Buying Experiences in Your Twenties

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Champs Elysses.  Photo by johan.seland.Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about the kind of advice that I would give high school graduates. Two children that I watched grow up are going to graduate this coming May. What could I possibly tell them that would be of use in their life? I’ll be exploring this off and on over the coming year, but here are some initial thoughts in that direction.

Recently, I was listening to a story on National Public Radio (the August 3, 2009 episode of Marketplace, listened to a few days later as a podcast) about how twentysomethings were spending money as though it were 2007. One person who spoke during the report said, “We’re young… I’m going to buy what I want now and worry about it later.”

On one level, I think that’s a good thing. If you’re single or married without children, you should by all means spread your wings a little and try things that would be impossible with children. Five or ten years ago, I could have just hopped on a plane and went to another country for a week with little crisis; now, it’s just not happening.

There’s a problem with this, though. Quite often, that freedom is transformed into a drive to buy, buy, buy. The latest gadgets, the latest clothes, the latest media – it’s all just stuff. It provides a quick thrill when you buy it, often fueled by a lot of careful marketing that tells you that you’re supposed to feel good when you buy it, but then it winds up gathering dust in the corner.

Most of my twenties was filled with just that. Sure, I went on several great trips during that decade. I visited London, Edinburgh, Inverness, rural Mexico, and British Columbia within a single year early in the decade, and I’ve been to almost every state in the United States over the last seven years or so. All of those trips and experiences have left lasting memories with me and transformed my life in some way.

On the other hand, I reached a point when I was twenty seven where I looked around my apartment and saw a lot of stuff that I didn’t use. DVDs that had gathered dust. Piles of video games that hadn’t been touched in months. Trading cards, CDs, computer software, gadgets of all sorts, bookshelves full of books – and I rarely used any of it.

The worst part? I was in a desperate debt situation, one that could have really easily been avoided. It’s a situation with consequences that still have a negative impact on my life and will for a long time.

How could this have easily been avoided? I could have stepped back, looked at my life, and realized that the stuff wasn’t fulfilling me. I was seeking experiences and a deeper understanding of who I am and what really mattered to me. More stuff didn’t do that at all.

Let’s see if I can clear it up. Watching a film is an experience. Owning a DVD is accumulation of stuff. Going to a concert is an experience. Owning a pile of CDs is accumulation of stuff. Playing through a great video game is an experience. Accumulating a big pile of such games is just stuff. Traveling to rural France is an experience. Buying $500 worth of French cookware that you’ll barely use is accumulation of stuff.

The solution is simple, especially when you’re young and have the freedom and energy to easily go out and explore the world: load up your twenties with experiences, not stuff. Explore the world and figure out who you are and what you want from life. Minimize the items you have, maximize your experiences, and do it without sacrificing your future.

That’s right, without sacrificing your future. How? If you don’t accumulate a bunch of stuff, you’ll not be spending a big chunk of your money on things. You can also live in a much smaller home, drastically reducing your housing costs. That excess money can be used to make sure you’re not spending more than you earn – and it can also be used to have a lot of great experiences along the way.

So, how about instead of buying a BluRay player and a pile of discs, go out to a couple of movies? How about instead of buying a $500 phone and a $2,000 laptop, just use a freebie phone and a netbook … and take a trip to France that you’ll never forget?

Sure, eventually your life will change. You might wind up married. You might have a job that keeps you in one place. You might have children (which can be the death knell for impromptu experiences). You might get older, have less energy, and so on. When that happens, sure, start accumulating (within reason). A home theater setup is great if you can’t go out to the movies once a week. A killer computer setup is well worth it if you’re driving a career with it. $1,000 worth of kitchen implements is fine if you’re preparing a great dinner at home every single night and not going out.

Until then, take advantage of your youth. Have some great experiences and hold off on the stuff. Let your bank account grow a little bit or at least stay steady. What you’ll find is that, by not sacrificing your future now for stuff that’s not really important for living a free life, you’ll have a great future a little bit later on when the rules of your life change.

Good luck.

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69 thoughts on “Buying Experiences in Your Twenties

  1. I wish someone had told me this when graduating from high school; it was a bittersweet lesson to learn when I was in debt and couldn’t afford the experiences I wanted to have. Hopefully people out there won’t make the same mistakes I did.

  2. You know, you can tell young people this kind of thing, but it’s something that they have to want to listen to. Either that or the “someone” telling them can’t be their parents–maybe that makes the difference. When my oldest son got his first “real” job and started buying the toys, I cautiously advised him to think twice about buying so much stuff (on his credit card), and to think more about experiences. I also gently advised him not to buy a house that was stretching his budget. It was only after he got laid off and had $15,000 worth of credit card debt (that he paid off by cashing out his retirement) and was tied to a mortgage that he told me he wished he would have listened to me. Maybe other parents can just send the URL to this blog post to their kids.

  3. You’re onto something with experiences over stuff. The stuff will be forgotten in a few years, the experiences will be remembered (and savored) for a lifetime.

    Still spending, either on stuff or on experiences can mount up. In theory it might be good to live with some reckless abandon in your 20s, but sometimes that becomes a lifetime. The 20s are also the time of forming adult attitudes and habits. If you’re reckless in your 20s, it’s not likely that you’ll suddenly get religion about money when you hit 30.

    That may have been possible way back when, but now we live in the age of Extended Adolescence, when people can carry it into middle age.

  4. I just turned 21, and this post just might alter the course of the next ten years of my life. This makes so much sense! Experiences are so important. It’s so hard to not get caught up in the accumulation mode, though.

    Luckily I have been very careful about what “stuff” I buy. I like to buy things that will be useful both now and down the road. I like how you said having a sweet computer setup is just fine, if its driving your career. Buying experiences alongside being things that are truly useful to you can be all the difference.

    Thank you again!

  5. I’m 26, and in the last 3 years since I graduated from college I have been to France, the US (I’m from Canada), B.C., Cameroon, and France again. I’m heading out to rural France yet again (I liked that you mentioned it as an example) and then to Mali for 6 months… and all of this debt-free. I wholeheartedly echo your advice to any others who may be considering it–it’s possible, and well worth it!

  6. Great advice! If you do this, you won’t regret it.
    I got married in my 20s and was divorced by age 30. But I ended up having my ‘experiences’ in my 30s, which worked great for me. I travelled and lived abroad and generally enjoyed myself. My apartment was tiny, which was good because I was unable to accumulate many things (no space!).
    Now I am living a more settled, normal life. However, I would not give up my decade of travel and fun experiences for anything!

  7. As the expression goes, all things in moderation. I lived my 20s to the fullest with amazing trips, for pleasure, for business and for volunteering. I’ve met thousands of different people, formed attitudes, broke prejudices and savored life with relatively little responsibility going on. For me, learning about money happened through my entire life and I did go into some debt for those experiences and regret very little of it. I can’t buy those memories and I pushed myself to my own boundaries and beyond and found my uniqueness somewhere in that. My advice to those behind me is to spend money on the experiences, live large (within reason), and find low interest credit cards, if they even exist anymore. Illness, mortgages, children sneak up very quickly in life and those sweet 20s cannot be regained. Losing that time would be the greater regret.

  8. I wanted to share a post with you from a blog called “Escape From Cubicle Nation.” It is the story of one young man’s choice–stay in a good job or take the dream job with little money. There are 4 posts that came after this initial one to update everyone on this man’s journey.

    http://www.escapefromcubiclenation.com/2009/01/13/your-chance-to-offer-advice-to-creativity-impaired-cube-dweller-with-career-conundrum/

    After reading all four posts, I had to get up from my desk and walk around my yard to clear my head. I have a job that crushes my spirit (even though I work from home partially) and I am saddled with a mortgage, husband, and child. I love my life, but there are times that I wish I could have had enough confidence in myself to take the leap into the unknown. I was actually jealous of this guy because he followed his dream and I was too chicken to even find mine. So, now at 32, if I could go back, I would tell my 19-year-old self to take the leap and experience life to the fullest–whatever that may bring.

  9. It was explained to me the other day the difference between being a “collector” and being a “storer”: A “collector” experiences the thrill of tracking down treasures, owns and appreciates them, then passes them to the next “collector”. A “storer” just gets stuff and squirrels it away somewhere to be forgotten.

    Speaking from experience, I can say that it sucks to be a “storer” every time it comes time to move…again.

  10. Trent,

    This is all well and good, BUT…

    Imagine you are 23 again, who would you listen to? Your friends suggestion of ‘seeing the world’ or 30 something version of yourself saying ‘you’ll be sorry’…????

    It’s hard to think back and know for sure, but I am having a real hard time trying to think of what a 30 something could have done or said to dissuade my decisions then. I was very headstrong. Seizing the world at a moments chance…etc.

    The best I can come up with is a very candid, show by example. Someone would have had to hand me on paper, exact numbers, and details….otherwise it would have just been lip service and I would have cast it aside a day or two later when the next Mortal Kombat game was due to arrive….

  11. I’ve so been struggling with all of this lately. While your advice is good and all, Trent, would you mind expanding on it a bit more? Somebody needs to do it, I don’t care who. I just want someone else’s opinion to mash over other than my own. I don’t know what’s right, wrong, up, down, sideways, backwards, forwards, anything.

    Story: I’m 21 years old. Still hashing through school. Nice pile of student loans, tiny car loan, no other debt to speak of. Awesome husband. Zero desire to have kids. I’m a finance major and have a huge interest in money, really money and psychology. So I read lots of blogs… Blogs written by bloggers much older than myself. Making more money. Able to do more.

    I don’t spend a ton of money on stuff. I collect diecast cars… That’s about it. Mostly hot wheels at that, the $.97 ones, so I’m not dropping tons of money here. Biggest splurge is my cars, three sports cars. (Newest is a 2001, so…) All but one paid off, the cheapest one to build credit. Since hubby’s military, accumulating stuff to me is useless, unless I love it enough to be willing to cart it all over the world at the drop of a hat. Try that for motivation for anti-accumulation of stuff!

    Anyhow. I love traveling. I’ve been to London and spent three weeks in England. Loved it. Want to go to so many more places and do so many more things. (Car related, I’m passionate about my cars.) But I have this desire to save and get ahead in life. Student loans are the worst thing I want to go through, we already paid off a $5k personal loan from some debt we accumulated and wizened up about before it was too bad.

    Exactly how should I proportionate savings (emergency fund, retirement) with the experiences I crave?? I really can’t afford to split funds, then I’m left with semi-decent savings accounts and no closer to fulfilling my travel plans. Yet I don’t want to abandon all fiscal-rational to dart off to places….

    How about some advice to live a life full of experiences and still save, without getting another job, if we get awesome deals on travel, etc? Sorry for a long comment, I’m just puzzling over this lately and I really want somebody, anybody, to discuss this more at length…

  12. Right up my alley!

    My only suggestion is that there might never be a time when you want to settle into “stuff”. At only 25, I can’t reflect on life in 40′s for example, but in nearly all the examples you provided (entertainment system, computer, kitchen) you pointed out that those are great if you use them all the time.

    I don’t really view the items a “stuff” if they are a major part of your life or source of entertainment. If you’re entertaining, working on computer, on cooking nightly these things really start to transcend being “stuff”. They actually HELP you generate experiences, as well.

    I totally agree that the piles of crap collecting dust will never be more than just stuff. I’ve gone through the exact same thing and recently purged most of those things. I’m looking only for experiences and that “stuff” which helps bring in it’s own kind of experiences at home.

  13. Great post as usual Trent. The only problem is; most twentysomethings will not agree with you and do as they please. I am in my early forties and if there is one thing I have learned, it is the fact that one can only learn from her/his own experiences.

  14. This is exactly what I did with my 20′s – traveled, tried different jobs, learned things. I never bought a new couch til I was 33 and a homeowner. It was fabulous – and if I’d had the resources of the web when I was 19, it would have been much more fabulous.

    There are a lot of people out there doing this – bike road-tripping, working their way around the world, even just taking the time to really learn from their own families and dig deep into where they are. You can do it anytime – it’s just easier to start young before the accumulation of responsibilities and bad habits traps you.

  15. just to be contrary, experiences pass quickly. They usually don’t bring you much that lasts. The movie theater is an experience with DVDs and a player being stuff. But what if instead of buying the dvds you rented… is renting now an experience? Does it only become so when you pop some popcorn and hold hands with your sweetie? Instead of choosing experiences over stuff we should decide a life goal such as happiness, accomplishments, legacy… what have you and optimize towards that. Its about Life-long Value. Sometimes a trip stinks, sometimes its awesome. Sometimes you grumble every day at your falling part car, sometimes that car lets you travel the world. Buying experiences of value and objects of value are equally important.

  16. As a 24 year old just out of college unable to find full time work that pertains to my degree being able to have the freedom to travel certainly was a silver lining to all the frustration I have felt not being able to find full time work. Last year I went to Shanghai for two weeks, this year was a spat of stateside traveling with my unemployed/student friends, next year I am hoping to go to Japan, and the year after I plan on chilling in Poland with one of my friends to watch the European championships. In fact, I plan to not only live my early twenties traveling around, but also my adult life as well. I intend to have my future children travel and see the world rather than accumulate alot of toys, they will be so much better off for it.

  17. while i generally agree with you, I came home from a trip to Italy greatly regretting the fact that I bought nothing for myself other than a murano glass necklace. I remembered the beautiful clothes that I passed on because at the time I thought they were too expensive, and now that I’m not sure I’ll be back there, I wish I picked up a few items. Don’t take this ideology too far! It’s nice to have a few things from a foreign country, so long as you’ll use them regularly.

  18. I 100% agree with buying experiences rather than material goods. I have no problem spending a lot of money on a memorable weekend or night out. But I balance it out by only spending on stuff that I really need. All the while still living below my means and saving for various goals. I avoid debt like the plague.

    As for getting through to younger people, I think it helps not to criticize and to SHOW why you’re giving us advice. Some of us youngin’s are wiser than we appear and will take your advice… but only if it’s not shoved down our throats.

    Just think about how much you could change a young persons life by guiding them in the right financial direction. It’s definitely worth the effort to try.

    -Gen Y Investor

  19. This really hits home for me, Trent. I am 27. I am newly married. And both my wife and I have lots of stuff.

    I was lucky to see how my parents struggled with debt, and to have them right there urging me to never get bogged down in it. I took that sage advice and am debt free. The only debt we have now as a family are my wife’s student loans. I think giving this kind of advice to those just graduating high school is well worth it. Tell them of your personal experiences with debt and “stuff”, and maybe they’ll see that they can have the things they want, but can also be wise about how they get it.

    This post has re-kindled the desire to travel before we have children. So with that in mind, I ask, are there any good websites/blogs that you would recommend for travelling on a budget/on the cheap? I’ll certainly be doing a lot of research myself, but I’m always interested in recommendations from others based upon their own experiences. Any advice would be of great value to me, Trent.

    Thanks for the blog.

  20. This has been something I’ve been tossing up altely – I’ve had a couple of good friends turn 30 this year and at 26 I’m closer to 30 then I am to 18 now which is overwhelming!
    I have done a bit of travel – but mostly within a short plane hop to Australia’s next door neighbours (PNG and NZ). I’ve been dreaming of Europe since I was a little girl and it is definitely possible for me to go – I have the savings accrued – my only problem is – if I start planning my trip to Europe – is it the right time? This is more a question for myself then somebody else can answer for me. Since I started aggressively saving its always been with the thought of buying a house or unit rather then travel – but I know that I do want to experience the world when I’m young. It just seems that with young people it is a toss up between travelling/seeing the world or settling down and buying real estate. I wish I could have the best of both worlds but the reality of my situation means that isn’t possible. I think this is the key debate that many in their 20′s have to face financially.

  21. I don’t think its as black and white as you make it seem. While *technically* buying a DVD is “stuff”, isn’t watching it over and over again with your kids a wonderful experience?

    Most of the “stuff” you cite can be translated into great experiences in the hands of someone who values it.

    One of my favorite memories from my early twenties was buying cheap pizza and watching Office Space *every night* for almost a month with one of my best friends. Not everyone is a world traveler. My trip to Paris (by myself @ age 19) was one of the worst experiences of my life.

    If that $500 phone and $2,000 laptop help keep you in touch with all your friends and family, why is that less valuable than a couple weeks in a cool locale?

    I agree with the sentiment that people shouldn’t spend their early twenties digging themselves into a hole of debt, but I disagree that travel is inherently better than media.

  22. First of all, experiences are not BOUGHT. Your article is based on the premise that there is a 1:1 exchange between experiences and things. Instead of the DVD or the movie ticket, how about buying a video camera and making your own movies? What is the video camera sits on the shelf? Stuff is what you make of it, there is no stuff which is inherently good or bad without looking at the bigger picture.

    Second, I basically agree with the conclusion here, but the reasoning to get there is fundamentally flawed. “Thou shalt load up your twenties with experiences, not stuff, because I loaded up my twenties with stuff and regretted the experiences which passed me over.” It would be more valuable to hear the analysis from somebody who lived this lifestyle, instead of blogging what they woulda coulda shoulda done, without any actual experiences to back it up.

    Third, as somebody who spent every dime I earned in my 20′s on experiences, and still does not own much stuff, in some ways I would be better off scaled down a bit. You do not touch on the disadvantages, the financial implications are barely mentioned. If I read this style of “go hog wild with reckless abandon” advice at age 27 from a ‘responsible financial writer’, it would have just sent me deeper into financial chaos.

    Fourth, the question posed by Foxie (#7) is in fact the most valuable part of this entire blog discussion: “Exactly how should I proportionate savings (emergency fund, retirement) with the experiences I crave??” Ah, the priceless question of BALANCE which the article does not touch on.

    Lastly, GRS did a much better job on this same topic when they addressed it a few weeks ago. Sounded more like a folksy guy in the bar questioning his direction in life, than Moses coming down from the mountain telling me how I should lead my life.

  23. Hi Trent,

    I quit university and moved to London when I was 19 and stayed for a year. When I came back, I spent most of my 20s working part-time, going to university part-time and traveling. It was exactly the right decision for me but I don’t think that it is the right decision for everyone.

    I had started studying computer science and after a year realized that I hated it and I didn’t have a fallback plan, so I took time off to see the world. But none of my friends came with me, most stayed in school because they knew what they wanted to do, or they were too afraid to get off the path that everyone was on (I was told a couple of times that my decision to leave school would “ruin my life”).

    Afterward many people told me that they wish they had been “brave” enough to do what I did when they were young. I never felt that I was brave, it didn’t take courage for me to move to a new country, even though I had never been outside of North America before. It was just something that I wanted to do and felt I could do. I can understand the fear that young people might feel though, it is not easy to travel alone, not knowing anyone or anything about the place you are going. And there were some times when things were not all great, I ran out of money more than once, but luckily not for long. I also lived in very small apartments with too many other people and no TV. ;-)

    When I think of what I did I wonder why I wasn’t more afraid, why I only felt excitement. I think that I was just very optimistic (something that many people in their 20s are), but also very independent and confident that I could take care of myself (maybe not so common in young adults).

    Of course I completely agree with you that young people should travel and explore before settling down, but I also understand that that is not everyone’s dream, and that not everyone gets the same amount of fulfillment for seeing new places. Some people prefer to create their own space and stay close to home and friends.

    I don’t even feel sorry for people who say they wish they had traveled when they were young, because I think that if they had really wanted to travel they would have found a way to do it. And if they want to do it now they will find a way (people with regular jobs and children still find a way to travel if they really want it).

    We are all responsible for our decisions.

  24. OMG, this is so true! This is exactly what my husband and I did when we were newly married. Instead of buying a bunch of crap, we saved and then were able to go abroad and he got his Master’s degree while I worked in England. We were very frugal and gained so much from the experience.

    Even today, as we’re nearing our 30′s, we live by that. Instead of buying new cars or other stuff, we save up for vacations (and do it cheaply by searching for the best deals, going where the exchange rate is favorable, stay in hostels/budget hotels, etc) and that is what we enjoy most.

  25. Ahh, experiences, stuff, living. A couple of cross country moves in my 20s, with a tiny trailer or just a car, cured me of having too much stuff (plus I’m a not particularly big or strong girl, hauling furniture isn’t easy — subsequently I didn’t have a couch until I was nearly 30). I never intended to stay in any place more than a few months or a year, I was working as a musician and broke much of the time, so why bother to have more stuff than can fit in my car?

    I probably blew way too much money in my 20s drinking, dancing, going to shows, but those experiences are not among my regrets. If anything, I would go out and play more, if I had to do it again.

    Spending for travel is what I regret least from that time. I had a good car, and a good group of friends + friends of friends + beyond during college, so made a couple of trips a semester to visit people I barely knew in places I’d never been. I also had the chance to go to Europe twice, one was a long trip where I visited many cities, as well as Canada and Mexico. The first time I went to Europe was on a whim — I literally decided to go on a Tuesday and flew out, with a shiny new passport, three days later. I always traveled alone, and did all sorts of dangerous things girls are advised never to do. No regrets.

    Now I have a spouse and a child, and something resembling a career, and it would be so much more difficult to just get up and go. I hope my kid travels around and plays and stays up late and does dangerous stuff before she decides to settle down, too.

  26. I’m a 20-something,and I tend to agree with Brent in comment #11. I have alot of 20-something friends, who have travelled the world over. But that’s not without its downfalls.

    Travel is a very large expense – especially if you don’t have the money to do so and are putting it on the credit card. I would argue that our generation travels too much! Its no wonder we have an environmental crisis – ever consider the pollution created by airplanes?! There are plenty of more inexpensive experiences to be had without going overseas. Some people even use travelling as a form of escapism. It can also become a status thing.

    Going to the movies or live shows would be more expensive than renting a DVD. Its a nice treat, every once in a while if you can afford it. But once again, beware the lifestyle change and craving for more of these ‘experiences’. You may become further in debt.

    The important thing to remember, when your young is that you need to be responsible for your finances NOW rather than later. A stitch in time saves nine. Its the money-pattern in your head.

    And another quote I quite like is: “This too shall pass”.

  27. Another point to drive home is while young and in the 20′s, having too much debt also means not having a proper launchpad for near future independence. It is perfectly acceptable for a 20-something to live at home with parents or shacked together with roommates, but it is usually not expected to be a long term arrangement. If debt is too high, such person may not be able to be independent in the late 20′s even with a decent paying job.

    Do buy stuff and experience stuff, the future is never certain, but don’t go to the extreme of running out of credit all together.

    But really, picture this, being almost 30 with a large amount of debt in two case scenarios:

    1. Single – roommates moving out as they are finding partners or new jobs elsewhere, having to seek out new roommates, or still not independent living at home and not happy with it

    2. Coupled – unable to save for even a small wedding, burdening your other half with debt, future plans are all delayed due to debt

    Both are not pretty pictures despite the awesome travel photos or awesome but now outdated tech toys. Tread carefully.

  28. children = “the death knell for impromptu experiences” :-)

    Gotta comment how much I appreciate someone who clearly loves his children and is a passionate, committed parent telling it like it is. Just wait ’til they’re teenagers and have schedules and commitments of their own.

  29. I couldn’t agree more with everything you said in this article. I’m 24 years old, and I was fortunate enough to be raised by wonderful parents who dragged me and my sisters all over the world, always emphasizing experiences over possessions. Already in my 20s, I’ve had some amazing opportunities to travel and live abroad as well as within the US, and I would never have been able to take advantage of them had I spent more of my money on “stuff.” It’s amazing how little you realize you need when you spend six months living out of two suitcases.
    I’m in the process of encouraging my sister to follow this path as she nears the end of her college experience. I did it by convincing her to go with me – we spent a week in costa rica a couple months ago. I guess you might not be able to take the same approach with your targets, but I do have a friend whose uncle took her to New Zealand as a graduation gift. Imagine!

    Traveling is expensive, for sure, but it makes you grow as a person (even/especially the bad experiences) so much more than buying a video game or new shoes ever will.

  30. I couldn’t agree more with everything you said in this article. I’m 24 years old, and I was fortunate enough to be raised by wonderful parents who dragged me and my sisters all over the world, always emphasizing experiences over possessions. Already in my 20s, I’ve had some amazing opportunities to travel and live abroad as well as within the US, and I would never have been able to take advantage of them had I spent more of my money on “stuff.” It’s amazing how little you realize you need when you spend six months living out of two suitcases.
    I’m in the process of encouraging my sister to follow this path as she nears the end of her college experience. I did it by convincing her to go with me – we spent a week in costa rica a couple months ago. I guess you might not be able to take the same approach with your targets, but I do have a friend whose uncle took her to New Zealand as a graduation gift. Imagine!

    Traveling is expensive, for sure, but it makes you grow as a person (even/especially the bad experiences) so much more than buying a video game or new shoes ever will. h

  31. I’m 22 and agree wholeheartedly with this article. I made a good amount of money in online poker at the age of 17/18, which allowed me to do these things that otherwise would have been impossible. I also have a decent amount of debt built up on credit cards and student loans, but since I’ve entered college I’ve took a 10 week trip to Europe (4 weeks backpacking + 6 wks study abroad), Mexico, a Caribbean cruise, Miami/Ft. Lauderdale a couple times, Dallas, and NYC. I’ve also gone to San Francisco for a week and London for a month (in addition to my first Eurotrip), both paid for by my future employer.

    These experiences have added so much value to my career and worldview its not even funny. Not to mention how much great conversation this makes if another person I’ve just met has been to someplace I have (usually the case). In fact, I’d argue that the money I spent on these trips will come back to me many times over before my career is over (even adjusting for inflation).

    Now, I’ve also bought plenty of stupid things which I regret, but I now realize my error and try to buy as little as possible. It’s simply not necessary or smart to buy a $1500 stereo system (though it does sound pretty good…).

    I now spend nearly all of my money on going out, having fun, and building relationships in lieu of acquiring “stuff” which will collect dust before I know it.

    My reasoning: Taking on debt IS WORTH IT to do things that WILL BECOME IMPOSSIBLE once I start working fulltime (less than a year away…). I already have a job offer for 50K, and I’m single. Obviously this may mean I have to pay back loans/credit for a couple years instead of saving for retirement, but that’s a sacrifice I’m gladly make!!!

    Opposing reasoning: Save money, spend little, don’t experience life, just to have a slightly better balance sheet when starting their career. The only advantage of course is the time value of money in saving for retirement.

    I’d rather live it up in the prime of my life.

  32. Just WOW Trent. While I agree with the basic tenets of the article and live this way to some extent (heavy travel and exploration, minimal stuff) well into my late thirties I can’t really say I liked your article.

    For instance. Stuff v. Experiences is not really a direct comparison. I bought a snow mobile and rode it for a whole year while in Alaska. Had a blast doing something few in my hometown in the rural South could even imagine. Sold that snow mobile for a whopping net loss of $200.

    Was that stuff or an experience? I can’t remember the MSRP but I’ve got a pile of pictures and can tell an hour’s worth of stories. I’ve also spent a lot more than $200 and had a lot less enjoyment/fufillment to show for it.

    I also bought a used whitewater raft and rode it one time. Hated it and sold it for a net profit of $100. Would that be considered an investment? Not hardly. It was an experience- the financial implication is not applicable.

    While I certainly agree that without experiences possesion of stuff is mere materialism but certain things can allow you to have an experience otherwise impossible to obtain.

    Bottom line whether you buy stuff or experiences you can either afford it… or you can’t. Buying what you can’t afford will sink you no matter what it is.

  33. At 52, I regret none of the fabulous UK travel I did in my twenties. I saw many older tourists who could not climb the steps of the castles. However, I do regret much of the money I spent in restaurants in my own home town!

  34. Cheers! I love this article because it justifies my main indulgence–travel! The only problem is that experiences are expensive. I could be saving a lot more each month for travel if I cut back on my IRA contributions…and this kind of thing makes me think that maybe I should!

    Which is, of course, the slipperiest of slopes.

  35. I’m at the ripe ol’ age of 19 and I’m ecstatic that I’ve pretty much eliminated my desire for “stuff”. I still make the occasional regrettable purchase, but in general I avoid accumulation and my focus is on saving up for travel.

    Should be going to Japan early next year with a friend for at least 4 weeks, and I expect during 2010 I’ll be exploring quite a bit of the world.

  36. I agree that having good advice for young people is one thing, but getting them to take it on board may be more tricky than just talking at them.

    children = “the death knell for impromptu experiences”
    Of course as you have pointed out before, impromptu is the operative word here. You CAN travel with children (my uncle and aunt spent three years in Australia when the kids where young) but it needs a LOT of organisation.

    At the end of the day it comes down to figuring out your values and saving on everything else to spend on that. Here you have defined ‘stuff’ as ‘all the unimportant things’ so this is a nobrainer.

  37. After having spent a summer of getting rid of “stuff” I accumulated over many years and then spending several weeks traveling, I heartily concur that stockpiling “experiences” are better. Travel, while not cheap, can be much less expensive than people think. And provide lasting memories. Concerts, while not cheap, provide lasting memories (although if one follows a group that is less well-known, concerts are not outrageously priced).

  38. Am I the only one who thinks this advice is dangerous?

    A large portion of young adults come out of their 20′s with a pile of debt. The ones who blew their money on “stuff” at least have a huge pile of DVDs, Magic: The Gathering cards, video games, CDs, purses, shoes, and whatever else they can sell and recoup a good portion of that money, once they finally come to their senses and realize they want out of debt. The ones who blew their money on “experiences” have … a few photos and memories. They’re stuck with the pile of debt.

    Travel is EXPENSIVE. A couple weeks in Europe might really enrich you as a person, but it’ll cost you $3,000. When you’re 25, $3,000 is a huge pile of cash. That’ll buy a lot of video games and DVDs, which will last a lot longer than 2 weeks. And as I said, once you’re done with them, you can sell them and recoup some of the cash.

    I would’ve loved to travel when I was in my 20′s. But $3,000 for 2 weeks of “experience” just seemed astronomically expensive to me. $120 for a Sony Discman, however, seemed much more within reach, and kept me entertained on the bus ride to work every day.

    If it were an “either-or” thing, I think it would at least be debateable. But the truth is, most people will see this as a license to spend on travel, but they won’t really cut back their accumulation of “stuff” by any relevant amount. They might abstain from the occassional fancy coffee now and then in a token gesture to convince themselves they’re “saving up” for their trip, but in reality, they’ll still have a high-def TV (it’s only 42 inches), an iPhone (but not with the expensive data plan), and a “modest” collection of DVDs/Blu-rays (mostly bought used).

    I think you’re underestimating the ability of the 20-something year old mind to rationalize what they want.

  39. You know, we’re all discussing this as though life changing/enhancing experiences are for people in their 20s, but they can happen anytime in life, and we should be “budgeting” for them throughout life.

    The other point is that there will be a second go round for those with children, when the kids are emancipated. The great thing about that is that the major things you need to plan for in life (kids, house, braces, college for the kids, etc) are BEHIND you, and you’re only major planning issue is retirement.

    We should be enjoying these things throughout life, more of course at certain times than at others, but the experiences and the advice shouldn’t be limited to 20-somethings.

  40. Trent -

    Great post. I am in my upper twenties and married. Most people around me are doing just what you mentioned – spending money on “stuff.” We have tried to discipline ourselves to a degree, especially when it comes to blatant consumerism, but we’ve had some great times exploring the area around us and not going into debt to do it (we’re in New England).

    It’s not easy though – that’s one thing that I have found, that in the moment you deny yourself of something that you want now (or think you want now) it can feel very hard. However, after saying no to whatever that is (for me, it’s a new Macbook), then you feel good for having some control.

    What do you say about the other decades?! I’d love to see a series on successful (with money) people’s retrospective views are on the various decades of their aging.

    Best,

    Eric

  41. Trent: I wish I had this blog post in mind when I was in my 20′s. I spent a fair amount of time living in the moment rather than going for experiences, especially during my college times. When I became happy with where I was at in life and knew what direction I wanted to go in (around 25), I did seek out more experiences than fleeting things. Our family spends more times creating memories and traditions than accumulating material goods- and I will keep your thoughts in mind as my children move on to college in a few years.

  42. Great post. I’m in my mid-twenties and married. This is why we live in a modest apartment and don’t really have a whole lot of ‘things’. My other friends are basically “house poor” and basically work to pay their mortgage. They can’t afford to go on nice vacations, or to take time off work at all. I’d much rather save so we can enjoy going out to do things rather than look at the stuff we bought.

    The most scarce commodity we have is our time being alive. If you’re going to ‘splurge’, spend it enjoying being alive. It’s hard to put a price-tag on memories. Even if a trip goes bad, the experience it can still be really valuable in a number of ways.

  43. The greatest thing is that it still applies. If you’ve been buying ‘stuff’ and no memories, regardless of your age, what a great wake-up to stop. I’ve been trying to articulate this concept for a while, and have not been successful… hinting and alluding sometimes just does not work. :) Thank you for the concise verbage, once again!!

  44. I think that some people just value experiences over material things naturally, and others value material things over experiences. I’m not sure it has anything to do with age.

    This is something my mom and I talk about all the time, because we are so opposite. She can’t believe that I would shell out $200 to have a fabulous dinner at a great restaurant (I can afford it, so no overspending issues here). I will tell her the details of the meal, about the decor, and the great tastes the chef created, and she will just be agast.

    By the same token, it kills me that she’ll go spend her money on a purse, and pay upwards of $1000 on what is basically a tiny little metal logo.

    When we talk about it, I tell her that I want the experience of the dinner – the tastes, the company, the ambience, the conversation. That is something I look back on fondly. I want memories, not stuff.

    She tells me that she gets the same great feeling when she looks at her purse. She feels that an experience is fleeting, but her purse will be with her all the time as a real object that she can touch and feel, not just a night that goes by and is gone forever.

    She is 65 and I am 35. It has nothing to do with age. It is a personality thing.

  45. I was seeking experiences and a deeper understanding of who I am and what really mattered to me.

    Yes, yes, yes. I’ve spent the first half of my twenties being “responsible” — get the bachelor’s, get the master’s, get the job with the decent salary and good benefits, avoid debt, get married. As a result, I’m debt-free, but I’m also “settled” and feel like I missed my change to be free and figure these things out.

    Senior year of college I took a vacation with some friends. It wasn’t cheap, and I worried a little about the cost. My father said to me, “Well, what do you think you’ve been saving for all this time?” And obviously, doing all this “responsible” stuff will allow me a great deal of freedom when the time is right.

    But when will the time be right? Even if I have enough saved up to go spend a couple months in Europe (I had to skip study-abroad… it was too expensive and I needed to be “responsible”), I can’t just bail on my job and husband, right?

    So now I’m trying to balance putting down roots with scattering seeds (hey, dandelions are experts at it!). Any advice?

  46. Trent, take the kids and go next summer (your wife teaches, right?). Traveling with kids, particularly in Europe, is wonderful. They are free on the trains/buses/subways and in all those walkable cities with parks/fountains/street performers/etc. you will have a blast. Finding kid-friendly restaurants/bars is easy so you can enjoy tapas/Munich beer/etc. It is very refreshing to see how parents with kids are a part of the community rather than a different community.

    My 5-yr old has spent summers in Berlin, Barcelona, Zurich, and SE Asia. I don’t consider us rich, just flexible.

    Yes, traveling without kids is even better, but please don’t assume that With kids is not possible.

  47. I think the real message here is – buy useful “stuff”. I’ll gladly spend a little more money on something I know is going to last and won’t be obsolete in a year.

    I kinda feel like Laura G above. I had a job before I left college and had a home purchased within a month of graduation. I did benefit slightly from it financially, but looking back I would have preferred the freedom of living in an apartment and thinking about what I really wanted in life instead of going the “default” route of college, job, buy a house, get married, etc.

    I guess what I’m saying is I would have liked to experience some other things before settling down – like traveling cross country, biking across the state, etc. Things that don’t have to cost a lot of money, but cause one to learn who they really are.

  48. This is tremendous advice, Trent, though I am still not on board with the buying of the home theater if you can’t get to the movies. To each their own, but a normal TV and DVD player will work just fine.

    The problem with trying to get high school age kids to understand this is that too many of them think they won’t live till fifty so why bother? I count myself amongst that group when I graduated. Will, now I’m 36 and 50 is not far away.

  49. I think this is best taught by showing! I’m 28 and as of June I’ve done “10 trips to Europe in 10 years” (that’s just Europe, not my additional trips to Canada, New Zeland, Australia, or the trips here in the U.S.). These opportunities began and became a regular part of my life when my mother called me at college one day and asked “Want to go to London for 4 days next month?”. She was a teacher (and single parent) and we were going with a group of teachers & family one of her co-workers struck a deal with. We traveled light – and in the off season – and it was less than $1000/person for housing & airfare. We did several more of those – with my co-op money always being saved for the next one. As I became a more seasoned traveler, I’ve made connections in Europe such that I have friends to visit any time I go. My husband & I are going to Switzerland again the end of this month for a weekend It’s something we have come to see as a natural part of life, and there for finances. We travel inexpensively and learn how to make the next one less expensive without losing the fun (sadly, now that we’re over 25 there is a surcharge @ most hostles). I know it has value I cannot even calculate as I’ve learned to interact with people of many different backgrounds, including those I don’t share a language with. The bigger perspective I’ve gained also helps me see opportunities my co-workers wouldn’t since I’ve seen very different ways of business & personal life.
    Thank you Mom! (oh, and she’s working on all 7 continents – Antarctica is scheduled for January!)

    I will say, it has to be something you want to do. I was excited to hear a friend of mine was taking his first trip to Europe. He never really got to enjoy it because his wife got homesick, changed the plane tickets and dragged him home after 3 days…. It’s not for everyone, but if you intend to expand your horizons outside your house, you’ll find your personal growth happens faster visiting so many varied places (& all so close to each other)!

  50. @Kevin@OutOfYourRut– I couldn’t agree with you more! Why is traveling just for us in our 20s? I think we just have to budget for it throughout our lifetime. I’m 25 and I do my fair share of travel and don’t plan to have children for a few more years while my husband and I see more of the world. I know that “kids change everything” but why do they have to change the way you feel about traveling. Maybe cut out the expensive kids toys and give them a vacation instead for their birthdays gifts. I remember traveling with my parents and grandparents 18 hrs in a car to go to Florida every year. I don’t remember the gifts I got or the clothes I wore just the car ride down, the music we listened to and the trip once we were there. I don’t believe traveling is just for one age group. I hope I will be a traveler for life!!!

  51. For the most part, I agree. I traveled a little bit and it was great!

    I would however say that if you know what you want , selective gathering of stuff is a great thing to do when you’re young.

    My wife and I married when we were 20 and 23 respectively (in 2003). During college we both knew we wanted a nice house eventually. Over time we have been collecting “stuff” that would make our future house look nice. Bit by bit we’ve collected a nice kitchen stuff, dressers, decorations, tools and other things. Now that we bought a house, we are really glad we have all these things! Buying them over time let us get good deals and not need to buy everything all at once when we moved in.

  52. Considering my comment further…

    One way to look at what we did, is that the experience that we valued most was the experience of a family and a nice home. In buying the furnishings before we actually had the home, we were really putting a down payment on the experience that we wanted to have.

    And despite loving my trips to Europe and South America, my favorite experience is coming home and playing with my kids in the back yard.

  53. People are acting like travel has to be expensive but especially for a young, healthy, single person travel can be really, really cheap.

    I got nanny jobs in a few places to have a launch pad and get my bearings. Some people do WWOOF work or just find jobs through word of mouth to cover their travel. Taking cheap transit, walking, staying in hostels or with people you meet along the way – it’s not hard to travel on the cheap and have a LOT of fun.

    Traveling with kids is just a whole different world – among other things you have more luggage. Even with a breastfed baby, hauling extra clothes and diapers changed me from a carryon-only traveler to a person with luggage. Now my son is out of diapers but not quite reliably potty trained, we still have to carry extra underpants and diapers. Plus he actually *needs* food every few hours, where I can skip lunch if logistics get weird, and he *needs* exercise and can’t sit in a train seat for 8 hours like I can.

    It’s fun but it takes more planning and more money. Luckily I have more money now :)

  54. Please don’t restrict the accumulation of travel experiences to the youngsters. These experiences are my principle motivation for staying fit both physically and psychologically as the number associated with my birthday continually grows higher. Even at an advanced age it is educational to meet different types of people living in all types of environments while appreciating the great diversity in the way people approach life. Everyone should experience all they can.

  55. I heard him say that some stuff is just stuff, like a big pile of dusty video games, but other stuff equates to experiences, like a video game you’ve actually played through.

    **

    Kevin, I agree that I did not have much money for experiences. I clearly remember having $100 per month (probably $250 in today’s dollars) for everything that wasn’t room, board, tuition, and books. So I had to have all my experiences and my savings from that.

    Of course he wouldn’t say to load up on experiences at the cost of going into debt. He’s saying load up on experiences instead of stockpiles of stuff. He did mention some expensive experiences, but there’s also watching rented videos with your friends, having potlucks where people bring new dishes (and the recipes), visiting the families of friends who live far away (cheap travel!), and getting involved with low-cost clubs and hobbies.

    **

    Fenton, you can travel cheaply by driving to your destination and staying in state and national parks. I especially like choosing one park as a home base and, after checking out the actual park, make day trips to other local places of interest.

    Before you get a family, you can also stay in youth hostels (many of which don’t even require you to be young, but they do require you to split up by gender to sleep).

    **

    I think at 21 most of us have pent-up desires to do something that we haven’t been able to do as kids. So I’d say the advice should be to do some of those things, but don’t overdo them.

    I never had any problems being “allowed” to do things I wanted to do—I never happened to want to do anything my parents were opposed to. But I did basically never have my own money. So my first goals were things like:
    * my own nail clippers; since they were mine, I always knew where to find them
    * same with scissors
    * my own stereo
    * my own games, books, movies
    * a three-man tent (room for two people and their stuff)
    * a guitar

    So basically, I started by re-creating the parts of my lifestyle that I wanted to keep even though I moved away from my parents and all their stuff. And I got a few other things my parents could never afford for me.

    But after a while, you do have everything you need and most of what you want. But still, I had this habit of accumulation. It’s a fine habit when you’re starting out and need everything, but after a while it’s no good anymore.

    So, like you’ve said before, it’s good to keep evaluating how much value you’re getting out of various kinds of purchases. And it’s also good to stop periodically and look around at your other options. I really don’t need to keep stocking up on games, movies, and books. I don’t need any more furniture or wall hangings. This can free up money for other things I’d never dreamed of as a kid. Fortunately my friends got me to travel quite a bit and try quite a few new hobbies like rock climbing, ballroom dancing, and ultimate frisbee. And my employer got me to realize I could retire early.

  56. Laura G (35)–Going against the general grain of the thread here, I think that what you’ve done in your 20s is the way to go. You’ve set the foundation to build your life on. You’re life will be easier for it.

    You can have experiences at any time in life. I’m well past my 20s but still feel strongly that my best years are ahead of me. I get that people think you should have your free spirited fun when you’re in your 20s because it’s generally assumed that you have less baggage. While that may be true, I think it oversimplifies youth. A lot of young people do have worries, first and foremost, what am I going to do now that I’m grown up?

    As we get older I think we tend to forget about how tough the 20s can be in reality.

    So keep doing what you’re doing–you’re on the right path–and just budget time and money for fun. All your life!

  57. Great advice! Experiences really last a lifetime while stuff simply becomes space-hogging crap later on.

    Now only we had the money to afford these experience …

  58. IIf I had this opprtunity, I would give them the condensed 15 minute version of my financial history, because it all went downhill for me as soon as I got out of high school. I would also teach them some “cool”, “slick” ways to save money, in the hopes it would pique their interest.

    By “cool” and “slick”, I would show them the savings that can be found on Ebay, Amazon and the like. Once again, praying for their sake that something that I said would sink in…

  59. I’m a Gen Yer (24) and I don’t really care much for experiences. I’ve done the travel thing a bit (Fiji, UK, Italy) and all I learnt from it was that I am a homebody. So I saved and saved and saved and bought a house this past May. I was able to put down 20% and have already paid off $7000. I’m on track to have it paid off by the time I am 35.

    Will I hit 40 and feel like I missed out on my wild 20s? Maybe. I won’t know until I get there, but in the meantime I am going to position myself for financial freedom. Worry about regrets later.

  60. This is how I’ve lived my twenties (4 months in Europe, 3 weeks in New Zealand, research trip to Costa Rica, etc). I’ve also taken the chance at a job that pays crap — 800 a month plus housing — instead of worrying about buying a bunch of things. It has all been fabulous, and I wouldn’t change it for the world. I’m working on paring down what stuff I do have to let me keep on having experiences like this. Great advice here!

  61. I’ve been very fortunate in that, as a twentysomething, I’ve travelled very often this past year and to sometimes exotic places — like London, Paris, Doha, Dubai and Abu Dhabi.

    This is after making sure I had a sufficient emergency fund established, a retirement account set up and contributed to, and a reliable source of income from a day job and from freelancing.

    Most of my trip money comes from my freelancing, and as a bonus I can do work on some of my trips abroad. This means I can claim the money as travel expenses on my tax return.

    As Trent suggests, the key to achieving this is setting priorities. I’m about to move into a cheaper place to give me a little more money for saving and for travel. Beyond a dinner or two out a month and the occasional electronics purchase, I buy very little discretionary stuff. I work a few evenings a week at another job. That’s how I can do this.

    For the moment I’m single and young, so now is the time to take advantage of travel opportunities like this — before being tied down (happily) with husband, house and possible children.

    Good advice, Trent. I enjoy your blog.

  62. Trent thank you so much! I really needed this since I’m a new college student and I realize money is a huge thing for everyone and I really want to make the right choices now rather than be screwed in 5-10 years when I want to have kids! So thank you Trent!

    @Dan, I understand a lot of college kids won’t listen to this advice but please don’t generalize teenagers and college kids! We get enough of that from our parents and family members, frankly some of us are tired of the bad rap we get just because adults generalize based on a few random teens they know! Thank you

  63. I am 27. I’ve built up more debt than experiences, even though I was quite aware of my terrible spending and never was a “buy,buy,buy” type of person.

    Personally, I think your advice is wonderful! Whether or not it falls on deaf ears will depend on who you say it to. Not so much how old they are as much as what they value in life.

  64. @#30Kevin
    “I think you’re underestimating the ability of the 20-something year old mind to rationalize what they want.”

    And I think you’re a stodgy old curmudgeon.

    This rationalization has nothing to do with age and everything to do with attitude. I don’t think my generation is any worse at it than our parents. In fact, nearly all of my friends have more savings than our parents do and very few have credit card debt. My only debt is 20K in student debt and I’m on track to have it paid off in just a few years, despite having a yearly salary of just over that. At the same time, I also have done a fair amount of traveling (and if you’re in your 20s and spending $3000 for 2 weeks in Europe, you’re doing it wrong. I made it 6 weeks on 2/3s of that–all saved on minimum wage.) and paid cash for a decent car (which is necessary for work. How? But following exactly this advice. I don’t buy a lot of stuff. I “spend little” so I can “spend big” where it matters to me. I have friends who do this and I have friends who just don’t get it–of all ages. Stop picking on us 20-somethings!

    Your advice is spot-on, Trent. My biggest “wasteful” spending? Hopping around the country to see friend who have scattered across the States. Could this money be useful paying down my student debt? Yes. But those experiences and relationships are far more important to me than making a few extra early payments. Is a TV or new wardrobe important enough to spend that kind of money? No way.

  65. I feel like I should be at an anonymous group of some sort. “Hi, my name is Megan. I’m twenty-six and I have too much stuff.”

    But this is my dilemma: I never spend more than $10 on a DVD for myself, and I only buy DVDs or tv-series that I have seen and want to watch again. I (almost) never buy a book I haven’t read and I only buy it if I either a) want to read it again, or b) share it. I’ve “lost” more books that way, but it’s almost always worth it. My husband does like his videogames, but if has one and he knows he’s not going to play it anymore, he takes it to the local game store and trades it in. We were both raised to be frugal, but we were also raised by pack-rats. What we have doesn’t cost much, or we get a good value, but we have a lot of it.

    But at the same time, as much as I may want to re-watch or re-read something, I barely have time for the things I want to do, let alone re-doing things I’ve already done. So is it really worth it to buy those books and movies? I just don’t know.

    I know I should get rid of that stuff. I know I shouldn’t accumulate more of it. I know that if I instead saved my money I could travel and accrue experiences in that way, but…

    Perhaps the solution is to re-evaluate the stuff in my life every six months, and if I haven’t read it, used it, etc., then I should just give it to Goodwill and think twice before I buy something new. But I’ve got lists and lists of things I want to own.

    Welcome to the internal debate of a pack-rat. Wish me luck.

  66. The French cookware is the only bit with which I’d disagree. I’d have saved myself a pile of money over the years had I not bought the multiple sets of crap pans that I’ve had since I was in my 20s. If I had it to do over again, I’d have started with 1 or 2 really good stainless steel or enameled pans, and gradually bought more as I could afford them. Good quality cookware will last a lifetime.

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