Stuff vs. experiences: why shoppers misplace true value

shopping bag
CC BY 2.0 Andy Hay

Spending money on experiences instead of material goods is not only better for the environment, but also makes us happier. It turns out that most people actually know this. So why do we continue to accumulate so much stuff?

New research from San Francisco State University suggests that before making a purchase, people feel that buying something tangible is a better use of their money, even if they also think they would be happier spending money on an experience. "There were just huge underestimates in how much value people expected to get from their purchase," researcher Ryan Howell said in a press statement.

Howell and Paulina Pchelin surveyed individuals before and after making discretionary purchases. They found that before buying a material item, people thought it was a better value. However, people surveyed after the purchase said that experiences were both a better use of their money and made them happier. Paying for goods didn't live up to expected levels of value.

This may happen because when we spend money on things like travel, classes, tickets and admission, we end up with memories. When we purchase an item, not only do we end up with an object that we can place a dollar value on, but the item serves as a reminder of value. However, it's more difficult for people to place economic value on happy memories.

Howell says the benefits of happiness should not be underestimated. People who are happy tend to be more productive and healthier. "We should try to figure out how to help people maximize their happiness because of all the benefits that come from it."

Howell and Pchelin's study was published in the Journal of Positive Psychology. To learn more about your own spending habits and for the opportunity to contribute to this type of research, you can check out Howell's website, BeyondThePurchase.org.

Tags: Living With Less | Shopping

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