You’ve always heard “Money won’t make you happy,” and it’s true to some extent. But as anyone who has experienced a sudden windfall or even found a forgotten $20 bill in their coat pocket knows, sometimes money can actually make you really happy.

Having money and spending money are two different things, though — and many of us know the feeling of buyer’s remorse or guilt when we spend too much. When we spend money on experiences instead of material items, though, we tend to feel much better about our spending, and we are happier about it even after the experience ends. Why is that? 

 

How you spend your money counts

It turns out, buying a bunch of “stuff” — i.e. clothes, electronics, home items, etc. — doesn’t bring us joy. We all have our favorite possessions, of course, and most of us enjoy a good shopping spree from time to time. As a society, though, we’re realizing that constant trips to the mall and ordering stuff online isn’t going to make us happy, at least not for long. And science is starting to back us up. 

A 20-year study by Dr. Thomas Gilovich, a psychology professor at Cornell University, found that people are actually happier when they spend their money on experiences over things. This is counterintuitive to some, because possessions last longer (usually) than experiences, but there are plenty of other benefits we get from our experiences.

Benefits we get from spending on experiences 

If you’ve ever gone on a fantastic trip or spent money to go out with your best friends for a night, you know the effect that money had on your happiness. Even if you spend more on those events than you would, say, on a new item of clothing or piece of home decor, the value you get from it far exceeds the “more affordable” option.

Studies show a few factors are at play when we get to enjoy experiences over possessions:

  • We strengthen our social ties. Traveling with friends or going out to dinner are bonding experiences that we don’t get when we buy them material things.

  • We get to express our passions. Listening to your favorite band on the radio isn’t the same as seeing them in person, right? Getting to experience things that align with your values and help you express yourself is good for you.

  • We get to feel happier longer. The exciting glow of a new pair of adorable boots or the crystal clear TV screen only make us happy for so long. Soon, we forget about the shiny new thing and move on to the next. But experiences are remembered longer, and you can often bring back the feelings it gave you just by thinking about it down the road.

  • We get to learn and do new things. Spending money on experiences that are novel or even foreign to us open our minds and hearts so much more. Novelty also makes us feel good, which make experiences much more impactful. 

Of course, every person is different and one person may not get the same benefits out of a trip to Europe as they would a movie marathon with friends. It’s all about deciding what type of experiences boost your happiness, and investing in them where you can.

Don’t think “more” means “better”

If you’re reading all of this and thinking “I don’t make enough money to spend that kind of cash on a few experiences!” or “I’m trying to save up, not spend money,” that’s totally fine. We are not here to tell you that you have to spend money on experiences, nor make you feel bad if you can’t right now. We simply want to draw attention to the idea that, when you do have money to spend, it might make you happier to spend it on experiences. It doesn’t have to be frequent, or elaborate, or expensive. It can just be meaningful to you. 

And “experience” can mean a countless number of things, from taking your mom out for coffee to spending a night with friends looking up at the stars. Find activities that help you unwind, make you feel good, and sustain you — don’t just fall into the trap of doing what everyone else does. Remember, we’re not keeping up with the Joneses anymore!