You’ve heard the “experiences over stuff” mantra a million times, right? The idea is that you should spend your cash on memorable experiences—vacations, weddings, concerts, whatever—instead of acquiring more material goods that will clutter up your house and way down your soul on the path to enlightenment.
There are so many things wrong with this attitude that I can’t even start—I’ll never stop. For one thing, it’s super gendered. For another, it’s super-privileged: you can only stop accumulating stuff when you’re confident you’ll always be able to buy something when you really need it. And—and this is my biggest issue—it devalues the beauty, utility, meaning and emotional heft of objects. I wouldn’t trade my family china, handmade quilts and thoughtfully chosen chotchke gifts for the vacation of a lifetime.
So we’ve established that I think experiences over stuff is dumb. I love stuff, though I try to keep a handle on that love for the sake of clutter and my budget. But I’ve accumulated my share of stuff over time, something I am sorely regretting as we prepare to move house.
Recently, though, I’ve pretty much gone off stuff. And it’s not because I’ve been converted to the gospel of experiences. It’s because I’ve stopped thinking about money in terms of stuff or experiences. I’ve started measuring my dollars in years of freedom. And there’s not much I want today as much as I want freedom.
This is not an original idea. It’s the opposite of original. But it’s transformative. I used to think about saving for retirement as an obligation to my far-off elderly self. I should probably do it, because I don’t much want to work into my 80s, but there wasn’t much pleasure in it. And according to the financial services industry, I was going to need a zillion dollars, or some equally impossible amount.
But then I realized that, other than a job that frequently drives me into the ground, I really like my life. We have everything we want or need, and I have hobbies, enthusiasms and side projects that I find fascinating and fulfilling. When given free reign of my time, as I am every summer, I keep myself busy and engaged. If I had freedom, I would know exactly what to do with it. And we only spend about $36,000 per year. We could probably spend less.
That changed everything. Suddenly we weren’t saving zillions of dollars for our dotage. We were banking away years of freedom. And the less we can spend each year while still feeling happy and satisfied, the more years of freedom we can buy.
And freedom is something worth giving up stuff for. It’s way better than experiences. But it took really realizing that before I could make the commitment to cutting back on my stuff.