When I was growing up I always looked up to my older sister Terri. She was 19 years older than me and, to me, the most badassest of business ladies out there. In her nineties glasses and poofy hair I could just imagine that she was walking into board rooms left and right, telling dudes in suits how its done. I was also sure she was rich because of said badassery, plus she took awesome trips, like going skiing in Montana. She was able to spend money on doing things that really made her happy.
As I grew up, I started to notice things about Terri’s choices. For example, her fridge and washing machine were older. She knew a lot about getting good deals on used vehicles. She worked out at home instead of the gym and she could spot a good bottle of wine on a Costco shelf from a mile away.
Choices, choices, choices
What I was learning about, watching my sister, was choices. She could have forgone the ski trips or the skydiving and had a new fridge, but the old one worked perfectly well, same went for the rest of the appliances. We all have to make choices, every day, about where and how we spend our money.
When we make those choices, they’re often influenced by marketing, more so than what really makes us happy.
Does all this stuff make us happier?
Unfortunately, we live in a culture that has sold us the story that we constantly “need” bigger newer things. In order to bring that story to life we end up sacrificing our own lives – the fun stuff that I believe actually matters. We think we can’t afford to travel or take up hobbies, but somehow Apple was able to get over a billion dollar valuation. Someone’s paying for that…
Marketers, food scientists, credit cards… there’s so much industry behind influencing our choices, sometimes it’s hard to know what will really make us happy. We might set certain savings goals and yet come home from Target with bags full of shit that end up collecting dust on shelves.
It’s fine to want something, there’s a lot of stuff I want, and some of it I buy. Where things start to go haywire is when we’re sold an idea that we “need” something that we really don’t.
Baby showers come to mind with this statement. New parents are given so. much. stuff! What a headache we attendees pass on to new parents who are stressed enough. Do they really “need” a baby bathrobe? We just send them home to wonder if they’ll still be good parents if they can’t get the bathrobe on.
Treat yo self
Whenever I think of spending and happiness I think of the Parks and Rec episode “Treat Yo Self Day”. The characters go on an all out spending spree, treating themselves to all sorts of luxuries.
Now, I can get behind throwing down some cash on a really good glass of wine, but there are luxuries I have never understood. Pedicures are stressful (I have some seriously gross runners feet…) and it’s annoying to sit in that chair for so long. And why the fuck would I want to spend a bunch of money on a purse when its just going to get dirty?
The point is, we all have things that do make us feel good, but there are a lot of things that cost a lot of money that end up just giving us stress and missed financial goals when the credit card statement comes in.
Why do we spend money on things that don’t make us happier?
I believe we spend extra money on things we don’t need because we’re sold lies about how they will make us feel. Whatever the next purchase is will surely make me happier, more fulfilled, cooler, better looking…etc.
This isn’t me preaching either, this is brand strategy 101. Brands set out to form “relationships” with consumers. You pick your brand, you pick your tribe. If I tell you that R.E.I is my favorite brand, you already know a lot about me. And every purchase I make reinforces the feeling of being a part of that brand’s tribe.
Even knowing the game that’s being played on me I’m such a sucker for it! I see those pictures in R.E.I’s branding of people standing on mountains and I’m like “yeah! I’ll feel just like that after I buy this new jacket!”.
What really makes us happy – courtesy of science
This is another huge topic, one that makes up enormous bodies of research and whole university departments. I believe there are as many answers as there are people. However, there are a few ways to make choices with how we spend money in order to be happier.
Buy time instead of things
We live in a culture where we believe we “deserve” things, but when it comes to paying for services for things we know damn well we can do ourselves, it can produce guilt for us.
However, studies have found that when we use our money to buy back free time we’re overall happier than when we use the same money to buy things.
On top of that, services (in general) don’t harm the environment. There’s no carbon footprint involved in paying to have your house cleaned. It also means fewer things making their way into landfills.
Buy experiences instead of things
Research published in the Journal of Positive Psychology found that buying experiences over things tends to lead to greater overall satisfaction.
The thrill we get, or the feeling inspired by affirming our place in our tribe, from a purchase of a material good is short-lived. Sooner or later it will just be another thing we have, most likely taking up space in our living quarters.
On the contrary, the memories we build from experiences give us stronger and longer lasting feelings of joy and satisfaction. Unlike a material good, the experience becomes part of who we are and thus, never expires.
Build financial security
A study out of Princeton found powerful links between financial security and overall happiness. Women who spent a significant amount of time worrying about financial matters reported that overall they were less happy.
Contrary to what you might expect, most of the women studied had plenty of cash. Which is what makes this study so interesting. It’s not the amount of money you make, but rather whether or not you use your money to build financial security that impacts happiness.
Studies show that after $75,000 per year, there are diminishing returns on increased well being via increased income. So while money can’t necessarily buy happiness, building a financial safety net can.
We’re taught we need so many things in order to live happy, fulfilled lives. But in the end, when we buy material goods, our satisfaction is fleeting.
Luckily, we can make better choices with our spending and do more of what makes us happy.