2011 Money Resolution: More Fun, Less Stuff

Choose Experiences Over Things

You might think that a new couch or a pair of must-have boots will make you happy, but studies show that spending money on material things brings less pleasure than splurging on experiences, like vacations, concerts or restaurant meals. Ryan T. Howell, Ph.D., assistant professor of psychology at San Francisco State University, explains that experiences produce memories, which bring more long-term pleasure than objects. “Your shoes degrade,” he says. “Your memories don’t.”

Stick to Your Budget

Good news: There is no correlation between the amount of money one spends on an experience and the amount of pleasure it confers. A meal with good friends at a brick-oven pizza place will probably make you just as happy as dinner at a five-star restaurant. That’s a good thing, because spending money you don’t have depletes happiness—no matter how delicious the tuna tartar. “You can’t go into debt and be happy. The financial strain wipes out any benefit,” says Howell.

Keep a Time Card

Jeff Yeager surveyed more than 300 frugal Americans for his recent book, The Cheapskate Next Door, and found plenty of people who were living happily below their means. “Many of them carry a time card in their wallet that converts their salary on an hourly basis,” he says. “When you realize it would take two days of your life to earn something, it causes you to think twice.” And the less money you spend at the mall, the less time you’ll have to spend working to earn it.

Get in the Game

Instead of being a spectator, try being a participant. Yeager says that the thrifty people he studied were more likely to play a game than watch other people play. Not only is participating more fun, it can also save you money. For example, engaging in a game of touch football with the kids is much cheaper (and more memorable) than sitting in the stands at a pro game.

Don’t Compare

Another benefit to choosing experiences over things: Experiences don’t prompt pointless comparisons. Most of our material possessions can easily be compared to those of others. For example, if your friend has the latest smart-phone incarnation, you’ll probably agree that it beats your five-year-old flip phone. Experiences, on the other hand, don’t suffer by comparison—as long as they truly reflect your own interests and desires. If you love canoeing, you’ll be happy with your river trip in a state park; your best friend’s trip to Paris won’t diminish that, says Howell.

Give It Away

A University of British Columbia study found that people got more enjoyment from spending money on others than on themselves. And it doesn’t have to be a lot: Spending as little as $5 on another person was found to make people more cheerful. Researchers explain that whenever we improve our connections with others, we also boost our own happiness.

Mix It Up

The more we vary our experiences, the less likely we are to get bored by them. That’s why Yeager advises opting for more adventurous (and frequently less expensive) forms of travel, like camping or taking a road trip across the country. “When I think of my most memorable travel experiences, it hardly ever is about staying in a luxury resort,” he says. “All that stuff tends to be forgotten.”

Bring a Friend or Two

Craving solitude? Think again. You might think that a solo trip to a spa or coffee shop will be as enjoyable (or even more enjoyable) as one you take with friends, but Howell says this is not the case. “The experiences in which we are engaged with others are the ones that make us the happiest,” he says. That’s another reason why experiences give us more satisfaction than things—your friend will share your enthusiasm for the concert you saw together, but it’s doubtful she’ll be as excited about the new purse you bought.

Enjoy Your Tax Dollars

You’re paying for state and national parks, libraries and public recreation centers, so why not use them? Many of these institutions also offer free seasonal activities. The National Park Service, for example, offers snowshoe tours, hiking and hot chocolate, and story hours for kids with park rangers at various parks.

Live near a college town? Take advantage of the cheap theater, musical performances and literary readings on campus.

Plan Ahead

Anticipating an event is at least half the fun. So whether it’s a rock-climbing trip or a chamber music quartet, put it on the calendar. You’ll essentially double your pleasure, since you’ll enjoy both the outing and the time spent looking forward to it!