20 Jan 2022 “Buy Things, Not Experiences”
I have since early childhood been fascinated by the idea that you can use something for a long, long time. The origin of that fascination, as best I can tell, is the fact that the house I was raised in was built in 1890. And it worked great! (N.B. It sometimes felt like an M.C. Escher piece, because there was a step down from the added-on den into the kitchen, but no corresponding step up anywhere else in the house… So you could make ten laps around the house and step down ten times and yet stay on the main and only floor).
Of course, many people, including my family growing up, must make things last for a long time out of necessity. But I saw other instances of people who simply chose to use things for a long time, and maybe that’s part of why I still wear a pair of Spanish-made loafers I bought in a thrift store in roughly 2012. I just pay for the services of a cobbler to re-sole them periodically! Why not see how long they last?
Some of the first people to model this voluntary making-things-last-a-long-time ethos for me were an aunt and uncle of mine. My uncle bought a 1993 Lexus LS 400 off lease in 1996, and drove it until about three weeks ago, at which point it had 445,000 miles on it. Maybe this is extreme. But if it is, it speaks to some extremely weird part of me I guess. Anyway, I tell the story of that car because this past weekend I flew down to the Alabama coast and drove the car back to Raleigh as its second owner. Maybe this is just a hare-brained scheme of an overly-sentimental nephew trying to get a car to 500,000 miles. But then again, it has been an object lesson to me for most of my life! Maybe there’s something more to it?
In my professional capacity, I am often giving advice that amounts to “Buy experiences, not things.” There is some research that backs this up, though that research is generally in the squishy realm of so-called “happiness” studies. Still, intuitively it feels right to me, and there is at least some anecdotal evidence for the efficacy of that tack.
But this week I read a short piece with a title I stole for this blog that made me, if not completely upend my prior conviction, at least want to consider it more carefully. The crux of the author’s argument is that actually there are many expensive thing-like experiences–“like an Instagrammable vacation that collects a bunch of likes but soon fades from memory”–just as there are many (sometimes less expensive) experience-like things–“like a basement carpentry workshop or a fine collection of loose-leaf tea.”
In other words, as with so many important ideas, we cannot blithely divide the world of spending into two neat piles of “things” and “experiences” and say unequivocally that one is better than the other. As humans we need both, and we want both, and the task at hand is not to make simple categorical distinctions but rather to make nuanced value distinctions.
An old car is an old car. There is nothing magical about it. But my new old car has already brought me real joy in the form of a delightful day on the Gulf Coast with my aunt and uncle, a long, quiet drive filled with podcasts I was behind on, and an adventurous sense that making things last is an experience worth having.