It Won’t Make You Happy: Advice from a Reformed Spending Junkie

I’m a reformed spending junkie. Back in the 1980s, I made routine runs to the Willowbrook Mall in Wayne, New Jersey, to buy pens at the Koenig Art Emporium. We actually went to Wayne initially to play arcade classics like Rampage, Gauntlet and Hat Trick, but we always ended up at Koenig, minus many quarters. (BTW…Could I have been living a more stereotypical life: Teenage Mall Denizen from Jersey?)


The Rush You Get From Spending Money

I had no idea what dopamine was at the time, but I sure loved the rush I got from spending. It felt great, whether it came from buying those pens or going Gretzky on my friends. When I bought a $450 blazer at Macy’s for the Daytime Emmy’s as a young adult living in LA (I still can’t believe I spent that on a coat), asked for and received an $800 Movado watch (The gall to ask my parents for that!) and leased a brand new Honda Accord (another regrettable decision), dopamine flooded my system, and I felt great!


Yes, I bought (and leased) stuff because I believed it would make me happy. And, like any erstwhile junkie, I relied on the deep-rooted impulses to purchase, purchase, purchase to satisfy moments of unhappiness or unfulfillment. With time (and wisdom), I’ve discovered better tools like exercise, meditation and short midday walks to help try and live a more satisfying, ultimately happier life. These alternatives are so much healthier and rewarding for me.


Learning that Spending Money Won’t Make You Happy

Derek Sivers, a member of the I’ve-had-five-million-views-of-my-TED-Talks club, responded in a very unique way when asked one of the Tim Ferriss podcast’s speed round questions, “If you could have one billboard, what would it say?” Sivers gleefully suggested, “It won’t make you happy.” And, he’d stick it in front of a mall. Or many malls.


I support Sivers’ idea 100%. Why? Because things won’t make us happy. Experiences will. In fact, it’s those trips to the arcade with my friends that I recall fondly. Not so much the pens. As Elizabeth Dunn and Michael Norton write in their book Happy Money, “Because experiences often elude easy comparisons, experiential purchases seem to inoculate us against the pernicious negative emotion of regret.


The problem is that once the initial rush or high of making the purchase wears off, we experience regret. It’s the remorse that comes from seeing yet a better watch, a better pen or a better [fill in the blank here] that we might have had or now feel we need. No matter what, THINGS won’t make us happy, and there are always more of them out there to replace or one-up the stuff we already have. 


Financial Advice for Parents: Consider Focusing on Experiences

I do my best to walk the walk.


We’re treating our kids to Christmas in London and Paris this year. They were told that the “experience” was the real present and that they wouldn’t be getting much else in the form of a wrapped gift. And guess what? They were thrilled.


It’s not because they’re uber-wondrous children (which they are, of course…wink, wink) and they don’t want gifts. (Heck, they’re kids. They like presents!) It’s because we’ve made travel a family priority. And we’re fortunate to be able to travel to these places. As a result, my kids value these sorts of experiences above tangible things, even when their overbearing dad hikes them through yet another museum. 


Practice Thoughtful Holiday Spending: I’m Not Scrooge

I really love the holiday season. I love the brisk air (even in LA). I love the music. I love the togetherness. (Well, maybe not TOO much togetherness.) Sadly, we’ve been conditioned to believe that purchasing gifts — THINGS and STUFF — make the holiday season special.


Just because that’s the norm doesn’t mean that it’s the right way.


The season is best enjoyed in ways that bring us the greatest happiness.


So, before another holiday season overwhelms you, take a walk to think about what’s important to you and your family. How can you craft an experience that allows everyone to enjoy the season together?


If given the opportunity, I think I’d put a billboard next to Sivers’ that would read, “Go home and plan a trip.”


What would your billboard say?


Whatever you decide, make the season your own and one that the whole family will truly enjoy.


Happy Holidays.


John Lanza

Creator & Chief Mammal


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