Buying Happiness, Part 3: Prepay for it!

LayawayI have a distinct memory from my childhood of visiting the back of the Wal-Mart in Abderdeen, NC with my mom. We walked past the toys, and the electronics, and the clothes, and all the rest, and headed to the Layaway counter. I had a fuzzy idea of what was going on, namely that we couldn’t yet afford the item we were purchasing (I called her yesterday to try and nail down what it was—we think it was a stereo), but that after a certain number of visits to the Layaway counter in the back of the Wal-Mart, the treasured stereo would come home with us.

As far as I can tell, while occasionally bringing some form of it back on a temporary basis, Wal-Mart largely did away with their layaway program on November 19, 2006, when they sunsetted the practice that had existed since the store’s founding by Sam Walton in 1962. It served as a way for primarily low-income customers who didn’t have access to credit (or didn’t wish to use it if they did) to buy higher-priced goods for their families, especially around the holiday season. And while layaway programs certainly weren’t without flaws, I think there was something to them that we’ve lost along the way to our credit card-oriented society.

Let me illustrate what I mean with a simple question. Which feels shorter and more enjoyable: 1) A three-hour trip to the beach for a week of vacation, or 2) A three-hour trip back home after a week of vacation? Of course the former is far and away the more enjoyable, and you could swear that it actually takes less time, so powerful is the drug of anticipation as it works on our brains. In fact, many people enjoy the act of “road-tripping” more than they do the traditional stay-in-one-place vacation, partly because you are dragging out that anticipation for far longer than you might otherwise. Plus, by making a road trip less a “there and back again” journey and more of a circuitous route, you are largely able to eliminate the blues that come with the trip back home from the beach.

I write all this to get to my primary point, which is simply this: one of the most effective ways to buy happiness is to pay for things in advance.

This is the opposite of getting a thing or experiencing an experience and then paying for it (i.e., on credit), and it’s even much different than paying for that thing or experience as you get it or experience it. And the reason why it’s so different is a matter of that tricky anticipation drug. For just as anticipation of Monday morning can throw off your Sunday evenings, so does an anticipation of Saturday make Fridays so enjoyable.

So here are a few practical ideas for you to buy happiness in advance:

  • Purchase a trip or experience several months in advance of taking it. And if there are parts that you can’t prepay for, at least set aside the full budget for that trip well in advance (maybe even with a separate account if that makes sense for you). The idea here is twofold: 1) Experiences generally provide more happiness than stuff in general, and 2) If you are able to be fully present in that experience (rather than worrying about each purchase as you make it), then that experience will be orders of magnitude more meaningful to you.
  • Have standing appointments for fun. Maybe it’s a date night with a spouse. Maybe it’s gathering on a back porch with friends the second Friday of every month. Maybe it’s sewing night every Wednesday. Whatever it is for you, don’t just wait for spontaneous moments of fun (though that’s very important as well), always have moments of fun to look forward to. The bonus on this one is it’s often free or nearly free.
  • Nix the two-day shipping. Look, I get it. Free two-day shipping is wonderful and awesome, and when you need diapers or whatever it is you buy, it’s hard not to pass it up. But if you’re buying treats for yourself (for me it’s used books, I have a problem with buying books), try foregoing the two-day shipping for the longest shipping method available. I think you’ll be surprised at what happens. If you’re anything like me, you might even forget you bought that treat, and then it comes 10 days later and it’s like Christmas morning all over again.
  • Save. Sorry, I’m a financial planner and I had to put this one in here. Saving may not have the same near-term emotional effect as prepaying for a trip to France, especially if your retirement is a long way off, but it is at a very foundational level pre-paying for your future lifestyle when you are no longer working. So make it fun!

What about you? Do you have any ways you like to buy happiness in advance? We’d love to hear about them. And as always, let us know if we can ever do anything for you.


Jared Korver
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A product of small-town North Carolina (Carthage, to be exact), I’m proudly married to my best friend and co-adventurer, Amy. Together, we have two sons–Miles and Charlie–and could more or less start a library from our home. I love being outside, can’t read enough, am in the habit of writing haikus, and find food and coffee to be among life’s greatest treasures.