father in his youth. I was very happy seeing him through her eyes. He died early at age 76, so I try to acquaint my children with their grandpa by telling them how he was as a father. His grandchildren always enjoy these story telling times.

    Reply
  9. Shannon-ReadyForZero
    Shannon-ReadyForZero says:

    I don’t have any children yet, but my parents and I had a ton of fun activities like this when I was a kid. My favorites were our Saturday afternoon bike rides at the local trail (fun, cheap, and a good way to exercise), collecting fireflies at dusk, and having barbecues in the summer. I’m so lucky to have parents that focus more on spending time together as a family than anything else.

    Reply
    • FruGal
      FruGal says:

      You are very fortunate! I forgot all about collecting fireflies. That is so much fun! We don’t have many here in Houston.

      Reply
  10. Money Beagle
    Money Beagle says:

    I take my three year old son to the same car wash that I used to get a kick out of when I was a kid. It’s full service so you get out and you get to walk through the building and look through the windows as the car is being washed.

    Reply
  11. Crystal
    Crystal says:

    Thank you for this post!! I have a 2-1/2 year old son and it is so much fun to re-live my own childhood through his eyes. When we have a free weekend day, my husband always wants to go to the latest attraction in town (which costs probably $30-$40 after entrance fees, food, parking, etc.), but we usually end up doing something free as your post suggests, and we all have tons of fun!

    Reply
  12. Crystal @ Prairie Ecothrifter
    Crystal @ Prairie Ecothrifter says:

    I still blow bubbles at my office desk (I keep those little sample bubble thingies from weddings)…it makes me laugh to watch my dogs go after them. This reminds me that I need to go fly a kite and get my friends to play freeze tag…

    Reply
  13. Elaine@mortgagefreeinthree.com
    [email protected] says:

    I read this yesterday and stopped by the beach on the way from dropping the kids off. I rolled up my trouser legs, I paddled, I looked in some rock pools, I collected some shells and drove home with the sand between my toes.

    Much nicer way to spend a couple of hours than chained to my desk – thank you for giving me a moment.

    Reply
  14. Shannon-ReadyForZero
    Shannon-ReadyForZero says:

    I used to love rolling down huge grass hills or burying my feet in the sand. I’ve also been thinking about breaking the old bike out. I live in San Francisco and everyone seems to bike here! So rather than wait for the bus or take a long walk to work, I’ve been thinking riding a bike could be the way to go!

    Reply
  15. Money Beagle
    Money Beagle says:

    Love this post. We have a three year old and I’m always afraid when I suggest something ‘simple’ that he’ll think it’s boring. More often than not he loves it and I have to remember that’s three and this stuff is all new to him even though it’s stuff we now take for granted. I love the reminders the kids give if we take the time to see through their eyes.

    Reply
    • FruGal
      FruGal says:

      Thank you! Great way to put it–looking at the world through children’s eyes. Now that will keep you smiling and giggling.

      Reply
    • FruGal
      FruGal says:

      The last time I really played in the snow was with my little brother Noah (much younger than me). We had a snowball fight, and it was such fun!

      Reply

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