Choose experiences over possessions

After Thanksgiving comes Black Friday. This is when retailers break out their doorbuster sales and early bird specials to kick off the start of the Christmas shopping season.

This year, retailers like Wal-Mart, Target and Toys “R” Us are getting a head start by opening their stores and offering mega-deals on Thanksgiving night.

Gray Thursday (or Black Friday Creep) is sparking employee protests, rallies and strikes. Some aren’t happy about working on the federal holiday. The stores say they’re just giving their customers what they want.

As Black Friday creeps into Thanksgiving, ask yourself whether more stuff and more shopping hours are really what you want.

Will upgrading to a new iPad make you that much cooler? Will switching from a 46” to a 58” flat screen turn a crappy movie into an enjoyable one? Is buying stuff for your loved ones the only way to show you care about them? Is exchanging material items the most meaningful way to celebrate Christmas? Is paving over open land, woods and forests to make room for more shopping malls worth the sacrifice?

In our consumer culture, we buy and buy to fill our lives with material possessions. But after the thrill of the purchase (and receipt) wears off, what we are often left with is clutter.

Yes, some material items get used, shared and cherished. But many don’t. Many just take up space. Many merely gather dust. Many get buried in the back of our cupboards. Many remain in the nook and cranny of our closets. Many get crammed into our garage. Many are taken to off-site, self-storage facilities.

My friend and colleague, Taran, recently asked me to name my biggest expense outside of necessities (e.g. food and housing). He threw out “shoes” as an example. I cracked up because I couldn’t remember the last time I bought a new pair of shoes. I tend to spend my disposable income on life experiences: e.g., my weekly piano lessons, travel, and meals at restaurants.

When Michael and I married, we couldn’t name a single material item that we wanted as a wedding gift. My in-laws thoughtfully suggested we set up a wedding registry, but we never got around to it. My parents gave us mula, which we deposited in a joint account and have yet to use. Except for one lovely vase that sits on a bookshelf, the gifts we received from family and friends came in the form of love, good wishes, shared meals, and a few visa cards (which we have yet to use).

Having less stuff means fewer garage sales, Craig’s List postings, and trips to Goodwill. It can also make way for a richer, more meaningful, and less stressful life.

Assuming your basic needs are met, studies show that surplus income is better spent on experiences (such as concert tickets, a weekend get-away, restaurant meals, a spa treatment, or a cooking class) than on material possessions. Many experiences are also free or almost free, including a bike ride in the park, a walk around the lake, or whipping up a hearty meal at home.

In a 2005 study, psychologist Leaf Van Boven found that experiences are more open to positive reinterpretation, are less subject to social comparison, and have more social value because they help us strengthen relationships.

Here are a few ways to cut down on material possessions and have more meaningful experiences

Declutter. Get rid of stuff that clutters your space and adds little value to your life. Sell it. Trash it. Donate it.

Focus on essentials that are less fleeting, such  as your relationships, personal fulfillment, and passions.

If you knew you were going to die in a year, what would you want to have happen between now and then? Work on making that happen. How would you come to peace with whatever’s troubling you? Come to that place of acceptance.

When you invest in an experience, be fully engaged in it.  If you’re doing it just to check it off your to-experience list or to boast about it, it will be less satisfying.

When you’re traveling, soak up the environment and culture, instead of obsess about which site to visit next.

Don’t get so caught up with documenting the moment (through photos, video, etc.) that you miss out on the moment itself. The memories will remain with you when you are fully present.

Boycott Black Friday and Gray Thursday/Black Friday Creep. Many Wal-Mart, Target and Toys “R” Us employees will thank you for this. Instead of shopping and scrounging for deals, spend the break sharing conversations and meals with your family and friends.  Give them your support and attention. Start or finish a project that’s meaningful to you.

If you celebrate Christmas and want to share gifts, let them be gifts of experience. And choose wisely. Stay away from giving classical concert tickets to someone who’s into rock. Studies show that bad experiences can leave a longer lasting negative mark than unwanted material items.

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Of course, our modern world would implode if no one bought stuff. Some consumerism is healthy. But buying beyond your means, acquiring stuff to make up for lack of purpose, and contributing to unnecessary waste can take a huge toll.


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Photo by: Just.luc