Buying Experiences in Your Twenties

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.