stuff vs. experiences

I’ve often heard the advice (and given it, on more than one occasion), to be careful about spending too much money on things.  The advice usually suggests that money spent on experiences is just as valuable, and maybe more valuable, than money spent on things.  So, for example, if you want to show your kids you love them, take them for a walk in the park rather than buy them presents.  In addition to being more meaningful for your kids, it’s also a lot safer for your wallet.

Recently I began to wonder about this advice.  Is it possible to go too overboard with experiences?  Of course, it’s easy to imagine experiences that would be too expensive – backpacking the Himalayas, maybe, or sailing around the world.  But I’m not talking about these once-in-a-lifetime experiences, I’m thinking more of the day-to-day experiences that can cause the bills to pile up.  How about movies, meals out, golf, skiing, camping, hiking.  These are all great experiences, and they don’t clutter the home with more stuff.  But are they safer for your wallet?
Camping can require tents, sleeping bags, cooking gear and hiking gear, as well as repairs or replacement of that gear when it wears out.  Golf requires constant playing to maintain or improve your ability, so plan on spending a fortune on greens fees and club memberships.  Movies require going to the theater and spending $7 for two hours entertainment.  Not bad now and then, but what if you did it twice a week for a year?
It is possible to get so wrapped up in experiences, in an effort to avoid accumulating stuff, that we spend more than we would have on the stuff in the first place.  And don’t forget, debt is debt.  A huge balance on the credit card is just as difficult to pay off no matter where it came from.
The key to keeping a life of experiences in check is the same as the key to keeping a life of stuff in check – frugality.  Getting the most bang for your buck.  Plan for unforgettable experiences, sure.  But don’t forget you have to answer to your wallet.
This article originally appeared in the September 24, 2008, edition of the Greenhorn Valley View.
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