Choose Experiences Over Stuff, and Maybe Over Security Too

You’ve heard of the American dream, right? The American dream was this machine we built to get rid of uncertainty and create security. It’s the white picket fence, the job and the minivan. You watch Dan Rather and a sitcom. You go to bed, go to sleep and repeat.

It may not be that exciting, but hey, at least it’s stable. For years — for as long as we can remember — that’s been the end goal: stability and security. And millions of us work really hard to get there each year.

There’s nothing wrong with that if it’s what you’re into. But there’s a whole group of people — and this group is growing, by the way — who have said, “Forget that. I want to focus on experiences instead.”

You probably know the refrains by now: Experiences trump stuff. Experiences tend to bring us happiness. More stuff tends to breed discontent. There’s a wealth of research to back up these ideas up.

So people go out and spend a bunch of money to participate in adventure races like the Tough Mudder, just to have an experience. Instead of buying a new television, people buy skis and lift tickets. People pay to go to the rock climbing gym instead of paying to go to the movies. More and more, the economy is moving in this direction.

But the idea that you can leave a stable job, a 401(k), sell your house, retrofit your van and spend a couple of years living out of it by yourself, or with your spouse, or even with your kids, is something completely different. Not only is it different, it’s mind-blowing.

This mind-blowing concept is not the choice of experience over stuff. It’s not even experience over stability. It’s experience over security. And that is a very fascinating development in our culture.

Consider the professional baseball player Daniel Norris, who was making $2 million but living in a Volkswagen van. Who told him he could do that? At its extreme, choosing experiences over stuff isn’t just about making these kinds of value-based decisions about recreation on your weekends. It’s also choosing experience over security and making the same decisions on a life-size scale.

Once I began framing it this way, I kept learning about more and more people doing this. There is Jeremy Collins deciding to pursue a life of art and climbing after getting laid off from a comfortable office job, or the writer Brendan Leonard, leaving a copywriting job at IBM (arguably the definition of security) to follow his dreams of being a freelance writer and starting a blog.

The more I learn about people completely bucking convention and living these incredibly interesting alternative existences, the more I find myself wondering, “If they can do it, can I?”

Do I dare open that bulletproof, fireproof combination safe where I’ve locked up my dreams and say, “Oh, I’ll do that later, when life is more stable, when I’m more secure”? What if I try to make this really creative vision, one that I’ve always dreamed of, come true and I fail? Do I even dare to ask, “What if?”

As for you, O.K., so you don’t want to live in a van. Maybe you don’t have a dream locked up inside your own little Pandora’s box. That’s fine.

But if you do — and my gut tells me that for most people reading this, what I’m writing rings true — I am telling you to at least consider that one, simple question, “What if?”

In considering the possibilities, consider also that according to this new set of values, the uncertainty and the insecurity that you feel trying something adventurous and new is all part of the very reason for doing it. That’s part of the tangible benefit. That’s the hard part of the adventure race, the mud in your face and the suffer-fest.

As the Patagonia founder Yvon Chouinard famously said, “It’s not an adventure until something goes wrong.” Maybe you’ll lose some money in selling the house. Maybe you’ll make less income if you quit your job. But that’s part of the adventure.

If you would make the same experience-over-stuff choice weekend after weekend, maybe it’s time to start thinking about making the experience-over-security choice for your life. At the very least, you might want to ask yourself, “What if?”

This commentary originally appeared May 2 on NYTimes.com

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Carl Richards, CFP®

Carl Richards is the creator of the weekly Sketch Guy column in The New York Times and is a columnist for Morningstar Advisor. Carl has also been featured in The Wall Street Journal, Financial Planning, Marketplace Money, The Leonard Lopate Show, Oprah.com and Forbes.com. His simple but meaningful sketches served as the foundation for his first book, "The Behavior Gap: Simple Ways to Stop Doing Dumb Things with Money."

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